“In the year 1820, Thomas Jefferson completed a project that he had long planned. Twelve years earlier he had resisted countless calls that he seek a third term as president and had retired from public life to his home at Monticello. Now, at seventy-seven years of age, Jefferson constructed a book that he entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Assembling excerpts from the four gospels of the New Testament, he rearranged them to tell a chronological and edited story of Jesus’s life, parables, and moral teaching. Jefferson cut from printed texts in four different languages—English, French, Latin and Greek. We may picture him in the crowded room he called his ‘cabinet,’ working at his table and donning his spectacles as evening approached. …
Commonly referred to today as ‘the Jefferson Bible,’ the resulting book was small: 81/4 inches tall and just under 5 inches wide. In those pages, Jefferson sought to clarify and distill Jesus’s teachings, which he believed provided ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’ He rid the gospel message of those aspects that appeared to him as ‘contrary to reason,’ leaving behind only the ‘authentic’ story of Jesus. Readers of The Life and Morals of Jesus can trace Jefferson’s inclusions and exclusions, the parts of the gospels he considered ‘diamonds’ of wisdom, and the parts he discarded and indecorously likened to ‘a dunghill.’ The red leather book now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which holds it in trust for the people of the nation.”
~ Harry R. Rubenstein & Barbara Clark Smith from introduction to The Jefferson Bible
The Jefferson Bible.
Thomas Jefferson created it for himself and never intended it for broad publication.
The title he gave it? The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.
As per the intro above, Jefferson *literally* snipped out the passages and parables (from four different translations of the Bible) that he felt best captured the essence of Jesus’s moral philosophy and conformed with his sense of reason. These were the diamonds.
This book was created by the Smithsonian and presents digitized images of the pages from Jefferson’s little volume. It’s beautiful. And, it’s amazing to see Jefferson’s own page numbering and handwritten notes in the margins next to the four columns he cut and pasted side-by-side: in Greek, then Latin (the left page) then French plus English (the right page).
Jefferson worked on a rough draft of this book while he was in office. He once said, “I never go to bed without an hour, or half an hour’s previous reading of something moral.”
It’s deeply inspiring to imagine a President of the United States dedicating himself to mastering his moral philosophy in his spare time.
If you’re looking for a version of the Bible that focuses exclusively on the non-miracle moral teachings of Jesus, I think you’ll love it. (Get the book here.) Of course, it’s packed with very Big Ideas. I’m excited to share a few of my favorites so let’s jump straight in!
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