“Jefferson's Bible," or Thomas Jefferson's Life and Morals of Jesus by James F. Rusling 1905
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IN the METHODIST QUARTERLY REVIEW for January, 1859, being then a budding young lawyer, I published a resume of the Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson. This was written chiefly for the lack of something to do (and to flesh an untried pen), and was based mainly on Jefferson's “Complete Works, being his Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and other Writings, from Original Manuscripts," in nine volumes, published by Taylor & Maury, Washington, D.C. not long before.
In this article, among other aspects of Mr. Jefferson, I discussed his “Religious Views," and described him as being “not an atheist,” indeed, but rather a “sort of deist"-—not accepting the Scriptures literally at all— and then added:
Yet he thought Jesus the most incomparable being that ever appeared on earth, greatly superior to Socrates or any other philosopher before or since; clipped from the New Testament what he believed to be passages containing his very words, pasted them on the leaves of a blank book, and named this singular synopsis the Philosophy of Jesus.
And then I quoted from Vol. VI of his said “Works,” p. 518:
I have made a wee little book which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book (New Testament) and arranging them in the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.
It was a query with me then, what had ever become of this singular compilation—this curious “Philosophy of Jesus"—and little did I think I should ever lay eyes upon it. I supposed, of course, it was only a great man’s passing fancy or intellectual diversion, and, like so many other theological notions, especially of young men, had long since passed into the limbo of the “crazy and the queer." But, to my surprise and delight, it has recently been unearthed, like a Babylonian brick or Pompeiian marble, and I now give the following further concerning it
This little book, it appears, was compiled by Mr. Jefferson about 1804-07, and consisted at first of an octave volume of forty-six pages, which he afterward enlarged into a book of eighty-two pages. He said he had taken the four gospels, and cut from them every verse recording the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order of time and subject, and “although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man." Again he wrote, in 1816: “I made (some years before), for my own satisfaction, an extract from the evangelists of the text of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own. . . . I gave it the title of ‘The Philosophy of Jesus Extracted from the Text of the Evangelists.’" He said he had selected only “the matter which is evidently His, and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill." Evidently he regarded the other verses as only monkish tradition or priestly invention—however revered by others.
This first volume was the work of a few evenings only, when he lived in Washington as President of the United States, overwhelmed with official business, and was done “after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day." But in 1819 or 1820, when out of the Presidency and back again at Monticello, having plenty of time for fads and fancies, he expanded this first volume into another volume, of eighty-two pages, and improved it greatly. He took duplicate copies of Greek, Latin, French, and English Testaments and cut out whatever texts suited him, and pasted these in a book of blank pages in parallel columns, so as to have the whole subject readily before him. His original idea was to have the life and teachings of Jesus told in simple form “for use of the Indians,” he said, thinking this best adapted to them. But afterward be abandoned this, and made the above described book for his own “individual use." He used the said four languages, with all of which he was familiar, in order that he might have the verses side by side for collation and comparison. in this little book be pasted a map of the ancient world and the Holy Land for ready reference when studying his Bible. He bound the whole in red morocco, and entitled it on the back in gilt letters, "The Morals of Jesus." It made a book eight and a quarter inches high, about five inches wide, and one inch thick. The covers and edges were tooled in gold, and it was bound by Fred. A. Mayo, Richmond, Virginia. On the title-page he wrote himself:
Life and Morals
Jesus of Nazareth,
From the Gospels
French, and English.
This is the only copy he issued, and it does not seem that he ever contemplated its general publication, but made and kept it for the private edification of himself and friends.
Subsequently, in 1895, this so-called “Jefferson Bible” was found in the possession of a Miss Randolph, then living at Shadwell, Virginia (a relative of Mr. Jefferson, I surmise), and was obtained by purchase and is now the property of the United States National Museum, Washington, D. C. The two copies of the New Testament from which he extracted his selected verses were found in 1886 in the library of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, their title-page bearing date 1804. They were purchased at the sale of Mr. Jefferson’s library, and are the same referred to in Jefferson’s Works, Vol. V1, p. 217. What became of the Greek, Latin, and French copies I do not know.
This unique and historic little "Bible," however, was brought to the attention of the Fifty-seventh Congress (1902), and ordered published by photolithographic process, but was not published really until 1904. The result is a handsome little volume in red morocco which is an exact reproduction of Jefferson’s old and faded book, binding and all, and a real “curiosity of literature." For a copy of this I am indebted to Hon. John F. Dryden, United States Senator, New Jersey, and I desire to acknowledge his courtesy here.
The contents of this little “Jefferson’s Bible” are noteworthy, but not so radical and iconoclastic as might be expected, all things considered, and on the whole exhibit good sense and excellent judgment from his viewpoint. He commences with Matt. 2, the birth of Jesus, and concludes with Matt. 27, mixed up with Luke 23 and John 19—his crucifixion and death. Of course, he excludes all miracles, and everything he regards as supernatural, but he includes the birth of Christ (without its supernatural features), the disputation with the doctors, the preaching and the beheading of John, the exquisite parables, the inimitable Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, his vindication of the Sabbath, the story of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the alabaster box woman, his welcome to little children, the laborers in the vineyard, the story of Zacchaeus, of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man, of Mary and Martha (but not Lazarus their brother), his ride into Jerusalem, the driving of the money changers from the temple, the marriage feast (not Cana of Galilee), the rebuke and reproof of the Pharisees, the story of the ten virgins and the several talents, the unfaithful steward, the betrayal by Judas, the trial before Pilate, and his crucifixion and death. Of course, he omits the resurrection in toto, as miraculous and unthinkable. He does not follow the regular narrative in full, but eliminates and excides verses here and there, and sometimes transfers verses from one chapter to another, or even from one gospel to another, in order to secure what he regards as historical continuity, or logical accuracy, or even rhetorical beauty. He makes no note or comment whatever, but gives these wonderful sayings of Jesus pure and simple, naked and unadorned. On the whole, it must be confessed, one is deeply impressed with the reading of this “wee little book"—with the apparent conscientiousness of its author and the singular beauty and sublimity of its verses. It does indeed make "a beautiful and precious morsel of ethics," as Jefferson says; “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man," as he claims. Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius, Confucius and Buddha, have little to equal it, and accepting these sublime precepts, and shaping his life by them, Jefferson may be permitted to say he was “a real Christian—a disciple of Jesus," as he claims, though not in our orthodox and usually accepted sense.
Thomas Jefferson certainly lived an upright and manly life. In many respects he was the sanest man of his age and time. He was the representative Democrat of his day and generation (in the best sense of that word), and far in advance of his time, though in 1904 I think he would have voted for President Roosevelt. He wrote the greatest state paper of his own or any other age—our immortal Declaration of Independence —that made George III tremble on his throne, and will yet bring in “The parliament of man, the federation of the world," and put all kings and emperors out of business.
He was opposed to slavery, even down in old slavery-ridden Virginia, and at his death he freed his deserving slaves and made due provision for them—all honor to his humanity! And, on the whole, I incline to think he acted “up to his lights" the best he knew how, for the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Had he lived in our day, with the full blaze of the twentieth century around him, it is to be hoped he would not have mutilated and spoiled eight good Testaments, in four different languages, in order to make an inferior one to order, but, rather, after weighing the matter further and duly counting the cost, he would have wisely concluded, with Whittier:
“We search the world for truth: we cull
The good, the pure, the beautiful
From graven stone and written scroll,
From the old flower fields of the soul;
And, weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from our quest,
To find that all the sages said
Is in the Book our mother read!”
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