One of my favorite high school teachers was a former Methodist pastor who was once tasked with teaching a biblical history class in a Midland, Texas public school. It was not a class on religion or theology, but a study of the Bible itself. It didn’t last, and one of the principal reasons for the failure was constant debate of how it should be taught. The teacher told of daily phone calls from parents with corrections and additions to the syllabus from varying viewpoints, not from the text itself.
I studied Deism as it occurred in Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime. I became fascinated with Jefferson’s take on the religion of the time and discovered that he published what became known as the “Jefferson Bible.” I quickly ordered a copy and inquired about the history of the book.
It’s important to understand that the churches in Jefferson’s time were different than today. They were often intermixed with politics and many became very corrupted. Jefferson served as Minister to France, which gave him perspective on the Catholic and protestant churches in Europe. He also studied the history of the Bible and believed that it had become contaminated with political agenda, misrepresented facts and even propaganda designed to turn people away from Christianity. He clearly believed, as many do today, that surreptitiously motivated people had distorted the tenets taught by Christ.
I took a great interest in Christian apologetics, especially in the Catholic and Lutheran churches. Even the most devout biblical scholars struggle with the history of how many of the writings in the Bible came to be. There are numerous conflicts and inconsistencies within the Judeo-Christian Bible which have led many away from faith and practice of religions. They come into great conflict with biblical literalists who accept without question.
My own spiritual path has led me to fascinating conversation with ministers, biblical scholars, laymen, church parishioners, Deists and atheists. What fascinates is that many of the most devout Christians do not have a completely literal view of the Bible, but a very strong spiritual faith in the tenets of Christianity and respect for their traditions. For them, their belief does not require a suspension of reason and bonds a person with what I believe is a strong understanding and practice of what Christ intended for us.
Jefferson was suspicious of supernatural claims in the Bible, including miracles, virgin birth, resurrection and ascension. Again, it is important to understand that Jefferson faced a very different religious and scholastic climate in his time. He believed that many of the supernatural elements were introduced to turn people from the scripture or to perhaps engage others. This is important today, as many people can’t grasp why we are not witness to similar events in modern times. Religious leaders vary greatly on their explanation of this, and it greatly divides Christianity as a whole. The same occurs within conflicting scripture and other ambiguous elements of the ancient text.
What resulted was a compilation of Gospel scripture known as The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, where Jefferson included only the teachings by Christ himself. It became known as “The Jefferson Bible,” a title not placed by Jefferson himself. Jefferson did not write the book, rather he physically cut New Testament passages from Greek, French, Latin and English variants of the Bible and arranged them chronologically to form a clear depiction of the life and teachings of Christ. While not all supernatural events were redacted, the majority of these events were. What remained was a very clear reading of the moral tenets taught by Christ and a clear historical picture of his life.
In 1904, 9000 copies of this book were printed and distributed to members of Congress and their staff. In a copy that I own, a foreword indicates that these were distributed well into the 1950’s. It is clear that Jefferson and others believed that Christian morals and philosophy should be a part of our nation’s foundation. Jefferson’s compilation spread the word in a manner easily acceptable by Christians, Deists and even atheists. I consider this a great victory rather than an aberration of the text.
What fascinates me about this topic is that in our time, Jefferson has become a central figure in the separation of church and state, and he has become the center of debate in much the same way as the teachings he sought to preserve. Atheists use his anti-church quotes to push their own agenda, and Christians exemplify him as supporting the USA as a Christian nation. YouTube has plenty of videos where Jefferson’s thoughts are bent to conform to one viewpoint or another although he was very clear in his own writings on exactly where he stood.
I’ve had conversations with people who refuse Jefferson’s book because it is not the accepted text of their religion. Some consider it blasphemy while others see tremendous value in it. It was never intended as a replacement, but it is an effective means of passing the teachings of Christ. It is very clear and concise, and most certainly easier to grasp than the King James Gospel itself. I often compare it to the numerous movies about the life of Christ where there are additions and retractions from the Gospel due to denominational belief, conciseness or brevity. It’s not uncommon for well-meaning writers to edit in this fashion, as evidenced by the many variants of the Bible. Since every Christian denomination is commanded to be evangelists to some degree, I see where works of this nature are critical to the livelihood of today’s churches.
The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth should be in everyone’s library. Even if you are a complete biblical literalist, it is highly useful in bringing others to an understanding of your beliefs. For those who are not Christian, it is a valuable means of understanding the true fundamentals of Christianity without bias or church dogma. It’s an invaluable tool for those who are searching, frustrated and confused in a spiritual world obstructed by countless interpretations, illogical dogma and misunderstandings and agendas. It’s available in print and the original 1904 copies are quite valuable. The Kindle version is $0.99 through Amazon, and there are free online versions and “modern English” versions available as well.
"In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines." - Thomas Jefferson, 1813