Did a U.S. president rewrite the Bible?

One U.S. president took it upon himself to whittle the Bible down to only those passages that made sense to him. Take a look at pictures of the presidents.
One U.S. president took it upon himself to whittle the Bible down to only those passages that made sense to him. Take a look at pictures of the presidents.

We all have our favorite inspirational sayings. Some popular o­nes are "to thine own self be true," "the unexamined life is not worth living," and "march to the beat of your own drum." Once in a while, each of us finds a quote or a saying that seems to speak directly to us; it reminds us of our ultimate goals and clarifies our priorities. Many Christians take their favorite sayings from Jesus, such as "do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31) and "let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7).

There are others who embrace the basic tenets of the Christian faith but reject certain biblical passages that don't mesh with their worldview. Many modern churchgoers quickly grow uncomfortable at the words, "Wives, be submissive to your husbands" (Colossians 3:18). In addition, some don't agree with the supposed implications of certain biblical events. For instance, Catholics take the words of the Last Supper more literally than Protestants. Conversely, Protestants often interpret the Old Testament scriptures more literally than Catholics.


Most people agree, however, that Jesus was a fascinating historical figure. Even some non-­Christians say that Jesus' teachings are supremely insightful. Many who feel torn and conflicted about the Bible have at times wanted to go through it with a permanent marker, rubbing out inconvenient verses that may seem outdated, inconsistent or downright wrong to them.

What you may not know is that one of the United States' beloved Founding Fathers actually did indulge in such a catharsis. The esteemed writer of the Declaration of Independence, who helped forge a new nation, also tried his hand at editing the Bible. Why was Thomas Jefferson inspired to rewrite this classic and -- according to many of the world's people -- sacred text?

Thomas Jefferson questioned tradional ideas about Jesus.
Thomas Jefferson questioned tradional ideas about Jesus.

For those who know much about Thomas Jefferson, the idea that he wanted his own version of the Bible shouldn't be surprising. He took issue with the idea of organized religion dictating what people should and shouldn't believe, and he believed that faith was a very personal thing. Jefferson wrote that the matter of religion "lies solely between man and his God" [source: Derschowitz]. In fact, the idea of separating church and state doesn't come from the Constitution (as many incorrectly think) but rather from a letter that Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association [source: Hutson]. Clearly, his ideas about the individualistic nature of religion were important to him.

On top of this, Jefferson was highly skeptical of the accounts of Jesus written in the Gospels. He maintained that those who set down the story of Jesus to paper were thoroughly unqualified to do so -- Jefferson considered them "unlettered" and "ignorant" [source: Church]. He also insinuates that the oral tradition from which the Gospels originated was flawed. The possibility of bad memories, gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations tainted his trust in these sources [source: Church]. Jefferson felt that the Evangelists (Gospel writers) fabricated the miracles associated with Jesus to cohere with their mistaken idea that he was the son of God [source: Reece].

Despite his skepticism, Jefferson admired Jesus. Aside from the miracles and other things he considered nonsense, Jefferson thought that Jesus was worth studying -- or, more precisely, his philosophy was worth studying. Though he didn't trust the validity of the miracles, Jefferson found enlightenment in Jesus' words. He even placed him among the ranks of the most esteemed classical Greek philosophers. More than that, Jefferson said that Jesus' system of morality was actually "more perfect" than any other ancient philosopher [source: Church].

Given his esteem for (at least some of) Jesus' teachings and his disdain for how they were recorded by the evangelists, you can imagine how Jefferson yearned to cut the scriptures down to what he felt was truly valid and relevant. And starting in the winter of 1816, he finally did.

Scholars refer to the Jefferson Bible as a cut-and-paste job. That's literally what it is. Jefferson actually cut out the verses he liked from a few copies of the Bible and pasted them into a blank book. So he didn't actually rewrite the Bible -- but he did restructure it and write the table of contents for his book.

After retirement from public life, Jefferson worked on his bible some more. He added the corresponding Bible verses in three other languages (Greek, Latin and French) in addition to the English-language translation he originally used. In his final version, each page had two columns. On the left-hand side, he put the Greek in the first column and the corresponding Latin in the next column. On the right-hand side, he listed the French and English versions.

In all, 990 verses made the final cut. The verses he chose chiefly came from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. What he actually considered worth reading and "genuine" were events like the Sermon on the Mount, certain parables (such as the ones about the good shepherd, the wedding feast and the 10 talents, among others) as well as the Lord's Prayer [source: Hardon].

As we mentioned, miracles are completely absent from Jefferson's bible. This includes the stories of Jesus turning water into wine, healing the sick, raising Lazarus from the dead and scores of others. What most people consider the most significant miracles -- the virgin birth and the resurrection -- aren't mentioned, either. The Last Supper is depicted in part, but Jefferson skips over the part about the Eucharist. These miracles and events are at the core of the Christian belief that Jesus was, in fact, the son of God. That's exactly why Jefferson skipped them. Unlike the Gospel writers, Jefferson didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. He thought it was the belief in Jesus' divinity that muddled the evangelists' accounts.

That he focused on Jesus' words and not his miracles isn't to say that Jefferson's bible doesn't have a narrative structure. It does tell a story of Jesus. Because he was merely cutting and pasting, however, Jefferson had to sometimes take a teaching out of its immediate context. In all, the story of Jesus certainly carries less punch, as you'd expect when the virgin birth and dramatic resurrection are omitted. What remains are the thoughts of an insightful philosopher, which overshadow the details of his life -- an effect Jefferson no doubt intended.

Today, you can find the Jefferson Bible in bookstores, libraries and museum gift-shops as well as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, where it's displayed in this image.
Today, you can find the Jefferson Bible in bookstores, libraries and museum gift-shops as well as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, where it's displayed in this image.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It's worth noting that the original name Jefferson lent his book was "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." This fit well into his idea that Jesus should be regarded much like other ancient philosophers. After he revisited the work in retirement (when he added the translations in other languages), he tweaked the title to "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth."

When Jefferson pasted his bible together, he wasn't expecting to revolutionize Christianity and organized religion or even gain a following. Quite the contrary, the bible was a private project of his that -- aside from mentioning it in a few letters to friends -- he didn't publicize [source: Reece]. Although one theory states that he intended to write it for the education of Native Americans, he indicated in his letters that he wrote it for himself [source: Church].

Regardless of the intended audience, Jefferson's work wasn't published for many decades after his death. Finally, in 1895, a Smithsonian librarian named Cyrus Adler stumbled upon the cut-up Bibles and Jefferson's work in an obscure private collection [source: Jefferson]. Adler's discovery was purchased by Congress and put in the United States National Museum in Washington, D.C. Congress published copies of Jefferson's bible for the first time in 1904. Since then, the book has been used customarily as a gift for recently sworn-in members of Congress. The original work is public domain and thus is not copyrighted, so today you can find it in many bookstores and libraries as well as online. It's sometimes classified under history and alternately under religion. However, Jefferson himself would probably be disappointed that the work isn't often found under philosophy.

Aside from its intended nature as a philosophical text, the bible has provided some useful insight into the mind of Thomas Jefferson. His personal life and beliefs have always fascinated historians. Some scholars even propose that he may have not publicized his bible because he was worried about public reaction to his unorthodox religious views.

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  • Church, Frank. "Introduction to the Jefferson Bible." Beacon Press, 1989.
  • "Permissions Summary: Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." (Feb. 5, 2009)
  • Derschowitz, Alan M. "Blasphemy." John Wiley and Sons, 2007. (Feb. 5, 2009)
  • Hardon, Fr. John A. "The Jefferson Bible." Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home. Vol. 5, pp. 645-646. Inter Mirifica,1998. (Feb. 5, 2009)
  • Hutson, James H. "Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America." Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. (Feb. 9, 2009)
  • Jefferson, Thomas, Cyrus Adler. "The Jefferson Bible." Publishing, 2005. (Feb. 5, 2009)
  • Reece, Erik. "Jesus Without the Miracles." Harper's Magazine vol. 311, n. 1867, Dec 1, 2005. (Feb. 5, 2009)