Did a U.S. president rewrite the Bible?

Jefferson and Religion

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.