Was Thomas Jefferson an atheist? Plenty of people thought so. Jefferson never identified himself as such, of course. But it was his microscopes, his French friends, his whole swinging, freethinking Enlightenment vibe … “I hope he is not an unbeliever, as he has been represented,” worried the Nonconformist English clergyman (and chemist) Joseph Priestley, after Jefferson came to hear him speak in Philadelphia in 1797. Others could smell the godlessness like brimstone; if Jefferson became president, thundered a Federalist opponent in 1798, “the Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat.” Two years later, as news of Jefferson’s election victory spread, there were reports that pious housewives in New England were burying their family Bibles for protection, or hiding them down wells.
As it turned out, Jefferson attacked only one copy of the Bible: his own. Not with fire, but with a razor. And not in an act of dizzy desecration, but with a kind of serrated—slightly crazed?—reasonableness. He cut and he pasted. He edited and he redacted. He called the resulting text—a collage of verses from the New Testament—The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. We know it as the Jefferson Bible.
Peter Manseau’s fluent and instructive The Jefferson Bible: A Biography arrives to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this patchwork Gospel, which Jefferson completed, after many years of fiddling, in 1820. Manseau, the curator of American religious history at the National Museum of American History, carefully traces Jefferson’s pilgrimage into the non-miraculous, from the Anglicanism in which he was raised, via exposure to Locke and Newton and the polemics of the roaring infidel Henry Saint John, the first Viscount Bolingbroke, to the point where he writes to his nephew in 1787: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
The message minus the mumbo jumbo: that’s what Jefferson was after. The teachings—the “precepts,” he called them—without the supernatural baggage. Jesus the ethicist, Jesus the philosopher, author of “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Of this Jesus Jefferson was indeed a fan. Of Jesus the dusty thaumaturge, the wandering soul-zapper and self-styled son of God, less so. Jefferson esteemed Jesus as he esteemed Socrates and “our master Epicurus”—as a beautiful mind. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John: cringing rustics who had fumbled the story, “forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him … giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” Time to dig the real Jesus out from under “the dross of his biographers.” Cut away the walking on water, kicking-out of demons, laying-on of hands, teleportation, claims of divinity, resurrection, etc. Preserve only, in a thousand or so verses, the bare details and pure utterance of a dead-on moralist. “It is as easy to separate those parts,” wrote Jefferson to John Adams in 1814, “as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
It was the hobbyhorse of his old age, undertaken in retirement at Monticello, largely for his own satisfaction: the Jeffersonian equivalent of pottering around the garden shed. But Manseau makes the point that The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—in technical terms—was quite as radical artistically as it was theologically: “The Dadaists might have recognized it as a découpé. Had it come from the desk of William Burroughs a generation later, it would have been called a cut-up. Today, the most appropriate analogue for what Jefferson accomplished might be music sampling.”
So: work of art, or humanist hit job? It doesn’t exactly move, the Jefferson Bible. To the poetry of the Gospels, their sensation of metaphor pressing at the hinge of reality, of Word becoming flesh, Jefferson was utterly impervious, or he wasn’t interested. Mark is the evangelist of whom he makes the least use (31 extracts, compared with 90 from the Gospel according to Matthew), perhaps because the Markan Jesus simply cannot be extracted from the whirlwind of healing and supercharged speech in which he moves. The demons who know his name, who cry out in fearful recognition, and whom he ejects from their possessed hosts with the undemonstrative firmness of a bouncer mid-shift; the centurion at the foot of the cross, awestruck at the last cry—these are Mark’s witnesses to the nature of Jesus. John’s Gospel is featured slightly more (33 times), but with, of course, none of the John-ness: the In the beginning–ness, his droning light-tunnel back to the first syllable of Creation.
Mystery, if you’re a rationalist, is not a radiant depth, still less a spiritual invitation; it’s just something that hasn’t been explained yet. So Jefferson’s narrative rumbles along at ground level, on square wheels—no baptismal shock of light from above, no dove descending. And no risen Jesus. The Jefferson Bible ends with Jesus snug in the tomb, the cave mouth securely plugged, gobstopped, by the not-to-be-moved stone. No more words. Resurrection foreclosed. And it’s odd: As a regular, somewhat inspired guru-human, Jesus makes less sense than before. My yoke is easy and my burden light … I am the good shepherd … Stripped of their divine warrant, these weird claims make the Jeffersonian Jesus sound like Charles Manson.
White-haired Jefferson kept his Bible to himself and his immediate intellectual circle, heeding perhaps the concerns of friends like the Reverend Charles Clay, who wrote to him hand-wringingly in 1814: “My fears are … that your Name will be degraded from the Venerable Council of true, genuine, Useful Philosophy; & Condemned to be Ranked with the wild Sophisters of Jacobinism the Theosophies of Masonry, With Martinists, Swedenborgers, & Rosecrusians, with the Epopts & Magi of Illuminism &c.”
That didn’t happen. Ambiguous as his legacy might be, nobody classes Jefferson with the epopts of Illuminism. By 1895 the big red ledger into which he glued his scriptural slicings was in the United States National Museum. After an act of Congress in 1904, every new member of both houses was issued a government-printed copy of the Jefferson Bible, a practice that would continue for half a century. Representative John Fletcher Lacey, who put forward the bill, called the Bible “a consolidation of the beautiful, pure teachings of the Saviour in a compact form, mingled with only so much of narrative as a Virginia lawyer would hold to be credible in those matter-of-fact days.”
And today? With disinformation fizzing in the ether, and nonsense ascendant, and reason tottering on its throne? Surely we need the Jefferson Bible more than ever: an exemplary demonstration of rationalism and intellectual autonomy. Calmly the sage bends over the text; calmly he carves away what doesn’t make sense. But a text like this produces its own anti-text, made of everything that’s been left out: a Jefferson Bible in negative, with a just-the-miracles Jesus hurtling wordlessly from one holy disruption to the next. Censorship by matter-of-factness is censorship all the same: The repressed, the removed, doesn’t go away. Personally, not being Thomas Jefferson, I need Jesus and his miracles and his divine nature—I need the celestial reverb that they give to his words. Mystery, wonder, confusion—they’re the essence. Like the yeast that leavens the bread, like the treasure buried in the field. Take a razor to that, and you’re in trouble.
This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “The Bible Without Miracles.”