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.”
From the December 2019 issue: Jefferson’s doomed educational experiment
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.