Wednesday, February, 10, 2021by Reverend Dan on February 10, 2021
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
The following is an excerpt from an article by Daniel Silliman in the December issue of Christianity Today, reprinted with their permission. Interesting stuff . . .
Thomas Jefferson Tried to ‘Fix’ the Bible. He Only Succeeded in Making It Sad.
The third president’s attempts to revise Scripture offer a warning about our own tendency to “edit” the truth.
I first heard of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible as a warning. I was a teenager in a Bible study, and one of the pastors of the church brought up the third American president and his effort to “fix” the Scripture. Jefferson—who wrote the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”—took for himself the liberty of editing the Gospels. He cut them up, using a sharp knife to remove what he saw as the problematic parts of the sacred text.
But, the pastor said, don’t we all kind of do that? We have our favorite verses. And there are other parts of the Bible we ignore. Whether or not we wield actual scissors, we have to be careful, because it’s so easy to mutilate the Word of God.
(The) origin of this particular, peculiar great religious book can be traced to Jefferson’s childhood Anglicanism. In that world, colonial Virginia law punished the heresy of doubting the divine authority of Scripture, while a burgeoning liberty movement questioned the government’s right to criminalize belief.
Jefferson, like many at the time, shed his orthodox Christianity in stages. He started by doubting the Trinity. Then Old Testament miracles. Then New. He eventually embraced a religious skepticism and mulled the idea of editing the Gospels to, as he put it, “winnow this grain from its chaff.”
His first effort at revising the text came while he was president—in a 46-page booklet he called . The volume has been lost to history, but at one point he explained the project in detail to his frenemy John Adams. He said he had extracted, reduced, and cut down the gospel until the only thing left was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals that has ever been offered to man.”
It was an easy process, Jefferson said. He cut the text up verse by verse, and the good parts stuck out “as diamonds in a dung hill.” It wasn’t until 1820, more than a decade out of office, when he finished the fuller second version of his edited gospel. He called it . He read from it devoutly until he died in 1826.
But the Jefferson Bible may have proved the opposite of what Jefferson intended. It doesn’t show Jesus to be a great moral teacher once his story is stripped of the miracles, exorcisms, and other acts that the former president found hard to believe. It presents Jesus rather as someone who didn’t do anything. The blind to not see; the lame do not walk; the multitudes will remain hungry if loaves and fishes must be multiplied to feed them. Even those who look to Jesus for forgiveness of sins are left wanting.
The Jefferson Bible begins with the heading “Chapter 2.” The former president dispenses with Matthew’s genealogy, Mark’s reference to the prophecy about a voice crying in the wilderness, Luke’s narrative about an angelic announcement to a virgin named Mary, and John’s proclamation that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. Instead, Jefferson cuts straight to the Roman Empire requiring everyone to return to their home city to be taxed. Joseph takes Mary to a manger in Bethlehem, and a baby is born. This Christmas scene has neither angels nor shepherds, star nor magi. The birth is revised to be unremarkable. Jefferson allows the line “and the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom,” but removes the rest of the verse: “and the grace of God was upon him”.
In Jefferson’s revision, the grace of God is not visible in Christ’s ministry. Jesus proclaims that “it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days”, but we don’t see him actually well. The following verse, in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, disappears. Jefferson’s version has Jesus commenting that a blind man is not blind because of any particular sin of his own or his parents , but he doesn’t give the blind man sight. It shows Jesus allowing a woman to anoint his feet with her tears and an alabaster box of expensive oil, but he withholds the words “Your sins are forgiven”. In Jefferson’s version Jesus dies and remains dead.
The text often has a feeling of a series of jokes without their punch lines. Jefferson apparently never contended with the possibility that, without all the stories he rejected, it’s unlikely we would have heard of Jesus at all.
A snip here and there doesn’t “fix” the text. It just leaves weird holes. And perhaps this temptation is common, as my pastor suggested. We seek to make the Scripture sublime with our revisions, but we only succeed in making it sad.
The Jefferson Bible, it turns out, does offer us a warning. It’s this: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. But, as the popular saying goes, not until it’s finished with you.
Father, thank You for Your Word. Help us to always be as true to it and the truth contained in it is to us . In Jesus’ name, AMEN.