By George B. Kauffman
A Jefferson Bible for the Twenty-First Century Edited by Luis Granados and Roy Speckhardt., Humanist Press, Washington, DC, 2014, paperback $12.99. ISBN 978-0-931779-61-9
At a time when both liberal and conservative adherents are arguing about the “wall of separation” erected by our third president, a new edition of the “Jefferson Bible” or as Jefferson called it, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” a highly edited version of the Gospels, is most timely. It has been distributed in electronic and paperback copies to all 535 members of Congress and to President Barack Obama by the American Humanist Association.
Jefferson handcrafted his bible with a razor blade and paste pot. He deleted all of the miracles and traces of the supernatural, including the virgin birth and the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread. He eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection. He included only the best of Jesus’ teachings and left behind the nastier material.
Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus, but he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents. He kept Jesus’ own teachings, such as the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” He produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—and bound it in red leather. The Jefferson Bible is “scripture by subtraction,” writes Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University.
This is not the first time the Jefferson Bible has been distributed to Congress. In 1901, the U.S. government spent the equivalent of $500,000 to publish 9,000 copies and distribute them to Congress. Every incoming congressman received one through the 1950s.
In Jefferson’s words, “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his [Jesus’s] and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”
The new book includes the entire text of the original “Jefferson Bible” along with lists of the best and the worst passages from the Gospels, Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and Buddhist sutras.
A final chapter includes the “Humanist Manifesto,” a declaration of principles, including the statement, “knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation and rational analysis.”
The editors say the decision to include other sacred texts makes sense in an America more religiously diverse than Jefferson’s, and that the book is intended as a sort of compass for what many consider to be the most intransigent Congress in history.
“We would like members of Congress and everyone else to read this,” said Luis Granados, Director of Humanist Press. “It’s not that we think it will make them vote for or against any particular bill, but there is timeless wisdom in this that they should be thinking about to help shape their worldview as they go about the process of making laws.” Granados hopes that the AHA will make the book available — in versions updated to include people’s suggestions for “best” and “worst” — to new members of Congress for years to come.
In the chapter on the Tanakh, the “best” includes “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child” (Exodus 22:22). The “worst” includes “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Also in the “worst” category across religious traditions are verses that promote violence, condone prejudice, and condemn homosexuality.
According to Granados, “I can read the texts as well as anyone with an armload of degrees. A passage that talks about slavery as a good thing, I put that in the worst. If someone wants to disagree, then fine. Unlike many religions, we do not claim to have the ultimate answers to anything. Our whole point is that people need to use their own brains and think for themselves. If you have a disagreement, by all means, post it and let the whole world see it.” The end of each chapter lists a website where readers can share their opinions about the scriptures and make suggestions of their own.
Not unexpectedly, Sam Rohrer, President of the evangelical Pennsylvania Pastors Network, has called the book, “just another way that a small minority of atheists is attempting to rewrite American history, deny the existence of God and build a society based solely on the humanist religion.”
Craig Fehrman, a Yale University graduate student who is writing a book about presidents and their libraries, said that he hasn’t seen the AHA’s edition of the Jefferson Bible. However, he is not sure that Jefferson would have approved of the inclusion of “bets” and “worst” scriptures. Jefferson, he said, crafted the book for his own personal use — members of his family were unaware of its existence upon his death in 1826.
Fehrman said, “I would have to think — and I’m echoing my understanding of this version — that Jefferson would be happy to see his Bible read as a way to understand his own private take on religion But would he want people to use it to bolster their own causes? Probably not. I think the process Jefferson went through, of realizing there is a lot of wisdom in the Bible and things that are not so wise, is an important process for everybody,”
Jefferson, together with several of his fellow founding fathers, was influenced by the principles of deism, which envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but is no longer intervened directly in daily life. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was keenly interested in science and the perplexing theological questions it raised. Although the author of the Declaration of Independence was one of the great champions of religious freedom, his belief system was sufficiently out of the mainstream that opponents in the 1800 presidential election labeled him a “howling Atheist.”
The first time Jefferson undertook to create his own version of Scripture had been in 1804. His intention, he wrote, was “the result of a life of enquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system, imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” Correspondence indicates that he assembled 46 pages of New Testament passages in “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” That volume has been lost. It focused on Christ’s moral teachings, organized by topic. The 1820 volume contains not only the teachings but also events from the life of Jesus.
The Smithsonian acquired the surviving custom bible in 1895, when the Institution’s chief librarian, Cyrus Adler, purchased it from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph. Originally, Jefferson had bequeathed the book to his daughter Martha.
The acquisition revealed the existence of the Jefferson Bible to the public. In 1904, by an act of Congress, his version of Scripture, regarded by many as a newly discovered national treasure, was printed. Until the 1950s, when the supply of 9,000 copies ran out, each newly elected senator received a facsimile Jefferson Bible on the day that legislator took the oath of office.
His effort has stood alone for over two centuries as an example of how a revered religious text can be improved by extracting what’s good and relevant while leaving behind what is questionable, immoral, or unnecessary for people skeptical of the supernatural.
“Humanists believe that, like the gospels, these other scriptures are the product of fallible humans, and should be read just as critically,” says Humanist Press Director Luis Granados. “Whether or not our choices are truly the best or worst to be found is, of course, open to debate–a debate we hope to stimulate. With today’s Congress representing a much more religiously diverse population, including a fifth of the population that is not religious, we thought it was appropriate to deliver a new “Jefferson Bible” that acknowledges that diversity.”
The book concludes with American Humanist Association’s Humanism and Its Aspirations, a statement of humanist principles. The e-book is available through HumanistPress.com and major online retailers. The ISBN number for the paperback is 978-0-931779-29-9, for the e-book it is 978-0-931779-30-5.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.