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The Gospel According to Thomas

This column originally appeared as part of the Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Tao of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

Unlike our current President, I often wonder how it is that I could have lived this long and yet still know so little. Take as a case in point my complete ignorance until just recently of a remarkable volume entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – better known to posterity as The Jefferson Bible.

I wonder how is it that, despite more than a decade of Catholic education, knowledge of this uniquely American distillation of the four Gospels could have escaped me? This omission strikes me as both substantial and problematic.

Thomas Jefferson is an astonishingly important figure in American history. We all know him as the prose poet of the American Revolution. As the third President of the United States, he participated in what historians describe as The Revolution of 1800 – an historic peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. His thinking on a wide range of subjects, from freedom of religion, to States' rights, to slavery, to the virtue of eternal vigilance, casts a giant shadow over the shape of American history.

Today, with the torrent of rhetoric coming from the political right about America being a Christian nation, one would think that Jefferson's Bible would be a crucial component in their argument. Think about it. Here is one of the Founding Fathers, perhaps one of the three or four most important Founders, producing his own version of the New Testament. This document must say something about the Founders' attitudes about how Christianity would fit into the nation's future. But on this subject, the Right is conspicuously silent. So why isn't Jefferson's Bible better known?

I suspect that, seen from the point of view of traditional Christianity and Catholicism, one obvious problem is that Jefferson's ends his story with Jesus being laid in the tomb, not with the Resurrection or his appearances to his disciples afterward. Jefferson's Jesus' is a very human Rabbi and philosopher, an Enlightenment era thinker, and not a Messiah at all.

Some Background

Jefferson spoke of his enthusiasm for a project that would favorably contrast the doctrines of Jesus with that of the philosophers of antiquity in 1803 during his first term as President – in letters to Dr. Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Rush and Edward Dowse. In one of these letters, to Dowse, he describes "the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers".

Dr. Priestly subsequently produced the hoped for comparison, Socrates and Jesus Compared. This pamphlet inspired Jefferson to create his Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus – and later, in the years after he left the White House, to produce his own distilled version of the four Gospels. He described his approach to constructing his proposed volume in 1813, in a letter to his predecessor as President, Massachusetts' John Adams:

"We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. 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 and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages."

In a later letter to William Short, dating from August 1820, Jefferson further explains his aims in deconstructing Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John in his now completed work.

"My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. In like manner, when an historian, speaking of a character well known and established on satisfactory testimony, imputes to it things incompatible with that character, we reject them without hesitation, and assent to that only of which we have better evidence."

Later in this same letter, he adds:

"I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author?"

And still later:

"That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration."


What are we to make of this little publicized side of Jefferson – the Deistic religious reformer and thinker, possessing a decidedly incendiary pen? And what can it tell us about his attitudes towards the idea of Christianity as a state religion? In my opinion, as with most things Jeffersonian, the evidence is contradictory, and, hence, conclusions are necessarily tentative.

In an 1890 description of Jefferson's project provided by Ainsworth R. Spofford, then Librarian of Congress, he reports one of Jefferson's descendants writing in a letter: "the idea he had at first was to compile a book which would be valuable for the use of the Indians." This is confirmed by an inscription on the title page of the first of two compilations of his "bible" that Jefferson physically produced:

"Extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions."

This prefatory section raises a number of thorny questions? For instance, was it Jefferson's inclination to "convert" Native Americans to the "philosophy" of Jesus (if not to a belief in his divinity)? Historians tell us that Jefferson saw Native Americans as potentially the equal of Europeans, but needing to be "civilized". Might Jefferson have endorsed the propagation of a de-facto form of "secular religion" among the Native Peoples of North America? And, if so, could this be reconciled with his well-known views on the need for a Separation of Church and State? Let me suggest that our answers to these questions can inform the current debate over the role of Christianity in the founding of the American nation.

It is clear that many core precepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition were part and parcel of the European intellectual tradition that the Founders and Framers inherited. And yet, Jefferson has little problem distinguishing between the philosophy of Jesus and the supernatural elements of the four Gospels. A story that Brooke Allen relates in a recent article entitled "Our Godless Constitution", for The Nation, may throw a bit more light on this general subject:

"During Jefferson's presidency a friend observed him on his way to church, carrying a large prayer book. "You going to church, Mr. J," remarked the friend. "You do not believe a word in it." Jefferson didn't exactly deny the charge. "Sir," he replied, "no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir."

Is Jefferson here explicitly endorsing the retention of a kind of civic or secular religion? Does he believe that an established and widely accepted ethical code is the necessary veneer of human civilization? Another question: should Jefferson's incendiary rhetoric be considered illustrative of the Founders and Framers attitudes in general toward the organized religions of their day. His fiery views are largely consistent with those, for instance, of John Adams – which I hope to present in greater depth in a future article. For now, let me just offer this tidbit from Adams, in a June 1815 letter to Jefferson:

"The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?"

Let me close with one final question, and a personal observation. Considering the Enlightenment era perspective that Jefferson employs in the creation of his "bible", which side of our current "science vs. faith-based revelation" debate do you think that he would come down on? It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson would come down on the "science" side – with its insistence that a combination of reason, empirical data, and the lessons afforded by human experience are the best means for formulating the laws of a nation. But as Jefferson's example also illustrates, spiritual teachings can, and do, retain an influential role in the creation of these codes, and the laws that reflect them. Thus, intellect should never be construed as the inevitable enemy of timeless wisdom.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on February 13, 2005, as part of The Tao of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project.