Saturday, July 5, 2008

America's Smartest President

Making good on a promise to a friend to summarize his views on Christianity, Thomas Jefferson set to work with scissors, snipping out every miracle and inconsistency he could find in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Then, relying on a cut-and-paste technique, he reassembled the excerpts into what he believed was a more coherent narrative and pasted them onto blank paper -- alongside translations in French, Greek and Latin.

In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his "wee little book" of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

He called the book "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Friends dubbed it the Jefferson Bible. It remains perhaps the most comprehensive expression of what the nation's third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence found ethically interesting about the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus.

"I have performed the operation for my own use," he continued, "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 dunghill."

The little leather-bound tome, several facsimiles of which are kept at the Huntington Library in San Marino, continues to fascinate scholars exploring the powerful and varied relationships between the Founding Fathers and the most sacred book of the Western World.

The big question now, said Lori Anne Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University, is this:

"Can you imagine the reaction if word got out that a president of the United States cut out Bible passages with scissors, glued them onto paper and said, 'I only believe these parts?' "

"He was a product of his age," said Ferrell, whose upcoming book, "The Bible and the People," includes a chapter on the Jefferson Bible. "Yet, he is the least likely person I'd want to pray with. He was more skeptical about religion than the other Founding Fathers."

-- Louis Sahagun, giving us another example of why Jefferson is "The Man," in the Los Angeles Times.

1 comment:

  1. From Garry Wills' - What Jesus Meant:

    Jefferson called his extraction of the "real" gospel from the traditional one as easy as "finding diamonds in the dunghills"...Trying to find a construct, "the historical Jesus," is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It is a mixing of categories, or rather of wholly different worlds of discourse. The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say. The Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus preached, who is the Jesus resurrected. Belief in his continuing activity in the members of his mystical body is the basis of Christian belief in the gospels. If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Pluto, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more ascetical figure than Epictetus (the only ancient philosopher Jefferson admired). If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing.

    WC (posting under another account)