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Once labeled a “howling atheist” by his detractors, Thomas Jefferson was a product of his time. The Age of Enlightenment piqued Jefferson’s interest in both scientific and theological studies. His sharp and questioning mind eventually lead him to the principals of “deism,” a belief system in which a supreme being created mankind, but had no effect upon man’s daily life.

Although Jefferson maintained his devotion to biblical teachings, he questioned the various interpretations of the scriptures. Believing biblical writers unreliable and their translations corrupt, Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted together his own unique version of the New Testament. Using a sharp instrument, Jefferson produced his eighty-four page religious text in 1820. This text succeeded an initial forty-six page text, assembled in 1804 and entitled “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” The whereabouts of this original text are unknown.

Composed of six New Testament copies, Jefferson constructed his second abbreviated bible version from Latin, Greek, French and King James English. Entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” the red leather bound volume has also been dubbed “scripture by subtraction” by Stephen Prothero, a Boston University theological scholar. Often described as “very Jeffersonian,” the book, now known as the Thomas Jefferson Bible includes both events and teachings from the life of Jesus Christ. Notably absent from the manuscript are miracles related to teachings, which Jefferson eschewed as “contrary to reason.”

Indeed, the Thomas Jefferson bible seems to seek reason, as opposed to encouraging faithful belief. The original teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitude are intact. The life of Christ in the Thomas Jefferson version culminates with entombment, but omits the Resurrection. There is no virgin birth or walking on water in Jefferson’s bible.

The Thomas Jefferson Bible has spurred its share of speculation and controversy, since it became accessible to the public. However, Jefferson felt no real need to explain himself. Calling himself “a real Christian,” Thomas Jefferson maintained that it was easy to distinguish the portions of the New Testament that should remain, from those that should be deleted. Jefferson called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant” and “unlettered,” proclaiming their purposes to be self-serving, and their writings not based on the simple teachings of Jesus Christ.

As with other controversial documents, many have sought to pigeonhole Jefferson to suit their own constructs. Despite what some called blasphemy, Jefferson still won the 1800 election against John Adams. He thought long and hard about religion throughout his life, but believed that God shows his presence in the natural world. He wrote the Virginia statute separating church and state, believing that even questioning God’s existence was a God-given right.

The Thomas Jefferson Bible is displayed in its restored form at the Smithsonian, along with two of the texts from which he clipped its passages.

   

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