Jefferson’s Bible Cuts Out Jesus’ Miracles

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted October 05, 2020

Most Americans would happily rank Thomas Jefferson as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. His 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France doubled the size of the fledgling United States, accumulating land in 15 of today’s states. With his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his advocacy for religious liberty, and his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which he spoke of “a wall of separation between Church & State,” Jefferson became a towering figure in history.

Less known, however, was Jefferson’s overall interest in religion. His entire private library, among which were some 200 tomes of religious sources, was purchased by the Library of Congress. And long after his presidency, he embarked on a major editorial project while in retirement at Monticello, his home near Charlottesville, Virginia, assembling an account of Jesus’ life that literally cut out the supernatural.

Penknife Editing

Jefferson’s privately bound assemblage of selected Gospel verses—approximately 1,000 texts he sliced out of various Bibles using a penknife—is entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. According to a recent Wall Street Journal account, the former president “included their ethical content but omitted any reference to the supernatural and presented the Messiah less as savior than as savant.” 

Compiled in 1820, then “lost” for most of the next 75 years, the volume has recently become the subject of a new scholarly study that examines its origins and impact. Peter Manseau, a senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is well versed in America’s religious history. His 2015 book, One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, is a brisk survey of the country’s multifaith past.

Manseau’s latest release, The Jefferson Bible: A Biography, is a history of Jefferson’s original, in which the author “situates the creation of the Jefferson Bible within the broader search for the historical Jesus, and examines the book’s role in American religious disputes over the interpretation of scripture.”

Of the redacted account of Jesus’ life, Manseau writes, “Jefferson’s Jesus stories are all set up with no payoff. Time and again, Jesus indicates that he might be able to perform a miracle of some kind … and then does nothing. While this no doubt made him more acceptable in Enlightenment circles, one imagines it would have made Jesus far less popular in Galilee.”

Interestingly, the Jefferson Bible became popular nearly a century after it was first compiled. In 1904, an edition of the rediscovered volume was printed for members of the U.S. Congress. Today, it’s widely available online and in printed versions.

Do-It-Yourself Religion?

The Gospel accounts, sacred tellings of how God became man and died for our sins, is vastly different from Jefferson’s rendition of a moral teacher who only hinted at the supernatural. Take the introduction to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:1–4).

John, the apostle who arguably was closest to Jesus, without a doubt defined Christ as a member of the Godhead: “The Word was God.” If Jesus is indeed God, then what He had to say was more than just instruction on how to live peaceably in society. He was God the Son speaking to humanity, offering a path to salvation and eternal happiness.

But in the two millennia since Jesus died and, it seems, particularly in the past 100 years or so, many—even those within the Christian faith—have labored mightily to reframe Jesus in any number of ways. Preachers of the so-called “prosperity gospel” present Jesus as part of a heavenly, where believers “order up” a given blessing and God is obligated to deliver. Heralds of the “social gospel” place the emphasis on the reformation of society and the ending of temporal suffering as opposed to dealing with sin and its cure. By focusing on political reforms, advocates of this approach appear to be little different than Jefferson, seeking to shoehorn Jesus into a political mold.

And sad to say, millions of Christians do their own “editing” of Christ. If something Jesus taught is not to their liking or too much to bear, many simply find a way around it. However, those who say they follow Jesus are not commanded to pick-and-choose from the Bible but rather to be faithful in studying and applying the whole of the scriptural message: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15); “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16, 17).

If you—or someone you know—wants to get a handle on what the Bible really says and how to apply it to your life, our free online Bible school is an excellent place to begin. Pastor Doug Batchelor also answers dozens of questions weekly on the Bible Answers Live radio program. Visit its extensive online archive to learn what the Bible has to say about questions you may have been pondering your whole life.

The most important resource that is easily accessible and available for free is the Bible itself. Search out the Word of God, and see for yourself whether Jesus Christ is truly God in the flesh.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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