Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. Thus he begins with Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected and of the order in which he arranged them in his "Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement."
After completion of the Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime.
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About the Author
Architect, author, inventor, naturalist, and linguist — Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) would have been an extraordinary man even if he hadn't been the third President of the United States. A powerful advocate of liberty, this Founding Father is primarily remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence.
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The Jefferson Bible
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
By Thomas Jefferson
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson
IN a letter to his daughter, written in 1803, Mr. Jefferson said: "A promise made to a friend some years ago, but executed only lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I have thought it just that my family, by possessing this, should be enabled to estimate the libels published against me on this, as on every other possible subject." The "religious creed" to which he referred was a comparison of the doctrines of Jesus with those of others, prepared in fulfillment of a promise made to Dr. Benjamin Rush. This paper, with the letter to Dr. Rush which accompanied it, is a fit introduction to the "Jefferson Bible."
Washington, April 21, 1803.
Dear Sir: In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798–99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that Anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
At the short intervals since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, this subject has been under my contemplation; but the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestly his little treatise of "Socrates and Jesus Compared." This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline, of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies.
I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the right of independent opinion by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself.
Accept my affectionate salutations.
* * *
SYLLABUS OF AN ESTIMATE OF THE DOCTRINES OF JESUS, COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHERS
In a comparative view of the ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews, and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors. Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.
1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great.
2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced indeed the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow-men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.
1. Their system was Deism, that is, the belief in one only God; but their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.
2. Their ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.
In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent. He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.
1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain.
On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing of his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of only one god, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3. The precepts of philosophy and of the Hebrew code laid hold of action only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thought, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
4. He taught emphatically the doctrine of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.CHAPTER 2
THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem, Where Jesus is Born
AND it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David,)
5. To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
He is Circumcised and Named and they Return to Nazareth
AND when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS.
2. And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
At Twelve Years of Age He Accompanies his Parents to Jerusalem and Returns
AND the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.
2. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.
3. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.
4. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.
5. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
6. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
7. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
8. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
9. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.
10. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
John Baptizes in Jordan
NOW in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,
2. Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
3. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
4. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
5. ¶ Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan;
6. And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
Jesus is Baptized at 30 Years of Age
THEN cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
2. And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli.
Drives the Traders Out of the Temple
AFTER this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days.
2. ¶ And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem;
3. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:
4. And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables;
5. And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.
He Baptizes, but Retires into Galilee on the Death of John
AFTER these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
2. ¶ Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee;
3. For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her.
4. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.
5. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:
6. For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.
7. And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;
8. And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.
9. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
10. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.
11. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
12. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.
13. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,
14. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
He Teaches in the Synagogue
AND they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught.
2. And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.
Explains the Sabbath
AT that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.
2. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.
3. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungered, and they that were with him;
4. How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shew-bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
5. Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
6. ¶ And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
7. And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.
8. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
9. How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
10. And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.
11. ¶ Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.
12. But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all.
Call of His Disciples
AND it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.
2. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;
3. Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew,
4. Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes,
5. And Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.
6. And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.
The Sermon on the Mount
AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
2. And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Excerpted from The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Thomas Jefferson believed that the pure-principled teachings of Jesus should have been separated from the dogma and abuse of organized religion of the day. This led him to recast, by cutting and pasting from the gospels, a new narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus.
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"[A] fascinating document, telling us a great deal about a great eighteenth-century mind and its world." -Charles S. Adams, Religious Studies Review