The Bible as Thomas Jefferson Read Jesus’ Life

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The Jefferson BibleSix years before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson constructed a text for his own personal library, which he often read each night for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth — commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible — is a compendium of clippings from the four gospels of the New Testament. The former president and author of the Declaration of Independence cut passages from six texts composed in four languages — English, French, Greek, and Latin — and pasted them in separate columns, side by side, so that he could study and compare the different translations.

The 77-year-old Deist believed Jesus’ life and teachings to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment and was skeptical of the four authors of the Gospels. He intended to tell a chronological version of Jesus’ life, eliminating the passages that appeared “contrary to reason.” Title Page of The Jefferson Bible There’s no resurrection story at the closing of Jefferson’s Bible; the tomb is shut.

As outlined in the video above, Jefferson’s Bible has undergone a meticulous conservation process and is now being displayed through May 28, 2012 at the Albert Small Documents Gallery in the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. If you can’t make the trip, or even if you can, be sure to check out the online exhibition, which provides high-quality, zoomable photographic images of each of the 84 pages of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. And they’re all transcribed too!

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