The Bible as Thomas Jefferson Read Jesus’ Life
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Six 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.” 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!
To Delete or Not to Delete(photo:Vitor Sá - Virgu/Flickr)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s essay about Wikipedia (a warning: in his discussion of Wikipedia vandalism, he quotes some profane language) in The New York Review of Books. He notes the astonishing fact that 1500 articles are deleted from Wikipedia every day, and there are warring factions of deletionists and inclusionists battling each other all the time.
Baker has often written about his worry that overlooked but wonderful things are disappearing from the world. He once said in an interview, “It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded… my nine year old daughter’s personality… Card catalogues; things too. Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled. I always think, thank God it’s still hanging there, even though people don’t really buy it for the popcorn anymore — maybe they never did — but now it’s a nostalgia item.” (If I knew more about Wikipedia, I would edit the page on Jiffy Pop to include Baker’s anxiety about its continued survival.)
It made me think of St. Irenaeus, whom John O’Donohue quoted on our most recent show. A second century bishop of the Christian church, he helped delete a lot of early Scripture from the canon, including all the writing of the Gnostics. But when it came to choosing which of the several testaments to the life of Jesus was the right one, he gave up his deletionist tendencies and became an inclusionist. It was due in part to him that the New Testament included four gospels instead of just one.