New Edition of The Jefferson Bible

I’ve always enjoyed the image of Thomas Jefferson, sitting up late, going through the New Testament with his razor to excise the parts he found objectionable, the very picture of an Enlightenment eccentric. Jefferson thought that Jesus’ moral teachings were pretty good, but that the Evangelists had ruined them by inserting claims of divinity that Jesus never made. How Jefferson thought he could distinguish the actual words of Jesus from those the Gospel writers invented is not entirely clear, since an independent source for Jesus’ words doesn’t really exist. Just in time for Christmas, Random House has released a new edition of Jefferson’s work, The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition, a color reproduction of the original, now contained in the Smithsonian’s collections. The publisher’s description follows.

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was Thomas Jefferson’s effort to extract what he considered the pertinent doctrine of Jesus by removing sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists. 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. 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. The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and was published in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington.

Once published in black-and-white facsimile by the Government Printing Office in 1900 as a gift for new members of Congress, the Jefferson Bible has never before been published in color in its complete form.The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is an exact facsimile reproduction based on the original copy in the Smithsonian collections. The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is as beautiful an object as was so painstakingly crafted by Thomas Jefferson himself.

Which Holiday Is That, Festivus?

One of the pleasures of doing a website on law and religion is that the topic of church and state comes up everywhere nowadays, even the most unexpected places. Let me give an example. I’m a fan of early music – go ahead, laugh if you want to – and look forward every other Thursday to an email from an organization called the Gotham Early Music Scene announcing concerts around New York City. Yesterday’s email had a plug for a “fitting event” for the upcoming “Holiday season,” a fundraiser for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Americans United is producing a concert of music from the time of Thomas Jefferson, complete with readings from letters between him and his “Parisian paramour” – I’m just quoting the announcement, here – Maria Cosway (left). Jefferson, the promoters remind us, was “the primary architect of the Doctrine of Separation of Church and State.” I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the “Holiday season,” but I suppose secularists need something to do around Christmas, too. Considering that Americans United typically spends its “Holiday season” threatening to sue municipalities that might improperly display a shepherd somewhere, its attempt to cash in on Christmas is a bit ironic. I’m pretty sure Jefferson would have found the whole thing embarrassing. He was always discreet about his relationship with Cosway. She was married.

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