Why Thomas Jefferson Created His Own BibleHistorians in the News
tags: Christianity, Thomas Jefferson, Smithsonian Institution, Jefferson Bible
Great religious books are often inseparable from tales of their discovery. Whether it is Joseph Smith unearthing the golden plates that would become the Book of Mormon, or Bedouin shepherds stumbling upon the cave-hidden jars that yielded the Dead Sea Scrolls, part of the significance of some sacred texts is derived from stories presenting the possibility that they might have never been known at all.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—popularly known as the Jefferson Bible—is another such book. Completed by Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago this summer, the infamous cut-and-paste Bible remained all but forgotten for the better part of a century before an act of Congress brought about its publication in 1904. Since then, it has been as controversial as it has been misunderstood.
The 86-page book, now held in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, is bound in red Morocco leather and ornamented with gilt tooling. It was crafted in the fall and winter months of 1819 and 1820 when the 77-year-old Jefferson used a razor to cut passages from six copies of the New Testament—two in Greek and Latin, two in French and two in English—and rearranged and pasted together the selected verses, shorn of any sign of the miraculous or supernatural in order to leave just the life and teachings of Jesus behind. Jefferson, who had suffered great criticism for his religious beliefs, once said that the care he had taken to reduce the Gospels to their core message should prove that he was in fact, a “real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
While certain members of the Jefferson family were aware that this highly redacted compendium of scripture had served as their esteemed forbearer’s nightly reading at Monticello, we would likely not know more about it if not for the work of a pair of men who happened to have the skills, interests and connections necessary to appreciate and make something of what they had found.
The first, Cyrus Adler, was the son of a Arkansas Jewish shopkeeper who, in a quintessentially American story of reinvention, ended up first a professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University and later one of the most influential public historians of his generation. He helped found the American Jewish Historical Society, and eventually became an advisor on religious issues to U.S. presidents.
Before reaching such heights of influence, Adler served from 1888 to 1908 as a curator, librarian and director of the division of religion at the Smithsonian Institution, which tasked him with seeking out and collecting unique examples of the material culture of American religion.