Does the Jefferson Bible have validity? Can you really still edit the Bible?

The White House, Washington, D.C. 1804.

Thomas Jefferson was frustrated. It was not the burdens of office that bothered him. It was his Bible.

Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These “Platonists” had thoroughly muddled Jesus’ original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there. The task, as he put it, was one of

abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.

With the confidence and optimistic energy characteristic of the Enlightenment, Jefferson proceeded to dig out the diamonds. Candles burning late at night, his quill pen scratching “too hastily” as he later admitted, Jefferson composed a short monograph titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. The subtitle explains that the work is “extracted from the account of his life and the doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.” In it, Jefferson presented what he understood was the true message of Jesus.

Jefferson set aside his New Testament research, returning to it again in the summer of 1820. This time, he completed a more ambitious work, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. The text of the New Testament appears in four parallel columns in four languages. Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible.”

Who was the Jesus that Jefferson found? He was not the familiar figure of the New Testament. In Jefferson’s Bible, there is no account of the beginning and the end of the Gospel story. There is no story of the annunciation, the virgin birth or the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. The resurrection is not even mentioned.

Jefferson discovered a Jesus who was a great Teacher of Common Sense. His message was the morality of absolute love and service. Its authenticity was not dependent upon the dogma of the Trinity or even the claim that Jesus was uniquely inspired by God. Jefferson saw Jesus as

a man, of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, (and an) enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions of divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law.
In short, Mr. Jefferson’s Jesus, modeled on the ideals of the Enlightenment thinkers of his day, bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson himself.

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/FRONTLINE

Is Jefferson right?

I think we need to know more about your quote. Where’s it from? We need a site or a cite. Post a link.

Writing a monograph on the life of Jesus is not the same thing as “editing the Bible”. Just because that monograph may be called by some people the “Jefferson Bible” does not make it a new translation or new edition.

This conclusion:

–is the conclusion drawn by the author (at this time, unknown) of this article (or, as it seems, narration from “Frontline”). We cannot discuss whether Jefferson was “right” or “wrong” in his estimation of what Jesus actually was, because we do not know what Jefferson thought Jesus actually was, because we ourselves have not read the “Jefferson Bible”.

It’s difficult to base a debate on the probably simplistic conclusions drawn by a writer who was writing for the entertainment industry. (Yes, PBS counts as “entertainment”. They are not God. They are not even the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Not meaning to bash you, but I think we need more information before we can debate this.

Okay, I see where you got it from,
but it’s still just a partial transcript from Frontline’s TV series on Christianity. Only the section you copied is included at this site. It’s still the opinion of the person who wrote the script for the show. This is HIS opinion of what Jefferson’s opinion was.

I will point out, again, that the published opinion of someone working in the entertainment industry is bound to be written, slanted, so as to be more “entertaining”. If we are going to discuss an opinion of Jefferson’s opinion, I would be more interested in discussing a serious Jefferson scholar’s opinion of Jefferson’s opinion.

It seems to me that before we can discuss whether Jefferson’s opinion was correct, we need to know what that opinion was. In order to find out what that opinion was, we would need to read the “Jefferson Bible”.

Would you prefer to discuss the screenwriter’s opinion?

I will be out of town until Monday.

This ain’t new. There been lots and lots of scholars who have recognized that many ancient texts have been edited over time, to suit the “political correctness” of the times or the political purposes of the editors. Remember that, in the early years of the Christian Era, stories were generally passed down orally, perhaps for a generation or two or three (as the case of the New Testament) before being written down… and then likely edited over time.

This is not just a problem for historians dealing with the Bible, but similarly for historians dealing with folks like Heroditus or Tacitus or Josephus or… “History” in those days did NOT mean a factual accounting of what really happened, it usually meant a retelling to satisfy the listeners.

There’s a wonderful scene in I, CLAUDIUS where Augustus is holding a party on the anniversary of the battle of Actium, and an orator recites a long and beautiful description of the battle. Afterwards, Augustus congratulates him on his marvellour rendition, pays him a large sum of money, and then adds something like, “Of course, it wasn’t that way at all, you know, but your telling was beautiful.”

So, in the last few hundred years (and indeed, in the last fifty years), any number of scholars have tried to extract the “real” stories/preachings of Jesus (or whatever*) from the annotations and editings. Check out the religious section of any large bookstore, you’ll find a dozen such.

Was Jefferson amongst the first to do so?

    • including the real Moses, the real David, the real Trojan War, the reality behind Greek myths, etc.

No, Jefferson’s bible, while a good start, only covers the new testament.

Most of the old testament needs editing, too.

Jonah- maybe leave in as half-swallowed by a big fish, but escaping right away. Noah- a farmer saving his family and some livestock in a flood, raining so hard that you couldn’t see land, seeming like 40 days and nights. Cain and Abel, OK. Lot’s wife, fell into the great salt lake, and when they went back for her was covered in salt crystals. Walls falling to trumpets, coincidence that someone else was ramming from the other side.


Jefferson was by no means the first to edit the Bible to suit his own theology, nor even one of the earlierst.

Of course, there was a lot of disagreement about what made up the New Testament, until it was finally settled by a council at Rome towards the end of the 4th century A.D.

That said, one of the earliest thinkers to argue that only certain parts of the Bible are valid was Marcion, c. 160. Considered a heretic by the Church, his view was that only SS. Paul and Luke had a clear understanding of what Jesus said and stood for, so he argued that only ten of the Epistles of S. Paul, and an edited version of S. Luke’s Gospel were the canonical scriptures.

Sounds like a good candidate for sainthood.
Saint Marcion the Patron for Revisionists.
I wonder if we have an image for the triptych?

I would be interested in learning what Thomas Jefferson thought were the important parts of Jesus’ teachings. In Jefferson’s era, Christianity (especially Protestantism), was the philosophical underpinnings of the new Republic. I am sure an argument could be made against that statement, but, again, most literate citizens of the United States, were well acquainted with the Bible and; at least, made an effort to understand its teachings.

Jefferson would surely want to appeal to those citizens on a level that they would understand.

I have no doubt that any other free-thinker, in that era, would have thought about doing the same.

After all, Jefferson, was primarily concerned with the Social Contract, and that could very well be embodied in “the golden rule”. The essence of civilization is the attempt to understand “How ought I behave towards another?”

That Jefferson’s opinion should differ from prominent theologians of the era in their interpretation of the Biblical canon is not surprising to me. What I had not known, prior to this OP, was that Jefferson would chuck out what he thought was erroneous, in an attempt to satisfy his pre-existing beliefs.

“Jefferson discovered a Jesus who was a great Teacher of Common Sense. His message was the morality of absolute love and service. Its authenticity was not dependent upon the dogma of the Trinity or even the claim that Jesus was uniquely inspired by God. Jefferson saw Jesus as a man …”

This is what I consider the most valuable aspect of the Jeffersonian Bible. It allows consideration of Jesus’ teachings, without the need of tricking him up as a god, or devaluing our present existence in the hopes of an afterlife. My nomination for the most influential figure in history is whoever had the idea to hide the body.