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. It should be noted that he used several translations from several languages to do this, comparing them side by side. 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. He 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. I have been, for many years, both a fan and a skeptic of Jefferson, but at the very least, I considered him no less inspired, and certainly no less an intellect than those who assembled the New Testament over the first 1600 years after Christ’s birth and death. (with long overdue thanks to Dr. Everett Long of UW-Whitewater). It should be noted that he added nothing, and probably was not even aware of, the gnostic gospels, also known as the apocrypha – those gospels known of, but not included by the various councils and beard strokers of early Christendom.
For the first 50 or so years of my life, I was an active church attender and skeptical believer and yes, I was skeptical from the first time we dug worms and couldn’t see Hell from there. More about that somewhere else at a later time. However, while not a major Biblical scholar, my skepticism has allowed me to accept what others believe and understand why they might believe differently than I do, hopefully with none of the air of superiority that is displayed by some people who should, by virtue of their prior behavior – be tending their own house. My life, and thinking, began to change one day, when I was talking to our minister. As the chair of the board of deacons in our church, I was having a hard time with reports that large quantities of what the UCC synod was sending to Nicaragua as medical aid was being intercepted and used to aid Communist rebels. As anti-war as any product of the 60’s can be, I still could not absorb standing by bringing aid and comfort to the enemy.
The pastor looked at me and said, in his trained, neutralizing way, “I understand – if Jesus found a wounded man, what do you think he would do?”
i recognized the trap. “He would cleanse his wounds and wash his feet – and pretty much not ask about his politics”. We never spoke of it again. I think about that conversation often, though, as I try to make sense of life and my place in this world. Jefferson was, I think, trying to make some sense of his world, as well. As a seeker, a conflicted man dealing with far larger issues than we deal with daily, including holding slaves to the day of his death, Jefferson probed delicately into these things, not as a service to humanity, but to find some clarity in his 77 year old mind. We should all put forth the effort to clear our minds that this man did. Jefferson scholars are in general agreement, I think, that Jefferson was at best a Deist – he believed in God, the Almighty, Divine Providence as he at various times referred to God, but probably not a Christian in the sense of believing in the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, etc.
When I first heard about the so-called Jefferson Bible, I was reminded of my seventh birthday, for which I received a Bible I could barely carry, but had a unique feature I hadn’t seen before. My mother was behind this, a Bible this size was nonsense for a little kid who had only recently learned to read and probably still needed help with at least a few of the big words. She was a fire-breathing, “you’re going to hell if…” and “God will punish you if … ” converted Catholic turned born-again Christian of the most conservative ilk. Sooo… like most things I wanted straight answers on, I went to my dad. “Daddy, how come some of the letters in the Bible are red?”
“Well son, we think those are the words that Jesus said, so they are in red because they’re important.” A minister’s son, I usually got straight answers from him without the fire and smoke. So here I am almost 60 years later, back to reading the red parts in the red letter edition of the Bible. Maybe they stole the idea from Jefferson.
Now, when I write, that would normally have been a good point to end my thoughts. BUT, I digress here to point out another of my related lines of thought, and that is this nonsense about gay marriage and wedding cakes, etc. Anybody who has read any of my stuff knows that I cannot figure out why humanity cannot go more than a few seconds without killing someone in anger, and worse, why nations can’t spend more than fifteen minutes without starting another war – or why any of that makes sense. Yet it is our religions that are the basis for most of our wars, and Christians have been the middle of a lot of them. The Catholic church also has some other skeletons in their closet that they need to come clean about. And then, I was more than a little put out when the Missouri synod Lutheran Pastor wouldn’t let me speak from the pulpit to give my brother’s eulogy – so it appears we take one step back every time we get into a forward motion.
My point is this: I’m a simple guy. I have friends of every conceivable religious background. . When one of my friends asked me to make wooden crosses for the altar boys to carry in the masses at the local Catholic church, it never occurred to me to refuse. And if, by some twist of fate, a couple asked me to make them a wedding box, or a wedding cake, for that matter, I wouldn’t hesitate. It wouldn’t occur to me to check to see if they were gay or not – (usually these requests come from a wedding planner, or one of the couple – I’m not totally naive). You see, Jesus was a carpenter, and I think he would have been willing to make a wedding box for a gay couple, and it would be the best he could do on that day, because even if he disagreed with them, I believe his ministry on that day would be to do his best. He would probably wash their feet. Not for a moment do I believe he would judge them.