The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is currently featuring a display of a project Thomas Jefferson undertook during the latter years of his life: it’s called “Jefferson’s Bible.”
Being in Falls Church, Va. for a Baptist World Alliance meeting gave me an opportunity to visit the exhibit. I’ve had a copy of the famed “Jefferson Bible” for years, but looked forward to seeing the real deal.
Jefferson never liked to talk much about his faith, and was known to have said “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” He was a strict advocate of the separation of church and state, believing that government should have no role in religion, but he was a person of private faith. Jefferson spoke of himself as a follower of Christ in this way: “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other” (1803).
Combining his admiration of Jesus and the Enlightenment’s hopeful emphasis on reason, Jefferson sought to compile a chronological account of Jesus’ teachings on life and morality. He did so by carefully clipping selected teachings of Jesus from the four gospels, arranging them in what he believed to be the correct order, and pasting them in four columns of a blank hardbound book.
He needed four columns because he included the same teachings in four different languages, arranged from left to right: Greek, Latin, French, and English (KJV). Jefferson spoke of Jesus’ teaching as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” and he entitled his compilation “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Some would criticize Jefferson, of course, for “picking and choosing” those teachings he wished to believe and follow, and those he considered to be outdated or based on superstition. At least he had the clarity of mind to think through his beliefs, and the integrity to acknowledge what he considered most important.
If we are truthful, all of us would have to acknowledge that we give more attention to some parts of the Bible than others. We may not have Jefferson’s audacity in constructing a cut and paste version to reflect our beliefs, but we routinely emphasize some parts of the Bible over others: even the most literal Christian interpreters I know don’t follow the Old Testament purity laws or heed Paul’s advice to avoid adornment.
The hardest thing about our beliefs is not just deciding what they are, but living by them. Jefferson decried the evils of slavery as an throughout his political career, and often spoke of the need to rid America of that “abominable crime.” Yet he owned slaves throughout his life. In the photo above, Jefferson is surrounded by the names of more than 600 slaves he was known to have owned at some point.
Perhaps the question for us is not just how much of the Bible we belive, but how many of our beliefs we actually life by.
(For more information on Jefferson’s Bible and high resolution photos of its pages, visit the Jefferson exhibit page at the NMAH website.)