Jefferson’s Bible: An Eye-opener for Thinking Christians!

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD

President Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson formulated a bible for his own use. He took two copies of the New Testament in the King James Version and cut out those verses from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that in his view best conveyed the “pure and unsophisticated doctrines” of Jesus. Having undertaken the task of separating the authentic and original Jesus from the later Platonized and mythical Jesus, Jefferson told John Adams that he found the true sayings of Jesus Christ ‘as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.’ His letter stated, “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”
Jefferson worked without knowledge of manuscript transmission or oral traditions or any of the biblical apparatus that later centuries would introduce. Rather, taking Reason and Nature as his trusted guides, he determined by sense and sound what had fallen from the lips of Jesus himself.  And the result was pure gold, gold separated from the dross, as he told William Short much later. In examining the Gospels carefully, Jefferson found ‘many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the loveliest benevolence.’ Jefferson noted that all that beauty sat trapped in ‘so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture.’ Something had to be done to extract the gold. He also pointed out and ‘I found the work obvious and easy!’
Jefferson’s Bible has no mention of alleged resurrection or ascension of Jesus, which in my opinion was a made up story and Jefferson seems to agree, as he concludes his Bible with the following verse of Gospel of Matthew: “And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” (Matthew 27:60)  The last six verses of chapter 27 and the whole of chapter 28 of Gospel of Matthew, did not merit to be in the Jefferson’s Bible.

The official website

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The Jefferson Bible (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth)
Material Red Morocco goatskin leather, handmade wove paper, Iron-gall ink
Size 21.2 cm x 13.2 cm x 3.4 cm
Writing Greek, Latin, French, and English
Created Approx. 1819, Monticello
Discovered Acquired by the Smithsonian in 1895
Present location Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was a book constructed by Thomas Jefferson in the latter years of his life by cutting and pasting numerous sections from various Bibles as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s composition excluded sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists.[1], but others reject this claim, stating that his 1804 work was simply intended to instruct Native Americans about Jesus’ moral teaching [2][3] while his second work was for his own personal study.[4]


Early draft

In an 1803 letter to Joseph Priestley, Jefferson states that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the “Christian System” in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Rush during 1798–99. He proposes beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the “deism and ethics of the Jews,” and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism” taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity.” Jefferson explains that he does not have the time, and urges the task on Priestley as the person best equipped to accomplish the task.[5]

Jefferson accomplished a more limited goal in 1804 with “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth”, the predecessor to The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.[6] He described it in a letter to John Adams dated 13 October 1813:

In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.[5]

This 1804 version’s full title was, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrased [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.[7] Jefferson frequently expressed discontent with this earlier version. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth represents the fulfillment of his desire to produce a more carefully assembled edition.


Page 6 and page 7 of the Jefferson Bible. The clippings read (from left to right) in the order of Greek, Latin, French, and English.

Using a razor, Jefferson cut and pasted his arrangement of 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. Thus he begins with Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected and of the order in which he arranged them in his “Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement.”

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.[8] It does, however, include references to Noah’s Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil. The work ends with the words: “Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” These words correspond to the ending of John 19 in the Bible.


Publication history

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. The book was later published as a lithographic reproduction by an act of the United States Congress in 1904. For many years copies were given to new members of Congress.[9]

The Smithsonian published the first full-color facsimile[10] of the Jefferson Bible on November 1, 2011. Released in tandem with a Jefferson Bible exhibit at the National Museum of American History, the reproduction features introductory essays by Smithsonian Political History curators Harry R. Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith, and Smithsonian Senior Paper Conservator Janice Stagnitto Ellis. The book’s pages were digitized using a Hasselblad H4D50-50 megapixel DSLR camera and a Zeiss 120 macro lens, and were photographed by Smithsonian photographer, Hugh Talman.[11]

The entire Jefferson Bible is available to view, page-by-page, on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s website. The high-resolution digitization enables the public to see the minute details and anomalies of each page, and uniquely experience the book.

The text is in the public domain and freely available on the Internet.

Recent history

In 1895, the Smithsonian Institution under the leadership of librarian Cyrus Adler purchased the original Jefferson Bible from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Carolina Randolph for $400. A conservation effort commencing in 2009,[12] in partnership with the museum’s Political History department, allowed for a public unveiling in an exhibit open from November 11, 2011, through May 28, 2012, at the National Museum of American History. Also to be displayed are the source books from which Jefferson cut his selected passages, and the 1904 edition of the Jefferson Bible requested and distributed by the United States Congress.[10] The exhibit will be accompanied by an interactive digital facsimile available on the museum’s public website. On February 20, 2012, the Smithsonian Channel premiered the documentary Jefferson’s Secret Bible.[10]

  • The Jefferson Bible at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
  • Fold-out tab Jefferson glued in the margin of page 56

  • Jefferson textually corrects “out” into “up”

  • Jefferson extracts the word “as,” from a sentence, to avoid three prepositions in a row

  • Visible here are the stubs, placed in-between pages by the bookbinder

  • Conservators take samples from the pages

  • Janice Stagnitto Ellis “facing” the covers of the bible

  • Removing the leather cover from the pages

  • Cleaning the spine of the now disbound book

  • Separating the pages of the Jefferson Bible

  • One of the endbands from the Jefferson Bible

  • Conservator trims the mending tissue away from the edges using a scalpel while viewing the artifact with a microscope

  • Emily Rainwater mends a page of the Jefferson Bible

  • Laura Bedford removes a stub from the gutter of a folio

  • Sarah Emerson cleans the surface of all of a folio with a soft goat-hair brush

  • Resewing the Jefferson Bible

  • The original endbands are resewn

  • Marbled paper inside the book’s covers

  • The Jefferson Bible after treatment

  • The source books Jefferson used to extract his verses

  • Jefferson’s meticulous excisions

  • A Jefferson Bible Government Printing Office fascimile

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Jefferson Bible

Editions in print

See also


  1. ^ R.P. Nettelhorst. Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State. Quartz Hill School of Theology. Retrieved 2007-02-20.
  2. ^ Jefferson, Thomas, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Lipscomb, 10:376-377.
  3. ^ Thomas Jefferson’s Abridgement of the Words of Jesus of Nazareth (Charlotesville: Mark Beliles, 1993), 14.
  4. ^ Jefferson, Thomas, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Lipscomb, 10:232-233.
  5. ^ a b Excerpts from the Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson Retrieved on March 30, 2007
  6. ^ Unitarian Universalist Historical Society profile of Jefferson, Retrieved on March 30, 2007
  7. ^ Randal, Henry S., The Life of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 3 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858), 654.
  8. ^ Reece, Erik (December 1, 2005). “Jesus Without The Miracles – Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and the Gospel of Thomas”. Harper’s Magazine, v. 311, n. 1867.
  9. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (January 9, 2007). What Jefferson Really Thought About Islam. Slate. Retrieved 2007-01-24.
  10. ^ a b c G. Wayne Clough (October 2011). “Secretary Clough on Jefferson’s Bible”. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 8 November 2011.
  11. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (2011). The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Smithsonian Books. ISBN 978-1-58834-312-3.
  12. ^ Jefferson’s Bible Sent to the Conservation Lab

External links

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  1. Faiths of the Founding Fathers
    The title of this comment is a book by David L Holmes and I am quoting from him regarding President Thomas Jefferson’s pure Unitarainism:

    With the exceptions of Bishop Madison-whom he knew both from scientific investigation and from his work at William and Mary – and friends such as Charles Clay, Jefferson distrusted Trinitarian Christian clergy. He viewed most as enemies of the simple teachings of Jesus. As Jefferson saw it, rational empirical investigation determined what constituted reality. When viewed from this perspective, the Trinity was-in his words-“incomprehensible jargon,” “metaphysical insanity,” a “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads,” a “deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign to Christianity as is that of Mahomet,” and “abracadabra.” Like other Deists, Jefferson viewed mystery as a disguise for absurdity. “I should as soon undertake to bring the crazy skulls of Bedlam to sound understanding,” he wrote to the Unitarian Benjamin Waterhouse, “as inculcate reason into that of an Athanasian.” In 1813, he wrote to John Adams: “It is too late in the day, for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three and the three are not one.”
    For this reason, Jefferson refused to serve as godfather for children of friends in Anglican baptisms, for godfathers had to profess a belief in what he viewed as the unreasonable doctrine of the Trinity. “The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the ritual of the Church in which I was educated,” Jefferson politely wrote to a friend who asked him to serve as a godparent in 1788, “makes a solemn profession before God and the world, of faith in the articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend, and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent.” Jefferson believed in a Supreme Being who created and sustained the universe, but this was not the triune God of the Anglican and Episcopal tradition.
    Whether Jefferson would have formally left the church of his ancestors is unclear. He remains listed in many histories as an Epis-copalian rather than a Unitarian for the probable reason that Piedmont Virginia contained no Unitarian church. Unitarian societies were established in Baltimore, Georgetown, and the District of Columbia in the early part of the nineteenth century, but these cities were much too far from Monticello. When Jefferson lived in Philadelphia, how¬ever, he attended Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian church. In addition, in some famous correspondence with a Unitarian minister, he predicted that Unitarianism would soon sweep the nation:

    I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust there is not a young man now living who will not die an Unitarian.

    Like Adams, Jefferson would have fallen into the category of Unitarians who believed that Jesus was “from below.” But unlike some early Unitarians, he did not go beyond believing that Jesus became the moral example for humans while he was below. To him, Jesus was always a man. His view of Jesus contained no role for a virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection, miracles, or adoption into divine status.

    In his last years, Jefferson clearly moved toward a more traditional interpretation of Christianity. He valued Jesus as a person even more highly. Unlike some Deists, he came to believe in prayer and in a life after death. But belief in an afterlife and in a God who hears prayer were standard Unitarian beliefs of the time. Holding them did not move him into the category of orthodoxy.

    Prof. David L Holmes. Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford, 2006. Pages 87-88.

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