Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Thomas Jefferson Bible

IF ONE WERE TO poll most Americans, asking them to name one person who embodies American values, it's rather startling to think--at any length--who people would pick: George Washington, Donald Trump, Oprah, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, even, perhaps, Barack Obama. Though all of these are good choices, none--at least in my mind--mirror the complexity, the ambition, and the contradictions of the United States like Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson stands as a model of dueling forces and desires; from his stance on Native American issues to his love of land and farming to his relationship(s) with African Americans (including his own slaves) to his puzzling religious beliefs. Of all of his complicated stances, the latter has undergone the least scrutiny but remains, on some levels, the most beguiling.

Indeed, during his lifetime, Jefferson was thought to be an atheist by some, but almost no former president was more obsessed with God, Jesus, and the Bible. In fact, in 1803, Jefferson literally invented a new New Testament that he thought Jesus would approve of. Convinced Jesus' real message had been obscured by the hocus-pocus of miracles, Jefferson's Bible 86's the Christmas story, the Easter story, and the miracles. Instead, he focuses on Jesus' moral teachings, which Jefferson believed was the spiritual core of the New Testament and Jesus' greatest asset. Now, thanks to the inventive folks at BeliefNet, one can get an interesting glimpse at the Jefferson Bible and its edits.

Icons of little scissors allow the reader to see what Jefferson cut, and a fascinating backstory by BeliefNet's editor, Steven Waldman, provides even more detail on the history of Jefferson's interest in the Bible, Jesus, and his enigmatic belief system.

Waldman correctly chronicles Jefferson's public statements of his Christianity, despite claims to the opposite. Here is Waldman quoting Jefferson: "'I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians.'" And yet, Jefferson's multi-decade Bible project attempts to remove from Jesus' legacy the very details that, for most, make him divine.

This project proved to be consuming for Jefferson, who worked on his Bible off an on for the next 20-odd years. So determined was he to get at a true New Testament, he assembled a four-column text (pictured above) that included Greek, Latin, French, and English translations of the New Testament in hopes of liberating Jesus from what he thought was centuries of poor packaging and mis-labeling.

Since Jefferson is the ideological architect of some of this nation's most important documents about freedom, liberty, and rights (all of which enter public debate about the religious infrastructure of the Republic and its laws), it is useful to know what he was grappling with as he was trying to sculpt a new nation and a national discourse.

One of the great mistakes many Americans make is conflating the religious beliefs of the Pilgrims with the religious beliefs of what we have come to call "The Founding Fathers." In his new book, Founding Faith, Waldman addresses this issue, as does Garry Wills in his recent study, Head and Heart: America's Christianity. Both authors debunk the myth that the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States sought to enact specifically "Christian" laws with a "Christian ideology."

Imagine Jefferson running for president today--trying to convince the American populace that even though he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the virgin birth or any of the miracles, including the resurrection--that he was still a Christian. How odd that as our society and our world has become more progressive, our capabilities for tolerating and nuancing religious beliefs have narrowed.

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