Smithsonian Touts Jefferson’s ‘Genius’ in Editing Gospels--And Removing Resurrection

Penny Starr | February 14, 2012 | 2:13pm EST
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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), served as the third president of the United States for two terms, 1801-1809.

( – In an exhibition that runs through May at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Founding Father and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson is described as a “genius” and “revolutionary” who created his own Bible by cutting and pasting the verses he preferred into a separate compilation.

Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazarene” is focused on a refurbished edition of the original book, which is on display, along with the two Bibles Jefferson used to cut out scripture, and another 1904 “facsimile” of Jefferson’s bible that was printed and handed out to members of Congress until 1950.

Several panels on the walls in the one-room exhibit and a 3-minute video are used to explain Jefferson’s bible and his take on Jesus Christ as he is portrayed in the Holy Bible.

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, created by Thomas Jefferson in 1820, is an 84-page assemblage of passages from the first four books of the New Testament,” the text states on one panel in the exhibit. “It was the work of Jefferson's own hands and a product of his extraordinary mind.”

“It was a personal exercise in understanding Jesus's moral teachings,” the text continues. “The resulting work represented a meeting of Enlightenment thought and Christian tradition as imagined by one of the great thinkers of the Revolutionary Era.”

Another panel discusses when and why Jefferson made his own bible.

A photo of a facsimile of the cut-and-paste "New Testament" made by Thomas Jefferson. (AP Photo)

“At seventy-seven years of age, Thomas Jefferson constructed his book by cutting excerpts from six printed volumes published in English, French, Latin and Greek of the Gospels of the New Testament,” the panel states. “He arranged them to tell a chronological and edited story of Jesus's life, parables, and moral teaching.

“Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection,” the text on the panel states.

The panel text continues, stating that while Jefferson created “something fresh” and “ambitious” with his edited bible, it was not “an act of disrespect.”

The Smithsonian Web site on the exhibit has an expanded explanation about it, including the claim that Jefferson “promoted religious freedom in order to secure the rights of dissenting denominations and to protect individuals who belonged to no sect at all.”

Under the headline “A Revolutionary Act,” the Web site states, “To Jefferson, no tradition was so sacred as to escape reconsideration in the light of new discoveries and the progress of knowledge. Jefferson viewed the Gospels through the lens of the Enlightenment, a flowering of scientific experiment and rational enquiry in the 18th century.”

The Web site states Jefferson’s “New Testament”  is “an extension of his revolutionary spirit” and that, “In religion as in politics, he imagined liberating contemporary minds from inherited misconceptions and superstitions.”

A 3½-minute video that is in the exhibit and available on the Web site states that it is “a brick and mortar glimpse into the mind of a genius.”

“It seemed to some people that simply by using human reason and the scientific method people could, together, arrive at these truths,” American History Museum curator and historian Barbara Clark Smith says in the video.

“It’s this notion that the individual can make a better world for themselves,” curator and historian Harry Rubenstein says in the video.

(AP Photo)

Smith states that Jefferson challenged everything and examined things, including the Bible, “by the light of reason.”

A narrator follows up by saying, “Jefferson even began to question the way Jesus is portrayed in the Bible.”

“Throughout Jefferson’s adult life, he really is struggling with this larger question of once you get rid of an official church and king sanctioned, supposedly by God, then you have to say, what is the new moral basis for a republic?” Rubenstein says.

Professor Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia says in the video that Jefferson’s questions about Jesus’s moral teachings “was a new way of thinking” in his day.

According to the museum’s Web site, the conservation of Jefferson’s bible and the exhibit were funded by Peter and Rhondda Grant, Brenton Halsey, Albert H. Small, Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Bryan Jr. and other contributors, as well as federal funds from the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

The Smithsonian Institute receives millions in federal funding annually to staff, maintain and operate its museums, including the American History Museum.

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