In A Nutshell
Thomas Jefferson struggled to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with the teachings of modern-day science. He thought that the Bible was highly embellished and full of downright silly, trivial stories, so he cut and pasted his own. The final 84-page version of his Bible included moral teachings, and left out the mysteries, the miracles, and the divine.
The Whole Bushel
Thomas Jefferson is an interesting, influential figure, and his views on religion are just as complicated as the rest of his life. He believed in God and was frequently called a deist—someone who believes in a supreme being that acted as a creator, but soon lost interest in that creation and left us all to fend for ourselves. Others called him an outright atheist. But by his own work, he was someone who was desperately struggling to make sense of a world in which religious miracles and science were both touted as true.
Clearly, there were a lot of things in the Bible that were at odds with what modern scientists were saying. Jefferson decided that something had to be not entirely accurate or, at least, not represented accurately. He began to look at the Bible as being a source of valuable life lessons intermingled with some extra bits—like miracles and angels and the like—that weren’t all that important.
So he started cutting.
In 1804, he produced a 46-page version of the Bible that he entitled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Sadly, there are no surviving copies of that volume, but other records say that it was a compilation of the moral instructions given by Jesus.
In 1820, only a handful of years before he died, he returned to the project. This time, he cut the Bible down to 84 pages, literally cutting passages he thought were important out of a copy of the Bible and pasting them into his new, leather-bound book. This book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, similarly excluded many of the entries and stories that he thought went against scientific teaching.
Many of the things that he made a point to exclude are stories that even those with only a passing familiarity with the Bible would recognize—the virgin birth, the resurrection, turning water into wine, and so on. Many, many of the stories that he found contrary to common sense—which he believed Jesus was a great defender of—were cut from his version of the Bible.
According to Jefferson, the original ideas behind the Bible had gotten lost in an attempt to create a complete philosophy, and one that would agree with the moral teachings of the ancient Greeks. It was embellished by the simple minds of those that were responsible for writing and recording the Gospels, calling many of those additions mere trickery, superstitions, and imaginative ignorance.
In his words, it was a matter of separating the real teachings of Jesus from the additions of chroniclers. And in his exact words, “separate that as the diamond from the dung hill.”
Oddly, some of the things that he cut out as belonging to the dung hill were stories that give Jesus what most Christians consider his character. For Jefferson, Jesus was not a divine being but an illegitimate child with a kind heart and soul who ended up believing in the divine and was put to death for it.
Show Me The Proof
Smithsonian: How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible
PBS Frontline: Thomas Jefferson and his Bible
Department of Christian Education of the Orthodox Church in America: The Jefferson Bible Rewrite