The third president’s attempts to revise Scripture offer a warning about our own tendency to “edit” the truth.
I first heard of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible as a warning. I was a teenager in a Bible study, and one of the pastors of the church brought up the third American president and his effort to “fix” the Scripture. Jefferson—who wrote the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”—took for himself the liberty of editing the Gospels. He cut them up, using a sharp knife to excise what he saw as the problematic parts of the sacred text.
But, the pastor said, don’t we all kind of do that? We have our favorite verses. And there are other parts of the Bible we ignore. Whether or not we wield actual scissors, we have to be careful, because it’s so easy to mutilate the Word of God.
There is certainly some truth to this, but it turns out it is not as easy to “fix” the Scripture as that pastor imagined. Jefferson, at least, had a hard time of it, according to a fascinating new book by Peter Manseau, the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The Bible resisted Jefferson’s cuts, and the truth is stronger than its would-be editors.
The Jefferson Bible: A Biography is part of an excellent Princeton University Press series on the “lives of great religious books.” This installment follows titles on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, not to mention “biographies” of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Job, Song of Songs, and Revelation. …