The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
December 6, 2011 10:38 AM   Subscribe

After his presidency, Thomas Jefferson took on the task of re-editing the New Testament by literally cutting and pasting a new version of the text, shorn of Jesus's miracles and the Resurrection. Titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (but known more commonly today as the Jefferson Bible), the handmade book had begun to crumble after nearly two centuries. Now, after a painstaking conservation process, the Jefferson Bible has been digitized, and will be on exhibition at the Smithsonian though May 2012. (Previously)
posted by Horace Rumpole (64 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
Looks like The Fellowship of the Ring.
posted by swift at 10:44 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


EEEEEE. Ok, yes, I as a historian and massive Jefferson buff (even if I am not an Americanist) have a massive love for the Jefferson Bible as a document. This makes me so happy!
posted by strixus at 10:45 AM on December 6, 2011


Secularism ruining America! Our founding fathers would be ashamed!
posted by pashdown at 10:48 AM on December 6, 2011 [15 favorites]


Our founding fathers would be ashamed!

Prediction: in 20 years, we will be having a debate about whether Jefferson and Franklin were really even that important to the founding of this country. They are too much of a liability to the right wing's position in the kulturkampf.
posted by gauche at 10:56 AM on December 6, 2011 [12 favorites]





Our founding fathers would be ashamed!
Some of them should be
/derail


This is so cool!

The unbinding blog post is pretty cool, too.
posted by lysdexic at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great fpp!!! Thank you. Wish I could favorite more than once.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:02 AM on December 6, 2011


What a total beast Jefferson was to rewrite the Bible in four languages. Sad how the caliber of US presidents pretty much peaked at the very infancy of the Republic.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:14 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." - John F. Kennedy, at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners on 29 April 1962. (JFK library, although this quote is all over the Internet.)
posted by madcaptenor at 11:19 AM on December 6, 2011 [16 favorites]


lysdexic: "...The unbinding blog post is pretty cool, too."

Seriously, I cannot imagine what it must feel like to unbind something like that. I guess a conservator, while probably having a greater love of books as objects than most people, would also have to separate themselves from that to some extent in order to do their job. But my hands were shaking and my body tensed just looking at the pictures.

So glad they did it though. The digitization is just amazing. I've always been interested in the Jefferson Bible as a text, but did not know until many years after that Jefferson had used a razor to cut the text. (I'm not sure what I thought -- I guess I just thought he'd rewritten it by hand or something.) To be able to view it like this is so exciting, I literally said "Fuck yeah!" as I paged through it.
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.... Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. - Thomas Jefferson
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:20 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thomas Jefferson was the first literary dada-ist.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:21 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there an typed manuscript of this anywhere? Has anyone ever transcribed it? I really appreciate the physical object, but it's not exactly easy on the eyes.
posted by asnider at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2011


Thomas Jefferson was the first literary dada-ist.

More of a scholarly scriptural scrapbooker.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is there an typed manuscript

Click the "Show the transcription" button.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:28 AM on December 6, 2011


Is there an typed manuscript of this anywhere? Has anyone ever transcribed it?

There's an epub here.
posted by supercres at 11:29 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Stephen Mitchell did a similar thing in his Gospel According to Jesus (Harper 1993). If you don't have time to read it what they do is keep all the love your neighbor love your brother schtick and dump all the fire brimstone my way or to hell with you stuff. The claim is that church patriarchs altered the original message when they were building their little fiefdoms in the first couple centuries after. Mitchell's version reads pretty well.
posted by bukvich at 11:31 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thomas Jefferson was the fucking man.
posted by mediated self at 11:32 AM on December 6, 2011


Thomas Jefferson was the fucking man.

Of the Founding Fathers, I think that Ben Franklin has that title well in hand.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:34 AM on December 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said, that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time gave resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth's motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven; and 2, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition, by being gibbeted...

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.
posted by empath at 11:35 AM on December 6, 2011 [24 favorites]


Prediction: in 20 years, we will be having a debate about whether Jefferson and Franklin were really even that important to the founding of this country. They are too much of a liability to the right wing's position in the kulturkampf.

It's already begun in Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas, May 21 (UPI) -- Stung by criticism and ridicule, Texas educators voted to reinstate Thomas Jefferson to the state's study curriculum after earlier deleting him, observers said.

The deletion of Jefferson, the U.S. founding father who was the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third president whose belief in the separation of church and state was anathema to conservative members of the Texas State Board of Education, had generated a firestorm of debate and criticism of the board, the Dallas Morning News reported Friday.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


So by "literally cutting and pasting" you really do mean "literally cutting and pasting."

OK, I'll be the outlier and call this a big old FAIL. It was important enough to him to removethe miracles and resurrection of Christ, yet he couldn't write it out by hand? Lazy. I'm not impressed at all by this. People do this every day. Other than the cover page, it hardly counts as an manuscript worth conserving.
posted by rahnefan at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2011


Jefferson was quite prescient (#2 in empath's link):
Spanish. Bestow great attention on this, and endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain and Spanish America, will render that language a valuable acquisition.
posted by djb at 11:55 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Other than the cover page, it hardly counts as an manuscript worth conserving.

You do know who Thomas Jefferson was, right?
posted by empath at 11:55 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yes and so what. He could cut and glue, ooooh.
posted by rahnefan at 11:56 AM on December 6, 2011


Spanish. Bestow great attention on this, and endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain and Spanish America, will render that language a valuable acquisition.

As a recent immigrant to these United States I'd have to say that learning Spanish is probably the best thing to do before coming to live in any border state. It has the potential to make your life much easier especially when you have a thick accent that stops anybody hispanic from recognising when you say "coke".

Although it's kind of sad that the Mexican underclass is so pervasive that learning Spanish is an asset mainly in making sure your fast food order is correct (unless you're ordering from In-N-Out).
posted by Talez at 11:59 AM on December 6, 2011


Aristotle: He could do and think about things and teach, ooooh.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:59 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


So by "literally cutting and pasting" you really do mean "literally cutting and pasting."
OK, I'll be the outlier and call this a big old FAIL.


I think your opinion about the Bible is silly, but I'm deeply offended you think I don't know how to use "literally" correctly.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:00 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


They literally don't know how to use "literally" correctly!
posted by Talez at 12:01 PM on December 6, 2011


I'm deeply offended you think I don't know how to use "literally" correctly

If you're serious - which I doubt - then no, not at all.
posted by rahnefan at 12:03 PM on December 6, 2011


The act of cutting and pasting is not the interesting part: it is the inclusion and exclusion of text (and possibly how he translated the text to Greek, Latin and French).

And what would be different if he had transcribed the text instead of cutting up a bible? We get to have more examples of his hand writing? We have huge collections, including volumes devoted to letters written to various people. So we return to what he kept, and what he removed from the bible.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:15 PM on December 6, 2011


It is literally full of figurative vikings.
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Other than the cover page, it hardly counts as an manuscript worth conserving.

Well, it's not a manuscript, so in that sense you're correct.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:20 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


What he chose to include/exclude is worth notating - but a cut and glued bible is just a cut and glued bible. And it doesn't seem very committed.
posted by rahnefan at 12:21 PM on December 6, 2011


Well, it's not a manuscript, so in that sense you're correct.

Other than the cover page, exactly.
posted by rahnefan at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2011


And what would be different if he had transcribed the text instead of cutting up a bible?


We'd get people criticizing his handwriting instead of his scissor work?
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is America, why do I have to look at the right page of the bible for English?
posted by Winnemac at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2011


Documentary heritage is a lot more than manuscripts, for one thing, and handwriting doesn't get an automatic prioritisation over other formats.

And the cut and paste version is so cool because it's directly linked to the source material in a way a fully handwritten one isn't. You can see where the gaps are in a really physical way. Not knowing a ton about Jefferson I can only speculate, but it seems like he'd be the sort to encourage a reader to think about what was missing, and why. If he had written it out, it would flow much more as a unit, missing the point that this is an edit. You'd see the non-consecutive verse numbers, but that sort of thing is much easier to gloss over than actual ruptures in the paper.

And not committed? Have you tried doing collage with thousands of tiny pieces of paper?
posted by roobot at 12:33 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Anyway, the digitised version is very much in my area of interest, so thanks for the link. :)
posted by roobot at 12:35 PM on December 6, 2011


Somehow over all the years when I'd read about the Jefferson Bible my brain would somehow inject the words 'not literally' before the 'cut and paste' bit, so, fantastical as it seems, it wasn't until just now that I realized what a crazy cool-looking thing this is. I blame my brain.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:50 PM on December 6, 2011


And what would be different if he had transcribed the text instead of cutting up a bible? We get to have more examples of his hand writing?

At least if he'd handwritten it, we'd instantly have two copies of it in his handwriting.
posted by LionIndex at 12:57 PM on December 6, 2011


And not committed? Have you tried doing collage with thousands of tiny pieces of paper?

I thought cut-up was lazy until I had to do it with a six line poem. Almost drove me to tears and I was using scotch tape.
posted by griphus at 12:59 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


What he chose to include/exclude is worth notating - but a cut and glued bible is just a cut and glued bible. And it doesn't seem very committed. -Rahnefan

For as much as the Enlightenment was at its peak, the act of treating a Bible in such a manner was probably pretty extraordinary for the time. It would be interesting to know how widely he shared his project and with whom.

What a total beast Jefferson was to rewrite the Bible in four languages. Sad how the caliber of US presidents pretty much peaked at the very infancy of the Republic. - Foci for Analysis

TR spoke several languages, published a number of books, some influential, like The Naval War in 1812.
posted by Atreides at 1:00 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


It would be interesting to know how widely he shared his project and with whom.

He kept it a secret, but shared it with a few people.
posted by empath at 1:16 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


It was important enough to him to removethe miracles and resurrection of Christ, yet he couldn't write it out by hand?

When I attended confirmation classes as a teen, I was taught the proper method of handling a Bible; as the "Word of God," the very book itself is sacrosanct. Merely copying the bits you like into another book isn't nearly the same kind of statement as taking a blade to paper and exorcising the offending bits. Jefferson was being audacious, blasphemous, and downright awesome all at the same time.
posted by malocchio at 1:18 PM on December 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


In addition, as a document, Jefferson's own Bible is exactly that -- a document. The physical book surpasses, say, the digitized version, or a simple list of inclusions and exclusions, because it documents what Jefferson actually chose. Its conservation limits the ability of historical revisionists to assert that he included or excluded material according to their own biases.
posted by endless_forms at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2011


From empath's link:

"Eventually a Republican Congressman named John Lacey became aware of and read the document and arranged for Congress to have it printed in1904. Apparently, for some 50 years there was a tradition of giving new members of Congress a copy of the Jefferson Bible upon their swearing in."

Can you imagine the outcry if this was suggested today?
posted by bitmage at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Can you imagine the outcry if this was suggested today?

From both sides, I imagine.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a total beast Jefferson was to rewrite the Bible in four languages. Sad how the caliber of US presidents pretty much peaked at the very infancy of the Republic.

It is also a well-known fact that Jefferson owned a few score African slaves and owned a plantation. His views on religion are those of the most vile racist and deserve consideration only in that light.
posted by three blind mice at 2:00 PM on December 6, 2011


Can you imagine the outcry if this was suggested today?

well, Keith Ellison was sworn in on Jefferson's Koran. I'll email Ellison and ask if it had been cut up in any way.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:06 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I thought cut-up was lazy until I had to do it with a six line poem. Almost drove me to tears and I was using scotch tape.

Heh.

I used to publish a zine in the dark days before desktop publishing really took off. ('88, '89, couldn't afford a Mac, etc.) I had a daisywheel printer that could fire off monospaced text in a single column; to do a two-column page, I changed the paper size to something super-skinny and pasted it up on paste-up boards. Remember those? If I needed to cut out a sentence that didn't fit, and didn't have time to reprint the whole article, it was X-Acto and Gluestick time, with a lot of careful attention to spacing and alignment.

Doing an entire Bible that way is no small feat.
posted by verb at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2011


...literally cutting and pasting a new version of the text, shorn of Jesus's miracles and the Resurrection.

Has anyone ever done the inverse of this? I bet it'd make a good tale of the supernatural and macabre.

And in that version, maybe instead of Jesus dying when he gets crucified, he just sparkles. The harder you crucify Him, the more he sparkles.
posted by logicpunk at 2:28 PM on December 6, 2011


Doing an entire Bible that way is no small feat.

Well to be fair it isn't an entire Bible, or even an entire New Testament, or even an entire Four Gospels. It's the four gospels all stuck together into a single narrative. There's no Epistles, Acts, Revelation, or any of the Old Testament at all.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is there an typed manuscript

Click the "Show the transcription" button.


Right. I should have seen that. Thanks.
posted by asnider at 3:21 PM on December 6, 2011


Has anyone ever done the inverse of this? I bet it'd make a good tale of the supernatural and macabre.

Kind of.
posted by empath at 4:07 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Secularism ruining America!

More technically, Deism.
posted by dhartung at 4:22 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is also a well-known fact that Jefferson owned a few score African slaves and owned a plantation. His views on religion are those of the most vile racist and deserve consideration only in that light.

Religion was already blatantly racist well before Jefferson started distancing himself from it.
posted by Brian B. at 4:40 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Revelations got axed completely, no whores of Babylon left. The ending Jefferson chose is a lot more beautiful than the official one:
41: 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.
42: There laid they Jesus,
Matthew 27/60: And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
posted by benzenedream at 5:28 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


three blind mice, do you dump that simple-minded reading of Jefferson into every Jefferson thread? In that other thread, you yourself (unwittingly) quoted evidence from Jefferson's writings that he was ahead of his contemporaries in thinking about race (see especially the 1825 quote, which, far from suggesting he is racist, can be paraphrased as "some have said blacks only respond to force, but this is clearly ridiculous.").
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:02 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Doing an entire Bible that way is no small feat.

From empath's link: "It was the work of 2 or 3 nights only, at Washington, after getting thro' the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day."

...and now I'm thinking back to what I've accomplished since Saturday.
posted by eddydamascene at 9:29 PM on December 6, 2011


Sorry, three nights was for his first effort, which was just select New Testament passages in English and Latin.
posted by eddydamascene at 9:34 PM on December 6, 2011


He only used those 4 gospels because apparently they are the only books in the New Testament that provide any real description of the life and teachings of Jesus. Or so I've read, elsewhere (see Bart D. Ehrman), and apparently they all disagree on a lot of details. At least if your taking them strictly as historical evidence which those links say Jefferson was attempting.

Thomas Paine's, Age of Reason, is a better take on the bible, in my humble opinion, and a real manuscript to boot. I would be impressed if they handed that out to Senators.
posted by PJLandis at 10:02 PM on December 6, 2011


He only used those 4 gospels because apparently they are the only books in the New Testament that provide any real description of the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are only five books in the NT that are narrative: Four of them are the gospels, and the fifth is the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the very early days of the Christian church and basically begins exactly after the end of the gospels (it was written by Luke as essentially a sequel to his gospel, so that makes sense). The majority of the NT consists of letters, most of them from Paul to various people or churches, and then a single anti-Roman political tract from John couched in apocalyptic symbolism .
posted by shakespeherian at 10:12 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well to be fair it isn't an entire Bible, or even an entire New Testament, or even an entire Four Gospels. It's the four gospels all stuck together into a single narrative. There's no Epistles, Acts, Revelation, or any of the Old Testament at all.

Arguably, Jefferson boiled everything down to the very heart of Christianity, disregarding what really amounts to personal interpretations by others in the era following the Resurrection. For a scientist and philosopher wielding a sharp knife, this comes across as very much the proper way to re-examine Christ.
posted by Atreides at 9:49 AM on December 8, 2011


Here's another Jefferson manuscripts project, at the Library of Virginia, with an extensive video of the conservation process.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:48 AM on December 15, 2011


But my hands were shaking and my body tensed just looking at the pictures.

The moment about 2 minutes into this video where a conservator peels a layer of transparent silk of the manuscript to A Christmas Carol is pretty damn amazing too.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:41 PM on December 20, 2011


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