The Jefferson Bible and the Resurrection

Josh Buice

Today marks what would be the 274th birthday of the third president of the United States of America—Thomas Jefferson.  As the early leader and president of the United States, Jefferson was greatly respected by many.  Jefferson was a great thinker, one who loved books, valued learning, and was the founder of the University of Virginia.

His leadership came during the pivotal era of the American Revolution and is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.  Jefferson is also remembered for his compilation of the Bible that has become known as The Jefferson Bible.  Today, his Bible can be seen in the Smithsonian Museum and is the property of the United States National Museum.

The Jefferson Bible

Originally the work of Jefferson took on a much longer name and was never intended to be looked upon as a Bible.  It was eventually called – The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  With a knife blade, Jefferson cut out the moral teachings of Jesus, excluding the miracles, and compiled what he thought to be the purest doctrines of Christ.

In a letter to Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian minister, from Washington on January 29, 1804, Jefferson wrote, “I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of orality, and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in, forming your Harmony.” [1]

Jefferson would eventually carry out his work in Greek, Latin, French, and English.  His desire was to have a comparative compilation in order to compare the texts of Jesus’ moral teaching.  In a letter to John Adams on October 12, 1813, Jefferson explains his idea and the intent of his work by saying:

In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines. [2]

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed reading moral teachings and philosophies before drifting off to sleep at night.  According to historians, The Jefferson Bible” was a very private project. He ordered Bibles while living in the White House and cut them with a razor knife to organize his understanding of the moral teachings of Jesus.  Years later, Jefferson’s work would be purchased by the United States National Museum in 1895.

Jefferson and the Resurrection

Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (April 13th), but this Sunday is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  If Jefferson was alive today, he would celebrate his birthday, but would most likely overlook the significance of what the evangelical church will celebrate this Sunday.  Jefferson desired to look beyond the miracles of Jesus to the morals of Jesus.  However, all such attempts to separate the miracles from Jesus’ morals is like separating the light from the sun.  If Jesus is not God and didn’t perform such miracles as recorded in the New Testament, He would be an immoral liar and deceiver of men—not a worthy teacher of morality.

Jefferson didn’t embrace the deity of Christ nor did He believe the New Testament authors were accurate in their transmission of the pure doctrines of Christ.  Jefferson rejected the Trinity and believed that the apostle Paul (the New Testament’s most influential teacher and brilliant theologian) was guilty of corrupting Jesus’ teaching.  In a letter in 1820 to William Short, Jefferson wrote:

We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. [3]

It’s one thing to deny Jesus’ power over nature and His ability to walk on water—which is a subtle way to deny Jesus’ deity, but Jefferson went much further in his theological downgrade.  As a result of his attempt to shrink down the Bible to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson was led to deny the foundational truth of Christianity—the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  If you read “The Jefferson Bible,” you will not find one word about the resurrection of Christ.  In his cutting and pasting, he skipped over the miraculous works of Jesus and this included the resurrection of Christ—the foundation of Christianity.  Without the resurrection, there is no Christianity.  Without the resurrection, Jesus is far from a good moral teacher.

For Thomas Jefferson, reason transcends revelation.  This is where many people have trouble as they attempt to “make sense” out of God.  The sovereign God of heaven and earth who rules the totality of the universe is beyond reason.  The God who spoke the world into existence from nothing—ex nihilo—doesn’t make sense.  The God who sent His Son to enter the human race through the womb of a virgin is far above human rationale.  The God who lived in the very flesh He created and subjected Himself to death, even the death of a Roman cross, transcends human explanation.  Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, died in the place of sinners and was resurrected from the dead on the third day.  This doesn’t make sense.  This is why we gather for worship each Sunday.

Jefferson traded in the highly exalted and resurrected Jesus for a cheaper version—one he could reason with.  Jesus does’t make sense, and His gospel is considered foolishness to the learned minds of sinners.  The Jews demanded signs, the Greeks sought after wisdom, and the sons of the Enlightenment in the early days of the United States pursued reason.  All of them missed the resurrected Jesus who rules over heaven and earth.

Make no mistake about it, today Thomas Jefferson understands with brilliant clarity that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Some day you will too.  Why not bow before Him and confess Him as Lord today?  He is worthy of your attention and worship because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

Luke 24:6 – He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,

  1. Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English, ( 2009), Loc. 257 – Kindle Edition.
  2. Thomas Jefferson, A Letter to John Adams, Dated: Oct. 12, 1813, [accessed: 4-12-17 at 2:23pm].
  3. Quoted by Thomas Kidd, “Faith and History” [accessed: 4-12-17 at 11:33am].
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author The Jefferson Bible and the Resurrection

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.