How Thomas Jefferson's Bible Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. We have got another Thomas Jefferson topic for all of you today. And not just because I love him! I know a lot of you out there are very passionate about Jefferson. You've got a lot to say; you've got a lot to weigh in on about Jefferson and the ways that we've portrayed him. And today we're going to talk about something that is pretty controversial, but hopefully it will invite lots of feedback from you guys and not as many corrections. Because we have researched this one into the ground!

Jane McGrath: That's right. And this is an interesting aspect of Jefferson. One thing that you might not know about him is that he championed the idea of separation of church and state. And the idea came from him. Some people think this idea came from the Constitution itself. The Constitution, of course, says, "You shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But the idea of separation of church and state actually comes from a letter that Jefferson wrote. This makes sense with his character and what he thought about religion and how religion shouldn't be dictated by traditional churches or by anyone. He thought that religion was between a man and his god, and that's it.

Candace Gibson: Right. He thought it was very personal. And he also conceived of religion in a very rational way. And scholars don't know for certain whether Jefferson was a deist or not. But if we look at some of his works and thoughts, we can see a little bit of the influence of deist philosophy. And just to recap that for those of who may not be familiar with deism or may need a refresher, basically it's the idea that we only need rational thought, not faith, to understand God and religion. And deists, the term classifies a broad range of people and the ways that they identify themselves. It could be everyone from an atheist to a Christian rationalist. And I got a lot of great information about deism from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. And ironically enough, this came from the University of Virginia. And we know, of course, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. So make of that what you will. But deists put morality above any other human action. And morality and behaving in an ethical and responsible way is first and foremost not believing in religion and miracles. And furthermore, deists believe that the world is ordered by God. And if you've heard of the Great Clockmaker or Great Watchmaker theory, the idea is that there is a Divine Being, a god, who put the universe in order, gave it all of its parts, all of its gears, and set it into motion, and then left it to operate on its own. And so what's interesting about Jefferson is that we know for a fact he was an enlightenment thinker. And a big part of the enlightenment were the scientific discoveries that great men of the time were making. If we look at Isaac Newton's discoveries and laws of gravity and laws of motion, it hearkens back to this idea of the Watchmaker. Once you have the tools and the gears that can operate independently on their own, do you really need someone to keep guiding them? So the universe could be a self-sustaining place. And what deists would argue is that you can understand the world by thinking about it in these parts and not necessarily the person who created it. So pretty interesting, huh?

Jane McGrath: That is interesting. And it makes a lot of sense with what Jefferson believed. And obviously, if you're a deist, like Candace described and you believe in a Clockmaker god, you don't think that God sent his Son down into the earth to heal the sick and cure the blind. He wouldn't have done that. He doesn't meddle at all in human affairs, obviously, as a clockmaker god. And so Jefferson rejected this orthodox belief of Jesus being the Son of God. He did actually think that Jesus was a pretty fascinating figure. He thought that whoever said these things - the Beatitudes, certain parables - must've been an amazing philosopher. And we're talking up there with Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. And Jefferson really respected it. What he didn't respect were the evangelists. And these were basically the gospel writers who we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He thought that these men were particularly unqualified for writing down Jesus' life. He thought that they were unlettered men, they were just not educated, maybe they forgot a lot of stuff about what they heard Jesus said. And also, he thought that perhaps these guys actually intentionally invented certain things about Jesus' life, like miracles in particular - and the idea of the Virgin birth - and the idea of the resurrection. Because these things all are at the core of what Christians think make Jesus the Son of God.

Candace Gibson: Almost like propaganda, trying to get people to ascribe to this religion.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he rejected what he thought was propaganda.

Candace Gibson: And Jefferson, as we know, was very well read and very well versed. He spoke many languages, read and wrote in them, too. So we know it wouldn't have been unusual for him not to hold men like the apostles in high esteem. And the thing about Jesus that Jefferson respected the most was his morality. And he actually said that Jesus' morality was "more perfect than any other philosopher" that he'd read. And again, drawing out that parallel between deism and Jefferson and his re ligious beliefs, is that above all, if there is a creator who put this universe in order and created morality as the highest level of being, then that creator must also be a rational thinker, too. So by thinking rationally, you can understand him. So you can imagine that when Jefferson sat down with the Bible, when he would've read the miracles like the Last Supper with the Eucharist and the resurrection and Virgin birth, these things didn't exactly correspond with his rational way of conceiving religion.

Jane McGrath: And so he had this idea in his mind that he wanted to rewrite the Bible. It's inaccurate to say that, though, because he didn't want to change anything that the evangelists said Jesus said, he just wanted to cut out parts that he didn't think Jesus would've said and keep in the parts that he thought were very inspired and very brilliant things to say. So what he did was literally a cut and paste job. He got a couple of Bibles and he - he had to take two because obviously you need both sides of a pages sometimes. And he actually literally cut out the verses that he felt were legitimate and genuine. And he would then paste those in order into a blank book, which to this day has been known as the Jefferson bible.

Candace Gibson: And what it's actually called - what Jefferson titled it originally - was The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. And then over time he changed that title to The Life and Morals (again, morality) of Jesus of Nazareth. And in all, I think he included about 990 verses from the Bible. And he later translated it into Greek, Latin, and French. And to put this in context with other things that would've been going on in Jefferson's life, he started the project in the winter of 1816. And we know he held his presidential terms from 1801-1809. So he would've been retired from the Presidency, but as we know from earlier podcasts about Jefferson, he was still very much involved in politics and people still looked to him as a man of great wisdom who would've guided them and influenced them. And that's why he purposefully didn't publicize the Jefferson bible.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting. And even though he cut out a lot of things about what they say Jesus did, he put together what comes out to be still a narrative. And you follow Jesus from when he's born. Of course, they don't mention the Virgin birth - but when he's born and the story of when he was a boy and Mary and Joseph lose him for a while and find him in the temple. And it comes to his crucifixion, leaving off before the resurrection. But in between he leaves out certain parables and certain things - of course the miracles. He has the last supper, but he leaves out the part of, "This is my body and this is my blood," which Catholics take literally and use as the Eucharist in their mass. And of course, Jefferson wouldn't have agreed with that. But things that he leaves in are interesting as well, such as the Beatitudes. And this tells us a lot of things about what Jefferson believed as a faith because obviously he did believe in God. And the idea that he would leave in the Beatitudes showed that he believed in an afterlife, which is interesting.

Candace Gibson: And so the Jefferson bible is more than the debate today, where some Christians interpret the Bible as a literal text, and some like to interpret it to apply to a more modern lifestyle. He really did come through it with a very discerning eye, and he kept these very astute morals and philosophies that he thought people should live their lives by. But he knew that what he was doing was radical. And so you may be wondering if what he did was so radical and so private, as Jefferson oftentimes was - how do we know about the Jefferson bible today? And back in 1895, a Smithsonian librarian named Cyrus Adler found a collection of these documents. And he found evidence of the bible verses and the cut and paste job, and he put it together. And by 1904, the Jefferson bible was put on display in the United States National Museum.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And Congress was able to buy the rights back, so now it's in the public domain. So you can find it bookstores and museums and libraries. And you can find it online, even. There's some helpful sites out there that actually lay out the parts, not only that Jefferson included, but the parts that he left out as well - which is just as insightful about Jefferson's life.

Candace Gibson: So really it's not just a philosophy text, but it's a tool for historians to study Thomas Jefferson by.

Jane McGrath: And like you said, Jefferson was often very secretive. There's this theory that came about that he actually wrote the book in order to help educate American Indians. Some sources say that this may have been some sort of a planned cover-up. If the press really got hold of the bible that he was working on and got incensed and said, "Oh, are you an atheist? What are you writing here?" He could've said, "Oh, I'm just writing it for the American Indians. It doesn't reflect what I believe." In his private writings, he really did specify that he wrote it for his own purpose so he could study it himself.

Candace Gibson: And I think in his lifetime he may have in fact shared copies of it with close friends and family.

Jane McGrath: Right. Close friends, yeah.

Candace Gibson: And today it's actually a custom for recently sworn in members of Congress to receive copies of the Jefferson bible. So that's a fun fact. And speaking of swearing in bibles, we have another interesting fact for the rest of you. So as far as other swearing in texts that are important in our nation's past, you may have seen in the news pretty recently that Barack Obama requested to be sworn in with the Lincoln Bible. And some other texts that were used not too long ago, Bill Clinton actually used a family Bible both times that he was sworn in. And George Bush, Sr. used the Washington Bible. And George W. Bush used the Washington Bible once like his dad and wanted to use it again - but the second time there was some pretty bad weather and people were worried about damage that might be incurred to the very ancient book - well, not very ancient. That's not accurate. By the esteemed and old book - so he used a family Bible that time.

Jane McGrath: Very interesting.

Candace Gibson: Yes, indeed. So for even more information on our nation's presidents, and maybe even a few of their secrets, be sure to visit And as always if you have suggestions for future shows, or any feedback for us, email us at

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