As we noted in our previous entry, Jefferson prepared a Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with those of Others. In this document, Jefferson observes how Jesus not only did not write anything himself, but
all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life & doctrines fell on the most unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, & not till long after the transaction had passed.
Since Jesus died young, “his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy,” the doctrines that he “really delivered [as opposed to those merely attributed to him] were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible” (Jefferson’s emphasis). To help correct these defects, Jefferson proposes a technique, one that he himself employed:
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…I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse from 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 8 vo. of 46. pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st. century (To John Adams, October 12, 1813; Jefferson’s emphasis).
Thus he describes an early version of the so-called Jefferson Bible. Evidently, he is using the word “unlettered” in two senses. In the first instance, he uses it to describe the Evangelists as poorly educated; in the second, it seems to mean illiterate and therefore refers to disciples other than the Evangelists. In contradistinction to the way they appear in the Gospels, the “unsophisticated doctrines,” which would include — but not be limited to — those he extracted, would have been transmitted orally by the illiterate apostles more or less as they issued from the mouth of Jesus.
Six years later, in a letter to William Short, Jefferson picks up right where he left off:
Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up…The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture…is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life (October 31, 1819).
The fact that he draws up a syllabus and wants others to build on it already hints at the fact that this is a man with a mission to save Jesus’ reputation. He aims to
justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor (To William Short, August 4, 1820).
Let’s pull his argument together. We saw in our previous entry that, according to Jefferson, the falsehoods imputed to Jesus include his immaculate conception and miraculous powers. Reason cannot admit that these things are true. Neither can Jesus have presented himself as deriving from such a birth or as having such powers; his nature was too guileless for that. The only alternative is that those who wrote the Gospels falsely imputed these supernaturalisms to him, along with his resurrection and visible ascension to heaven. In an age of reason and enlightenment, Jesus is vulnerable to being attacked as an impostor. Believing that Jesus is the greatest moralist, Jefferson feels compelled to defend him. To do this, Jefferson has to target the Evangelists, as he does again here:
I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading any other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history…I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his biographers matters of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas…[that] could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds…I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay (ibid.).
Despite how easy he claims it is to distinguish what is genuinely Jesus’ from the fabrications and misconceptions ascribed to him by “his biographers,” Jefferson nevertheless admits that some passages are problematical:
There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself…The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition…They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law. He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplications of scraps of prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons (ibid.).
That Jefferson did not believe that the Gospels were the word of God should be obvious by now. He argues that the same standards of judgment are to be applied to them as to any history. Anything defying common sense is to be rejected, even the suggestion that Jesus was divinely inspired:
That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration. The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communication of the Deity…Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon. And how many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane on all other subjects (ibid.).
Jefferson can’t deny that there are passages in the Gospels where Jesus seems to believe that he is influenced from above. At the same time, he is too careful a reader to be able to dismiss it as fabricated by the Evangelists. Since he is loath to attribute any duplicity to him, we see at what lengths Jefferson goes to excuse Jesus for mistaking the “coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order.” It is wholly indicative of the way Jefferson’s mind works that he cannot entertain the idea that Jesus could have received even a single word from on high.
The repeated references to Jefferson made by modern evangelicals set me writing this series of postings. For example, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes,
Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, declared: ‘I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life, who has covered our infancy with His Providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power.’
Jefferson believed that God had led ‘our fathers’ and blessed the nation’s birth and growth (“Always Faithful,” Townhall, July 26, 2008).
Such statements claiming Jefferson as their own are frequently made by evangelicals. Using him in this way is perfectly understandable, given his belief in religious freedom. At the same time, one wonders whether evangelicals fully realize Jefferson’s hostility toward scriptural Christianity. To the extent they foster a view of Jefferson as something he was not, I feel such statements should be countered for the sake of historical accuracy. Jefferson himself did not make this task as easy as it might seem. In the quotation offered by Perkins above, it is Jefferson himself who gives the appearance of believing in the God of Israel. But was that really the case? Does he give one impression in public statements and another in his private correspondence? In hopes of answering these questions, next time we will explore Jefferson and the God of Israel.