JEFFERSON’S READING OF JOHN 1:1-3

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Interpret the parts in light of the whole and the whole in light of the parts: that is the basic rule of hermeneutics. It looks like Jefferson breaks this precept when he argues that the logos in John 1:1-3 should be translated “reason.” He does not mention what John states just a few verses later: “And the Word [or, as Jefferson would have it, mind] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (1:14 ESV). Whichever way we translate it, John tells us the logos is embodied in Jesus, a notion that already runs counter to Jefferson’s take on the passage.

According to the logic of the Bible, translating logos as “word” makes perfect sense. First and foremost, it preserves continuity with Genesis: “Then God said…” Whether we understand this act of creation literally or figuratively (it could mean God willed), the fact remains that the first chapter in Genesis serves as a template for the cosmogony in John. And we need not stress, as Jefferson does, the distinction between reason and language. On the contrary, the Bible invites us to consider how God’s word and wisdom cohere. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word of Yahweh is the source of prophetic wisdom. Prophecy is “the oracle of him who hears the words of God” (Numbers 24:4). “For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach” (Jeremiah 20:8).

Personified in Proverbs 8:22-36, Wisdom speaks. She tells us she was with the Lord from the beginning:

The Lord possessed me…before the beginning of the earth…[B]lessed are those who keep my ways…For whoever finds me finds life.

Words that apply to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls Christ “the wisdom [sophia] of God” (1:24). In embodying God’s word, Jesus also embodies God’s wisdom. Through his word (Scripture, the good news of the Gospel), God communicates with mankind. The problem of interpretation here is not so much that Jefferson sees an intellect in the logos as that he objects to the longstanding tradition of linking God’s wisdom to his word. Once we take account of this tradition, rendering logos as “word” becomes obvious.

In interpreting logos as reason, Jefferson is following Stoic doctrine (cf. letter dated October, 31, 1819, where he tells William Short, “I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus”). In Stoicism, logos becomes the ordering principle of the universe with which wise people know how to live in harmony. This notion suits Jefferson’s ideas about the Deity: we discern the mind of God not through scriptural revelation but in the harmony of nature.

But by using Scripture to refute Scripture, Jefferson is playing a dangerous game intellectually. It is one thing to claim that the Bible is illogical, quite another to attempt to make it conform to one’s standards of reason. Time and again, Jefferson pursues the second course. The so-called Jefferson Bible, where he literally shreds the Gospel message with a scalpel and reassembles it according to what he considers rational (while leaving out everything he deems illogical), is merely the most dramatic example of this basic Jeffersonian tendency.

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