Thomas Jefferson's Bible
Barton's recent work The Jefferson Lies portrays the Jefferson Bible as intended to summarize just the morality of Jesus, and claims that otherwise Jefferson held to an orthodox "evangelical" view of the New Testament. However, this is not supported by Jefferson's letters on the topic or upon any comprehensive examination of Jefferson's writings.
One letter exemplifies Jefferson's opinion:
"The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814
The same appears elsewhere in reference to Paul and about Jefferson's belief about textual additions to the Gospels:
"Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart." - Thomas Jefferson toWilliam Short, Monticello, 13 April 1820 (? EG 392. Recipient copy available at the College of William and Mary. Polygraph copy available at the Library of Congress. Source: Jefferson of Monticello.)
This is because Jefferson agreed with Priestly's book The Corruptions of Christianity (1782) which exposed many additions to bolster the trinity doctrine that were late in church history. See our article on "Joseph Priestly."
Hence, the process of Jefferson's editing the Gospels was not just to focus on morality, as Barton claims, but also potentially to remove what he thought was dross from the gold.
Jefferson actually has two works in this category. He made two compilations of extracts from the New Testament --- "The Philosophy of Jesus" (1804) and "The Life and Morals of Jesus" (1819-20?) (See Jefferson Encyclopedia at this link.)
As to Jefferson's religious beliefs, they eventually emerged. In the same encyclopedia, we read:
Jefferson believed in the existence of a Supreme Being who was the creator and sustainer of the universe and the ultimate ground of being, but this was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. He also rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ, but as he writes to William Short on October 31, 1819, he was convinced that the fragmentary teachings of Jesus constituted the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man." In correspondence, he sometimes expressed confidence that the whole country would be Unitarian, but he recognized the novelty of his own religious beliefs. On June 25, 1819, he wrote to Ezra Stiles Ely, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." (Link.)
Accordingly, Barton has gone too far in saying Jefferson held an otherwise orthodox evangelical Christian faith. Jefferson indeed had a "novel" faith as he put it. I would speculate it was not Christian at all.
In saying this, I mean no disrespect to one of the great founders of the American Republic. What I mean by that is that Jefferson never expressly says Jesus is Messiah. Jefferson may call Jesus "Lord" or "Christ" in the last quote, but those terms were often used as mere empty titles. They do not necessarily prove faith in our time and age. At the same time, Jefferson does not deny Jesus is Messiah.
But in light of all he said, had he believed Jesus was genuinely the Messiah, I think he would have mentioned the same. This silence would suggest that perhaps Jefferson viewed Jesus as just a great moralist.
Unfortunately, Jefferson's silence will leave us perpetually in doubt on the truth one way or the other. Yet, that silence means Barton cannot claim Jefferson was an orthodox evangelical Christian. At the same time, I cannot definitively say that Jefferson was not a Christian / believer in the Messiahship of Jesus. God only knows. We will all find out on Judgment Day.
August 18, 2012
The highly reputable Warren Throckmorton wrote a critique of various statements by Barton, disputing the historical claims that Jefferson was an evangelical Christian, and created the Jefferson Bible to evangelize Indians. See Throckmorton, Is the Jefferson Bible Just The Words of Jesus (Jan. 11, 2012).