Jefferson on the Bible

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LIKE A CURMUDGEON who writes cranky letters to the editor, retired president Thomas Jefferson wanted to get the news without editorial bias or commentary—the Good News, that is, because he was reading the Bible. Whiling away his dotage at Monticello, he finally had time on his hands to finish a task begun decades earlier, namely to compile and edit a personalized version of the New Testament, which he titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The original book will go on exhibit this November at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, after undergoing extensive conservation.

A healthy skeptic, Jefferson questioned the accuracy of the translations of many books of the Bible and did not accept all the conventions of his native Anglican tradition. A peerless champion of religious liberty and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson avoided public statements about his beliefs, which he considered a purely personal matter. Educated in the principals of the Enlightenment, he considered Jesus to be the exponent of the purest moral philosophy. Still, he questioned the veracity of the Bible itself in some respects. For starters, Jefferson believed that the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were biased; second, that later church officials edited the narratives to suit their own purposes; third, that translators made mistakes.

So he acquired six bibles, two copies each in English, French, and a combined Latin and Greek text. Using a sharp blade, he neatly cut out all the passages about Jesus’s life and acts, including the parables and teachings while omitting the miracles and other events he deemed supernatural, such as the resurrection. Then he took double-wide sheets of writing paper, divided them into four columns, and pasted his clippings in place so that the four translations of each passage (or verse) lined up, a delicate layout task that must have taken many hours. Jefferson’s goal was to be able to examine the different versions in the four languages as he read his chronological reconstruction of Jesus’s life. In 1820 he commissioned Richmond bookbinder Frederick Mayo to bind his 86-page book in morocco leather. The result was a handy, convenient volume that he could peruse at his leisure.

Decades later, the Smithsonian’s librarian, Cyrus Adler, purchased the book from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph, for an exhibition. In 1904 the Government Printing Office produced a facsimile, with each page presented as a photographic illustration. A copy of this book was given to incoming members of Congress until the edition ran out a half-century ago.

Meanwhile, time took its toll on the original volume, its paper becoming so stiff that even opening it partially damaged it further. Its pages split where stressed by the binding; his mixture of animal glue and starch paste had become inflexible. Curator Harry Rubenstein and paper conservator Janice Stagnitto Ellis set out to preserve the little volume. First Ellis itemized the book’s construction, finding 12 kinds of paper, 10 different inks, paste boards, and silk end thread. The conservation team gently cleaned them, then repaired the tears and cracks before sewing them back into the original binding. When not on display, the book will be placed in a special airtight enclosure filled with an inert gas to minimize further oxidation.

Supported with private donations to augment Smithsonian funds, the project will take about a year. When completed, and the original book goes on display this fall, facsimile copies will be available for sale. Then those who care to debate the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation will be able to study for themselves the workbook that one doubting Thomas made for himself to examine the life of the founder of Christianity.