#FeatureWeek: The Enlightened Jesus According to Jefferson

Feature Week is a new initiative from The Texas Orator to publish articles from prominent, thoughtful professors on campus at the beginning of each semester as an introduction to our semester of work. Our first installment in our Feature Week collection is an article graciously written for us by Philip YooPhilip Yoo is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Ideas and Texts and Lecturer at the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. A native of Canada, he holds degrees from Toronto, Yale, and Oxford. He is the author of several articles and Ezra and the Second Wilderness (OUP, 2017).

This essay is revised from a talk given to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Text and Ideas, April 2017.

What did Jesus look like? The Bible does not say anything about Jesus’s hair color or height, and yet countless images of Jesus number have been produced. Some images resonate more than others. Returning to the question, chances are many Americans will conjure the Jesus of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ. Created in 1940, it is faithful to the Jesus of Western art and reinforces the image of Jesus as a handsome person with long flowing hair, a finely trimmed beard, and wearing a pristine white robe.

In spite of its success, the Jesus of Head of Christ is far from being the only one entrenched in the American imagination. In Stephen S. Sawyer’s Undefeated, Jesus is the most perfect fighter, caught before strapping on gloves labelled (perhaps ironically) ‘Mercy’ and fighting out of the ‘Savior’ corner. Some may imagine a serene and meditative Jesus, as in Eugene Theodosia Oliver’s Christ the Yogi in which Jesus is portrayed as a Hindu avatar. In a 1999 competition sponsored by The National Catholic Reporter, Janet McKenzie’s Jesus of the People, which featured a Jesus that is inclusive of groups previously uncelebrated in Christian iconography, emerged as the winning entry.

None of the above portrayals of Jesus look anything alike. In American art, film, and popular culture, there are as many more exclusive images of Jesus as there are artistic works that feature Jesus. Perhaps the only thing these portrayals all share is that they are stamped with ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ So how did the figure of Jesus become so fragmented, and oftentimes incompatible, in the American imagination? In American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), Stephen Prothero charts the growth of Jesus into an American icon and advances the claim that the rise of America as a ‘Jesus nation’ can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson.

At first, it seems odd to attribute the rise of Jesus as an America icon to Jefferson. The issue of Jefferson’s faith (or lack of faith, as his critics would charge) continues to generate much discussion, and his views on the intersection of religion, state, and education can be gleaned from his writings. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson writes ‘it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg’ (Query XVII) and elsewhere objects to ‘putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious inquiries.’ (Query XIV) As a proponent of the ideals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson held the view that religion belongs in the private realm and, once there, religious truths could be scrutinized by human reason—and to be specific, mature and developed human reason.

Jefferson preferred to express his views on the topic of religion and the Bible in private correspondence, and perhaps understandably so as oftentimes his words created a mild frenzy in the public sphere. In his failed 1796 bid and successful 1800 campaign for the Presidency of the United States, Candidate Jefferson’s words were used against him as he was depicted as an anti-Christian, or an infidel, or—heaven forbid—an atheist by not only his Federalist opponents but also clergymen and their congregations. Fearful of President-Elect Jefferson and his new administration, families in New England reportedly buried their household Bibles from plain sight, which seems hysterical until we see what can happen to a Bible after Jefferson gets his hands on a copy.

In reality, Jefferson did not completely dismiss the Bible. As a champion of human reason and a self- proclaimed Christian, Jefferson saw himself as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who he called ‘the first of human Sages’ (The Writings of Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903–4, XV:3) and whose teachings were ‘the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.’ (Writings X:384) Jefferson found much to admire in the portions of the Bible that contained what he saw were the outstanding teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The problem rested with the portions of the Bible that were beyond human reason. Jefferson rejected orthodox Christian tenets such as the virgin birth, original sin, the deity of Christ, miracles, or the resurrection, and saw these accounts as expansions and corruptions by Jesus’s followers. To distinguish himself from the crowd, Jefferson insists that he is ‘a real Christian,’ (Writings XIV:385, emphasis original) a claim that his opponents would likely scoff at, and also boldly states ‘I am of a sect by myself.’ (Writings XV:203)

The words and deeds of Jesus are in the New Testament, specifically in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In his quest to recover the teachings of the moral and enlightened Jesus, Jefferson scoured through the Gospels to rescue Jesus the Sage from the Jesus of Christianity. In 1803, Jefferson produced the ‘Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others’ which became the outline for two separate works. It should be noted that either one or both of these works are commonly called ‘The Jefferson Bible.’ Jefferson, however, did not use this title and this title should be dispensed with altogether.

Jefferson compiled his first work in 1804, producing The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. In what can be appropriately coined as an act of bibliocide, with a razor on one hand and paste on the other, Jefferson took two copies of the King James Bible, cut out what he considered were authentic passages, and thematically grouped together the words of the moral Jesus. How much time Jefferson had to undertake this project is unclear, especially when he had to attend to the daily business of governing a young nation, one that nearly doubled in size in 1803 after the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson claims that he spent only two or three evenings and the authentic sayings of Jesus was ‘as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.’ (Writings XV:259) With the exception of the title page and a table that lists the relevant biblical verses, most of Philosophy of Jesus is lost as what has been recovered is the dunghill, in the form of the two maimed copies of the King James Bible.

In his retirement, Jefferson started his second work sometime in 1819 and most likely finished it in 1820. Titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson presented his abridgement of the Gospels with verses extracted from Greek, Latin, French, and English Bibles placed side-by-side. On the right margin are his handwritten notes indicating the Gospel source. Unlike Philosophy of Jesus, in Life and Morals of Jesus Jefferson adhered to the basic chronology of Jesus’s life as presented in each of the four New Testament Gospels. A look at snippets from the beginning, middle, and end of Life and Morals of Jesus reveals some of the strategies Jefferson employed to identify what he considered are the authentic sayings and reports of Jesus of Nazareth.

Life and Morals of Jesus opens with ‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,’ words lifted from Luke 2:1 (all biblical translations from the King James Bible). Jefferson does not begin Life and Morals of Jesus with any of the first words of the New Testament Gospels. Matthew 1:1 introduces a genealogy that draws a straight line from Jesus back to the Babylonian exile, David, and Abraham. Mark 1:1 plainly states ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ Luke 1:1 is part of Luke’s prologue, in which he states his purpose in writing. John 1:1 contains the densely packed statement ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Jefferson chooses none of these Gospel openings. With his selection of Luke 2:1 as the opening to Life and Morals of Jesus, Jefferson’s critique against political tyranny is subtle, yet recognizable: Jesus is in the middle of a political and economic matter, one in which Caesar ruthlessly declares that all the subjects of his empire should be taxed.

The beginning of Life and Morals of Jesus feeds into the popular opinion that Jefferson is quite happy to take a razor and carve up every single page of the Bible. Whereas miracles performed by Jesus usually suffer this cruel fate, Jefferson demonstrates a high reverence for Jesus’s teachings as is evident in his treatment of Matthew 5:1–7:29. Popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew it occupies a place of prominence as Jesus’s first and longest discourse while also showcasing Jesus’s ethical teachings. Take, for example, ‘whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matthew 5:38) or ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12) Jefferson retains most of the Sermon on the Mount, but there is one notable exception that does not literally make the cut: Matthew 7:21-23. Jefferson likely had a problem with Jesus saying ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ (Matthew 7:22) While verses that deal with demons hit the editing floor, Jefferson’s Sermon on the Mount is actually more expansive than Matthew’s as Jefferson occasionally inserts wise teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

Unsurprisingly, Jefferson has difficulties with the reported events of Jesus’s last days. Matthew ends with the risen and exalted Jesus charging his disciples to teach his commandments, leaving them with the hopeful words: ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ (Matthew 28:20) Luke ends his gospel with three resurrection appearances by an apparently hungry Jesus who ascends to heaven, leaving the disciples with great joy (Luke 24:53). In what critical scholarship recognizes as the longer ending to Mark, Jesus is received in heaven and his disciples continue his work (Mark 16:20). John ends with accounts of the resurrected Jesus with the evangelist adding that Jesus did many other things, but ‘if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.’ (John 21:25) In Life and Morals of Jesus, Jefferson retains none of the endings from the Gospels, and its own end leaves much to be desired: ‘There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.’ In what amounts to a conflation of John 19:42 and Matthew 27:60, Life and Morals of Jesus signs off with the body of Jesus of Nazareth left inside a tomb.

Upon a comparison of Life and Morals of Jesus to the New Testament Gospels, gone are the angels, wise men, miracles, most of the references to Jesus as the Christ, and the resurrection. Some of Jesus’s own words are even left out. What remains is Jesus the enlightened sage and his moral teachings. For many, this cut-and-paste approach to a sacred text is at best haphazard or at worst irreverent—how can anyone pick and choose what texts to keep and what texts to leave on the editing floor?

In truth, what Jefferson does here is not entirely unique. From the time the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John enjoyed wide circulation, careful readers have long observed that at the very least Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a significant amount of the same contents but with subtle differences in the details. To illustrate: almost every nativity scene available for commercial consumption contains the usual cast of characters: baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, barn animals, wise men, and shepherds. The inspiration for this nativity scene comes from the Gospels. In Matthew 1:11, wise men from the East arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to baby Jesus. Sticking to Matthew, no one else arrives, which is slightly curious as shepherds are commonly part of the nativity scene. Matthew, however, makes no mention of shepherds; instead, the shepherds are in Luke 2:16 and Luke lacks anything about wise men arriving from the east. We could turn to Mark and John, but there is nothing about Jesus’s birth in either Gospel. The nativity scene is a conflation of two reports of the baby Jesus: the wise men from Matthew and the shepherds from Luke.

Discrepancies between the Gospels such as the one described above are often explained away through harmonization, but other discrepancies are more difficult to resolve. When Jesus is put on trial, according to Matthew he is given a scarlet robe to wear (Matthew 27:28, 31). There is nothing wrong with a scarlet robe as it mimics a Roman soldier’s cape. Yet when Jesus is on trial in Mark and John, he is adorned with a purple robe (Mark 15:17, 20 and John 19:2, 5). Here as well, there is nothing wrong with a purple robe, as purple symbolizes royalty. But when Matthew, Mark, and John (Luke is unhelpful on this front) are read side-by-side, what color was Jesus’s robe—scarlet or purple? Based on a literal reading of the texts, it remains somewhat difficult to harmonize the descriptions of Jesus’s garment as either ‘scarlet’ or ‘purple.’

Some readers may not see a problem in either case, insisting that one gospel has some of the details and another gospel contains additional details, and it is only until the gospels are read together when a full picture evolves. Jefferson employs this tactic in his treatment of the Sermon of the Mount, by taking most of Matthew 5–7 as his base text and inserting portions of Luke. Such a solution may also be invoked in the case of Jesus’s robe, but it requires injecting something that is beyond the text; here, perhaps a garment that is a muddy scarlet-purple mixture.

In spite of his idiosyncrasies, Jefferson was not the first to present an abridgement of the New Testament Gospels, and Life and Morals of Jesus locates Jefferson along a long continuum of readers of the Gospels that stretches back to the earliest Christians. Long preceding Life and Morals of Jesus is the Diatessaron, produced by Tatian, a second century Christian convert. In another gospel harmony that fuses the New Testament Gospels into a single narrative, Tatian begins with ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God,’ the opening words to John. Tatian’s Diatessaron is a faithful compilation as it preserves and collates nearly all of the materials from the canonical gospels in creating a single narrative, one chronologically logical, that covers the beginning of Jesus’s life from the time of creation to his resurrection and ascension. Jefferson did not have access to Tatian’s Diatesseron yet the manner in which Life and Morals of Jesus conflates the four canonical gospels is similar, but the differences in the contents of these two gospel harmonies reflect the hermeneutical lens of their respective compilers.

Jefferson was also not the first to separate Jesus the teacher from Jesus the miracle worker. Likely compiled in the first century (certainly no later than the third century), and among the discovery of texts in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic Christian collection of Jesus’s sayings. In short, Christian Gnosticism is an early Christian movement rooted in the philosophical traditions of the Greco-Roman world that seeks the pursuit of knowledge (Greek gnosis) in order to liberate the spirit from the flesh.

Unlike the New Testament Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative; it is rather a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Some of the sayings contain parallels to well-known episodes in the New Testament, such as ‘Now the sower went out, took a handful of seeds, and scattered them…’ (Gospel of Thomas 9; cf. Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:1-15). Others sound nothing like what the Jesus of the New Testament would say: ‘Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.’ (Gospel of Thomas 7; cf. Plato, Republic 588E-589B, a partial translation into Coptic of which was also discovered at Nag Hammadi) The Gospel of Thomas lacks any mention of the miracles, passion narrative, resurrection, and Jesus as messiah. In the Gospel of Thomas, the point is that Jesus’s secret and cryptic teachings are the keys to eternal life. Jefferson could not have had access to the Gospel of Thomas, yet there is to a certain degree a shared affinity for Jesus’s words as Jefferson sees in Jesus’s teachings the blueprint not for eternal life but for a moral and enlightened life.

While the contents of both Philosophy of Jesus and Life and Morals of Jesus may be scrutinized, but at the very least Jefferson can be commended for the time and energy he devotes to studying the Bible. It is somewhat curious that Jefferson also desires to keep the Bible away from maturing and studious minds; specifically, students at a university. Upon the establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819, Jefferson was heavily involved in designing the curriculum which included ancient and modern languages, pure and applied mathematics, grammar, ethics, law, and government. Notably absent is anything related to the Bible. Instruction in the Bible was offered at Harvard College and Yale College as it aligned with their religious ties and primary mission to instruct future clergy. The absence of the Bible in the initial curriculum of the University of Virginia can be informed by Jefferson’s views on the place of religion in the private sphere and its unsuitability to an institution devoted to the betterment of the commonwealth.

If Jefferson could draw up the curriculum for a later time, then perhaps he would have included the Bible. The humanistic study of Jesus of Nazareth postdates Jefferson as it is the product of the academic Bible that sprang out of the research university in 18th century Germany. Today, in both private and public institutions across the United States, a student can pursue the academic study of the Bible through the tools of classical languages, philology, archaeology, and comparative religions.

A famous example of the academically-constructed Jesus comes in the form of the Jesus Seminar. Formed in 1985, the Jesus Seminar was an American initiative to liberate Jesus from orthodoxy, creeds, and mythologies. Members of the Jesus Seminar voted to determine what precisely the historical Jesus said in the New Testament and many of the members doubted that the historical Jesus said much, if anything at all, of the words that are printed in red ink in some of today’s Bibles. In one of their published volumes, Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, dedicated The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (HarperCollins, reprint 1996) to Thomas Jefferson.

The dedication is somewhat appropriate. Both Jefferson and members of the Jesus Seminar shared an appreciation for the serious study of the Bible and sought to retrieve the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But whereas the Jesus Seminar published their findings, Jefferson produced both Philosophy of Jesus and Life and Morals of Jesus for his own private study, and there is little to suggest that Life and Morals of Jesus was intended for the public consumption. Jefferson made this work known to no more than a handful of friends and never allowed its publication. Decades after Jefferson’s death in 1826, the Smithsonian Institute purchased Life and Morals of Jesus from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter in 1895, and in 1904 the Government Printing Office distributed copies to both chambers of Congress, a practice it would continue for another fifty years. In light of Jefferson’s unintended publication of Life and Morals of Jesus, it is fair to say that we should not even have access to Jefferson’s image of Jesus. Any reading of Life and Morals of Jesus should have this facet in mind. Ultimately, Jefferson’s Jesus is the product of a private and personal quest for Jesus of Nazareth, and for Jefferson this quest leads to the idealized self: an enlightened being who demonstrates maturity, sound reason, and outstanding morals whose very own words can be used to anchor a free society.

Many of Jefferson’s critics, even his admirers, continue to express disapproval with his treatment of the absolute claims of Jesus contained in the Gospels, and Jefferson’s Jesus is clearly far from the only one engrained in the American psyche. There is, however, very little to suggest that Jefferson would have been bothered by the production of countless images of Jesus in American literature, art, and film. None of these images would have picked his pocket or broken his leg and the very existence of these images confirms and even vindicates Jefferson on his views on the place of religion in a free society.



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