The Jefferson Bible
by Thomas Jefferson, Introduced by Percival Everett
Who’d have thunk it? Thomas Jefferson re-wrote the Bible! Or at least the Four Gospels. Jefferson, a contemporary and disciple of Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as a closet agnostic, decided to edit the four books of Jesus’ life, removing all the mysticism and miracles, and leaving just the Rules for a Good Life. The result? Interesting as an exercise, but a failure as either a religious document or a handbook for society. In some introductory words, he compares the writing of the Romans and other ancients, and decided that the biblical in injunctions to love your enemies and turn the other cheek were far superior to the other theories, which amounted to be nice to your friends and be a hard ass to the rest of the world.
The result is an odd work, reflecting the mores of the early church, yet stripping them of any overwhelming motivations. If you have read the Bible, Jefferson’s rearrangements are disconcerting, with famous passages missing, and no mention of eternity or redemption, and sin reduced from a mortal challenge to God’s power, to a mere social slight of your fellow man.
As in the other Akashic “US Presidents Series”, there is an extended and histrionic preface, this time by Percival Everett, cast in the form of an imaginary conversation between himself and Mr. J. It explores the ambivalent relation between Jefferson and slavery, as well as his possible relations with a black female slave, Sally Hemmings. The conversation reflects poorly on our 3rd president, and largely serves to point up that like so many of us, Jefferson did not necessarily live up to all the ideals he promulgated. With the paradigm of sin and forgiveness Christianity provides, he becomes a sinner in need of forgiveness. In his own edited version of the Bible, he is a rude and heartless hypocrite, deserving only our derision. That’s revisionism – you can make the past whatever you desire, and the people you revise have no defense.
I have trouble recommending this booklet as a moral guide, it is far out of tune with today’s secular standards of behavior, and it offers no spiritual hope on any level. At best, it’s an interesting view of a rich man’s hobby, and a peek into Jefferson’s private beliefs. At worst, it’s a dry polemic from two authors 200 years separated, and none too friendly to the other or the reader.