Sitting in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, is an English New Testament with section after section surgically removed. It resembles an old magazine once your kids have had a go at it for their school collage. This “Bible” originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the American republic, the third president of the United States, and, most importantly to my musical-loving children, the nemesis of Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson went ahead and did what for so many of us is a passing thought. There are bits of the Bible I prefer. And there are bits I do not. To quote the man himself, why not extract the “diamonds from the dunghills”? Jefferson carefully constructed his own remix of Jesus’s greatest hits, cutting and pasting around 1,000 verses onto blank sheets of paper. The resulting “book” he came to call The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, but it is now more popularly known as The Jefferson Bible.
Jefferson’s Jesus is nothing if not a “beautiful mind”, according to the Atlantic’s James Parker. He attacks hypocrisy, enjoins love of neighbour, and warns against the deceitfulness of wealth. Such wisdom is timeless because it is always timely. He’s part Socrates, part Yoda, and part Brené Brown.
But Jefferson’s Bible is conspicuous because it absents the miraculous. That’s why scissors and paste were necessary. Drawing deeply upon the Enlightenment tradition, there is no virgin birth, no healings of a leper, no restorations of sight. The Life and Morals ends, not with a resurrection, but with a startling final sentence: “There laid they Jesus, and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”
Jefferson is by no means alone. At the turn of the twentieth century, Leo Tolstoy published The Gospel in Brief. In the 1970s, John-Michael Tebelak wrote the musical Godspell, which, like Jefferson’s Bible, deletes the miraculous and ends in death. And most recently, the philosopher Julian Baggini has produced The Godless Gospel, which goes even further by removing nearly every reference to God.
The common denominator to each of these is that the events of Easter are marginal to the story of Jesus. The death of Jesus is, at worst, a tragic ending; at best, it is a noble death. And the resurrection? It is like your appendix — a vestigial organ which can be excised without anyone noticing much.
For Jefferson and those who’ve followed after him, the attraction of Jesus is his bracing moral clarity. But as you read these remixed gospels, the overwhelming impression is how relentlessly demanding Jesus is. Let’s be honest: the man expects a lot. He has standards that would seem to crush us lesser mortals. Turn the other cheek? Love my enemies? Eliminate all lust and hate from my heart? It’s one thing to aspire to be your best self, but what if you already know your best falls way short? The Jesus of Jefferson is inspiring, but he’s also merciless. If Jesus is merely a teacher of high morals, he’s a very hard taskmaster.
How was it that the historical Jesus could be so morally rigorous and yet prove so attractive to people who knew themselves to be broken? We know from both the Gospels and the history of the early Christian church that many who followed Jesus were hardly the crème de la crème. Thieves and conmen who knew they were guilty, marginalised women who had been shamed and shunned; a vast multitude of men and women whose failures and insufficiencies were blindingly obvious. It was not just a “sublime morality” that captured their vision. Something real and tangible gave them hope that their past did not disqualify them and their future could be radically different.
The Jesus of Jefferson is inspiring, but he’s also merciless.
The Jesus of the Gospels, the one who does extraordinary deeds, does not come across as a tent-preacher huckster trying to give people a show. When he offers physical healing or forgiveness, the common thread is divine compassion. The marginal, the vulnerable, the defeated saw someone who welcomed the outcast, practised hospitality to the stranger, someone who could heal their broken bodies and lives, and grant God’s forgiveness for their crushing failures.
Scholars who study Jesus mostly agree: it is difficult, on historical grounds, to separate Jesus the teacher from Jesus the miracle worker. In other words, there is little to no historical basis to justify Jefferson’s, or Baggini’s, project of eliminating the supernatural bits as if they were added later. Jesus is always remembered as doing remarkable things, not just saying remarkable things. No, their objection is philosophical — there is no personal God, there is no possibility of miracle, and there is no life after death. Therefore, Jesus must be amended.
In Jefferson’s case, the resulting portrait is a Jesus who speaks to the elite needs of an enlightened political leader. But for a great many of us, who know too well our flaws, and who often feel hopeless in the face of life and death, the unedited story of the Gospels has far more the ring of truth.
Dr Mark Stephens is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.