Nick Spencer in Prospect Magazine:
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson, aged nearly 80 and living in comfortable retirement at Monticello, took a scalpel to his Bible. Jefferson had endured a bruising presidential campaign in 1800 in which it was alleged he was an atheist who would turn America into a “nation of atheists.” The choice, electors were told, was between “God and a religious president, or Jefferson and no god.” Under Jefferson, one preacher warned, “murder, robbery, rape… will be openly taught and practised [and] the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed.” American politics was dirty back then.
Jefferson won the election, and the next, but never shook off his reputation for godlessness. His biblical carve-up was not, however, an act of sacrilege or retribution for decades of smearing by the devout. Arguably, it was an undertaking of genuine and painstaking respect. His plan was to excise all references to incarnation, miracles and resurrection from the gospels. These were, he believed, nothing but the residue of a primitive and superstitious culture. In their place he would preserve only Jesus’s ethical teachings, “a system,” wrote Jefferson, “of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.”
During the summer of 1820, he produced a slim document, about 84 pages, comprising around a thousand verses, which, as he saw it, rescued Jesus’s ethical gold from its supernatural dross. He eventually consented to have an outline printed without his name attached. The full document, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth but came to be known as the Jefferson Bible, only came to light in the 1890s. It is the subject of Peter Manseau’s fine “biography,” the latest in Princeton University Press’s excellent series on the Lives of Great Religious Books.
The search for the purely “ethical Jesus” is probably as old as Christianity itself.