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In 1804, Thomas Jefferson performed an act, which most people, in particular believers, would consider audacious or rather profane. He meticulously cut up the Bible and picked up the pieces with content he believed in and glued them on to a sheet of blank pages. He edited a book, which the world considered the word of God.
While the work was arguably disrespectful, to him it was simple. Likewise, in 1820, he bought six Bibles and used them to generate a revised version of the New Testament in French, Latin, Greek, and English. He successfully maimed the King James Version to generate “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.
In this new edition, he kept some teachings of Christ, His actions, and left out any unnatural occurrences and assertions that He (Jesus) was Christ. The narrations of Jesus feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, and/or healing leprosy among others were removed. His version of the Gospel ended with Christ’s death. The goal of Jefferson was to identify the true teachings of Jesus Christ.
While his initial works in 1804 disappeared, the later version still exists. The ensuing discussion examines the extent to which Jefferson fulfilled his aim of finding the true teachings of Jesus in his construction of “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.
How Jefferson Understood Christ
According to Carlson, Jefferson is viewed as one of the most brilliant and liberal minds in the United States (19). As the founding father, his controversial religious notions have always puzzled most Americans in the religionist nation. In fact, if he decided to run for a presidential position today, he would not win since his religious conceptions would conflict most Americans from both political wings (Carlson 19).
Jefferson was brought up as an Anglican devotee. He tutored in Anglican schools. He was always mentally inquisitive and opted to make individual decisions on issues of religion. The theories of scholars of ‘The Enlightenment’ had highly influenced his thinking such that he derided unnatural accounts in the Bible. However, he assumed that a supreme being controlled nature. He spent most of his years examining religion. Often, his opinions changed.
However, he constantly orated that the state should encourage religious freedom and tolerance. His call for religious liberty influenced his opponents to accuse him of being an atheist. As a result, Jefferson delved in determining the true teachings of Christ. He shared his faith with the public. When he eventually prepared “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”, the work portrayed a shaky theorist (Zastoupil 399).
According to Jefferson, Jesus was a transcendent teacher who offered benevolent lessons of morality that humanity should uphold. He encouraged his listeners to adopt the unsophisticated teachings of Christ. It is for this reason that he removed every atypical event that had been connected to Jesus such that only his precepts were left (Clough 38).
Conversely, his ungodly nature was pervasive. He referred to authors of the New Testament as ill-informed individuals who based their writings on fictions. He even tagged Apostle Paul, the author of several epistles in the Bible, a ‘corrupter’ of Jesus guidelines. Furthermore, he claimed that the trinity was a mere abracadabra of deceivers claiming to be Christ. His construction of Christ only shows an individual who sought to get half-truths (Holowchak 49).
Jefferson reflected Christ as an exceptional teacher of ethics and morals and not the son of God. He was opposed to teachings that sought to prove the divinity of Christ. Instead, he depicted him as a humble man who did not prioritize riches or worldly honors. According to Jefferson, Jesus’ ethical teachings were universal and applicable to all people without considering their race or social class (Carlson 20).
This situation made Jesus a teacher who was very outstanding in Jefferson’s eyes. He took Jesus to be a man born in an illegitimate way. To him, Jesus turned out to be compassionate and wise, although He was sentenced to death for sedition. He did not reject the value of Christianity or the existence of Christ at any time. However, Jefferson failed to agree with specific portions of the doctrine, although he proclaimed that he was a real Christian, meaning that he was a follower of the teachings of Christ pertaining to ethical standards and morality (Holowchak 49).
According to Sullivan, the instructions of Jesus are spread out through the Gospels (26). They were not only found in the sermons but also through the performing of miracles. However, such sections of the Gospel were eliminated from his collection of Jesus’ teachings. This situation created a vacuum in the teachings that Jefferson followed. Additionally, the teachings that Jefferson took to be about Jesus were recorded by the same writers who documented the miracles.
According to him, society can be run purely by setting and upholding moral and ethical standards without the need for supernatural beliefs and religious doctrines (Zastoupil 399). He asserted that a society would exist most effectively when moral codes are set up based on what all religions agree to and/or all that they differ with without following any particular religion.
In relation to the teachings of Jesus, his belief about the preeminence of morality led him to edit the Bible by cropping out the doctrines and all supernatural aspects while leaving only the ethical and moral teachings. The contradiction arises concerning why he would consent to some of the concepts that he could use to declare Jesus the greatest universal teacher of morals, yet profusely reject the remaining portion by claiming that it is not true. In fact, Jefferson left out teachings that were also relevant among the teachings of Jesus.
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Additionally, according to the Bible, Jesus is the son of God (Gish and Klinghard 103). Even the Old Testament is a preparation of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, his account of rejecting the divinity of Jesus discredits his whole philosophy around Jesus as a teacher. It is not practical that he would accept accounts given by a writer and publicize them to be true teachings, yet utterly reject records in the same book by the same writer on grounds of falsity.
Therefore, one can question his authorities concerning the parts of the Gospels that are true and/or ones, which are false. His account of Jesus as purely the teacher of ethics is far detached from the idea that is propagated by the Bible. Therefore, it is unacceptable for him to use the same Bible to support his philosophy. The divide that Jefferson clearly creates appears between religion and morality. His philosophy discredits Jesus as the son of God and the pillar of the Christian faith. Therefore, it is impossible for the true teachings of Jesus to be understood by one who rejected the person of Jesus.
In his construction of the “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”, he contradicts himself. He uses an Opacity Thesis approach to extract what he perceives as important while leaving out what he considers meretricious trappings. While the technique could have helped him to extract what is important, it is contradictory after considering the time span he takes to isolate the important writing from the insignificant ones (Gish and Klinghard 103).
Furthermore, since the teachings can only be understood through the account of the evangelists of the Gospel, it is tenuous for Jefferson to criticize their writing claiming that they are full of lies and then proceed to extract some information, which he believes to be true. He also uses the concept of unnaturalness thesis (UT) to detach sections that are inconsistent with the laws of physical nature.
Considering that Jefferson publicly alluded that he believed in the existence of a deity implies that he believed in unnatural happenings. Although he had been influenced by the teachings of theorists of the age of Enlightenment, his belief in the existence of a supreme being contradicts his position (Sullivan 26).
The Bible notes that Christ is part of the Trinity. Consequently, the teachings of Christ were intertwined with the purpose of God to humanity. Christ preached about the truth, way, and life, which in itself leads to the Trinity. Hence, all accounts in the New Testament are interconnected to meet the given objective of Trinity.
Extraction of some portions of the Gospel in attempt to derive the true teachings of morality will only result in serious errors. Therefore, a teaching may be considered ethical if it leads to the way, truth, and life, and hence the Trinity. Conversely, in his extraction, Jefferson ignores the Trinity, thus contradicting the actual purpose of the teachings (Clough 38).
Commentators such as Clough assert that one of the methodologies that Jefferson used was of Redundancy Thesis (RT) whereby events that have been repeated in other books are extracted (38). Through an analysis of Jefferson’s bible, it is apparent that the elimination of passages was not based on redundancy.
Rather, it was done to ensure the flow of story as illustrated by tribute, marriage, resurrection, and proper transition. Prioritizing redundancy and transition leads to the extraction of the wrong information. The Gospel books were written by different inspired individual authors and in different timelines. Thus, extracting their accounts to develop a single book would be erroneous.
Another tantalizing issue is the close relationships that Jefferson made with individuals who did not believe in Christ. If he believed in Christ, then he could have encouraged his friends to follow his teachings. For instance, Jefferson was a close ally of Tomas Paine who was a renowned satanic follower. He also wrote widely that only logics, but not belief, could disclose the true religion. Such assertions only prove that he had not found the true teachings of Christ, despite the desire to know Jesus (Holowchak 49).
Much has been said about Jefferson’s understanding of Christ. He has received support among populations who believe in individualism and religious tolerance. Conversely, a majority of critics argue that he provides a misleading account on the teachings of Christ. He uses the same information of evangelists whom he claims are ignorant in narrating the teachings of Jesus.
The teachings of Christ cannot entirely be viewed as intended to promote morality in the society without considering their primary purpose when it comes to addressing the truth, way, and life. Jefferson’s comprehension of Christ is subjective since he chooses to extract only what pleases him without the fact that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God.
Carlson, Peter. “The Bible According Thomas Jefferson.” Humanist 72.2(2012): 19-23. Print.
Clough, Wayne. “Jefferson’s Bible.” Smithsonian 42.6(2011): 38-38. Print.
Gish, Dustin, and Daniel Klinghard. “Redeeming Adam’s Curse: The Bible and Enlightenment Science in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.” Perspectives on Political Science 42.2 (2013): 103-110. Print.
Holowchak, Andrew. “The Fear, Honor, and Love of God: Thomas Jefferson on Jews, Philosophers, and Jesus.” Forum Philosophicum: International Journal of Philosophy 18.1(2013): 49-71. Print.
Sullivan, Andrew. “The Forgotten Jesus.” Newsweek 159.15(2012): 26-31. Print.
Zastoupil, Lynn. “Notorious and Convicted Mutilators: Rammohun Roy, Thomas Jefferson, and the Bible.” Journal of World History 20.3(2009): 399-434. Print.