In an earlier post on this same topic, I laid out how Thomas Jefferson was a Christian of a particularly American über-Protestant sort, an ill-disciplined individualist. In this post I would like to address a narrower question: what did Jefferson make of Jesus? Who was the Jesus of Jefferson?
What I would like to persuade you of is that the Jesus of Jefferson is the Jesus on trial before Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod: the Jesus of whom it is said he is the son of God, King of the Jews, and worker of miracles, and who denies none of this but asks in response: “who do you think I am?”
My principal evidence for this is not short passages selected from letters, as is usually used in cases like this, but rather Jefferson’s two Bible compilations. The first point I would like to make, because it seems so poorly understood, is that Jefferson made two compilations, not one: the Philosophy of Jesus in ~1804, and the Life and Morals of Jesus in ~1820. Conflating these two is the root of much confusion, on both sides of the Christian Nation dispute.
Of the first compilation (PoJ), all we have remaining are the few pages written in Jefferson’s own hand (title page, contents and index) and the remnant bibles from which the extracted verses had been cut (part of Joshua Cohen’s collection). The actual pages containing the Bible verses selected, in the order laid out in the table of contents, have not survived, and it is even possible that they were never completed. In a letter of Jefferson’s to Priestley, 29 Jan 1804, he acknowledges having started the project, but whereas he understands that Priestley must have done the same in preparation for his comparison of Jesus to the ancient philosophers, he rejoices that “I shall now get the thing done by better hands”. I could easily see Jefferson abandoning the final assembly, if he expected a better version of the same to be published by Priestley (it never was). But he clearly did all the scholarship; choosing passages, order of presentation, and even writing out the title page, contents, and index. The intellectual die had been cast. All this said, in Jefferson’s letter to Charles Thomson of 9 January 1816 he claims to have completed PoJ; I am willing to believe that Jefferson might misstate such things rather than explain that he accomplished 90% of the task but then abandoned it, not that it matters.
The second compilation (LaM) has passed down to us complete and bound, a harmony of the gospels in four languages (English, French, Latin, and Greek) in parallel columns. Of this it is generally said (I paraphrase from many sources) that Jefferson cut out all the miraculous elements to reveal the underlying code of morals, and that this amounts to antipathy to hypocrisy, affirmation of the Golden Rule, pacifism (turn the other cheek), admonition not to judge nor bear grudges, exhortation to modesty, etc.
This is all true, of course, in a narrow sense: Jesus does, in fact, teach these things. But this is not really what you get out of LaM; this is not the teaching of the Jesus of Jefferson (JoJ), this is distortion of JoJ by secular cherry-picking. But before diving into the teachings of JoJ, let me defend the difference between the two compilations.
The first compilation claims, on its title page, to be for the benefit of the Indians, and I see no reason to doubt this (later Jefferson would claim, in some of his letters, that PoJ was for his own use, but that might just be the rationalization of Jefferson after he decided not to go forward with publishing PoJ). The timing would fit the Indians as the intended audience, too: Jefferson’s famous treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians (in which he committed US government funds to finance evangelism) was signed in December of 1803, within months of the likely preparation of PoJ. The second compilation has no similar statement of purpose, but the preparation in four languages is fairly conclusive: how many people did Jefferson know (apart from himself) who could make use of a quadrilingual harmony of the gospels? I think it’s fairly clear that LaM was for Jefferson’s personal use. If this is so, then PoJ gives us Jefferson’s view of the civic religion (what Indians should learn to join the American polity), while LaM tells us something of Jefferson’s own religious views.
This distinction is borne out by the editorial differences between the two compilations: PoJ is in English, LaM is quadrilingual; PoJ has narrative unity, LaM has redundant presentation of the same material from each of the synoptics; PoJ contains explicit claims by Jesus to be the Son of Man, LaM poses the question of Jesus’ nature but does not put the answer on Jesus’ lips, in PoJ Jesus directs his disciples to perform miracles for the benefit of the people, in LaM all references to miracles are ancillary, etc.
But if LaM is for Jefferson’s purposes, what are those purposes? I submit that even a cursory examination of the text reveals that it is not a system of morals, despite Jefferson’s claims in his various letters that this would be what you got if you cleansed the gospels of all extraneous elements. Jefferson never intended to publish his Bible(s), and so he was free to bend the truth as to what was actually in them. Adler’s introduction to the US government edition of LaM mentions that even Jefferson’s family did not know of the existence of the Bible(s) until after his death, upon which they learned that he studied it/them nightly. If this is true (and I have no reason to think otherwise), then Jefferson would have spent more intellectual energy wrestling with the question of Jesus than with any other intellectual project in his life, including Monticello or the Declaration of Independence.
But to what end? Examination of the text convinces me that the answer is to be found in Jefferson’s advice given to Peter Carr, his ward and de facto son (excerpted at length in my previous post): Jefferson wants to determine the authority of Jesus from internal evidence of his teaching, rather than from his claims to authority or his signs as evidence of authority. If Jesus is who he is said to be (who he said he was), then his teaching should, in its wisdom and sublimity, be convincing enough; the clergy may need miracles to drive home the point that Jesus teaches with authority, but the enlightened man of intellect can, like the audiences of Mt. 7:28-29 (LaM 3:63-64) and Mk 1:22 (LaM 1:48), detect the authoritative message on its face.
To this end, Jefferson prepared LaM, a compilation without distractions like the genealogy of Jesus (present in PoJ), and without any miracles as rhetorical devices for establishing Jesus’ authority, but admitting otherwise that Jesus performed miracles, e.g. the matter-of-fact discussion of whether Jesus violated the Sabbath by performing a healing (Jn 7:21-23, LaM 7:57-59), and Herod’s sincere hope of witnessing a miracle (Lk 23:8, LaM 16:61). Jefferson wasn’t a skeptic out to “naturalize” or “rationalize” Jesus, he was just a sincere inquirer seeking to look past the shallow arguments of the sort that “Jesus performed miracles, so what he said must be true” to find deeper evidence of Jesus’ authority. Focusing on internal evidence is the point of the quadrilingual presentation, and of the inclusion of redundant versions of stories and parables presented in multiple synoptic gospels: Jefferson was engaged in what we today would call textual criticism, and for this he needed the benefit of the original Greek and the best opinions of multiple learned translators, and he was willing to sacrifice narrative unity in the process.
When reading LaM (available here) it is good to keep in mind the following question: “where is the diamond in this passage?” For in Jefferson’s famous phrase, he is in the business of pulling diamonds from a dung-hill. Each passage selected for LaM has passed the “diamond test”; it is relevant for understanding the true teaching of Jesus as Jefferson understood it. Thus, each passage tells us not only about Jesus but also about Jefferson. So what passes the diamond test? What does JoJ teach?
First, as to the question of Jesus himself: with Jefferson editing away the resurrection, LaM ends on a cliffhanger, as it were, with the unanswered but all-important questions. Caiaphas asks Jesus whether he is the Christ, and the elders ask whether he is the Son of God; Jesus answers that he could just as well ask the question of Caiaphas, and that the elders say so (Lk 22:67-70, LaM 16:40-43). Pilate asks whether Jesus is King of the Jews, and Jesus acknowledges a kingdom, but not of this world (Jn 18:33-36, LaM 16:51-54). In the lead-in to this finale, Jesus makes a specific claim of salvation, and implies he is the Son of Man (Lk 19:9-10, LaM 11:51-52); cryptically claims to be the Son of Man who is to be glorified, and whose death will bring life to others (Jn 12:20-24, LaM 12:9-13); and gives a parable in which his role is that of the Son of God, about to be killed (Mk 12:1-9, LaM 12:26-36).
In myriad other passages, JoJ suggests that there is something special about himself, e.g. LaM 10:63-67 (Lk 10:38-42, Mary and Martha), LaM 15:3-8 (Mk 14:3-8, anointment and preparation for death, “ye have the poor with you always”), LaM 8:20-24 (Jn 10:11-14,16, the Good Shepherd), LaM 2:20 (Mt 5:17, Jesus to fulfill prophecy), LaM 4:3-5 (Mt 11:28-30, “Take my yoke upon you”), LaM 4:7-13 (Lk 7:37-43, Jesus’ forgiveness saves a sinner), LaM 6:12 (Lk 5:32, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”), LaM 6:17 (Mt 13:54, “these mighty works”), LaM 7:40-46 (Jn 7:2-8 “my time is not yet come”), LaM 12:2-3 (Mt 21:2-3, authority to take).
JoJ also suggests that there is something special about his disciples, e.g. LaM 2:11-12 (Mt 5:11-12, it is good to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake), LaM 6:28-31 and 7:33-39 (Mt 10:12-16 and Lk 10:5-8,10-12, rejection of Jesus’ disciples is worse than Sodom), and about his time (Lk 12:56, LaM 4:67).
As for morality, JoJ teaches that to reach the Kingdom of God, Jesus must be followed without compromise (LaM 6:1-6, Lk 9:57-62, also LaM 9:19, Lk 14:20, and LaM 11:21, Mt 19:21); that God has elected the saved, and the sign of election is faith (LaM 10:55-56, Lk 18:7-8); the saved are chosen (LaM 12:51, Mt 22:14); we are saved by receiving the word (LaM 5:33-38, Mt 13:18-23); we are all evil (LaM 3:46, Mt 7:11) and cannot save ourselves (LaM 11:25-26, Mt 19:25-26); God’s justice is unfair and we must abase ourselves before God (LaM 11:35-40, Mt 20:9-14, LaM 9:57-60, Lk 15:29-32, LaM 7:8-9, Mt 18:12-13, LaM 9:35, Lk 15:7); the standard of righteousness is impractically high (LaM 2:23, Mt 5:20); it is not enough to obey as commanded, we must also serve (LaM 10:34-37, Lk 17:7-10); we must put our relationship with God first, and our relations to other people subordinate (LaM 8: 25-28, Lk 10:25-28, LaM 12:71-77, Mk 12:28-33 & Mt 22:40); it is God, rather than our victims, whose forgiveness cancels our sin, if only we forgive others (LaM 8:41, Lk 11:4, LaM 3:12, Mt 6:12, LaM 7:16-28, Mt 18:23-35, LaM 10:61-62, Lk 18:13-14) – note also the suggestive connection between God’s forgiveness here and Jesus’ forgiveness mentioned above.
So where does this leave us?
None of this proves that Jefferson ultimately believed any specific doctrine about Jesus, but it definitely shows that the Jesus whose teachings Jefferson so diligently studied was no Deist, and taught no naturalist or rationalist religion. This was Christianity with a fig leaf covering the most blatant claims to deity of Jesus, but with the question placed unavoidably in front of the reader. There is no way to study LaM in detail and not confront the challenge of determining who, or what, Jesus ultimately was.
This, of course, is entirely in keeping with Jefferson’s advice to Peter Carr (mentioned and linked above), where Jefferson insisted that forming an opinion about Jesus is one of the things that each of us must do. Jefferson is, in that sense, perfectly in keeping with my description of him as an extreme American protestant: tradition and the learned clergy are out the window, and each man is left alone to confront Jesus through scripture. Each of us can interpret scripture differently, but the one choice we must not make is to ignore Jesus, for the last thing we want is for him to ignore us.
To the criticism that I am reading too much into details here, I would reply that on the contrary, I have only scratched the surface of what must be read in much greater detail still. Jefferson laid out his quadrilingual parallel synoptically redundant harmony precisely in order to support pursuit of the slightest nuance in meaning of each and every word or verse. To do justice to LaM would require years of detailed study, which is precisely what Jefferson gave it, in keeping with American bibliocentric protestantism.