Monday, April 13, 2009

Frazer & Miettinen on the Jefferson Bible(s)

My co-blogger at American Creation, Kristo Miettinen, has a very interesting post that examines Thomas Jefferson's Bible...well actually his TWO Bibles -- "the Philosophy of Jesus in ~1804, and the Life and Morals of Jesus in ~1820." Miettinen's close reading and analysis of Jefferson's understanding of "right" or "reasonable" revelation is worth a read given that most folks who know of Jefferson's Bible(s) only know that Jefferson cut up his Bible, but don't bother to read which parts Jefferson "edited," and which parts he left in. Certainly few folks have closely analyzed what was left as Miettinen and Frazer have.

With that, I'm reproducing Dr. Frazer's response to Miettinen below:

It is appropriate (and necessary) especially on Good Friday to point out three problems with Kristo's claim that "Life and Morals" suggests that Jefferson was some kind of Christian or even leaves room for such a conclusion.

First, the presence/absence of miracles is not the key issue. Some of the theistic rationalists believed it was rational that a supremely powerful God Who cared for His creation would use miracles to aid man. Besides, belief in miracles per se is not fundamental to Christian faith.

Second, in "Life and Morals," Jefferson cut out the verses in which Jesus specifically and clearly claimed to be God -- and the Jews picked up stones to execute Him for His blasphemy (John 8:58; John 10:30). If Jefferson were honestly wrestling with the true identity of Jesus and wanting others to do the same -- wouldn't such evidence be important???

Third, any account of the Gospels which cuts out the resurrection guts the core of Christianity. It's not just "another" passage or story which can be left out. Paul put it about as plainly as it could be put: "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED, THEN OUR PREACHING IS IN VAIN, YOUR FAITH ALSO IS VAIN. ... IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED, YOUR FAITH IS WORTHLESS; YOU ARE STILL IN YOUR SINS. ... IF WE HAVE HOPED IN CHRIST IN THIS LIFE ONLY, WE ARE OF ALL MEN MOST TO BE PITIED." [I Corinthians 15:13-19]

Jefferson some kind of Christian and "Life and Morals" an honest, soul-searching attempt to find the real Jesus and to understand Christianity? I don't think so.

As a Christian, I understand that my faith stands or falls on the validity of Christ's literal, bodily resurrection. Although I exult in it always, I will celebrate that reality with a special focus this weekend.


Tom Van Dyke said...

As a Christian, I understand that my faith stands or falls on the validity of Christ's literal, bodily resurrection.Hmmmm. I meself admit I ain't gave it much thought. I guess, like Ben Franklin, I'm going to hell, if there is one.

Dang. That sucks.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi JonGregg (the fused person strikes again)!

Thanks for elevating this.

As for the presence/absence of miracles not being a key issue in Christian faith, I agree with Gregg.

As for TJ cutting out the explicit divinity claims of Jesus, that was already answered. TJ was looking for internal evidence of Christ's authority, and so was explicitly editing out all rhetorical claims to authority. The claims to be God are in the same league as miracles as rhetorical devices. So, to Frazer's direct question, not only are such claims not important, they are an unwelcome distraction from the task TJ had set himself.

As for the resurrection, that was the mother of all rehetorical miracles. Note that TJ left in Christ's allusions to rising on the third day, he just cut out the narrative of Christ actually doing so. That's because the first were Christ's teaching, but the latter was just a doing.

As for Frazer's claims (that I agree with) about the importance to saving Christian faith of believing certain things, I would only point out that I have been, for the purposes of amateur history but not for the purposes of salvation, advancing a loose idea of what counts as Christianity.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well -- as a non-Christian -- I certainly don't believe Franklin and the other "key Founders" are in Hell or that non-Christians go to Hell.

When I contemplate the Truth of the Christian religion, that's one thing I could NOT believe in. However, I do know Christians -- I think B. Rush was one of them and Jim Babka might be too -- who believe in the Trinity, the Atonement, Resurrection, -- I think once hit those three things you pass the "Christian" test -- and that everyone will eventually make it into Heaven.

Raven said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raven said...

Kristo writes:

As for Frazer's claims (that I agree with) about the importance to saving Christian faith of believing certain things, I would only point out that I have been, for the purposes of amateur history but not for the purposes of salvation, advancing a loose idea of what counts as Christianity.WTF???

Jonathan Rowe said...


You actually hit upon and important question with your WTF?

The dispute between Gregg and Kristo -- indeed something quite important to the televangelists who promote the "Christian America" idea is what is "real Christianity" for saving purposes and how might that differ from "historic Christianity."

Frazer doesn't equate these two in his paper. I'm fairly certain his Church doesn't consider Roman Catholics to be real Christians; but for the purpose of his thesis, they are. There are many likeminded notable historians of Christian theology who see things EXACTLY as Dr. Frazer's in his thesis. Roman Catholicism, capital O Orthodox Christianity and reformed or evangelical Protestantism are all well within the tradition of "historic Christianity," but Trinity denial and some of the more exotic sects like Mormonism are not.

Kristo Miettinen said...


Can you name a "notable historian of Christian theology" who denies that Christian heretics are part of "historic Christianity"?

Arius is an example I've used before: who of note says he's not part of historical Christianity?

Note the distinction I'm making between "Christians in error" and "not even historic Christians".

Kristo Miettinen said...

As a refresher, here's a link to the last time I asked that question:

Jonathan Rowe said...


I am going to compile of list of scholars with high bona fides who see it this way.

Dr. Walter Martin is not really respected by elite colleges, though among conservative American evangelicals, he was an Icon. (That is I would never rest on his authority alone; I'm just invoking him to illustrate.)

I haven't gotten a whole lot of feedback on this debate between Martin and Roy Masters. Masters is a biblical Arian Gnostic; and Martin is pretty clear that for those reasons alone Masters is not a "Christian" and defines him out of "historic Christianity."

I think Masters is relevant in the sense that many of today's UUs, God love 'em, aren't that religious as the Unitarians of the Founding era were. The JWs, Mormons, followers of Roy Masters (the so called "cults") may be (I'm not saying they are, just may be) the rightful heirs to the unorthodox unitarian Protestant "Christianity" of the Founding era. Masters makes many of those older biblical Unitarian arguments, like worshipping Jesus as God violates the First Commandment.

Again it's these kinds of people, evangelicals who follow Walter Martin as a guru on what real Christianity is and read "cults" OUT of the "historic Christian" tradition who then turn to David Barton and his "Christian Nation" reading of history. They are the "imagined community" that Mr. Hart invokes in this paper.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I would expect any orthodox theologian to define anyone else out. That's not history or sociology, though.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm going to do some homework trying to get some big names who agree that non-Trinitarianism is not "historic Christianity."

If I am not mistaken, I THINK I can count Mark Noll in. However, even if I DO answer that question, I'm worried that this is just semantics. That is I'm sure that these same folks would have no problem terming Arianism or Socinianism to be "Christian heresies," that is, even if outside the scope of "historic Christianity," "Christian" may still be an appropriate descriptor or adjective.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Tom, the challenge Jon is trying to meet is not finding a theologian who is willing to exclude non-Nicenes, but a historian of theology.

I doubt Jon will find what he wants in Noll; I've got his book on God in America at home, and I seem to recall Unitarians prominently discussed in the Christian context.

Kristo Miettinen said...

What I would love to see Jon come up with is something like a Latourette, Pelikan, Kung, Wills, or McManners - anyone who has written a comprehensive "history of Christianity" and in it claimed that, e.g., Arius was not Christian, or Unitarians aren't Christian, in the historical sense used by the author to identify his subject matter.

Gregg Frazer said...

So, let me get this straight. When attempting to honestly evaluate who someone is, their own self-identification is irrelevant? If Kristo or Tom or Jon claims to be the eternal, creator God of the universe, I should pay no attention to what that says about them -- but I should pay attention to the moral teachings that they spread?

So, all teachings of everyone should be given equal hearing -- regardless of whether the person is sane or insane or an established liar? Who would seek moral clarity from an insane person or an inveterate liar? Since Jesus claimed to be God, there are only 3 options: Jesus was insane; Jesus was a liar; or Jesus was God. That isn't important to know in evaluating Who He was?

Miracles are "rhetorical devices?" Where do you get that notion? Rhetoric is speech/language and rhetorical devices are language tricks/tactics. Miracles are actions/deeds. Jesus rising from the dead in bodily form is a mere rhetorical device? What other actions are merely rhetorical devices -- and who, besides Kristo, categorizes them as such?

And what the heck is a "rhetorical miracle?" A clever turn-of-a-phrase given by God?

What, exactly, counts as "internal evidence of Christ's authority?" Isn't His authority pretty well established if He claimed to be God and then backed it up by His actions? And if I'm trying to make that determination based on evaluating via my reason what someone taught in direct contradiction to what revelation says -- aren't I elevating reason above revelation?

"Teaching" is, apparently, important but "doing" is not? So we learn more about who someone is by what they say than by what they do?

But, wait a minute, you said the inclusion of Jesus' claims he would rise the third day were due to them being "Christ's teaching" -- but His claims to be God were also "Christ's teaching" -- a critical, central part of "Christ's teaching." So, teaching which doesn't conflict with my predispositions and/or my argument is important? Sounds like honest searching to me.

[By the way, it's important to note that TJ did NOT actually include Jesus' explicit claims that He would rise again the third day. He included Jesus' claims that He would rebuild THE TEMPLE in three days, but cut out all of the passages in which Jesus explicitly makes the three days apply to Himself. e.g. Matt. 12:40; 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34]

What about historical evidence? Eyewitness testimony? Eyewitnesses heard Him claim to be God -- that's why they picked up stones to execute Him and why they eventually had him crucified. Eyewitnesses saw Him raise Lazarus from the dead and, as a result, "believed in Him" (John 11:45).

As for TJ including Jesus' claims that He would rise again the third day -- what's the point of including that? What moral teaching is involved if you're not interested in whether He delivered on His word?

If one is looking for historical evidence, there is more historical evidence for the Resurrection than for most of the events in ancient history -- or modern history, for that matter. More than 500 eyewitnesses (I Corinthians 15:6) saw Jesus after the Resurrection -- more than witnessed the stabbing of Caesar. Maybe Caesar really stumbled and fell on dozens of daggers or maybe he stabbed himself? About four men were eyewitnesses to the death of Alexander -- maybe he's still alive? Priestley believed in the Resurrection despite rejecting almost every other tenet of Christianity because he found the historical evidence overwhelming.

Kristo Miettinen said...


Did you read my posts? Both of them - part 1 and part 2?

If you did, and still have these questions, then my apologies for wasting your time with my incompetent writing.

If not, here are the links:

So, to answer your questions: yes, for TJs purposes, if biographers of Kristo report that he claimed to be the eternal creator God of the universe, you should pay no attention to what that says about Kristo -- but you might want to pay attention to the moral teachings that Kristo spreads. If Kristo is what his biographers say he claimed to be, it should show in the quality of his moral teaching.

But no, the teachings of everyone should not be given equal hearing -- Jesus is special in this respect. His teachings matter, in a way that those of, e.g., Cicero (and Kristo) do not.

I got the notion of miracles as rhetorical devices from TJ. He viewed the *claims* of miracles to be just what you call rhetorical devices -- "language tricks/tactics".

The "internal evidence of Christ's authority" that TJ sought is such wisdom and sublimity as would communicate authority. Once you get the gist of these points I'm trying to make, I think you'll see the rest. I may not give answers to your satisfaction, but you should at least no longer be unaware of what my answers are.

As for the historicity of the resurrection, including its evidentiary basis, I'm with you. I remember studying the Habermas/Flew debate on the topic long ago, and coming away impressed with the kinds of evidence available that I had previously been unaware of. But that has nothing to do with TJ's chosen research topic.

Gregg Frazer said...


I apologize for not re-reading the post in which you explain what you mean by "internal evidence" before submitting my previous comment. I should have done so.

If the "biographers" (who, by the way, lived with Jesus, studied under Him, heard His "teaching" first hand, and who DIED for their belief in His deity) are unreliable sources for His claims to be God -- what makes them reliable sources for the rest of His "teaching?" How can you evaluate the quality of His moral teaching if the sources of that teaching are unreliable?

And who could provide more reliable accounts of what Jesus actually said or didn't say? IF YOUR PURPOSE IS TO HONESTLY EVALUATE THE QUALITY OF TEACHING IN ORDER TO DETERMINE WHO SOMEONE IS, SHOULDN'T YOU INCLUDE ALL OF THE TEACHING WHICH IS EXTANT? WHY ELIMINATE ANY OF WHAT IS IN QUOTES AND ATTRIBUTED TO HIM? His claims to be God are put forward exactly the same as any other of his teachings by the same "biographers." What's the contextual basis for editing out that teaching?

The answer, of course, is that TJ simply decided by an external determiner what counted as authentic, reliable revelation and what didn't. He decided in advance what his reason told him a divine person would say (i.e. things he agreed with) and, when he encountered anything HE didn't like -- he cut it out. Hardly an honest search for truth. And he made that determination by what seemed reasonable to him -- by his own reason.

So, he is not making an honest attempt to understand Who Jesus is -- he has stacked the deck in advance and on the basis of his reason.

And how does one determine what is "wisdom and sublimity?" By one's own reason.

You have pointed us to TJ's letter to Peter Carr. In it, TJ said: "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

And later: "Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision." So EVERY fact, EVERY opinion is judged by reason and God will not hold you accountable for reality and the truth He's revealed -- but only for whether you applied your reason in making up your mind. And the highest homage you can offer God (in contrast to what revelation teaches) is what TJ considered to be the highest value: reason -- not the unquestioning obedience which revelation says God actually demands.

So, miracles are not rhetorical devices according to TJ, CLAIMS of miracles are. That's a critical distinction. Once again, he is casting severe doubt upon the veracity and reliability of his only source for the teachings by which he's supposedly honestly "ruling" on Jesus' identity.

This idea of yours is circular logic. For example: the Gospel record explicitly states that the people were amazed because Jesus taught "as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:29). But did he really do that? The same author who says the people said that also said that Jesus claimed to be God -- and we must reject that because we've decided in advance that that does not mesh with what we think a great teacher would do.

Bottom line: TJ simply wants to validate what he's already determined to be true and to affix the authority of Scripture to his own predispositions.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Gregg!

The biographers are not reliable sources for Christ's teaching - TJ says as much (though he largely blames later editors rather than the original authors). This is the role of reason and the razorblade: to weigh and consider each passage, judging whether it has or has not the ring of the true article, whether it is a diamond in the dung-hill. TJ thought such a project was doable (he described it it just such terms), and LaM was the result.

You could not do this with the teaching of, e.g., Socrates, as corrupted by Plato; for Socrates had no superhuman wisdom or sublimity to distinguish his teaching from Plato's. But when you are working with the ultimate teacher, his lessons are distinguishable from those of his well-meaning followers, based on internal evidence. Whether you or I believe this is immaterial; TJ believed it, picked up his razor, and acted on it.

Given that this is what TJ is doing, all direct divinity claims go out the window, because they are so simple, so direct, and so blunt that they could easily be the product of later editors with lesser minds. They lack the distinguishing mark of the ultimately sublime mind. This is not to say that they are false, but rather to say that their falsity is possible, and TJ was keeping only what was clearly marked from internal evidence as original.

You are on a similar but critically different wavelength when you say "TJ simply decided ... in advance what his reason told him a divine person would say (i.e. things he agreed with)". But I think the proper formulation is this: TJ decided what his reason told him a mundane follower of Jesus could add of his own initiative, and cut that away.

Note some advantages of my formulation: (1) it is a more reasonable task for reason to undertake. Who knows what God would say? But many of us think we can tell what men would say. (2) it should lead to TJ retaining passages with messages that are challenging to TJ, and if you read LaM, it is chock full of such.

Remember, one of my claims, whether valid or not, is that Christianity survived TJs razorblade more or less intact. On your hypothesis, this must mean that TJ chose to include those passages because he belived in all those various Christian teachings (e.g. that Jesus, as a third party, could forgive our sins). On my hypothesis TJ chose to preserve those passages not because he believed them, but because they had the ring of wisdom and sublimity that he didn't think later corrupters, out to teach dogma to the simple-minded, would adopt.

Pinky said...

"As a Christian, I understand that my faith stands or falls on the validity of Christ's literal, bodily resurrection...".
That statement--which is so popular in orthodox circles--takes Jesus out of Christianity and puts the follower under the authority of religious law.
What it does in the context of this blog has to do with how participants view Christianity as a social movement during the Revolutionary Era. It creates an ambiguity that preempts historical understanding and forces us to see those people through the present day perspectives of populist religiosity.
It puts everything up for grabs. How does this add to our ability to discover any truth?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, for one, to admit that the Christianity of the founding era wasn't necessarily "orthodox."

Although that doesn't mean it was necessarily "secular humanism," as Mark Noll wrote, or even necessarily the Enlightenment.

It could be "unorthodox Christianity," or the religious half of the Enlightenment, like Francis Hutcheson, not David Hume or Voltaire, or of the "Christian" John Locke, not the radical one.

Jonathan Rowe said...

A little footnote for Gregg, and any other Christian who believes the weight of the evidence points towards the Bible's claim.

Note, I am not an atheist and have no desire to deconstruct the Truth of anyone's religion. I am somewhat skeptical and agnostic on these issues.

I asked a friend of mine (who is an atheist by the way), a prof. of philosophy at a big state Universy and a Hume scholar, to comment on the eyewitness account argument as advanced by my friend Gregg and he sent me the following:

He needs to read Hume's delightful essay "Of Miracles" in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The basic idea is that when dealing with testimonial evidence for highly unlikely events, one must weight the strength of the testimony against the likelihood that the "witnesses" are deceived or deceiving. (One does not face a similar problem re. the death of Caesar.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course, there's always John Locke's A Discourse of Miracles.

The unbearably brilliant American scientist/logician/philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce also refuted Hume without recourse to faith, but that's beyond the scope of this blog. [The Mormons love Peirce, BTW.]

But I agree, Jon. I think trying to "prove" Jesus' resurrection as objective fact is far too vulnerable to epistemological objections, and valid ones like Hume's. If one can get there by reason, as I'm told Joseph Priestley did, that's good. Otherwise, it must remain in the faith bucket.

Geez, I bet you could find 500 "eyewitnesses" who say they were at Dealey Plaza that day in 1963 and saw Richard Nixon shoot JFK. In fact, I saw it myself. True fact.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well if you saw Watchmen you see it was the Commedian who killed JFK. He later killed Woodward and Bernstein and that lead to -- after a constitutional amendment -- Nixon, like FDR getting reelected until 1986 when the graphic novel takes place.

Oh yeah, a superman like character won the Vietnam War for us as well.

It made for a decent movie, but an outstanding graphic novel. Although I'm not sure if the Commedian killed JFK in the graphic novel (as he did Woodward and Bernstein).

Sorry to get off topic.

Kristo Miettinen said...


I did an in-depth piece on Hume's miracle essay some time ago, though I'll not bore you with that. Instead, I'll direst you to the Flew/Habermas debate that I mentioned earlier on this thread.

It was published in a book titled "Did Jesus Rise From the Dead", or something like that.

Flew, no babe in the woods regarding Hume, tried to advance the Humean position, and couldn't put it all together. Habermas advanced the eyewitness account in very interesting ways.

Habermas won the debate, as scored by a panel of philosophy professors. The event was hosted by Falwell's Liberty University, but the judges were from elsewhere.

Kristo Miettinen said...


Let me present my point from another perspective:

It is my understanding (see the original post if needed) that Jefferson compiled, and nightly studied, LaM for his own benefit.

On your interpretation, why would he do this? If all the truth in LaM was already known by TJ before he picked up his razor, and used by him to guide his razor, then LaM would have been useless to him, being nothing but a summary of things he already firmly knew.

But on my interpretation, TJ was motivated by a belief that there was truth in the bible that exceeded ordinary human reason, including his own; this teaching was discernible not from assent to the truth of its contents but from its prima facie sublimity and wisdom.

On my interpretation, the investment of TJ's time and effort makes sense.

Kristo Miettinen said...

PS Let me tie it all together.

If I were convinced of Frazer's view, I would drop the claim that Jefferson counts as an extreme protestant.

What I have been advancing as the core of unorthodox American protestantism is the iconic status of the bible, the "national" view of its relevance to everything from Masonic rituals to swearing in witnesses and government officials (even the very practice of "swearing in" anybody less than a king, abstracted from any specific text used in the ritual, is a protestant contribution). Of course, the other manifestation of this bibliocentrism is the American proliferation of bible-based sects that have jettisoned traditional clergy-borne teaching, e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses.

This requires, minimally, the elevation of the bible in some non-trivial sense above common human wisdom. The bible is not like the teaching of Locke, only better; the bible is and is expected to remain (on this view) unique, sui generis.

Jefferson, on my interpretation but not Frazer's, falls in the "there's something special about the bible" camp.

Our Founding Truth said...

Kristo:Jefferson, on my interpretation but not Frazer's, falls in the "there's something special about the bible" camp.

I'm more likely to accept Jefferson denied the supernatural, however, that would seem to make him a hypocrite, as you say he left in Jesus' miracles on the sabbath. Put him in the same boat as Franklin. Did Jefferson believe he couldn't believe in violations of reason because of his insufficient mind? Does that have any bearing on his take on the supernatural? The Bible, on every page says "without faith it is impossible to please Him."

How can someone say they are a Christian without faith in what the text says? The text is the only basis for faith.

Gregg Frazer said...

This is really long -- I apologize. I did not intend it, but there was so much to answer and say.

Let me clear up the (unexpected) controversy over my statement that "my faith stands or falls on the validity of Christ's literal, bodily resurrection": I was simply re-stating (personalizing) exactly what Paul said in I Corinthians 15. I was not leaving out Christ or His work or any other aspect of Christianity -- I was not denying the necessity of believing in various doctrines, etc. I was only affirming, as did Paul, that Christianity is meaningless without the Resurrection. It is God's validation of the person and work of Christ. Period.

If one is evaluating the strength of eyewitness testimony honestly, one must take seriously the fact that many DIED for refusing to deny what they saw! What motive did they have for dying an excruciating death for what they knew to be a lie or for what could have been a trick? What is the EVIDENCE for the notion that they were deceived or deceiving? Atheists reject it because of their own bias -- not on the basis of the evidence (as did TJ).

I doubt Tom could find 500 eyewitnesses willing to submit to boiling alive, crucifixion, beheading, devouring by wild animals, etc. who would stick to Tom's JFK example -- including Tom.

Besides, my purpose was not to "prove" the resurrection. My purpose was to demonstrate that TJ had no valid reason for rejecting it out of hand and refusing to include the account of it in his version of the LIFE and Morals of Jesus -- except for his own prejudice.

We're spinning our wheels here, but I'll take one last shot.

I have no doubt that TJ found the morals of Jesus interesting and worthy of study -- I've said that all along. What is not true is that he was honestly trying to determine Who Jesus was by his emasculation and desecration of the biblical texts. He had decided who Jesus was long before (as evidenced by his own testimony in letters to various correspondents).

On my interpretation, TJ's investment of time and effort makes sense, too -- he wanted to influence future generations to believe what he believed. As he said on more than one occasion, he wanted and expected future generations to be unitarians and the supernatural elements of the Bible to be classed with Greek & Roman mythology.

As for TJ believing "there's something special about the Bible" -- give me a break, Kristo! He explicitly denied belief in the Old Testament and explicitly denied the validity of any of the New Testament outside the four Gospels! And with those he chopped up and threw away the most critical parts! Pretty special!

Respect for "the Bible" hardly qualifies as Christianity, either. Jews acknowledge far more of it than did TJ -- 39 of the 66 books (60%). Are you suggesting they are Christians?

Your contention, as I understand it, is that TJ wrote the Life and Morals for his own benefit as an honest effort to determine Who Jesus was based exclusively on the "internal evidence" revealed in His teaching.

The evidence does not support such a view. I re-read the letters TJ wrote to various people about this project to see what he said he was trying to do and to take note of his methodology.

1) He first mentioned it to Priestley in April of 1803 and urged Priestley to do it -- which doesn't square with the idea that it was a personal journey of discovery.

2) He told Priestley that the purpose was to present "my view of the Christian system" -- a view already decided upon, not a search for truth.

3) He then told Priestley: "This view would PURPOSELY omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration." So, this was a pre-determined strategy -- not based on any textual reason.

4) He further explained the EXTERNAL presuppositions he brought to the project: "His character and doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions and precepts, from views of personal interest...." One might well ask: who is the one with a pre-determined agenda?

5) In an April, 1803 letter to E. Dowse, he began to explain why he wasn't planning to publish -- but wanted someone else to! He did not want to be identified with these unorthodox ideas. He was president (held public office) and would seek re-election. After office, he remains concerned about his reputation (we call it "legacy" today). He constantly urged his correspondents to return his letters or destroy them.

6) Two days later, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, he reiterates the need to keep his views confidential and away from "the public" and, again, identifies his project as presenting "my views" and "my opinions" of Christianity. He then summarizes his views & opinion, emphasizing Jesus' human excellence "BELIEVING he never claimed any other."

7) In an outline sent to Rush, he begins by saying "no notice should be taken of the corruptions of REASON among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors." "Corruptions of Christianity," of course, is a reference to Priestley's work of that name which rejects several fundamental doctrines -- he enters upon the project with the pre-determined plan to take no notice of evidence in the texts which supports those doctrines.

8) In the summary section of the letter, he said that he was "opposed" to the "corruptions of Christianity." This tells us again why he cut out critical passages -- he decided in advance to do so.

9) He declares Jesus' teachings "disfigured" and "perverted" by others, but offers no evidence for this. Of course, there is no "internal evidence" for this -- but he doesn't offer any external evidence, either -- he simply gives his opinion as fact.

10) He mentions that Jesus "taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state" -- but he cut out the passages in which Jesus taught how to get there and identified His own indispensable role.

11) He really reveals his methodology and purpose in his letter to F.A. Van der Kemp in April of 1816, though. There he says that when recounting the "incidents of his [Jesus'] life," the correct approach is "noticing such only as are within the physical laws of nature ...." So, in evaluating the "internal evidence," he has stacked the deck and pre-determined not to notice evidence contrary to his view!

12) He then offers his work to Van der Kemp for publication as part of his biography of Jesus with: "I ask one only condition, that no possibility shall be admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication." So, the issue isn't that he's produced this work for his own contemplation. He tried to get others to publish on the subject and offered his own work to another for publication. The issue was his refusal to be identified with the unorthodox ideas.

13) He used EXTERNAL criteria for deciding which of Jesus' teachings to include and/or exclude. There is nothing IN THE TEXT ITSELF to indicate that Jesus' claims of deity should be excluded -- or His claim that He would personally rise from the dead the third day.

14) He did include a large number of EVENTS in the life of Jesus -- not just His teaching. After all, the title is THE LIFE and Morals of Jesus. There is nothing IN THE TEXT ITSELF to indicate that the Resurrection should be cut out or the claims of deity which produced such a severe reaction that they threatened to stone him. That seems like an important "incident" in anyone's life.

15) You say he determined what "could easily be the product of later editors with lesser minds" and considered the claims of deity in that category "because they are so simple, so direct, and so blunt." On that basis, MUCH of Jesus' moral teaching could be eliminated -- much of it is simple, direct, and blunt. And it again shows his application of his own external biases unrelated to any "internal" reasons to doubt the text.

Our Founding Truth said...

I actually agree with what you say about Jefferson, but your thesis on "theistic rationalism" and that the "key founders" believed this, I don't.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I doubt Tom could find 500 eyewitnesses willing to submit to boiling alive, crucifixion, beheading, devouring by wild animals, etc. who would stick to Tom's JFK example -- including Tom.Oh, Gregg, I dunno about all 500 being martyred. But there are delusional religious types who blow themselves up every day. I'm just in the real world here. You don't want to discuss the phenomenon of mass delusion.

I shy away from claiming Jesus' resurrection is a provable fact. I don't think the faith equation is set up this way---if Jesus' resurrection were provable, faith would be unnecessary.

Our Founding Truth said...

Tom:I shy away from claiming Jesus' resurrection is a provable fact. I don't think the faith equation is set up this way---if Jesus' resurrection were provable, faith would be unnecessary.

Lately I've been thinking about this issue and now I've come to the place where we do know for a fact the Bible is true, and that Jesus rose from the dead.

It all has to do with the Bible telling the future through predictive prophecy, and the probablility of one man fulfilling all of the prophecies: seed of Abraham, of Isaac, Jacob, David, born in Bethlehem, crucified, legs not broker, etc.

Just fulfilling eight of the 300 prophecies is 1 x 10 to the 16th power, but fulfilling all three hundred is 1 x 10 346th power, which isn't a number and is more than all the electrons in our universe. It cannot be so.

That's how I look at it, what are your thoughts on that?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Me, I don't like discussing whether the Bible is true or false. This isn't the place for it.

Gregg Frazer said...


Let me repeat what I said above -- it was buried in so lengthy an entry that you may have missed it (that's my fault).

My purpose was not to "prove" the resurrection. My purpose was to demonstrate that TJ had no valid reason for rejecting it out of hand and refusing to include the account of it in his version of the LIFE and Morals of Jesus -- except for his own prejudice.

Those who blow themselves up for a religious reason really BELIEVE -- they're not trying to deceive anyone. And the difference as far as delusion is concerned is that they're not eyewitnesses of an event -- they simply believe what they're taught.

Either way, there is no "internal" reason to discount the eyewitness testimony of the Resurrection -- especially when it's recorded in the exact same text as you're relying upon for what you do accept.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Gregg, I see your point that what TJ calls his "reason" is really his agenda. Perhaps Kristo will send you his provocative research and close-reading of Jefferson's bible that argues otherwise. For my part, that Jefferson perhaps allowed for jesus' "natural" miracles like healing is interesting enough.

Your quote of Jefferson's letter to Van der Kemp supports my complaint that the post-presidential musings of him and Adams are given far more weight than they deserve in assessing religion and the Founding. That they felt the need to keep their musings secret says more about the Founding than their theological ditherings.

And I didn't mean to suggest you were arguing the Resurrection as objective fact. That was an echo of an earlier discussion in which you weren't involved.

Kristo Miettinen said...


If we're spinning our wheels fine, but I think you still don't get my point. Not that you disagree with me, but that you still don't seem to get the gist of what I'm saying (granted that having seen it you'd disagree with me).

One of my claims (I have so many, I know...) is that TJ may well have fibbed in his letters about what he found when he took his razor to scripture, so we should not read LaM through the lens of what he said in his letters. I may be wrong, but given that this is my take, your reliance on his letters does not persuade (or even begin to address me).

LaM stands on its own, with more to say than all of TJs letters on the subject (which are collectively quite paltry).

If TJ thought he knew who Jesus was, and edited the Bible to conform to his understanding, then why did he include so much of the basic Christian teaching? That Jesus could forgive me if I stole your wallet, and that his forgiveness rather than yours would be efficacious in releasing me from the burden of my transgression, is hardly what we are taught to think TJ believed.

As for the Bible, no, I won't give you that break - if we are to believe what is said of TJ, after all is said and done, he spent more time studying his abbreviated scripture than 90% of modern American Christians spend with theirs. So yes, special indeed.

Your claim about percentages of books retained is specious, and you know it. Let's try to rise above the level of internet banalities, OK? The passages that TJ edited into LaM were all focused on Jesus. The 39 books of the Tanakh are not (at least as Jews read them). Your point (that the Jews might thereby be more Christian than TJ) falls flat on its face, and is unworthy of you.

As for the letters of TJ (apart from my comment above), perhaps you missed my discussion of their being two compilations, for two purposes? Your quotes ignore this distinction. If I'm wrong, then take me on at my claim, but don't pretend I didn't make the claim.

In any case, your quotes fail to impress - indeed many are the basis of my view. To take them in sequence:

#1 Of course he wanted Priestley to do it - as I have said before (in my basic post on the topic), he wanted it done by better hands. That is totally consistent with his expecting to learn from it.

#2-#4 You chop up what is better served as one long quote:
"I should first take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of the ancient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus, Epictetus, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice to the branches of morality they have treated well; but point out the importance of those in which they are deficient. I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines had to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, and presented in every paradoxical shape. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers. His character and doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions and precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man."

This is not a description of either PoJ or LaM, but of the syllabus (you and I know what that is - but for the benefit of others, in addition to PoJ and LaM, TJ also prepared and eventually published anonymously a "Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus"). It misses the point you wish to make entirely. But it still does not say what you would have it say - the question of Jesus' divinity is not answered in the negative, but rather ducked altogether. It also fully squares with my interpretation that TJ thought that the teachings and doings of Jesus had been corrupted in transmission, and that what we had was "disfigured".

#5 As for his not wanting to publish in 1803 something that he did not produce until 1804 (PoJ), what's your point? Read one way, it reinforces my claim that it was for personal benefit, although I don't believe that of PoJ. On the other hand, PoJ gives its own testimony as to who it was for (and TJ introduced a bill to fund its publication, but did not secure passage).

#6 How does this address his intentions in compiling LaM? The quadrilingual synoptically redundant harmony, and all that? In any case, like I said, direct claims of divinity were out the window, so what's the surprise in believing Jesus never *claimed* superhuman excellences? That is just part of Jesus' subtlety, on TJs view of him.

#7 How are you contradicting me when you point out TJs belief in "the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors"? This reinforces my claim that he thought the scriptures corrupted by later editors.

#8 The claim to being "opposed to the corruptions of Christianity" seems to support my view more than yours - on your view he is not on a hunt for corruption, but for those palces where Jesus agrees with him. It is my view rather than yours where TJ is specifically out to excise corruption.

#9 "He declares Jesus' teachings disfigured and perverted by others, but offers no evidence for this". This is the basis of my claim, not yours.

#10 "He mentions that Jesus taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state -- but he cut out the passages in which Jesus taught how to get there and identified His own indispensable role." Covered in my base post (please reread to see the references - all documented). JoJ cryptically claims to be the Son of Man who is to be glorified, and whose death will bring life to others; JoJ gives a parable in which his role is that of the Son of God, about to be killed; JoJ is the good shepherd, and he is here to fulfill prophecy; his (Jesus') forgiveness saves sinners, and he came for the sinners rather than the righteous; JoJ teaches that to reach the Kingdom of God, Jesus must be followed without compromise; God has elected the saved, and the sign of election is faith; we are saved by receiving the word; we are all evil and cannot save ourselves; we must abase ourselves before God; we must serve and not just obey; we must put our relationship with God first, etc.

#11 "He really reveals his methodology and purpose in his letter to F.A. Van der Kemp in April of 1816, though". Why yes he does, but you omit it. From that very letter, "I made, for my own satisfaction, an extract from the Evangelists of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and His own; and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills." Genuineness is judged by *style and spirit*, not by TJs agreement with the content! Your reference to laws of nature is with respect to recounting Jesus' doings, not such of his teachings as otherwise have the appropriate "style and spirit" (which I, based on other passages, have equated with sublimity and wisdom).

#12 The work in question here is the syllabus, whose publication Jefferson actually effected eventually, anonymously.

#13 Excluding claims of Deity placed on Jesus' lips is not based on evidence against tham, but rather lack of evidence for them - lack of that "style and spirit" named as the criterion in the very letter you quote.

#14 The events included are just bare framing of the teaching, e.g. the geneology of Jesus was omitted. In any case, the reason for omitting the resurrection has been given already - it is not a sublime hint of authority, it is a blatant claim lacking the proper subtlety.

#15 Yes, much of Jesus teaching could be eliminated - and was. But what is remarkable is the clear Christianity of what is left after the process is completed. You haven't addressed that point: did TJ include all of the blatant Christianity because he agreed with it? That is, after all, your position regarding his method, n'est ce pas?

Pinky said...

I am an observer here and have not presented myself as a scholar or an expert.
But, I find some of the presentations to be engaging.

Apparently, Tom Van Dyke speaks for the group when he claims my questions or comments are "moronic" and amount to "nonsense".

Much of what is posted here raises some issue or another with which present day society has to deal.

Otherwise, why would anyone be interested in what Thomas Jefferson had to say in any of his papers? If the comments Kristo is making to his adversary are only for the two of them, why isn't their interaction done in private emails?

If questions and comments are not desired here, why isn't that statement made at the top of the blog?

I have been laboring under the idea that scholars welcomed open inquiry. I must be mistaken.

Pinky said...

Perhaps this should be the policy statement at the head of this blog site: A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the religious history of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme will be considered only after having been cleared by our resident judge, Tom Van Dyke.

No one should have any problem with that if it is the stated policy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You can write whatever you want, Phil. But you seem to think you can slip in anti-religious bigotry without comment or challenge.

No can do.

"Open" inquiry is not simply the exchange of ignorances and bigotries. Agreement is unnecessary, but fact and relevance are. We as a blog benefit from reading Kristo and Gregg's colloquy, each giving facts followed by intelligent arguments and counterarguments.

Follow that model of inquiry and you'll get nothing from me but thanks.


To return to the discussion, Kristo asks a pivotal question:

"did TJ include all of the blatant Christianity because he agreed with it? That is, after all, your position regarding his method, n'est ce pas?"

If TJ did indeed edit the Bible out of his own agenda, then what survived his razor blade should represent Jefferson's own beliefs.

A careful examination of what TJ left in becomes necessary then, the meta-arguments not so important.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The following is what an uber-skeptical atheist friend of mine wrote in response to the evidence for the resurrection:

Without commenting at length, I meely point out that Cornthians was
written around 54AD, some 24 years after the crucificion, in an era
without recorders, reporters, or other than word- of-mouth heasay.
Similarly, the four gospels themselves were written (Mark) around 65-70 AD; Matthwe and Luke in the 70s,and John around 95. There were no tape recorders, or other means of recording. They are largely worthless as historical records. The whole thing, and the Christianity derived from it is a fraud, concocted for political purposes. resurrections don't happen. Period. Either the dead body was removed from the tomb, or he didn't actually die on the cross and revived later. There is no supernatural.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, here's a "truth claim" in the other direction, and far less pretty.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I figure I'd give the guy (someone I know via email) a pass given that he's 84 years old and a militant atheist. Even if in good shape for his age, he's still demonstrating mighty courage in the face of death. It's unlikely you'll live that much longer. Oh and the guy is a WWII Vet and insists he was an atheist in the foxholes there.

Pinky said...

Good point about your octogenarian friend, Mr. Rowe. He's got me by six years; but, I sure can understand his position.
We live in some pretty interesting times where it has come to be so politically correct. Your other friend (I assume), Tommy. exudes the idea of what it means to be of such a mindset these days. He wants to police everything within his circle of influence so that nothing "out-of-line" ever is able to be presented. His particular punditry defines this site.
One of the problems with which we are presented in a society where opposition to another's religiosity is considered to be improper surfaces when we realize how invasive the values on which religion is based have come to be into the other institutions of society.
There is a distinct danger is setting up barriers to anyone who disagrees with religious principles.
And, as if to add insult to injury--in an important sense--such policing efforts were major among the things against which the American Revolution was fought.
An other blog site might be a better place to take a clear look at such problems.

Pinky said...

By the way, I should have given a reference. to my comments.
Talcott Parsons can tell you all about the Foundational Values of our social institutions and how society goes into dysfunction when one or more team up to over ride the others.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Until you object when someone else's ox is being gored besides your own, you just don't get it, Phil.

Pinky said...

In the tone of the Founders, Pish! pooch!

Gregg Frazer said...


This is the first chance I've had to get back into this discussion.

Since your view of TJ's letters is just that -- your own -- the evidence I presented from the letters does "address" your argument whether or not you choose to let it "persuade" you. Others involved in the discussion may find it helpful -- if they haven't simply & conveniently decided that TJ was lying.

How convenient for you to be able to casually/cavalierly toss away inconvenient evidence -- wish I could do that! Also, YOU get to submit evidence from letters, but evidence submitted from letters by others is out of order -- how nice.

I've just finished reading LaM and I could not find the passages in which Jesus' ability to forgive others' sins is mentioned! Which verses are included? Mark 2:5-10? Luke 5:20-24? Matthew 9:2-5? I also have an index of all the Scripture references in LaM and none of these passages is listed there, either. More on this below.

My claim about percentages of books is NOT specious because you claimed that TJ believed that there was "something special about the Bible" -- not that there was something special about the "Gospels." Spending lots of time with the small portion of the Bible you agree with or like is hardly a commitment to it. If one reads "eat, drink, and be merry" every night before bed or every morning, does that mean that person believes “the Bible” to be special?

Of course, the 39 books of the Old Testament are also about Christ. But, either way, do not accuse me of banalities if you cannot say what you mean. If you mean that TJ thought the small portion of the Bible that he personally agreed with and that survived his scissors was "special" to him, then say so and then I'll agree with you and you'll be happy and will not have to resort to name-calling.

As for whether my comment about the Jews is "unworthy" of me, I thank you for having a higher opinion of my worth than do I.

Re the supposedly “clear Christianity of what is left” and the “blatant Christianity” in the LaM: Jefferson removed anything which was “blatant” and “clear” – you see Christianity in it because you choose to do so. There is precious little that is inherently “Christian” in what survived the scissors. Let’s look at your examples (I don’t know if I’ll take time to deal with all of them, as there are so many and I have work to do – but I’ll start at the beginning of your list and see how far I get).

GENERAL COMMENT: most of what TJ included could simply be taken as moralisms, clever turns of phrases, and exhortations to general spirituality (as per Deepak Chopra) without the crucial lynchpins which he removes from almost every passage. I.e. without the total context.

On most, I’m going to write as if I were a nonbeliever looking at the passages rationally and without the contextual parts which were removed throughout.

Lk. 22:67-70 [MINUS 69]
TJ includes their question and his verbal exchange with them in which, in the translation TJ uses, Jesus merely says that THEY say He is the Christ – He doesn’t. That can be taken as mere acknowledgment of why He’s on trial – that’s their charge against Him. The crucial verse is verse 69 in which he makes a specific claim about the Son of Man being seated at God’s right hand – but TJ cuts that out.

John 18:33-36
This can be taken simply as Jesus defending Himself by assuring Pilate that He is no threat to Pilate or Rome – which is what Pilate was concerned about. What Jesus says next can be taken as claim to a philosophical kingdom (like Plato’s Republic) – a kingdom of “truth.” To someone without the parts of the Gospels cut out, that’s what the kingdom “not of this world” would logically mean.

Lk. 19:9-10
Jesus does not present HIMSELF as the source of salvation – rather that Zaccheus is a Jew (son of Abraham) who has come to his moral senses. He implies that He is the Son of MAN – but never the Son of God (those parts are cut). Why wouldn’t TJ like the title Son of Man? – that’s all he thought Jesus was. The Son of Man seeks those Jews who are not living morally and tries to “save” them by getting them to do good – not through any special commitment to HIM.

John 12:20-24 [MINUS ½ OF VERSE 23]
Unlike what you say in your original post, Jesus does NOT claim to be the Son of Man Who is to be glorified in TJ’s version, because he cut out the part of verse 23 in which Jesus said that. What is left is a standard truism about the reproduction of wheat. There is no connection left between Jesus and the grain of wheat – so there is no connection to HIM bringing life to others.

Mark 12:1-9
YOU say that the parable makes Jesus’ role that of the Son of God – but that is NOT said in the parts of this passage surviving TJ’s scissors. He conveniently cuts out verses 10-11 which connect Him to Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah (Christ) – and which caused the Jewish leaders to seek to seize Him (another verse cut out).

Luke 7:37-43
Let me skip to one more – the one you keep repeating. You keep saying that Jesus forgave other people’s sins in TJ’s version and you gave this passage as an example. That is very curious because the verse in which Jesus does say “her sins, which are many, have been forgiven” is verse 47 – BUT TJ’S ACCOUNT ENDS AT VERSE 46! He cut out the part in which Jesus makes this claim!

I hope this is enough to demonstrate that YOU ARE READING CHRISTIAN CONTENT INTO WHAT’S LEFT IN THESE PASSAGES, but there is nothing INHERENTLY Christian without the parts TJ left out! Without those critical parts, a rational person would simply view Jesus in the way that TJ wants them to view Him – as a good man with interesting ideas and promoting morality. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that one could better see “clear Christianity” and “blatant Christianity” in the scraps on TJ’s floor than in the sections glued to the page!

So, to answer your question as to why TJ left in so much clear and blatant Christianity if he were not seeking for the truth, the answer is: HE DIDN’T. Pure and simple.

Finally, to argue that TJ is honestly trying to determine Jesus’ identity via “style and spirit” might have some merit IF TJ were an acknowledged expert in “style and spirit” in Greek – AND, if the one making the determinations of style and spirit didn’t have his own agenda coming into the project (which he admits that he had). If someone who were impartial and didn’t have a dog in the race were to attempt this (if such a person could exist), then it might have some validity. But Jefferson admittedly came to the project with convictions about Jesus – and he was determined to affirm those. Maybe just to make himself feel vindicated or more secure in his infidelity.

This is why “higher criticism” is such a disaster and always confirms what those undertaking it believed to begin with. “Surprise! Surprise! The Bible teaches what I’ve said all along!” It’s inevitably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most are not quite as insolent as Jefferson, though – they only proceed AS IF they had cut up the Bible – they don’t actually DO it.