Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's In Jefferson's Bible

We've heard the claim Jefferson made his Bible(s) to cut out the supernatural parts. David Barton using, as Warren Throckmorton and others have shown, erroneous scholarship claims, no, Jefferson's Bible was for the purpose of evangelizing the Indians.

Barton needs to take a refresher course on philsophy and read up on, among other concepts, straw mannon-sequitur, and red herring. Barton notoriously engages in these and other fallacies. Even if true that Jefferson made one of his Bibles for a purpose of introducing Indians to "Christian" ideas (I put that in quotes because what Jefferson valued in "Christianity" were not the central doctrines of faith which he rejected) it does not follow that Jefferson did NOT cut up the Bible for the purpose of editing out that which he did not believe.

I need not reiterate the evidence here; Jefferson clearly states, in his letters, that he made his Bible to cut out that which he didn't believe -- what he thought corrupted -- and leave in that which he thought legitimate. Strangely enough Barton seems to understand (because the evidence is so overwhelming that he couldn't deny it) that Jefferson did not believe the entire Bible was legitimately revealed, that indeed Jefferson rejected entire BOOKS of the Bible. For instance, the book of Revelation which Jefferson terms "merely the ravings of a maniac no more worthy of explanation than the incoherences of our nightly dreams." Yes, Barton concedes this on pages 180-81. And Barton concedes Jefferson's unitarianism (how could you not?). Barton seems to want to make Jefferson a biblical unitarian. But still concedes Jefferson, at the very least, disbelieved in entire books of the Bible. Why he can't accept Jefferson wrote his own Bible to exclude the portions with which he disagreed is beyond me given how much else he concedes.

Also, strangley, Barton goes on about the Stone-Campbell movement as the hermeneutical key to understanding Jefferson's creed. It's true that movement of non-creedal, non-Trinitarian Christianity is closer to Jefferson than is orthodox Christianity (they were biblical non-Trinitarians). But if we need "outside" sources to help supplement our understanding of what Jefferson believed, why not go to sources Jefferson claimed as mentors? He didn't claim Stone-Campbell but rather Joseph Priestley and Conyers Middleton in his letter to John Adams, Aug. 22, 1813. Priestley, the most notable Socinian Unitarian of that era, rejected the Trinity. I'm not sure if Middleton did. But BOTH rejected the infalliblity of the Bible. Priestley termed the "plenary inspiration of Scripture" as one of Christianity's "corruptions." And Middleton made his own Bible before Jefferson did, cutting out that which he didn't believe.

On a final note, it helps to read the Jefferson Bible to see what's in it. I never accepted the claim that Jefferson cut out ALL of the supernatural from the Bible. Jefferson believed in an active personal God, which itself seems "supernatural." Jefferson disbelieved in a great deal of the supernatural. And Jefferson, unlike his mentor Priestley, explicitly rejected Jesus' Resurrection. Priestley rejected the Trinity, and as a Socinian, thought Jesus was 100% human not divine at all (Arian unitarians believed Jesus divine but created by and subordinate to the Father; higher than the highest archangel but lower than the Father). Priestley believed Jesus, as God's perfect human Son, resurrected as an example of what God would one day do for all good men. Jefferson believed in an afterlife where all good men would live in eternal bliss.

Jefferson and Priestley were BOTH materialists. That is, for Priestley, you didn't get an afterlife without a Resurrection. So it's not a stretch to conclude Jefferson believed in the future resurrection of all good men. And, according to Jefferson, who was the best man? Jesus. So even if Jefferson's Jesus, unlike Priestley's, had not yet been resurrected, he would be.

What I'm trying to lead to is the valuable Tom Van Dyke discovered Jefferson's Bible left in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus' second coming and judgment, the future state of rewards and punishments. (The "rational Christians" of that era did believe in future punishment for the bad; just not eternal.) It could be that Jefferson mistakenly left those passages in. OR, I think based on what I've outlined above, it "fits" with the kind of Socinian unitarianism in which Jefferson believed.


Phil Johnson said...

It's refreshing to know that you can be a Christian and not lose your intelligence to whackoitis.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Stone-Campbell movement wouldn't technically have been non-Trinitarian. While they rejected non-biblical terminology along with creeds, they firmly believed that God existed in three persons (or at least Campbell did, Stone was a little more vague about his beliefs). They did share a republican outlook on politics, at least Alexander Campbell did, so they would have shared that with Jefferson. But they wouldn't be the ones to compare with Jefferson on deity. In addition, while Stone started in the early 1800s with a restoration Christianity, Campbell comes along later--late 1810s, early 1820s (he starts his first journal in 1823, but had been preaching in the Ohio Valley/Western PA before then). Finally, the Stone movement and the Campbell movement didn't unite until 1832, so wouldn't have existed as a movement at the time of Jefferson (but this might not have been Barton's point--haven't read the book).

jimmiraybob said...

"Jefferson believed in an active personal God..."

This sounds rather modern and I don't recall ever reading anything where Jefferson refers to a personal God or a personal relationship with God. His references are usually along the lines of "Creator and benevolent governor of the world" (Letter to Adams; April 11, 1823). Do you have a reference?

Also, I don't think Jefferson believed in anything beyond the senses, especially later in life when this would seem to bear most on the JB. For instance (Letter to Adams; August 15, 1820):

"...my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel: therefore I exist.’..."

"On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need."

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart."

Jefferson clearly saw himself as an empirical materialist. This is almost like reading a handbook on Epicurean metaphysics.

And,of course, there's the October 15, 1819 letter to William Short in which he declares, "As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us."


"I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerable translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi [jrb - 17th century French philosopher, priest, mathematician, scientist who attempted to reconcile Epicureanism with Christianity], and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus."

And, from the attached:

"Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus.

Physical. — The Universe eternal.
Its parts, great and small, interchangeable.

Matter and Void alone."

It should be noted that Jefferson, in addition to reading Gassendi, also owned numerous copies in several translation/languages of Lucretius' (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) On the Nature of Things (de rerum Natura), an epic poem containing the essential Epicurean tenets. (A classic that was rediscovered and reintroduced to the West in the 15th Century).

It seems to me that trying to pinpoint Jefferson's metaphysics without taking the Epicurean influence into account will always be lacking an essential element.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson could not have "accidentally" left in Matthew 25 and the Second Coming. Here's the Smithsonian's interactive Jefferson Bible---Jefferson cut and pasted the passage in with his own dear little hands:


As for

For instance, the book of Revelation which Jefferson terms "merely the ravings of a maniac no more worthy of explanation than the incoherences of our nightly dreams." Yes, Barton concedes this on pages 180-81. And Barton concedes Jefferson's unitarianism (how could you not?). Barton seems to want to make Jefferson a biblical unitarian. But still concedes Jefferson, at the very least, disbelieved in entire books of the Bible.

You'd never know that by listening to Barton's critics, which is why they're telling only half the truth themselves.

Phil Johnson said...

I remember when Christian Fundamentalism was in its early stages fo developement here in the United States during the late 1930s, that the Book of Revelations was being considered for its place as an authority for the Funamentals.
I was there listening.