Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible, and the Humanist Press has just republished it together with selections from what Jefferson left out, and selections labeled the best and worst from the Old Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavadgita, the Buddhist Sutras, and the Book of Mormon.
Jefferson created his Bible using two copies of the King James Bible and a razor blade. He cut what he liked out of the New Testament, and left the rest. What he chose to include was supposed to tell the story of a teacher of morality, stripped of all supernatural pretensions. In Jefferson’s Bible, virgins don’t give birth, dead people don’t walk, and water doesn’t turn into wine. But Jesus teaches the love of one’s neighbor, of one’s enemy, of strangers and children and the old.
It’s an admirable effort. Someone raised in Christianity but convinced that death is death and humans are responsible for their fate might want to read the good bits of their religious heritage and not be bothered by the rest. Congress printed 9,000 copies in 1904 and handed them out to new House and Senate members for a half century.
But I find Jefferson’s Bible a fairly weak and incoherent concoction. Someone who insists on being treated like a god without actually being a god comes off as an inexplicable egomaniac. Someone who engineers his own death and really dies appears to be nothing more than a suicide. Jesus, stripped of the context of his deity, ends up looking like Socrates without all the cleverness.
Imagine if we told the story of Thomas Jefferson without the Declaration of Independence, without the role of founding father. He’d be transformed into an over-educated self-indulgent slave owner, rapist, and advocate of genocide who began a tradition of U.S. warmaking in the Middle East and bestowed upon us the two-party system.
Jefferson’s Bible, ironically, serves a purpose other than what he intended. It ends up revealing that the good moral lessons in Jesus’ teaching don’t amount to all that much. Yes, of course, we should be kind to each other and learn to forgive and befriend our enemies. There is nothing more important, and nobody says that basic lesson better. Jefferson included the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But should we take polygamy and patriarchy and slavery and cutting off hands and other ancient practices for granted as Jesus does? Should we take currently unquestioned practices like war, meat-eating, and fossil-fuel consumption for granted as many do today? What should we question or change? What should we keep as it is? How should we be good and kind? In what way should we love our neighbors and enemies? Should we also love future generations?
Jefferson is thought to have believed that his Bible would educate Native Americans. His policies, in reality, helped to destroy them. Rather than editing an ancient text and translating it into four languages from another continent, might Jefferson have better spent his time giving native Americans the respect that Jesus — on one occasion but not others — recommended giving to Samaritans? Jefferson might have discovered that no people exists without an understanding of kindness, love, and humility. The Indians needed Christian kindness, not Christian arrogance. But the Indians weren’t called Samaritans, and Jefferson didn’t recognize them.
The Humanist Press edition of Jefferson’s Bible does help broaden our understanding, as it includes similarly nice and horrific excerpts from a variety of the world’s ancient religions (plus Mormonism, the text of which largely mimics ancient cultural norms).
Jefferson was not aiming for the “historical Jesus” but for a naturalist one. The Humanist Press, in its selections of the worst of each religion, is not aiming for simply the most immoral bits but also the most supernatural. The immoral is there in abundance however:
Matthew 10:34-37 “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword. . . .”
Luke 14:26 “If a man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
John 6:43-55 “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. . . .”
The Old Testament includes the same good lessons and the same out of date barbarism, or very similar, as the New Testament. The lessons are deeper and more expansive, the barbarity more horrific — including numerous instances of advocating genocide, slavery, sex-slavery, war, the mutilation of corpses, torture, the mass-slaughter of children, and the celebration of revenge.
The Koran and the other texts, too, contain basic fundamental moral precepts, but few specific recommendations of much use to us right now. I don’t mind being advised not to bury female infants alive, but I had no plans to do so. I want to know how to balance duty to family with duty to humanity. I want to know how to integrate charity and respect. I want to learn how to oppose militarism, corruption, oligarchy, greed, consumption, environmental abuse, and all forms of bigotry. I want to know how to be kind to real people in real ways.
Religion doesn’t seem to help much. Neither does atheism, of course, except by clearing the deck. The lessons of Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions are packaged in arguments from authority and promises of imaginary rewards and punishments. When that packaging is stripped away, something is lacking. We now need to be told the actual benefits to ourselves of being kind to others: the sense of satisfaction and joy, the love of oneself that is facilitated, the widening of one’s knowledge and understanding that comes from accepting the viewpoints and experiences of those unlike oneself.
We do not, of course, need a new Bible. We need novels, memoirs, autobiographies, essays, histories, and poetry. And we need to feel as free as Jefferson did to slice out the parts we find most valuable, piece them together, and expand our understanding from there.