Our third president sought to separate the words of Jesus from the 'corruptions' of his followers.
By STEPHEN PROTHER
(The Wall Street Journal) Last November, in response to protest, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed a video installation depicting ants crawling over a small crucifix. This coming November, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will exhibit a cut-and-paste Bible of a mere 86 pages. Were it the work of David Wojnarowicz (the artist behind the crucifix video) or Andres Serrano (of "Piss Christ" fame), this Bible would doubtless stir up a hornet's nest. But in fact, it was created by Thomas Jefferson.
During the election of 1800, Jefferson was denounced as a "howling atheist" and "a confirmed infidel" known for "vilifying the divine word, and preaching insurrection against God." But the Virginian also revered Jesus as "the first of human Sages" and was, according to one biographer, "the most self-consciously theological of all American presidents."
The book that the Smithsonian is preparing to put on display is actually one of two Jefferson Bibles. Jefferson produced the first over the course of a few days in 1804. Not long after completing the Louisiana Purchase, he sat down in the White House with two Bibles and one razor, intent on dividing the true words of Jesus from those put into his mouth by "the corruptions of schismatising followers."
The result was "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth": a severely abridged text (now lost) that, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, consisted entirely of Jesus' sayings. In this "precious morsel of ethics," as Jefferson put it, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed the afterlife, but he was not born in a manger and did not die to atone for anyone's sins...