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The Jefferson Bible

The Life and Morals of Jesus


    Introduction: Mr. Jefferson's Compilation

    . . . Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Canby, "Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus." He described his own compilation to Charles Thomson as "a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen." He told John Adams that he was rescuing the Philosophy of Jesus and the "pure principles which he taught," from the "artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves." After having selected from the evangelists "the very words only of Jesus," he believed "there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

    Editorial Problems

    . . . The most difficult decision to be made in presenting Jefferson's compilation for the World Wide Web is the choice of the English translation to be used. Jefferson's original paste-up job included side-by-side versions of the text in Greek, Latin, French and English, the latter being the King James Version. This version, though unquestionably the most beautiful ever made, has been widely discredited in this century because of its many inaccuracies and because so many of the words of the text are either obsolete or have changed so much in meaning that they are confusing and misleading to the reader. Certainly, Jefferson, who was fluent in Greek, Latin and French, had these side-by-side versions to guide him to a fuller understanding of the text and did not rely solely on the King James. There is no question that, if Jefferson were supervising this project, he would prefer a version that was as accurate as possible, especially if it were to be the only one made available. Needless to say, it would have been simpler for the editor to present the King James Version just as included in Jefferson's original compilation. But the purpose here is to offer a work that fulfills Jefferson's intentions for a meaningful, living book, not to pedantically present a document for historical interest alone. Happily, the editor had available a corrected edition of the King James Version available to him from a previous project, that had all the faults of the King James removed without significantly altering the beauty of the King James language, and this is the version that is offered here. [Several additional books from this King James Version Revised are available at The Holy Bible: King James Version Revised.] The only drawback in using a modern rendition of the ancient texts is the discovery that two of the verses included by Jefferson in his compilation were not actually a part of the most ancient manuscripts. These two verses, noted in the "Table of Texts," are of minimal significance however, and their omission does not affect the reading in any meaningful way.

    . . . Previous editions of Jefferson's compilation display the source of each verse along with the verses themselves, thus retaining the paste-up character of the original. This tends to distract readers from the message of the text, and forces them constantly to be aware of cuts and omissions. In this edition, all such documentation is included in the "Table of Texts Employed," and the verses are listed in chapters and with sequential numbers, just as in the King James Bible itself.


    Reading The Jefferson Bible

    . . . The editor suggests that The Jefferson Bible be read as Thomas Jefferson intended, without even thinking about what was left out or moved from one place to another. The purpose was to present a code of morals, suitable for instruction in ordinary living, not a code of religious dogmas and supernatural beliefs. It is the editor's hope that readers of The Jefferson Bible will be better able to appreciate the strikingly sublime ethical philosophy of Jesus when his words are separated from the other doctrinal issues, and that they will be able to agree with Jefferson that these "doctrines of Jesus are simple and tend all to the happiness of man."


    Jefferson's Syllabus | Return to Table of Contents |Chapter 1.