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The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth

The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth was Thomas Jefferson's first compilation of verses clipped from the four Gospels of the New Testament. Apparently, he assembled the verses during his presidency, over the course of a few nights in Washington, D.C.1 Jefferson must have completed his compilation by March 10, 1804. On that date, his bookbinder, John March of Georgetown, charged him for binding “The Philosophy of Jesus” in calf gilt.2 Jefferson described the work as a 46-page octavo volume.3

Jefferson used two English New Testaments in the King James Version.4 These volumes were printed in Dublin by George Grierson, one in 17915 and the other in 1799.6 Jefferson acquired the books in 1804 from Philadelphia, with the intention “to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book.”7 Jefferson also acquired two copies of a 1794 Greek/Latin New Testament at the same time.8 Although he used only the English New Testaments, he may have originally planned to include the Greek/Latin version in his 1804 compilation.

Jefferson alluded to his motivation for the compilation in a letter to John Adams written on October 12, 1813. He mentioned to Adams that he had created an octavo volume of “pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st. century.” He “performed this operation,” he wrote, in order to arrive at “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”9

The full title of the compilation is believed to be “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth: extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.” This title comes from a manuscript copy of the title page and list of Gospel verses Jefferson included in his original work, probably in the hand of Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Jefferson Randolph. The manuscript copy is in the Edgehill-Randolph Papers at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library.10 Apparently, Jefferson was being deliberately ironic when he used the term “Indians” in his subtitle. He was not referring to the aboriginal population in the United States, but was using the term as a code word to refer to his Federalist and clerical adversaries.11

Soon after Jefferson finished his compilation, he was already considering a revision. He acquired two copies each of a French and an English New Testament in 1805, but was not able to pursue his project at that time. In 1816, in a letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, he explained, “I made, for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of the texts 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. a more precious morsel of ethics was never seen.” He wished to revisit his 1804 compilation and include, in addition to what he regarded as the genuine teachings of Jesus, a genuine account of Jesus’ life. He recalled, “it was too hastily done however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business: and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure .... if a history of his life can be added, written with the same view of the subject, the world will see, after the fogs shall be dispelled, in which for 14. centuries he has been inveloped by Jugglers to make money of him, when the genuine character shall be exhibited, which they have dressed up in the rags of an Impostor, the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human Sages.”12 In an 1819 letter to William Short, Jefferson wrote, “I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerably translated into English) of adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an Abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus. the last I attempted too hastily some 12. or 15. years ago. it was the work of 2. or 3. nights only at Washington, after getting thro’ the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day.” 13

Jefferson took up the second compilation in earnest in 1819 and produced a new volume entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, known today as The Jefferson Bible. This volume was also for his own use, and it consisted of verses from the two 1794 Greek/Latin New Testaments that he acquired in 1804, along with the two 1802 French New Testaments14 and two 1804 English New Testaments15 that he acquired in 1805. He completed this second compilation in 1820.

In his 1858 biography, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Henry S. Randall reported that the original text of The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth was among Jefferson’s effects at the time of his death in 1826, but that by 1858 the volume was “not preserved in Mr. Jefferson’s family.”16 This suggests that by 1858, Jefferson’s compilation was either lost, destroyed, or given to a trusted friend of the family.17

Jefferson used The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth as a chief source of moral instruction, very likely reading a passage every evening before retiring to bed. He wrote in 1819, “I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.”18

-Endrina Tay, 10/1/2014

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Books, Religion

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