Jefferson’s Bible

This week I had the opportunity to be part of a panel discussion on WMFE, our local NPR affiliate. The topic was the Jefferson Bible and the program kicked off with a 10-minute interview with one of the curators from the Smithsonian, which recently published a new edition.  The remaining 20 minutes were the panel that also included evangelical pastor, Joel Hunter, and scholar, Creston Davis.

Thomas Jefferson titled his creation “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He literally cut and pasted those portions of the Gospels that he felt reflected the historical Jesus and his ethical teachings.  Notably, he left out the miracles and the resurrection.

In this undertaking, Jefferson was doing physically what many people do simply in their own minds. He was taking those parts of scripture that had meaning for him and letting go of those parts that did not.

There are those who would argue that we cannot pick and chose in this way. I disagree. It has been my experience that people do a lot of picking and choosing often without acknowledging, or even recognizing, it.  Personally, I think it is an act of integrity to be clear, at least in one’s own mind, about what one does and does not believe.

In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we have a variety of views about Jesus and the Bible.  Some may find a great deal of meaning and inspiration there.  Others may find little or none.  Many find meaning and inspiration in a variety of sacred texts as well as other sources. We draw on the richness of the world’s wisdom in our search for truth and meaning.

That we draw from many wells is one of the things that I love about our tradition.  However, I hope that in our picking and choosing we will spend some time wrestling with our decisions.  I hope we will not discard a text simply because it is challenging.  Sometimes a good challenge is exactly what we need.  Even when we finally conclude that a passage does not have meaning for us, we can challenge ourselves to understand what meaning it might have for others.

Jefferson created his version of the Gospels for his own use. It was what was authentic for him. Each of us has the opportunity to repeat the exercise for ourselves. Each of us can mine the wisdom we are offered for that which will support us, challenge us, and inspire us. When we do this deliberately, with thought and care, we can create an important foundation for lives of meaning, depth, and integrity.

I thank the good folks at WMFE and on the panel for helping me to deepen my thinking on this matter. The interview was on Intersection hosted by Mark Simpson.  You can listen to it here.

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2 Responses to Jefferson’s Bible

  1. sandy cawthern says:

    I’m using that edition with my family this weekend!

  2. Ken Lofgren says:

    This was an excellent program! The different perspectives that you and the other participants offered made for an interesting discussion.

    Some people my not be aware that in addition to the Smithsonian edition of The Jefferson Bible, there is a Beacon Press (Unitarian Universalist publishing house) version, which includes a fine Introduction by the late Forrest Church (UU minister).

    May we, as Unitarian Universalists, follow in Jefferson’s footsteps, in seeing what the Bible has to offer us. Two short books in the Bible I’ve found interesting: the book of Ephesians (which was the starting point for William Ellery Channing’s “Likeness to God” sermon) and the book of James (“faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”).

    The New Oxford Annotated Bible and The Jewish Study Bible have commentary that is very helpful to modern readers. So, go exploring!

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