By Colin Brown and Craig A. Evans
Two works that specifically dealt with the historical Jesus were unpublished pieces compiled by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the framer of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States (1801–1809). Jefferson had acquired firsthand knowledge of European culture during his travels as assistant to and later successor of Benjamin Franklin as minister to France (1784–1789).
In the 1760s Jefferson experienced a religious crisis, which led him to reject the Trinitarian orthodoxy of Anglicanism and to embrace natural religion. His thoughts on religion were copied in a commonplace book, his so-called “Literary Bible,” consisting of extracts from ancient and modern writers and philosophers. The almost sixty pages extracted from [Henry St. John, Lord Viscount] Bolingbroke form the longest single entry and are the only writings to deal specifically with Christianity. They constitute a deistic credo, which declared it inconceivable that a just God “sent his only begotten son, who had not offended him, to be sacrificed by men, who had offended him, that he might expiate their sins, and satisfy his own anger.” The miracles that Jesus supposedly worked—“equivocal at best”—were accepted only by superstitious followers and their successors.
Jefferson was deeply influenced by Joseph Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), which convinced him that one could be a Christian without believing in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Jefferson and Priestley (1733–1804) became friends following the latter’s move to the United States in 1794 after his home, books, writings, and laboratory were destroyed in the Birmingham riots. Jefferson was so impressed by Priestley’s pamphlet on Jesus and Socrates Compared (1803) that he resolved to adopt the comparative method as a means to promote his own views. The result was his “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others” (1803) and “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804).
The “Syllabus” was intended to review the teaching of Jesus in comparison with “the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sect of antt. [sic] philosophy, or of individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.” Turning to Jesus, Jefferson observed that “his parentage was obscure, his condition poor, his education null, his natural endowments great, his life correct and innocent; he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.” Nevertheless, “the doctrines which he delivered were defective as a whole” on account of the facts that Jesus himself wrote nothing, his teaching was committed to “the most unlettered and ignorant of men,” and that “he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and throne” before he could develop “a compleat system of morals.”
Jefferson urged Priestley to develop the comparison further, but Priestley died in February 1804. That same month Jefferson began his own “digest” of the moral teachings of Jesus. Using Priestley’s Harmony of the Evangelists in English and Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek, which were given him by Priestley himself, a pair of identical English editions and a Greek-Latin edition, Jefferson constructed his own harmony based on Priestley’s. “The Philosophy of Jesus” was completed between February 4 and March 10, 1804. Jefferson made a list of what he considered to be moral teachings of Jesus, and over a period of several evenings clipped out passages and pasted them in double columns on forty-six octavo sheets. He seems to have abandoned his intention of producing a Greek text and comparison with other philosophers on account of pressure of the presidency.
Although the text of the work is now lost, the title page has survived. It reads: “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Mathew [sic], Mark, Luke, & John. being [sic] an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed by matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.” The allusion to “Indians” was ironic. It referred to Jefferson’s Federalist opponents and their allies, whose political and religious obscurantism was seen by the president as a danger to the republic. Jefferson was motivated not only by a desire to rebut assaults on his character but also to set out a moralistic, demystified version of Christianity upon which all persons of good will could agree. However, he appears to have used the work almost exclusively for private study.
The more ambitious “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” includes texts narrating the career of Jesus in addition to his moral teaching. It was a private search for religious truth, conceived shortly before Jefferson began his second term in 1804 and completed by 1820. It is characterized by a Unitarian focus on the ethics of Jesus. Jesus did not constitute a complete system, since he died before reaching full intellectual maturity.
Jefferson entitled his work “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.” Like “The Philosophy of Jesus,” it was literally a scissors and paste production. Jefferson had no compunction about cutting verses in half in order to eliminate the supernatural. He included the birth narratives but cut out references to the virginal conception and the Holy Spirit. He likewise excised mention of the Spirit in the account of Jesus’ baptism. The temptation story was omitted, as were narratives of miracles and exorcisms. The Sermon on the Mount was reproduced extensively. Jefferson included parables that emphasized social responsibility, denunciations of the Pharisees, and the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Last Supper was edited so as to include the Johannine account of the footwashing and the announcement of betrayal but omit the synoptic sayings about the bread and wine.
Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemously claiming to be the Son of God. The narrative concluded with the burial of Jesus and the sealing of the tomb. Essentially Jefferson’s work was a harmony of the evangelists or, to be more precise, a harmony of Matthew and Luke, largely following Matthew’s narrative outline, with occasional insertions from Mark and John. Theologically, it had moved away from the negative deism of Jefferson’s early years to embody the Unitarianism that Jefferson believed would become “the general religion of the United States.”
Taken from Colin Brown and Craig A. Evans, A History of the Quests for the Historical Jesus, Volume 1: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the End of World War II (Zondervan Academic, 2022).
“Not since the grand survey of Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth century have we seen—especially in English—such a vast review of academic (and at times popular) literature on the historical Jesus.”
—John P. Meier, University of Notre Dame
“In this comprehensive two-volume study, the late Colin Brown brings together the rich fruits of his lifelong studies on Jesus in Christian theology. . . . For future Jesus research, this thorough study is an indispensable tool.”
—Jens Schröter, Humboldt University
image: Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson