Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Jefferson Bible at Smithsonian in November

From the WSJ:

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.

In 1820, after retiring from public life, Jefferson produced a second scripture by subtraction—the book that is now being restored in D.C. In "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," he again sought to excise passages "of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications." This time, however, he arranged his material chronologically rather than topically, and he included both the sayings and actions of Jesus. He also included passages in English, French, Latin and Greek.

To readers familiar with the New Testament, this Jefferson Bible, as it is popularly called, begins and ends abruptly. Rather than opening, as does the Gospel of John, in the beginning with the Word, Jefferson raises his curtain on a political and economic drama: Caesar's decree that all the world should be taxed. His story concludes with this hybrid verse: "There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed." Between these points, there are no angels, no wise men, and not a hint of the resurrection...

Thomas Jefferson's Cut-and-Paste Bible
MARCH 25, 2011

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