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Thomas Jefferson’s Bible Editing Was Obvious. Is Yours?

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At a dinner for Nobel Prize winners, President John F. Kennedy gave a most clever and astute introduction.

He said to that distinguished crowd, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Jefferson was brilliant in so many disciplines, including religion.

While he is often associated with being a deist – one who believes in God as the proverbial watchmaker who created the universe and then stepped away, never intervening in daily life – Jefferson was a devoted follower of the teachings of Jesus.

In fact, six years before he died, he created his own version of the teachings of Jesus, which he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It’s known these days as Jefferson’s Bible.

The reason for that is that Jefferson, who had a classic education and was fluent in many languages, took six copies of the New Testament in Greek, Latin, French and King James English and then, with a very sharp knife, he cut out the texts he liked and glued them on blank paper.

Jefferson’s work resulted in his own version of Scripture, which left out most of the miracles and anything else he felt went against reason and common sense.

At the end of his study and editing, he had the 84 pages bound in red Moroccan leather – the finest money could buy, which fortunately preserved the volume quite well.

Jefferson’s Bible was bought by the Smithsonian Institute at the turn of the 20th century, has been recently restored, and in 2012 was displayed at the Institute. It is one of our national treasures.

Jefferson’s Bible is fascinating to me on so many levels – from the artistic craftsmanship to the theological peculiarities and spiritual insights it discloses. It gives us a glimpse into the soul of our third president.

But one of the things that always interested me was Jefferson’s audacity at cutting things out of the Bible. That takes a lot of confidence, don’t you think?

However, before pointing a finger at Jefferson’s bravado, it might serve us well to consider our own less public editing.

For instance, as Baptists we focus a great deal on believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper, labeling them our ordinances.

Why did we leave out foot-washing, one of the iconic gestures of Jesus on that first Maundy Thursday?

And what about other texts that we tend to conveniently disregard? Such as:

â— “Love your enemy.”

â— “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven.”

â— “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

And then there are the many texts that deal with evangelism, yet it seems that few people in the church actually abide by the Great Commission by going into the world with the expressed intent of making disciples.

Have we cut that out of our Bibles without recognizing it?

Taking Jesus seriously is not easy. It means reading the lines and sometimes even in between the lines.

I am grateful to people like Jefferson and others who make me reconsider how seriously, or lightly, I take Jesus.

Perhaps it would be better if the editing process weren’t so much my editing of the Bible as the Bible’s editing of me.

Mike Massar is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La. A version of this column first appeared in UBC’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.