Baker Academic

Monday, April 13, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, The Under-appreciated Jesus Ideologue

Today is the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. There are perhaps more brilliant polymaths, more complex characters, and weightier influencers in American history. But Jefferson is a near rival no matter the name. Because of his multifaceted legacy, it is often forgotten that Jefferson was keenly interested in reconstructing Jesus: the ethics of Jesus, to be precise.

Jefferson had a sense that America was giving birth to something new but needed some sort of moral anchor. In a series of letters and then by way of literal cutting and pasting, Jefferson liberated "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man" from the shackles of irrational superstition. The result was an 84-page "Bible" constructed of Jesus' teachings, but without any supernatural accounts. Like Spinoza who planted the seeds of the historical-critical method in biblical studies, Jefferson had no use for the supernatural. Both Spinoza and Jefferson reconstructed a Jesus that was a prototype for the Enlightenment. Jefferson, to this end, created a physical artifact that represented his heterodox revision.

The "historical Jesus" can be defined as a scholarly construct that incorporates but is not limited to the multiple biblical portraits of Jesus. This means that historical research does not (1) attempt to harmonize the canonical Gospels, nor does it (2) simply construct Jesus using the elements that cohere in these Gospels. I would also argue that historical Jesus research is always an attempt to "set the record straight" over and against some previous construction of Jesus. Given these parameters, the Jefferson Bible represents an under-appreciated artifact of historical Jesus research. See this book by Stephen Prothero for a more detailed introduction.

Jefferson' Jesus, of course, is a revisionist history. Now, I will say again what I've said before: all histories are in some way revisionist. It is up to the historiographer to determine how and why particular revisions manifest. Three aspects come to mind. (1) In Jefferson's case, it is clear that the criterion of analogy was at work. This criterion works from the logic that there are predictable constants in the natural world, both ancient and modern. Thus if there were no legitimate accounts of resurrections and water-walking in 1840, it stands to reason that there were no such happenings in the first century either. This logic stands in contrast to various forms of dispensationalism that took form in American Christianity. (2) Another factor that influenced Jefferson was a key element of Neo-romanticism. Jefferson believed that a great man's genius (it was always a man) had the power to create a new epoch in human history. In Jefferson's view the genius of Jesus had created a new epoch and was worthy of revitalizing alongside the birth of America. (3) Jefferson's political interests influenced his reconstruction of Jesus. The idea of private religion as tolerated by the state but not enforced by the state was important to Jefferson. As such Jesus became a teacher, not a preacher. Jesus became a guide, not the agent of an apocalyptic judge. More to this point, Jefferson seemingly had no intention for his "Bible" to be published or widely disseminated. It remained in his private library until his death.

Finally it is noteworthy that Bob Funk (1926-2005), the founder and chief voice of the Jesus Seminar, dedicated his The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? to Thomas Jefferson. Prothero helpfully draws out Funk's interests in Jefferson's Jesus.

Yet another casualty of the standard "Three Quests" paradigm, Thomas Jefferson remains an under-appreciated remembrancer in historical Jesus research.


1 comment:

  1. It is amazing that the patriotic community should be so unaware of Jefferson's fuller contributions. Though it is seldom discussed, the aforementioned criterion seems like one of the dividing shibboleths between historical versus theological studies.

    If only American studied and actually followed the leaders they claim to revere, America would be a much better nation.