Alternate Activity 2: The Jefferson Bible
Activity time: 20 minutes
Materials for Activity
- Several copies of the Jefferson Bible, enough for everyone to look on and share-available through the UUA Bookstore
- Copies of a traditional Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1989)
- Writing paper and implements
Description of Activity
Participants learn about Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible and examine how it differs from a traditional Bible.
Ask participants if they are familiar with a book called the Jefferson Bible. Tell them Jefferson did not name it the Jefferson Bible. He entitled his work The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. The work was not published during his lifetime, although his friend John Adams wanted him to publish this work. [The Jefferson Bible is published by the UUA's Beacon Press. Jefferson's original cut-and-paste copy is being restored at the Smithsonian museum.]
Jefferson considered himself a Christian, but he felt unease about portions of the Bible that seemed to him obviously inaccurate, created for some purpose other than transmitting the teachings of Jesus. After thinking about, studying, and corresponding with friends for many years, Jefferson finally undertook the work of separating the grain from the chaff-in other words, trimming the Bible back to only what seemed to be the fundamentals of Jesus' teachings. If Jefferson had published this work, it would have been very controversial.
Jefferson took out the virgin birth; he thought it was an elaboration, and that Jesus was just as divine without it. He took out the star shining over Bethlehem, took out the Magi. Jefferson also removed all of Jesus' miracles: no water turned to wine, no walking on water, no calming storms, no healings or bringing people back to life, no loaves and fishes to feed 5,000. Most Christians have never heard of Jefferson's Bible, but would reject it for this alone-the miracles are considered essential proof of Jesus' divinity. Again, Jefferson thought they probably did not happen to begin with, and Christ did not need any proof beyond his exquisite life and work.
Jefferson's process was scholarly. He acquired the oldest texts he could find, sending to Europe for some. Being multilingual, he used ancient Greek, Latin, and French texts in addition to the Standard English Bible of his time. Then, page by page, he laid the verses out side by side and compared. Most sections with contradictions of fact he excised completely. Jefferson did not rewrite anything; he only edited, but his editing was radical. What resulted was a slim gem of a volume that he used for his personal devotions for the rest of his life, consisting almost entirely of the life and works of the human Jesus.
Distribute copies of the Jefferson Bible. Ask what participants notice right away. Jefferson utilized only the four Gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), then trimmed much of them, so even working with four versions it is much smaller than a standard Bible.
Ask for participants' thoughts. Were they aware of the Jefferson Bible? If so, what had they heard about it? Continue discussion with questions like the following:
- What do you think of Jefferson's decision to take out all the miracles? Does that change the message of Christianity? If do, how?
- Did it surprise you to learn Jefferson knew four languages well enough to do research in them? Could he have undertaken this project without knowing all those languages? What difference would that have made?
- What do youth think of Jefferson's process? Does it make sense to lay the versions side by side and remove areas where they do not agree? Is there another way one could undertake this project?
Distribute standard Bibles and ask youth turn to Matthew, the first Gospel. Distribute writing paper and implements. Invite youth to compare the text of Matthew as revised by Jefferson with the commonly used Bible text. Ask:
- Do you agree with Jefferson's changes?
- Would you have taken out more? Less? Different things?
- Do you see a pattern to what he removed?
- Do Jefferson's choices strengthen or weaken the text in your opinion?
- Often a Jefferson Bible is given as a High School graduation gift by Unitarian Universalist congregations. What message is the congregation offering when they give graduates this gift?