Was Thomas Jefferson a heretic and anti-Semite?

Often when I hear people wanting to destroy statues of historical figures and burn books of authors who mentioned something they considered wrong, even though these men and women also did good things and are part of our history, I wonder what they would do with the Hebrew Bible if they found out that all the men and women mentioned in the Hebrew Bible arguably did something wrong, such as King David’s adultery. The only totally innocent good man in the Hebrew Bible is Job, and that story according to many rabbis and scholars is just a parable. By pointing out the wrongs, the Torah is telling us that the biblical heroes were humans like us. The Bible does not expect any human to never do wrong. We should learn from these narratives to strive to be as good as we can be.

President Thomas Jefferson is one of the villains of these people. They choose to criticize him because he had slaves. They ignore the good he did, which does not absolve him for his many wrongs, his slave ownership, the way he treated his black children, the illegal acts he committed in France, and more. But he did do significant good act, so he should not be erased from our history. I will not speak about his wrong behavior other than his statements and writings about the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Peter Manseau tells about Jefferson’s negative feelings about the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and how and why he came to cut and paste sections of the New Testament, removing miracles and events and statements he considered unnatural, and created his own Bible. He also tells how many people considered him a heretic. The book is “The Jefferson Bible.”

President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a deist, believed in the existence of a single deity who was not involved in the daily life of people. He disliked both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for many reasons, especially because they include unnatural, even impossible events such as the talking snake and talking donkey in the Hebrew Bible. He felt that only some, but not all, of the ethical teachings in the Bibles are worth teaching.

He – like Leo Tolstoy in his “The Gospel in Brief,” and others – decided to cut and paste the New Testament Gospels, with no attempt to retain the order of the Gospel writers, and remove those items that distressed him, including the miraculous birth of Jesus, told with different “facts” in two of the four Gospels, and all of the other miracles, including the events that occurred after Jesus death. He solved the problem of the frequent differences between the Gospels about what occurred to Jesus at different times – for each Gospel has its own version of the life of Jesus that differs widely with the other three – by selecting passages from each that he thought made sense and blending them together to create what he considered a perfect no longer defective Bible, a Bible that teaches morality. Jefferson wanted “to pick out diamonds from dunghills.” He completed his abridged version of the New Testament in 1820, six years before his death. He placed his “diamonds,” roughly one thousand of the 7,957 New Testament verses in 84 pages in English, French, Greek, and Latin. While he also felt that the Hebrew Bible was filled with “dunghills,” he did not compose an abridged version of the 23,145 verses in the Hebrew Bible.

After Jefferson died, people forgot about his Bible. It was not until the Orthodox observant Jewish Curator of the Smithsonian, Cyrus Adler, discovered the book in the library of another Jew in 1886. Congress published the book for Senators and members of the House of Representatives in 1904.

Those who suppose that Jefferson’s Bible has any relation to the New Testament are mistaken.

Bart D. Ehrman highlights a sample of about a hundred thousand differences between the four gospels in his 2009 book, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).” He points out that there is something far more significant than these different descriptions of New Testament events; it is the fact that each of the gospel writers wrote his book to offer his readers his unique understanding of Jesus life and mission. These views differ greatly. For example, Mark, writing a little more than several decades after Jesus’ traditional date of death, emphasized that Jesus was predicting the advent of a new and better world on earth during the lifetime of those listening to him. In contrast, John, who composed his Gospel decades later, after the death of all of Jesus’ contemporaries, stated that Jesus’ message was that people should strive to achieve an everlasting life in heaven.

Despite his attempt to remove problematical items, Jefferson’s perfect Bible retains many “flaws” that Ehrman disclosed exist in the canonical version, such as the census in its opening verse, which history has shown never occurred, and the curious statement that Joseph had to take his family to Bethlehem because one of his ancestors had lived part-time in this city over a thousand years before he was born.

However, more importantly, Jefferson demolished the uniqueness of each of the four gospels. He created a Bible that each of the Gospel writers would reject.  He distorted the moral teachings in two ways. First, as we said, he changed the overall focus and intent of the document. Second, by mixing the language of each gospel writer and presenting them in his own chronological order, he perverted the details of the teachings.

Was President Thomas Jefferson an anti-Semite and a heretic? I think he was not. Everyone has the right to believe what he or she feels is correct as long as he or she does not harm others. True, he like all other humans made mistakes, but he also did magnificent things in helping create our country. And he had every right to deny the existence of miracles and other biblical statements that are unnatural.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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