In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines. - Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 13 October, 1813
This was the concept behind The Jefferson Bible, which essentially was what the modern Jesus Seminar tried to do. Thomas Jefferson was a man of many ideas, one could say a polymath too. He was a deist and non-believer in supernatural phenomena, who also sometimes described himself as an epicurean. Like Tolstoy, he believed that the idea of a supernatural Jesus was the stuff of fables, and left out all miracles and supernatural phenomena in his bible, including the resurrection of Jesus, highlighting Jesus’ ethical teachings. A bit ironic when one considers the religious zeal, and even zealotry, that would eventually wash over America, particularly with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s and 1930s in response to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Jefferson eschewed the priestly class with criticisms that would befit Jesus’ own criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees.
Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789
They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.
-Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
-Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814
Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816
My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, August, 6, 1816
Priests...dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live.
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820
Stinging criticisms indeed from the third president of the United States of America, and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. When John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he remarked:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Jefferson was all for religious freedom, and free speech, and with that freedom made it clear in no uncertain terms where he stood in regard to religion, priestly corruption, and the life of Jesus. He saw in Jesus’ teachings “the finest ethical system in the world”, but it needed to become free of religious dogma. Now many will find that controversial, and Christians may find it repulsive, since the very foundation of Christianity rests upon Jesus’ claims to divinity, and the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul said, if there is no resurrection, then there is no Christianity, and your faith is in vain. So let me make it clear where I stand. I believe Jesus may well have been some kind of limited miracle worker, also known as a shaman, but not one who could walk on water or rise from the dead. He’s the tragic “hero with a thousand faces”, to use a phrase from Joseph Campbell. In my opinion he was not the son of God, but to use biblical terminology, a son of God (I’m an agnostic-theist myself, so I’m not a fan of religious dogma either, in fact dislike it as much as Jefferson did). My idea of God is best phrased in the words of Charles Darwin, that “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton”. I believe the search for God is basically a futile endeavour, like an ant trying to comprehend a human brain. Does God intervene in human affairs? Does he answer individual prayers? On that question I’m open (therefore not a deist), but I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever find a conclusive answer, mainly because the ubiquitous problem of evil is a source of never-ending perplexity to me. To put it in the words of Bill Gates, “life isn’t fair; get over it”. Well it’s not so easy to “get over” when contemplating metaphysical and religious questions. One has to deal with that in this arena. And really, life is not fair. I have at times seriously flirted with both deism and atheism, but trying to fit into those categories has never left me intellectually satisfied. No one can categorically say for sure that “God does not exist”. As far as we were concerned until the advent of modern science, atoms and molecules did not exist, but funny enough Aristotle speculated or theorised in the fifth century BC that they did, as did subsequent philosophers. The origin of many ideas and theories go back millennia. So I’m not indifferent to the idea that some kind of “force” governs life, in all of its paradoxical appearances. Is there such a thing as karma? Maybe. Even many non-religious people seem to believe this. So there’s a basic outline of my thoughts on this subject.
Going back to “Jefferson’s Jesus”, well why not just dump the whole idea? That is, in fact, what most of Western civilisation has arguably done, and continues to do. Why? Probably because most, like Jefferson, cannot very long tolerate the idea of a supernatural Jesus, much less the dogma that has inspired wars, crusades, pogroms, and even the Holocaust, if we go back to Martin Luther’s preposterous ideas about Jews. It has literally in many cases turned mother against daughter, father against son, and “a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household”. This is the unpleasant side of Jesus’ teachings, which are welded to Christian dogma. On those facts alone, a reasonable person would be seriously tempted to dump the lot. Not so Jefferson, and I’m inclined to agree that there is much that is worthwhile in the Bible, but on a purely humanitarian and ethical level. Mahatma Gandhi also seemed to agree, but with this qualifier, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” It was Jesus’ idea of turning the other cheek that inspired Gandhi, and forgiving your enemies. Somehow, the gospels capture an insight into human nature, yet contrary to how most of us act in reality, often with negative consequences. As Gandhi also said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Of course, Leo Tolstoy was another strong advocate of trying to adopt the ethical teachings of Jesus.
As a late teenager I read the beatitudes and they had an enormous impact on me, because there is something sublime and worthy of emulation in them, even as an ideal if not reality, because it demands that we rise above our natural instincts, and in particular our desire for revenge and immediate justice. Jesus or no Jesus – life is not fair. It never was, and never will be. So he helps us to cope with this reality by rising above our natural instincts, and accepting the things we cannot change not as barriers, but as personal challenges. We all know the saying “life’s a bitch, then you die”. Well there’s no real point resigning yourself to such negativity because it will never get you anywhere in life. Jesus promised all recompense in an afterlife, where the sheep will be separated from the goats, but I would argue that recompense can also be had in this life if we are prepared to follow some simple guidelines, not the least being “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. This is the “great teacher” Jesus, not the “son of God” Jesus.
The problem with taking all of Jesus’ teachings literally (including selling everything you have to follow him) is most manifest in what happens as a result – endless division, religious quarrels, religious prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and ironically, the very things Jesus himself taught against in other areas. You must treat the poor fairly, and also give your cloak to any who would demand your coat. If you wish to be forgiven, you must forgive. You must not look down on others as worthless Samaritans, because all are “the children of God”. It is no irony, though, that Jesus chose the example of the priest and Levite as bad examples, hurrying to synagogue and attending to “religious observances” while ignoring the pleas of a man in distress. His condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees could find many modern equivalents, such as Jefferson’s. I feel quite sure that this is where Jefferson felt that even the original gospel writers went astray. The gospels were not written when Jesus was alive, but long after he was dead. Therefore it’s difficult to know exactly what he said, and no doubt embellishments and misinterpretations occurred, including perhaps the resurrection story. In those days there were no universities, no peer review, and story-telling was accepted as fact. Writing history, as we understand it today, was no where near as disciplined and demanding, and a writer-historian could, and often would, take license in retelling the past. Jefferson did not have a high opinion of the gospel writers:
The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814
What Jefferson tried to preserve is what he felt “proceeded from an extraordinary man”. A non-supernatural man just like the rest of us, but one imbued with extraordinary wisdom and insight. The problem is that Jesus has become so tied to religious and Church dogma that it’s nearly impossible to extract him from it, and in my opinion this has fostered, I’m almost afraid to say, a generation of bigots who cannot see two feet beyond their religious noses, who really think primarily, first and foremost, of their own happiness and fulfillment in life (just like most of us), and who are in reality not very different to the mainstream scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. So I make no apology for defending Jefferson’s non-supernatural view of Jesus, even at the risk of offending the “religiously sensitive”. I don’t see that you are any different to the rest of us, but your owning of Jesus for centuries now, has, ironically, almost ensured that the majority no longer take him as seriously as they should. To Western civilisation, he's now as good as dead and buried.