Belief  /  Book Review

Doubting Thomas

Is Jefferson's Bible evidence that the Founding Fathers engaged with scripture to birth a Christian nation? Or that they sought to foster a new secular order?
Peter Manseau

“In [his Bible’s] execution,” writes Manseau, Jefferson “presented a surprising manifestation of a quintessentially American idea: that existing materials might be reshaped into something new,” a tendency that we share with the Gnostics. Not only that, but Jefferson’s “diamonds from dunghills” rhetoric also manifests the Gnostic faith concerning scriptural secrets. As with ancient wisdom literature, Jefferson’s Bible is a bare-bones assemblage of “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence.” Different as Jefferson is from the author of the Gospel of Thomas, they share an individualistic ethos: “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds,” as the ancient Gnostic wrote, a fully Enlightenment sentiment if ever there was one. If the first Thomas’s gospel is of mythos and the second Thomas’s of logos, both are united in individualism. There the similarity ends, for holding the utmost faith in the operations of his own (superior) mind, Jefferson affirmed that he could cut out those passages “which contradict the laws of nature,” that he would “[e]xamine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that it’s falshood would be more improbable than a change of the laws of nature in the case he relates.” This, it should be said, rather misses the point of imaginative literature.

This is what’s so unsatisfying about Jefferson’s Bible — he has expunged mystery. And mystery is the gospels’ raison d’être. Jefferson repeatedly claimed that the morality of the New Testament was the most sublime and benevolent — a frequent injunction of liberal mainline Protestantism — but is it true? I’d venture that anything which is demonstrably livable within Christian ethics is anodyne, and that anything which is novel is an impossibility, so that the gospels are only coherent if Christ is God, or at least supernatural. With barely concealed anti-Semitism, many liberal Christians have claimed that Christ’s ethics are a challenge to the stiff-necked obstinacy of the Pharisaic rabbis, with Jefferson himself describing Jesus as a “great reformer of the vicious ethics […] of the Jews.” Yet much of what Jesus preached about the flexibility of the mitzvot was also affirmed by the Pharisees, their mistreatment in the New Testament being more an issue of competitive marketing than accuracy. Meanwhile, the unique stipulations of Christ are ironically often notably more extreme than anything in the Hebrew scriptures.