In the early months of 1803, perhaps the most consequential period of Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency—if not, for him, the busiest—American envoys were in France, Jefferson’s old ambassadorial stomping ground, negotiating the terms of what would later be called the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson, meanwhile, was mulling a book project. He imagined it as a work of comparative moral philosophy, which would include a survey of “the most remarkable of the ancient philosophers,” then swiftly address the “repulsive” ethics of the Jews, before demonstrating that the “system of morality” offered by Jesus was “the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught.” This sublimity, however, would need to be rescued from the Gospels, which were—as Jefferson put it in a letter to the English chemist, philosopher, and minister Joseph Priestley—written by “the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him.” Jefferson pushed Priestley to write the treatise, and, by the following January, seemed to think that he would. But Priestley died in February, and Jefferson decided to do the salvage work, at least. He got a copy of the Bible, cut out some choice passages, glued them onto blank pages, and called the volume “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth: extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.”
One of Jefferson’s aims seems to have been to demonstrate—to himself, if to no one else—that, contrary to the claims of his political adversaries, he was not anti-Christian. As Peter Manseau, a curator at the National Museum of American History, points out in “The Jefferson Bible: A Biography” (Princeton), the puzzling reference to “Indians” in the subtitle may be a joke about the Federalists, and their apparent inability to grasp Jefferson’s true beliefs. His opponents often labelled him a “freethinker,” or an outright atheist; milder observers came closer to the mark, pegging him as a deist who largely thought of God as a noninterventionist. But Jefferson did not openly claim the deist label. “I am a Christian,” he insisted in a letter to the educator and politician Benjamin Rush, “in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.” In order to establish that this was the actual limit of Jesus’ claims, one had to carefully extricate him from the texts that contain nearly all we know about his life and thought. That might sound like impossible surgery, but, to Jefferson, the fissures were obvious. What was genuinely Christ’s was “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill,” he wrote in a letter to John Adams. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Jefferson was no lamb, and no follower, but he considered himself a good hearer.