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The Jefferson Bible

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Visionary author Percival Everett will take an atheist’s-eye-view of the little-known “Jefferson Bible,” the third president’s response to the King James Bible.

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Excerpt from the Introduction by Percival Everett

Perhaps more than any American historical figure, Thomas Jefferson represents our desired belief that, at least in the past, the intellectual had a place in our political system. Of course, legends are tricky things at best, playing both sides of the truth/falsehood coin. I am bound by several influences, my education for one, my desire to believe in the inherent good of democracy another, to admit to the eloquence of the Declaration of Independence, the document of which Jefferson was the primary author. But not far behind, if not right alongside or slightly ahead of my acceptance of the political correctness of the Declaration, is the gnawing idea that the document’s beauty lies in its being a remarkably outstanding example of sophistry, if not an outright, self-serving lie.

Some of Jefferson’s most famous quotes remain hauntingly resonant today:

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

“The government is best which governs least.”

“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

“War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying loses.”

The first two have remained as right-wing and now Republican battle cries. The second two are hardly mentioned. But it is no wonder that Jefferson is the Founding Father so beloved and frequently quoted by the armed hideaways and hooded American extremists.

Jefferson remains impressive as someone interested and engaged in the world. He has sometimes been called the “father of archaeology” for his role in devising excavation techniques. Instead of haphazardly digging straight down until something was uncovered, he instead insisted on cutting a wedge out of the Indian burial mound he was desecrating; this allowed him to walk into the site and observe the disturbed remains without having to bend over. A wine lover, a gourmet, a thinker, he was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and so he approached the world with a “scientific” eye, a desire, a need to present his beliefs with the benefit and support of so-called reason and scientific method.

Jefferson’s recasting of the four Gospels of the New Testament—”The Jefferson Bible,” completed in 1819—was an interesting (or not) bit of play intellectualism. Many claim his “translation” amounts to little more than a paraphrasing of the parts of the Bible with which he agreed. In fact, a glance at the Geneva Bible of 1557, the Rheims Bible of 1582, and the Anglican Authorized version of 1611, along with, of course, the King James Bible, might lead one to agree with this assertion. Still, he took it upon himself to do it, whatever it was he did. He decided that the rules of the club to which he wished to belong were not the rules he wanted to play by. So instead of changing clubs, he changed the rule book by literally cutting and pasting together only the sections that he found relevant to his interpretation.

The cover of Jefferson’s creation bore the words, “The Morals of Jesus,” though the title page elaborated: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.” In the eighty-one-page document, translations in all four languages are positioned side by side.

Jefferson was greatly influenced by some of the Unitarian thinkers of his day, as well as by the Enlightenment philosophers and their new appeal to reason. For Jefferson, Paul was the villain of Christianity, reducing the religion to the worship of a man as a god rather than focusing on the teachings of Jesus; this hardly sat well with rational thought and led to the superstitious character of Christianity that Jefferson detested. There is in fact no reference to the divinity of Jesus in the Jefferson Bible, and at the end of the story, once the big rock is rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus, well, that’s it. There is no rising from the dead and therefore no doubting Thomas. Except for the one who happened to write his own version of the text some 1500 years later.

Jefferson wrote, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.” He claimed he was not a Jew, as he did not accept “their theology,” in particular the part that supposes God punishes the sins of the fathers upon their children. One can well imagine. More importantly, he believed that words and ideas were inadequate for the defining of God. For Jefferson, Jesus said that God was perfect and good and did not define him.

In fairness to Jefferson, he admitted that his version of the Gospels was hardly a translation at all, but a “paradigma” of Jesus’s doctrines. He in fact referred to it as a “wee little book.” I have taken liberties here because of the way we in Jefferson’s future have chosen to construct his life. Perhaps I am more sympathetic to Jefferson than I let on. I believe what Jefferson has to teach us is more profound than we realize, more subtle, more complicated.

Before I get to the stuff of Jeffersonian “thought,” I have here to address an interesting aside, that being my notion of retrograde evolution. Two hundred years after Jefferson’s election to his first term as President (an election marred with electoral irregularities), George W. Bush was elected to the same office. I would venture to say (using reasoning very close in quality to Jefferson’s own) that during this time the necks of giraffes might have lengthened by a centimeter, the shells of tortoises might have grown slightly harder, and the speed of cheetahs might have increased, however imperceptibly. But during this same time, Presidents of the United States of America failed to achieve any kind of advance. Jefferson was digging up Indian graves for scientific reasons and rewriting the Bible . . . and George Bush plays pull-my-finger and makes up nicknames for people. Thomas Jefferson founded a school, the University of Virginia, while we all sit and wonder, all of us, how it was possible for George Bush to make it through college at all. From Jefferson we are left with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” From George Bush, “Our nation must come together to unite.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s the line of greatest interest to me and of course to all democracy-loving Americans: black, white, conservative, liberal, neo-Nazi, post-neo-fascist. This remarkable bit of hocus-pocus is full of philosophical and moral baggage, assumptions, presumptions, and supposition. Perhaps the only nonambiguous word in the statement is we. We is the signers of the document, and supposedly by extension, the remaining population of the colonies, the largely illiterate, unmonied rest who were nothing like the signers themselves. You know, the ones who would later gloriously die for freedom and the pursuit of Happiness. It all sounds scarily familiar.

I thought, tear apart the statement, but that would be boring. And besides, I’m not smart enough to offer any kind of compelling addition to our understanding of this remarkable assertion, statement, motto. So I decided to pay Mr. Jefferson a visit. I flew east to Monticello and found him enjoying a French wine, a merlot, I believe, in his drawing room.

TJ: [To his overseer] Lars, take the shackles off that boy and allow him to stand. [To me] What is your business here? Who has sent you?

PE: [Wiping blood from the corner of my mouth] I’ve come of my own accord. I’d like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Jefferson. [Lars moves to strike me again, but Jefferson waves him off]

TJ: Never mind, Lars. I’m intrigued. You shall address me as sir.

PE: I don’t think so.

TJ: [To Lars] Leave us. [To me] Have a seat.

PE: Thank you.

TJ: What would you like to ask me?

PE: Let’s get right to it, shall we? You wrote the beautiful passage that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

TJ: I did.

PE: I’m interested in the bit about all men being created equal. How do you reconcile that with your practice of holding slaves?

TJ: I would offer you some wine, but it would be wasted on your undiscerning palate.

PE: No doubt. Tell me about slavery.

TJ: I advance the notion, the practice of racism. We are not the same. Boy, I cannot tell you whether the blacks were originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, but they are inferior to the white in the endowments of both body and mind.

PE: And because of this inferiority, they can be enslaved.

TJ: Yes.

PE: I passed a small shack on the outskirts of Charlottesville. There was a white man in rags out in a field planting rocks and then watering them. Is he your equal?

TJ: I know the man of whom you speak. Yes, he is.

PE: Tell me, in what way is he equal to you?

TJ: God created him.

PE: Did your God create me?

TJ: Of course he did. But you’re a black. I have established scientific justification for the continuation of slavery. There is no hypocrisy here, if that’s what you’re suggesting.

PE: I am suggesting just that.

TJ: You see, the black is by nature not like other men.

PE: How so?

TJ: Well, you are all black, for one thing.

PE: There is a range of color among white people as well. Is lighter inherently better?

TJ: Don’t you think so? Consider this: The difference in color might be merely in the skin or it may emanate up to the surface from the blood, from the bile, which is no doubt black, or, and this is the notion I’m most drawn to, it may be a secretion. But whatever the reason for the color, it is fixed in nature. Nature fixes things for a reason.

PE: Like hair color.

TJ: But we’re talking about skin. See, that’s the kind of inferior thinking your poor mind is subject to.

PE: Secretion?

TJ: It makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s why you blacks have that objectionable odor. The secretion and underactive kidneys and overactive sweat glands.

PE: You don’t think hard labor for hours in the sun might contribute to the sweating and perhaps some odor?

TJ: To some degree, of course.

PE: . . . Scientific? How have you determined that blacks have underactive kidneys?

TJ: Just watch them. They stand out there for hours, slaving away . . . [pauses to chuckle] and seldom do they excuse themselves to urinate.

PE: They’re being watched by a man with a whip.

TJ: Blacks, you [points to me] are dumb, slothful, and bestial. Your kind respond to sensation rather than out of reflection.

PE: Then how do you account for my remaining seated instead of attacking you?

TJ: The slothful part.

PE: Of course. These are things that you have been able to measure. You’ve set up experiments and used poor whites as control subjects and been able to quantify laziness and bestiality.

TJ: Why no, but I have observed. You know, they have that Phyllis Wheatley up north. All sorts of claims were made about her ability to reason, but I believe she is merely the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, she’s just a parrot motivated by religious zealotry.

PE: I see.

TJ: All of that—the skin color, the broad features, the absence of flowing hair—these must lead you to admit, at least, to the greater physical beauty of the white race.

PE: You mean like Sally Hemmings.

TJ: I should have seen that one coming.

PE: How is it that you have had several children with such an inferior creature?

TJ: First of all, she is an octoroon.

PE: Having a raped ancestor improves one’s lot.

TJ: Well, because of that she is quite fetching.

PE: You have at least one son by her. Is he fetching?

TJ: Whenever I tell him to. [Laughs]

PE: He is more removed from his blackness than his mother. He is, pardon my math, one-thirty-second black. And he is still not equal to you.

TJ: You said it. He has some black blood. How could he be equal to me or any white?

PE: Sally Hemmings is your slave.

TJ: She is.

PE: She is the mother of your children.

TJ: She is.

PE: Do you love her?

TJ: She is my slave.

PE: Does she love you?

TJ: She does what I tell her. You seem bothered by all this.

PE: I might have been, but I expected this . . . May I question you about something else?

TJ: Shoot.

PE: Would that I could.

TJ: That’s very good.

PE: What’s with the dumbwaiters on either side of the fireplace?

TJ: I invented the dumbwaiter. These go down to my wine cellar. I put them in so that I wouldn’t have to rely on the house slaves coming into the drawing room when I’m having sensitive meetings.

PE: Why would that bother you?

TJ: I don’t want them hearing things.

PE: One, you don’t believe that they could understand what you’re talking about, and two, whom would they tell?

TJ: You blacks like to parrot sounds. You’re pretty good at it. And none of you practice any discretion about where you choose to regurgitate what you’ve heard.

PE: And so, the dumbwaiter.

TJ: The dumbwaiter.

PE: Finished with your Bible yet?

TJ: How did you know about that?

PE: A slave told me about it. But anyway, you know there are those who claim that it’s very generous to call your Bible a translation.

TJ: Is that so?

PE: I’ve heard that it’s more or less a paraphrase of the parts you agree with. I think the implication is that your Greek isn’t good enough to actually translate the Gospels. I hear you’re fond of the parables.

[Here I must interrupt to admit to extreme unfairness to Jefferson. I have already discussed Jefferson’s deprecation regarding his “wee” text, but this is my introduction and I can do what I want.]

TJ: [Visibly disturbed] Who has suggested this to you?

PE: If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. So, what’s the problem you have with Jesus and Paul and the gang?

TJ: That Paul screwed it all up by making the religion about Jesus.

PE: In your Bible, you never admit to the deity of Christ. You never mention the virgin birth and there are no miracles. I mean, the old boy doesn’t even rise from the dead. What gives?

TJ: I’ll tell you what gives. The teachings of Jesus are well worth remembering, but the rest of it is superstition. That’s why we have such priestcraft and this abundance of dogma.

PE: You have trouble with dogma.

TJ: I do.

PE: And with untested supposition.

TJ: I do.

PE: Okay, well, I want to thank you for your time. And if you don’t mind, I’ll see myself out.

TJ: Lars!

* * *

The sadness is this. In spite of that fact that Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual in his time and was so beautifully shaped in his thinking by the Enlightenment, he still practiced and perhaps set into motion the duplicity that marks American political posturing, thought, and action. The one trait that has remained constant from Jefferson to Bush is convenient thinking. I accuse myself here of being indulgent and gratuitous in my depiction of Jefferson, but I have not been untruthful, nor, I think, unfair. Jefferson’s notions of racial difference shaped American racial attitudes and he helped this country justify racism by coughing up the word scientific. I ask only that you read Jefferson’s writings with an eye to what he wanted to achieve, appreciating all the while that he often wrote well.

So, I have shamelessly used this opportunity to make some kind of political statement, though even I am at a loss to coherently restate it. Jefferson’s paradigma of the Gospels is what it is. Interesting not so much for the talent it took to do it, or even for the quality of the writing, but for the fact that he took the time to do it at all. Regardless of one’s assessment, however, the work is a product of an individual who sought a level of intellectual engagement with the world that we cannot imagine in our leaders today.

Percival Everett
Moreno Valley, California
July 2004