Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Jefferson's Bible

In the fake "backstory" accompanying one of my favorite books of all time, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Goldman fondly remembers an action-packed, swashbuckling book that his father read to him while he was sick as a boy. When his own son becomes ill, Goldman supposedly finds the book and gives it to his son, who is curiously apathetic about it. When pressed, the son replies that the book is long, boring, and pointless. "The Princess Bride is boring and pointless?!" exclaims Goldman, snatching it up. And he realized that his father, upon reading the book to him so long ago, cut out all the boring bits of trivia and history that cluttered the manuscript, leaving just "the good parts".

Goldman decides to "revise" The Princess Bride to include only the "good parts" of the tale, and that is the novel (and later, movie) that I grew to love.

It turns out that some 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson did much the same thing with The New Testament of the Holy Bible.

Jefferson believed that Christ was a great moral teacher, whose wisdom had been corrupted and coopted by the Christian Church over the course of the 1800 years since His birth. He considered the modern church of his time an abomination and a blasphemy, bearing little to no resemblance to the teachings of its founder. And so he set out to strip the New Testament of all claims of supernaturalism or priestly interference, attempting to reconstruct a Bible containing only the actual words and deeds of Christ himself.

He refused to publish it in his lifetime, perhaps from a fear of scandal and perhaps from a sincere conviction that religion is a private matter. Probably, being only human, it was a little bit of both. In any event, after his death the "Jefferson Bible" was bequeathed to his son and eventually published.

It's an interesting read, particularly having grown up with the full-fledged Catholic Bible. From its home page on the web (where you can read Jefferson's attempt in full), here's a bit more on the idea, from a letter Jefferson wrote to a correspondant:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

Compared to Jefferson, my own attempts at trying to figure out what to accept of Christ's teachings and what to reject (discussed in an earlier post, here) are laughably inept. Agree or disagree with him, Jefferson was one hell of an intellect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So now we know the true founder of "Reader's Digest." Sorry -- after my posting about the war, I needed something light-hearted... Denise