Smithsonian Magazine describes an 84-page version of the New Testament that Thomas Jefferson finished making in 1820. Calling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, he cobbled it together by razoring out and gluing together verbiage he favored—mostly sayings of Christ but some narrative—from what experts think were between six and twelve Bibles.
In his words, accounts of miracles didn’t make the cut, being “contrary to reason” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/ ). Thus you won’t find the feeding of the five thousand or the Resurrection, but the Beatitudes are included. (They astonish my fleshly reasoning, but presumably, Jefferson had no problem with them.) It’s a little ambiguous whether he intended to cull only the verses he believed were inspired or only the verses that he felt focused on Christ’s life and morals with historical accuracy.
In any case, one shouldn’t be flippant about this Founding Father taking his “sharp instrument” to the Scriptures for three reasons. First, at least he read the Bible– for a half hour to an hour daily, drawing from Greek, Latin, French, and English sources in his little volume. Would more of our politicians spend that amount of time in such a way. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, it’s an unfruitful spiritual pursuit, but reading the Bible is splendid as an intellectual pursuit.
Second, and this is my main point, millions of people do the same thing today, cutting and pasting their version of the Bible to live by their chosen principles. It’s an arrogant and dangerous endeavor. As a little exercise, I imagined (but did not actually engage in) cutting out one passage to see what other passage I would hide by gluing it down. Like Jefferson, I used several Bibles for the process.
If I decide to omit John 14:6 (“No one comes to the Father but by Me”), which is uncomfortably restrictive, I lose what’s on the other side of the page: John 15:9, “As the Father has loved, Me, so I have loved you.” Ah, well—I get John 3:16 to assure me that God loves us. On the flip side of the world’s favorite verse (Matthew 7:1), “Judge not…” is the warning not to cast our pearls before swine; it’s so convenient to cover up that judgmental-sounding verse! When I glue that verse into my scrapbook, I can hide that awkward scene printed on the other side of the page, where Jesus drives out the moneychangers.
Snip, snip—the culture demands that I carve out “Wives, submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22), but I must be careful to leave “Be subject to one another” just above it.
For the triumphalist Bible-maker, it’s heartening to read Jesus saying, “I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). Glue that one down before anyone turns the page and reads of the same Christ humbly being arrested and bound (John 18:12). Manage the scissors carefully when you cut out Hebrews 7:26 showing Christ as “separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” or you will also cut out Hebrews 4:15– we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our infirmities.
For the social justice warrior, care is needed when selecting James 1:27, defining true religion as visiting widows and orphans in their distress—the rest of the verse, “and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” sounds a little too old-fashioned. Best to clip that off.
Those who want to construct a comforting “universalist” Bible will pluck this juicy sentiment in Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men”) but leave the next words on the cutting room floor—“training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.”
We can all agree on the beauty of 1 Corinthians 13, but I Corinthians 12 is so messy—all that talk about prophecy and miraculous healing. Snip, snip.
Obviously, this is no way to handle the Word of God. I say ‘obviously” because it is easy for us to recognize occasions when people cherry-pick Bible verses. As Emily Dickinson observed of a preacher, “He preached on breadth till he argued himself narrow.” It’s harder to be aware of doing it ourselves. We tend to skip over parts difficult for our minds to understand or our sinful flesh to obey. In teaching, we highlight the passages most palatable to the largest numbers of folks. But Paul says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Every verse of Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). And it is most profitable when it is handled responsibly, as a whole. That’s the third reason why one cannot take a man-made, manhandled version of the Word of God lightly.
The Jefferson Bible was immediately viewed with suspicion by many pastors and legislators when Congress first considered printing copies of it in 1902. Some objected that since it contained only Scripture verses, government funds shouldn’t be spent on it. Others defended it as “a consolidation of the beautiful, pure teachings of the Saviour in a compact form.” Yet a group of Presbyterian preachers called it “a direct, powerful and public attack on the Christian religion.” Rev. Kerr Boyce Tupper said, “Ours is confessedly and conspicuously a Christian government, and Jefferson’s Bible if rightly represented, is essentially an unchristian work.” Jefferson himself had said that his project was proof that he was “a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-180975716/. Or, at least, some of them.
Leah is a civil rights attorney, wife, mother, and active member of Christ Presbyterian Church, PCA, in Tulsa. Her podcast, “Conversation Balloons,” is available on most platforms and via the podcast page of her website, Leahfarish.com.