Should Jews Embrace the Jefferson Bible?

I was surprised and very pleased to find that Tantor Audio has recently released the Jefferson Bible on audio. More Americans — and particularly more Jewish Americans — should get to know this work much better.

What is the Jefferson Bible? Recall the 3rd President of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson loved Jesus. He told John Adams that he considered Jesus’ ethical teachings to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But Christianity he could have done without. He regarded most of it as superstitious hocus pocus. What’s an ethical deist to do?

For Jefferson, the task was clear. After finishing up a (relatively short) work day at Pennsylvania Avenue, Jefferson literally took his razor and started cutting up the four gospels, excising everything that even hinted at Jesus’ divinity: no angels, no Trinity, no resurrection. Then he redacted the results into a coherent narrative, producing a volume entitled The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Ever the politician, Jefferson did not dare publish it during his lifetime. But his grandson did, in 1895. And even to this day, it’s a remarkable document: you can check it out for free online.

For Jews, the Jefferson Bible is more of historical interest. Its teachings are, quite literally, our teachings. It records the words and sermons of an itinerant Jewish preacher of the Second Temple period; the Sermon on the Mount may be remembered in Koine, the language of Eastern Mediterranean merchants, but it was delivered in Aramaic, the language of Talmudic rabbis. We should be unashamed to embrace it, quote from it, and even cite it as persuasive authority as a way of interpreting the Jewish tradition.

Put another way, the Jefferson Bible is a form of Aggadah, the homiletic and philosophical materials of the Talmud (usually contrasted with the legal materials known as Halachah). Since Aggadah only constitutes one-third of the Talmud, it could use some topping up. The Sermon on the Mount would make a welcome addition to the Jewish canon.

Does Jefferson’s role give these provisions any additional authority? I don’t really know. I’m a critic of Jefferson; I find him generally to be a hypocrite in politics, whose theoretical problems with slavery obscured his dedicated efforts to protect it. But one cannot deny the man’s intelligence and fierce love of learning. And given his undeniable importance in our nation’s history, American Jews might have a special reason for holding onto this text.

All Judaism is syncretic. One cannot read The Guide for the Perplexed without seeing the influence of Muslim ideas on Jewish theology. Indeed, one cannot read Kohelet without seeing the influence of Greek philosophy. This is no different; in the same way that Maimonides could use Al-Farabi’s intellectual authority to import his ideas into Torah, American Jews could use Jefferson’s authority to do the same with Jesus — and without in any way, shape, or form risk Christianizing the tradition. We should be unafraid to continue what Maimonides did.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.