By MARSHA MERCER
Earlier this year, when presidential candidates claimed that God had “called” them to run for the White House, some people were offended. I couldn’t help thinking that God has a sense of humor.
But I wondered how people would react if the president – any president -- were sitting up nights in the White House, cutting out parts of the Bible he or she didn’t like. Many would find such handiwork a sacrilege and an outrage. I’d figure Thomas Jefferson had reached out for a chat.
Barack Obama is not busily reconstructing the New Testament, as far as we know. But in the White House in 1804 Jefferson started editing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with a pen knife or similar sharp instrument and carefully began pasting passages of Christ’s teachings by topic on paper.
Decades later, when he was 77 and living at Monticello, Jefferson produced an edited text of the Gospels. He created an 86-page volume of the life of Christ, parables and teachings by cutting and pasting passages from the New Testament in Greek, Latin, French and English. Jefferson left out the miracles and supernatural events, including the annunciation, angels, virgin birth and the Resurrection.
He titled his version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” had it bound in red leather and read it regularly.
The first volume Jefferson made has been lost, but the Smithsonian Institution bought the Jefferson Bible in 1895. It deteriorated over years, but after a year of restoration is on display at the National Museum of American History.
Like most people, I’d heard about the Jefferson Bible, but seeing the book that Jefferson himself made scrapbook style was a highlight of my museum experiences this year.
The exhibit, open through May 28, does what a visit to a museum should: It makes you think.
In our age, a presidential candidate’s ability to speak a foreign language is fodder for ridicule -- check out YouTube. Our politicians too often feel obliged to wear their faith on their sleeve.
Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain both claimed that God called them to run for president. Anita Perry, wife of Rick, said God spoke to her about a presidential bid, but her husband needed to see a “burning bush,” a reference to God’s first appearance to Moses.
Mitt Romney tells stories about his year spreading Mormonism in France. Newt Gingrich talks about converting to Catholicism after marrying his third wife, Callista, a Catholic. Gingrich admits to past extramarital affairs but says he has repented to God.
Gingrich even sent a letter to the head of a major evangelical group in Iowa recently, pledging “to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.”
All this likely would seem strange to Jefferson, who held his faith close. Lambasted as a “howling atheist” during the brutal presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson later described himself in a letter as “a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
Scholars say Jefferson, like George Washington, was a deist who believed that a supreme being created the world and then stepped back. Jefferson called the Bible “the best book in the world” but believed its zealous authors had embellished the story of Jesus Christ.
Jefferson described his Bible project in a letter to John Adams as “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.”
The Smithsonian has published a facsimile edition of the Jefferson Bible, and versions are available from other publishers. The Jefferson Bible is available online at the Monticello site.
Jefferson’s views on religion were complex and he was reluctant to express them, says Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough in Smithsonian magazine. Clough quotes Jefferson: “I not only write nothing on religion,” he told a friend, “but rarely permit myself to speak on it.”
Smart man, that Jefferson.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.