“ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography” by Peter Manseau— the Bible As a Guide for Living

Manseau, Peter. “ The Jefferson Bible: A Biography”, Princeton University Press, 2020.

The Bible As a Guide for Living

Amos Lassen

 August,  2020 is the 200th anniversary of the completion of one of Thomas Jefferson’s retirement projects, “The Jefferson Bible” in which he eliminated all the miracles in the New Testament leaving the holy book as a guide to living. Peter Manseau, Smithsonian curator and writer gives us the full story of the creation and legacy of “The Jefferson Bible” through the present day.

This is also the story of the reception of the controversial project. We see how generations of Americans have tired to understand the Jefferson Bible. Through reading this biography of the work, we also lean about Jefferson, the man, the history of his bible and how, through it, Jesus has been seen by Americans as way as the cultural history of biblical interpretation. Jefferson’s intellect is seen above all else. His perspectiveon the larger history of religion in America and how it relates to American cultural differences regarding the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is another major theme here.

Retiring from politics, Jefferson took it upon himself to edit the bible looking at the ideas of the enlightenment, he attempted to reconcile Christian tradition and reason by showing that Jesus of Nazareth was a great moral teacher but that he was not divine. We see how each new generation has reimagined the book in its own image. Readers have struggled with Jefferson’s legacy and where religion fits in the life of America.  

The Jefferson Bible was lost for decades and then rediscovered by chance in the late nineteenth century. It has meant different ideas to different people. Some see it as evidence that America is a Christian nation founded on the lessons of the Gospels while others see it as proof of the Founders’ wanted to root out the influence of faith. Manseau explains Jefferson’s personal religion and philosophy giving us the influences and ideas that inspired him to revise the Gospels. Here is a broad search for the historical Jesus and the part that Jefferson’s bible played in American religious disputes over the interpretation of scripture. The intrigue surrounding the loss and rediscovery of the Jefferson Bible is explained and we see the bible’s  reception history from its first planned printing in 1904 for members of Congress to its power “to provoke and enlighten.”

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