Should Jews Embrace the Jefferson Bible?

A Prophet for Jews?

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

12 thoughts on “Should Jews Embrace the Jefferson Bible?”

  1. That’s… some suggestion there. I took a look through the text. I know the Gospels contains some narrative pieces that are very much in conflict with Jewish tradition – most of those I searched for don’t appear to be here; however, the remaining text seriously denigrates the Pharisees, and given that Jewish tradition very definitely follows the Pharisees, that’s kind of a problem. Besides, what is really gained here? The sages were very picky about what went into our canon. The apocryphal texts are very much closer to being in concert with Jewish law and tradition, and yet they rejected them. Why would we use a text written for and maintained by another faith? That Christianity is based largely on Judaism does not mean that it is appropriate for Jews to venerate a Christian text, however expurgated.

  2. Maimonides hated Jesus. See his Epistle to Yemen:

    After that there arose a new sect which combined the two methods, namely, conquest and controversy, into one, because it believed that this procedure would be more effective in wiping out every trace of the Jewish nation and religion…
    The first one to have adopted this plan was Jesus the Nazarene, may his bones be ground to dust… He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him.

  3. I agree with the comments, not the post. Jesus’ teachings represented a radical departure from Judaism, so it is not merely an exercise in demythology to make the text of the New Testament acceptable to Jews. The idea that one could achieve salvation through faith is antithetical to the idea that good works in life are what’s vital, and that idea is central in Jewish teaching (at least it was in my congregation).

    However, there is litle question that Jefferson is a source of admiration for many, if not most Jews (and most Americans, by the way). While far from a perfect human being, and like most successful politicians, extremely pragmatic in choosing when to compromise his principles, most of us evaluate him in the context of his time, which was admittedly a period when racism and other ism’s we have hopefully outgrown were prevalent. He had as much influence on the founding of our country, in positive ways, as anyone, and his writings are of an intellectual level that far exceeded most of his contemporaries. I think most would consider him to be the intellectual and spiritual father of the modern Democratic party (perhaps along with Andrew Jackson) where most American Jews have felt politically at home (however that might now be changing). So whatever his religious ideas, Jews’ affinity for Jefferson is genuine.

  4. As an American Jew, my main interest in the Christian Bible stems from its role as a touchstone of the culture that surrounds me. (I have a friend who found herself completely at sea in an undergraduate humanities class, because the class was reading Paradise Lost and she was missing many of the allusions to a text that her classmates took for granted.) And when I see Gentiles in the surrounding culture refer to Jesus, they are usually not referring to Jesus, the ethical teacher; they are referring to Jesus, the deity whom you must believe in to escape eternal damnation. (Or they’re referring to a body of sexual ethics that owes more to Paul than to Jesus.)

    And regardless of Jefferson’s theological views, the source text for his Bible was written by people who believed in the divinity of Jesus (and in the perfidity of the “Pharisees”) and wanted the story of that divinity to come front and center. Who knows how many of Jesus’ ethical or philosophical remarks were left on the cutting-room floor, as it were, because they didn’t fit the editors’ rhetorical goals? The Gospels minus Christian theology is like Atlas Shrugged minus politics.

    I want my children to be familiar with the Christian Bible, but I want them to know the whole thing, not just the philosophically congenial parts. And while some of the statements attributed to Jesus may be good advice to live by… the Tao Te Ching has good advice, too, and I don’t take it as an authority on Jewish tradition.

    1. Amen to this: “And when I see Gentiles in the surrounding culture refer to Jesus, they are usually not referring to Jesus, the ethical teacher; they are referring to Jesus, the deity whom you must believe in to escape eternal damnation. (Or they’re referring to a body of sexual ethics that owes more to Paul than to Jesus.)” There is a lot of that going on.

      But in regard to your post and Bloix’s, being not raised Jewish, I am curious if there were other Jewish teachers/rabbis who were considered so offensive they had to be killed? (And I’m *not* saying “the Jews …” did x y or z, just some of them, okay?) How do Jewish people decide which forms of comment are worth including and which aren’t? Because others have suggested that Jesus was a re-tread of Rabbi Hillel, too, so then what would be the point of murder?

      Though on the third hand, I can see how someone showing up and saying they were the Messiah could be annoying, if one disagreed. But there must have been more to it than that.

      1. I cannot think of any Jews who think that Jesus was “considered so offensive [he] had to be killed.” The most extreme response tends to be excommunication (the community is forbidden to interact with them), such as happened to Spinoza.

      2. The assumption behind your question is that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries considered him worthy of death. Our only evidence for this is the Gospels, which were written for a Roman audience at a time when Rome was persecuting Jews throughout the empire.

        At the time of Jesus’ death, the Jewish Sanhedrin no longer had the power to impose capital punishment. Even if they had, the statements attributed directly to him in the Gospels don’t seem to meet the standards for false prophecy referred to in Deuteronomy 18:20, and even if they did, crucifixion was never a Jewish form of capital punishment; it was the Roman penalty for sedition.

  5. Jonathan’s ideas strike me as being not light years distant from those of Jacob Neusner, particularly in the latter’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (and in particular WRT the Sermon on the Mount). Neusner sums up what he finds wrong (and right) with Jesus in the titular interlocutor’s response to his own teacher’s questioning:

    — What did he leave out?

    — Nothing.

    — Well, what did he add?

    — Himself.

    I used to believe in a deity, but I gave that up for Lent. So I have no dogma in this fight. But surely people of Religion X, or of no religion whatever, can find value in various bits of the scripture or teachings of Religion Y? (I mean ethical or moral or, for those so inclined, spiritual value; I am not referring to the entirely separate issue of literary value.)

    Godless heathen though I be, there is a great deal of (e.g.) Kohelet and Job that I find very wise. And, being a godless Heathen, I am free to admire the Yahweh who desires mercy rather than sacrifice and enjoins his people to help the poor, comfort widows and orphans, do justice etc. while despising the Yahweh who imposes arbitrary and capricious prohibtions and orders genocide without worrying that I am impermissibly cherry-picking. (I don’t believe in either of those Yahwehs, but I like the former much more than the latter, and if people must believe in a god, I’d much rather they go for him than for the alternative.) Same rules apply for the NT, though there is, in terms of sheer number of letters, both less lovely stuff and less horrific stuff in the Christian sequel than in the Jewish original (perhaps because the latter is simply so much bigger than the former).

  6. “Its teachings are, quite literally, our teachings.”

    This seems to kinda completely miss the point. You believe that Jefferson (let alone his successors) didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, but DID believe in god working miracles, interfering in the day to day lives of people, making decisions about which nations shall prosper and which shall fail?
    NO-ONE has a complaint with the “thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not bear false witness, etc” five of the commandments — the problem is that those who insist on them always ALSO insist on the “thou shalt have no other gods before me, thou shalt honor the Sabbath etc” five.

    Once again what we see here in Jonathan is a “secular” theist — someone who simply cannot and will not believe, in spite of all the evidence otherwise, that most of his religious compatriots actually DO take the superstitious hocum seriously. It’s these people who are then amazed that, when their religious compatriots obtain power, they actually insist on institutionalizing all that nonsense. This isn’t just some weirdness from the Islamic world — we see plenty of it in the US all the time, and has the blog poster not noticed the recent stories from Israel about the attempts there to rein in the rights of women. (Apparently burkas in Iran show how awful Muslims are, but burkas in Jerusalem show the deep respect religious Jews have for women. Or something.)

  7. Right now I am very disappointed with Jesus. Trying to assassinate the President like that–shooting real bullets at the White House! I mean, honestly! He ought to know better.

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