The Real Reason Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible

Thomas Jefferson believed that the New Testament needed a good editor to separate out the moral teachings of Jesus from the myths and miracles found in the Gospels. In what some might have considered sacrilegious at the time (or even today, for that matter), he took several versions of the Bible and cut out the passages that meant the most to him. As he wrote to John Adams in 1814, "It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills" (via The Atlantic).

In 1804, while serving as president, Jefferson made his first attempt at creating his own Bible. He used two English versions of the King James Version to produce "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." But this 46-page-long collage of quotes "was too hastily done however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business" (via Monticello). No copy of this book survives. Jefferson tried again in 1819 while living at his home Monticello in Virginia. This time, he used several Bibles in English, French, Greek, and Latin. The well-educated Jefferson could compare the different versions, and he pasted the passages he liked best on blank paper. He "glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other," Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the National Museum of American History, explained to Smithsonian Magazine.

Thomas Jefferson's Bible focused on moral teachings

Completed in 1820, Jefferson called his work "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." (A digital copy can be viewed online, posted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.) His goal in creating this book was to present "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man" (via Monticello). Jefferson believed that religion was a private affair between a man and his maker, and therefore he made this book for his own use. Being a man of reason and science, Jefferson focused his attention on the teachings of Jesus, rather than the supernatural elements that traditionally appear in the New Testament.

"The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" has become known as the Jefferson Bible. After his death, his daughter Martha received the book. The Smithsonian Institution bought the work from Jefferson's great-granddaughter Carolina Randolph in 1895. In 1904, Congress had the Jefferson Bible printed, and a copy of this book was given out to each new senator as part of his or her swearing-in ceremony up until the 1950s.