Sunday, November 27, 2011

Freedom, Faith, and the Jefferson Bible

The original text, handmade by Thomas Jefferson.
Yesterday, the boys, the missus and me decided to head out of the house and roll into downtown DC to do a little museum hopping.  We're remarkably blessed to live so close to the Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, which are 1) an amazing resource open to the American people and 2) free.   Gotta love you some "free."

There were a couple of exhibits that struck our fancy.  The little guy was big into hitting an exhibit of American military history.  The big guy, while feigning early-teen disdain, called our attention to a display of art based on the photoluminescent creatures that live in the ocean's depths.   My wife was looking forward to an interactive display, in which you could blend your facial features with that of a proto-human.   I will not share that picture, although it was amusing, for reasons having to do with wanting to sleep in my own bed tonight.

The two donor Bibles.
Me?  Well, I wanted to see what is popularly known as the Jefferson Bible.

As a religious studies graduate of Mr. Jefferson's University, this little tome has some iconic power for me, and seeing the thing itself, right there in the case, well, that was cool.

In the event you've not been aware of it, the Jefferson Bible is Jefferson's fairly straightforward attempt to create a text that he found amenable to his Enlightenment Deist sensibilities.   Jefferson, being an eminently rational and philosophical soul, well, he had some trouble with the Bible generally.   His faith...and he was a faithful person, in his own way...really did not extend to being able to embrace the more supernatural elements of the Christian faith.  Miracles?  Angels you could hear on high?  Ancient legal and purity codes?   He just couldn't get there.

Still, he'd been impressed enough with what he had learned about the teachings of Jesus to feel they were worth reading and studying.   So he created his own "Bible," entitled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth."

He did not do so by engaging in a careful scholarly re-translation from the most ancient and reliable of texts.  Nope.   Instead, he took a couple of bibles.  Then, he cut out the parts he liked, and pasted them into another book.   That's it.  Hey presto, Jefferson's "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth."

It's striking for a variety of reasons.

First, given the context, it was a thing to do.  There were plenty of proto-Americans who would have looked rather unfavorably on slicing up a Bible.  There are some even today, although if they've ever cut and pasted a verse into a document, really, honey, it's the same thing.  And you don't get that "Founding Father" status unless you're willing to stand up boldly for what you believe in.

Second, I was struck yesterday at how Ol' Tee Jay managed to inadvertently create a document that looks remarkably like the "Q" source proposed by redaction criticism, that collection of sayings and teachings that both Matthew and Luke most likely had in common, but which has been lost to history.   That was, of course, not his intent.   Jefferson couldn't have cared less about the connection to prophetic literature or to Torah.  He was a busy man, what with a nation to create and all.  He was just pickin' the stuff he liked, without really focusing on the way that the text linked to other texts. 

Third, in creating this document,  Jefferson was doing what most Bible readers do anyway.  We read the bits we like, and focus on the bits we like, and ignore the rest.  We may not go all kindergarten on it with our scissors and paste, but we're perfectly capable of doing that in our minds.   And Lord knows, we do plenty of it, constructing our own understanding of what is valuable and what is not.

There's both necessity and danger in that, of course.  If we get our sorting right, we end up focusing on the parts of the Bible that should be most radically defining.   If we get it wrong?  Well, that can take us into all sorts of odd and delusional places.   But Mistah Jeffahson was discerning enough that he caught most of the good stuff.

Finally, staring at this Jesus mashup cobbled together by a bright soul nearly 200 years ago, I found myself being thankful for the country that he helped form, a country in which we're free to believe as we wish, and where no human being can force belief upon any other human being.   We can persuade and argue and debate.  But we remain, within those boundaries, wholly free.

On this Thanksgiving week, that's a vital and real blessing to remember.