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These extracts, it will be seen, contain the author's sense of the national God of Israel, the character of Moses, the moral and ceremonial law, the Divine authority of the religious system of the Jews, their typical, miraculous, and prophetic communication, the genuineness of the Pentateuch and "other books relating to them," which comprise the largest portion of the Hebrew Scriptures. One of the descendants of Mr. Jefferson remarks, according to the Review, that "there were parts of the Old Testament for which he felt the most fervent admiration. I have heard him repeat from memory the most beautiful parts of David's lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, the mourning over Absalom, as well as several of the Psalms, such as the fifteenth and twenty-third. It may be worth while to remark that his voice and manner were particularly impressive when he read aloud passages from the Old Testament, or repeated the Psalms." In the face of our quotations no one will pretend, probably, that admiration of select passages of the Old Scriptures, or the repeating of the Psalms in an impressive manner, involves belief in their Divine inspiration.
We pass to consider Jefferson's opinions of the New Testament. In a letter to his skeptical friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, accompanying what he called his "creed on paper," or "syllabus of an estimate of the merits of the doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others," the following introductory passage occurs :
"I am a Christian in the only sense in which Jesus wished any one to be sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other."
From the syllabus itself we take a few sentences which bear upon the author's view of Jesus Christ. He ascribes to Jesus doctrines more pure than those of the most correct of the philosophers, but adds:
"The committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men, who wrote, too, from memory, and long after the transactions had passed. . . . He fell
his reason not
having yet at
an early victim, tained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his
preaching presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible."
The following explanation of the Syllabus, written by Jefferson but six years before his death, is contained in a letter to another skeptical friend :
"But while the Syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true light, as no impostor himself, but a great reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a materialist; he takes the side of spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sins; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. .. It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, that I so much admire; sometimes, indeed, needing indulgence to eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies, too, may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him, by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that his part composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The Syllabus, therefore, is of his doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent."
The following extracts are from a letter to the same person, supplementary to the explanation of the Syllabus:
"My aim in that was to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we
could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods, the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations, theorizations, of the fathers of the early and the fanatics of the later ages, the conclusion is irresistible, by any sound mind, that he was an impostor. We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications. Intermixed with these are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence. These could not be the inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds, and I will venture to
affirm that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow the grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment's consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as those of an image of metal and clay."
"There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objections, which we may with probability ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted, Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion; and a step to right or left might place him within the grasp of the priests. He was justified, therefore, in avoiding them by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplications of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these, their own weapons, as sufficient ad homines, at least. That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the Son of God, physically speaking, I have been persuaded by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. . . . . He might readily
mistake the corruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of a high order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation than the belief of Socrates that he was under the care and admonition of a guardian spirit. Excusing, therefore, on these considerations, those passages in the Gospels which bear marks of weakness in Jesus, . . I think myself authorized to conclude the purity and disposition of his character."
"We must reduce our volume," Jefferson says, in another letter to John Adams, "to the simple Evangelists; select from them the very words of Jesus, paring off amphibologisms into which they have been led by forgetting, often by not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions of his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code," &c.
"I have performed the operation for my own use, by culling verse by verse out of the printed book and arranging the matter which is evidently his, as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages."
"To do him [Jesus] justice," (from a letter to Dr. Priestley), "it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines had to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, from memory, long after they had heard them from him, when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, and preserved in very paradoxical shapes."
"Last and least of all" (from a letter to Alexander Smith) "would I undertake to criticise works on the Apocalypse. It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more capable of explanation than the incoherence of our nightly dreams. . . . . There is not coherence enough in them to countenance any suite of rational ideas."
We understand, now, Jefferson's views respecting the sacred writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the books
ascribed to them, of Jesus Christ and his teachings. They amount to a positive denial of the truth and divinity of the New Testament, and charge imbecility, roguery, insanity, imposture, and corruption upon its authors. The only portions saved from total infamy by this "ignorant" and "groveling" crew, are the words of Christ himself, stripped of the acts attributed to him and his personal history; but even these are winnowed by the objection, "I am not with him in all his doctrines, but read them with a mixture of admiration and dissent," "as claiming indulgence for the circumstances under which he acted," in using "sophisms, misconstructions, and misapplications of scraps of the prophets." After subtracting "hyperbologisms," the remainder is to be received as coming from an extraordinary man who might conscientiously have thought himself inspired in a manner corresponding with the inspiration of Socrates. Our inquiries have not extended, except incidentally, to Biblical interpretations-to points of difference among Christian sects to any system of theology. We proposed to show that Jefferson was an unbeliever-a rejecter of the historical truth and Divine authority of the whole Bible. It may further illustrate his opinions if we remark upon those parts of Revelation and those religious teachers that he viewed. with peculiar abhorrence. Next to the Apostle Paul and his "corruptions of Christianity," John Calvin and "the cannibal priests," and their instructions, are most rudely treated, as in the following quotations.
To John Adams, he writes: "I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He was, indeed, an atheist, which I never can be. Or, rather, his religion was demonism. If ever a man worshiped a false God, he did. The being described in his five points is not the God whom I acknowledge, ... but a demon of malignant spirit." . . . . "My firm belief is, that there never would have been an infidel if there had never been a priest." "It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend that they believe in the Platonic mysticism that three are one, and one are three; but this constitutes the craft and the profit of the priests."