Friday, November 24, 2006

The Historical Jesus of Thomas Jefferson

Given the holiday weekend and given the fact that this site is now following the Pope in turning its attention to the historical Jesus question, I thought it appropriate to post something on one founding father's thought on the topic.

As I've mentioned, the seeds for the current critical approach to gospels' portrait of Jesus can be found in the 17th and 18th centuries. As the Enlightenment elevated reason over faith and historical critical study of Scripture emerged, English Deists began offering their own reconstructions of the life of Jesus. These treatments excised the supernatural elements--the miraculous accounts--of the gospel narratives.

In this, as I mentioned in the last post, these Deists were influenced by the anti-supernaturalism abounding in their day. In Britain, Thomas Hobbes wrote his famous work, Leviathan (1651), in which he chalked up the belief in miracles to "ignorance and error"(chapter 37). Likewise, Spinoza offered a stinging critique of miracles in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670).

Thomas Jefferson saw himself as an "enlightened" individual. Thus, Jefferson set out to write a life of Jesus in which he set aside the miraculous elements of the gospels, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He called the work The Philosophy of Jesus. Although the work is mentioned in private letters, he did not go public with it. In a letter he wrote to William Short in 1819, Jefferson admitted that the work was the fruit of no more than three days' work. After his retirement, he later expanded this work into The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Moreover, following Reimarus and Lessing (see last post), Jefferson drove a wedge between the historical figure of Jesus and the teaching of the Christian church. Jefferson had a very low view of Christianity, saying that it had turned "one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites." In 1815 he wrote to Charles Clay, saying, "I abuse the priests, indeed, who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their Master." By sifting out the claims of the gospels regarding Jesus' miracles and his divinity, Jefferson wrote that he had removed "diamonds from the dunghill."

While Jefferson had little respect for Christianity, he still maintained a great respect for Jesus. In his view, Jesus was simply the greatest moral teacher in human history--no more, no less. In 1803 he wrote to Benjamin Rush, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone 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." Jefferson thus compared Jesus to other philosophers in history (thus his work, The Philosophy of Jesus) , in his Syllabus of an Estimate of theMerit of the Doctrines of Jesus,Compared with Those of Others. Here he writes of Jesus' principal aims:

1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of His attributes and government.

2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his
thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews, and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive,
supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.

Essentially, then, Jefferson creates a portrait of Jesus as an English Deist. He saw little need to view Jesus in light of his Jewish context--in a sense, Jesus must be identified against his Jewish context. In fact, one can almost detect a subtle anti-semitism at work in his writings. Jesus is basically seen as a Greek philosopher, who reformed problematic Jewish notions. He writes that the Jewish ideas of God "were degrading and injurious." He describes Jewish ethics as "repulsive".

Jefferson thus followed the tradition of Reimarus' and Schweitzer--the real Jesus can only be discovered by critical, skeptical scrutiny of the Gospels. The so-called "historical Jesus" is not the Jesus of the Gospels.

But is such a portrait as historically plausible as Jefferson thought? We will come back to this later. Stay tuned...

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