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Thomas Jefferson: Christian or Jew?

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avatar by Bernard Starr


Thomas Jefferson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, US Archives.

How did Christianity get separated from Judaism, when the two religions have so much in common?

That was the question pondered by three eminent scholars — two Christian and one Jewish — at a symposium hosted by the Center for Jewish History in New York City more than a decade ago.

It’s an important question and conundrum that persists today, since Christianity is based on Jewish prophesy and lineage — and the fact that all of Jesus’ disciples and followers were Jews. And we should add to that the growing consensus among biblical scholars that Jesus lived and died a dedicated practicing Jew.

The symposium panelists — Father Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago; Anglican priest Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus; and Rabbi Jacob Neusner, author of numerous books on religion and several on early Christianity — agreed that Jesus lived and died a dedicated Jew, that he never mentioned or heard the word “Christian,” and that he never proposed a new religion.

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In fact, the word Christian does not appear at all in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the New Testament, which cover the three years of Jesus’ religious and spiritual mission. Rabbi Neusner added that almost all of Jesus’ teachings were drawn from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses).

These forthright statements begged the question that I then posed to Father Senior and Father Chilton during the Q and A: “You have convinced me that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. So why aren’t you Jews or Jewish Christians?”

They squirmed a bit at my provocation, but acknowledged that they had walked into this setup. Then they gave the standard answer to the question of what divides Judaism and Christianity: “Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, who died for the salvation of mankind. With the arrival of Jesus, the new path to God and redemption is through belief in Jesus Christ.”

This view asserts Jesus’ divinity, further supported, from the Christian perspective, by the virgin birth (Mary, Jesus’ mother, was impregnated by the Holy Spirit), the miracles that Jesus performed, and his resurrection after the crucifixion.

So how does Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and third president of the United States, fit into this story?

Jefferson, an avowed deist who loved Jesus and reportedly read portions of the Bible every night, was not a fan of many of the depictions of Jesus in the Gospels.  His opposition to those parts of the Jesus story that he rejected was so strong that he deleted them in his personal copy of the Bible.

He wrote: “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” Jefferson called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.”

The Humanist reports that one evening in 1804, while sitting at his desk at the White House, Jefferson “took out two Bibles and opened them to the story of Jesus. Then he grabbed a razor and began cutting. Working methodically, Jefferson sliced out the parts of the Bible that he believed and pasted them onto a folio of blank pages.” In cutting and pasting passages from the four Gospels, he created a single narrative.

In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote: “The worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless.” In anothe letter to a friend, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, Jefferson referred to his Bible as his “wee little book,” and added: “To the corruption of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.”

The only copy of this Bible disappeared and has never been found. But in 1820 at age 77, Jefferson created a new copy in English and three others in French, Latin and Greek.

Jefferson’s Bible retains Jesus’ words, teachings and some of his actions. But gone are the supernatural acts: no miracles or suggestions of his divinity, no virgin birth.  Lazarus doesn’t rise from the dead, nor are the multitudes fed from the multiplication of five barley loaves and two small fish. Jefferson’s Bible ends with the burial of Jesus, so there is no resurrection. Also, Jefferson did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and he rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that “God is three-in-one: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. He retained the moral teachings of Jesus and discarded much of the rest; Jesus emerges as secular and human. Jefferson called his Bible The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  This version has survived, and is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

But is the Jefferson Bible a Christian Bible?

The parts that Jefferson eliminated are precisely the ones that Donald Senior, Bruce Chilton and scores of other Christian scholars and practitioners say distinguish Christianity from Judaism. If they are discarded, isn’t what remains Judaism?

If so, we can conclude that Thomas Jefferson embraced Judaism — and was, therefore, in effect a Jew. This view is supported by Rabbi Neusner’s comment that Jesus’ teachings — which Jefferson accepted — are Torah teachings. Taking this claim a step further, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in his 2011 book, Kosher Jesus, lists the most prominent  teachings and parables of Jesus and the comparable, if not identical, Torah renditions.

According to Jewish law, Jefferson could not officially be a Jew. For that you have to be born of a Jewish mother, or formally convert to Judaism.

But the plot thickens.

In 2007 Newsweek Magazine asked: “Was Thomas Jefferson the first Jewish President?”

The article reported that researchers at the University of Lancaster in the UK discovered that Thomas Jefferson’s Y chromosome “is part of a line known as K2; estimated to be about 20,000 years old; the line has been found scattered about Western Europe, notably in Iberia, France and Britain, but it is most prevalent in the Middle East.” The researchers speculated that the Jewish Diaspora, which dates as far back as the first century CE, may have brought the chromosomal line across Europe.

While their speculations are suggestive, the researchers could not definitively establish the Jefferson Jewish ancestry link. Nevertheless, imaginations were sparked by the prospect of “Monotheism, Moses and Monticello.” Newsweek quoted Peter Ochs, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Virginia, an institution founded by Jefferson: “He’s a brilliant, complex, imperfect person, like the great Biblical models — brainy, who uses his mind to build things, and yet very human.”

Further investigation of Jefferson’s Y chromosome by University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer found, “There was a perfect match to the Y chromosome of a Moroccan Jew, and matches that differed by two mutations from another Moroccan Jew, a Kurdish Jew and an Egyptian.”

Should a direct genetic link be authenticated, then Thomas Jefferson might be considered a Jew by lineage as well as by his theology.

This brings us back to the opening question: How did Christianity get away from Judaism?

Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”

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