Quotation – Thomas Jefferson on the Gospels

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedJefferson was not a Christian in any sense of the term that most would recognize, and many scholars have concluded that he was a deist. Some see this as a reason to dismiss his views on religion (while keeping his wall of separation, of course). However, it is instructive to understand why he held the views that he did. Jefferson had good reasons for landing on his deistic conclusion. His prescient observations below have been born out by the two centuries of New Testament scholarship since:

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The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.

– Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814

Jefferson proves legitimate in the points he raised. We know that the New Testament texts were later doctored, sometimes deliberately. And we know the same regarding the Old Testament texts to which Jefferson alludes. Internal contradictions are apparent. And historians have found ample reason to question a notable percentage of the gospels’ supposedly historical content – including their more normal and non-miraculous historical claims.

Special thanks to Sol for this quote.

Comments

  1. The question I am left with, is it easy to pick diamonds from dunghills? Is he talking about if there were known to be diamonds in a dunghill (which would be relatively easy with a little screening) or as a thought about finding diamonds in any dunghill (which would be mostly impossible)? Considering Jefferson did pick the Bible apart, I assume he means the former?

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  2. Can you elaborate on the “doctoring” of the text?

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    • @ratamacue0

      I tried to respond to this before but didn’t pull it off. WP glitch, lost all my precious words. 🙂

      But the answer is yes, happily. There are several kinds of doctoring.

      1. Additions… the woman caught in adultery in John. The 16th chapter of Mark. The red letter verses cited elsewhere on this post.

      2. Redactions… Luke systematically altered the text he copied from Mark – almost like he thought Mark got it wrong and wanted to set it straight. John was written in probably three layers over time, and we don’t know who the final redactor was.

      3. Interpretation… The meaning of the Old Testament texts were modified by interpretation to make them fit Jesus better. Peter Enns explains how Paul did this in the book “The Evolution of Adam.” Very good read, though disturbing.

      4. Ascriptions… already covered in my recent post, but authors names were added to anonymous texts to get them into the canon. Hebrews, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts. A whole heap of the NT, but all ascriptions are doctoring if not present in the text. And its caused quite a mess.

      Again – cannot recommend highly enough that you read “Jesus Interrupted”. It will catch you up mightily on all such questions… really worthwhile.

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  3. BTW, the picture is broken.

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  4. “Can you elaborate on the “doctoring” of the text?”

    Though this wasn’t directed to me, I am assuming you mean “redaction” .

    “The redaction of the New Testament was a politically and theologically charged affair that began in the fourth century in a series of synods, most notably the Synod of Hippo in 393 C.E. The churchmen — at this point, they were all men — met to choose the canon some 350 years after the death of Jesus in what had by then become the imperial church of the Roman Empire. They selected the texts to be included, and they resolved discrepancies between different copies of the same text, remembering that these manuscripts were all hand-copied over many generations. The result thereof, an anthology touched and transformed at many stages by the hands of poets, philosophers, partisans, and politics, is now immortalized, widely translated and mass-produced.” William Grassie / Huff Post

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  5. The picture looks fine to me, Matt. No problem here.

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  6. Matt, speaking of redactors, I posted this on The Way Forward blog.

    kcchief1 aka ken writes, “AND we’re not even sure what Jesus said. 8 NT scriptures attributed to Jesus have already been removed from many modern day bibles because over the past 100 years we have found older manuscripts which do not have these verses. A majority of modern bible scholars have determined these scriptures were added at a later date probably by redactors . Bibles which still publish these scriptures at least provide footnotes to this effect. BTW the missing “Red Letter” scriptures are : Mt 17:21, 18:11, 23:14, Mk 7:16, 9:44, 9:46, 11:26, Lk 17:36

    In addition you have entire stories not found in older manuscripts. Mk 16:9-20 the “Ascension Story” Lk 24:3,6,9,12,36,40, 51 & 52 have been termed dubious and unlikely as they do not appear in earlier and more reliable manuscripts. Also John 8:1-11 “The Woman caught in adultry” for the same reasons.”

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    • Exactly. I had typed up a long-ish response to this post, but the silly comment dialogues on WP are finicky. It got deleted before I could post, so I need to retype tomorrow. But you’ve already brought up some of the exact points I was trying to mention.

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