Thomas Jefferson & the Bible – August 2011

Question: What is your opinion of the way Thomas Jefferson edited the Bible?

Publication Month: August 2011

We can be grateful to Jefferson for his experiment. In my book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, I argue for secularizing the great traditions, and as a Christian, of course, I deal chiefly with Christianity. I contrast this secularizing with secularism, which tries to create knowledge anew out of what is indubitably given. I argue that the massive experiments with secularism, beginning with Descartes, have had disastrous consequences, whereas beginning with the accumulated wisdom of a culture and subjecting it to thoroughly critical analysis is highly productive. It is also far superior to giving any particular part of the inherited wisdom sacred or absolute authority. Jefferson was a thoughtful secularizer.

On the other hand, from my perspective in the twenty-first century, Jefferson accepted the secular worldview of his time too uncritically. I share his objection to the “supernatural,” but I see the eighteenth century view of what is “natural” as far too restrictive. The same is true of the dominant views of nature in the university today, which are still far too controlled by seventeenth century metaphysics. When one takes views that result from questionable modern metaphysics and imposes them on the Bible, much of value is excluded. This is a form of secularizing, but in my judgment a poor one. To absolutize the currently dominant worldview is almost as bad as absolutizing an ancient one.

In the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ ministry as much space is devoted to his healings as to his teaching. From Jefferson’s perspective all this should be deleted. The result is, in my judgment, to reduce the credibility of the account rather than enhance it. In the synoptics it is clear that Jesus attracted crowds more because of his reputation as a healer than as a teacher. This troubled him, but he did not repudiate the healing ministry.

Eighteenth-century thinkers found faith-healing incredible. The metaphysical dualism of mind and matter excluded its possibility. Hume went to great lengths to argue that no amount of evidence in its favor could overcome the evidence against it. He held that it is always more reasonable to believe people lied or were fooled than that a physical ailment was overcome by a change of mental state.

This point of view still exists in our universities. But the actual practice of science points in a different direction. In testing the effectiveness of a drug, the placebo effect must be considered. This is a long way from some of the stories of Jesus’ healing, but it renders the Humean argument empty. Mental states do affect physical states. The question is not whether there are effects but how far they can go. There are many stories of quite remarkable changes in physical health. But some such stories do seem to claim “supernatural” power, and there is no question that there is unintentional deception as well as lying about what has happened. It is also unquestionable that stories grow in the retelling and that people make up new stories about their heroes.

My point is simply that although Jefferson was on the right track in secularizing the inherited wisdom, his way of doing this was itself fully conditioned by his location in cultural history. This is a reminder that when we point out the inadequate assumptions of past eras, we may be sure that in time others will point out our inadequate assumptions. This was not as clear to eighteenth-century intellectuals, and their tendency to suppose that they built on solid foundations limits the persuasiveness of their writings for us.

The nineteenth century developed a quite different form of secularizing Christianity through the rise of the historical consciousness to which my previous comments are indebted. Rather than separate the wheat from the chaff simply according to what is approved in our current worldview, we can work at reconstructing the historical development of our records. We may in that way work back to past events, including the historical Jesus. The Jesus seminar today is an outcome of that procedure, with scholars voting on what they judge likely to be the actual words and deeds of Jesus.

Historians of the historical reconstruction of Jesus have pointed out the extent to which the reconstructer’s own views affect his or her conclusions. But to some extent, awareness of this distortion works against it. Any pretense of final arrival at answers must be abandoned. But it cannot be seriously doubted that scholars have developed methods that enable them to make more accurate judgments about what happened when. I judge that the Jesus seminar’s results are superior to those of Jefferson.

There are, of course, those who reject all this concern to distinguish the historical Jesus from the Jesus of the New Testament.They are correct that authentic Christian faith does not depend on these distinctions. However, I believe that the question of who Jesus really was and what he said and did is important for believers and even for the culture as a whole. Since this kind of secularizing is now possible, a healthy faith will make use of it.

At the same time, it is important to remind ourselves of the inevitability that our judgments about Jesus reflect other aspects of our thinking about which we are not equally critical. During my own lifetime, basic judgments about Jesus have changed dramatically. In my student days and in the following decades the finest secularizing on this topic was that of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann judged that Jesus’ thinking and teaching were apocalyptic. He thought that this made any direct authority of Jesus’ teachings impossible for us. But we could affirm their existential implications.

The view of the Jesus Seminar is remarkably different. The apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels are now regarded as later interpolations. There was no apocalypticism in Jesus’ own teaching. In some ways this shift away from Bultmann seems to mirror other changes in our culture and can, accordingly, be discounted.

I believe that there are solid historical-critical reasons for this shift in New Testament scholarship. But I do not suppose that the present stage of the discussion is invulnerable to further major shifts, or that it is impossible that these shifts will lead back to a role for apocalypticism in Jesus’ teaching. The historical consciousness accents what we should, in any case, have learned from the Bible – our finitude and fallibility.

Secularizing Christians live out of convictions about Israel, about Jesus, and about the church that are grounded as much as possible in evidence of one kind of another. But all such convictions are held with openness to counterevidence. The evidence is always shaped by the contemporary world, and the secularizing Christian sees that world as based on assumptions that are in continual need of critical rethinking. Faith is our way of living by the best insights we have attained without regarding any of them as beyond further critique.

Thus for twenty-first century secularizing Christians, the Jeffersonian Bible is an interesting historical phenomenon, but it has little relevance for us.