Kevin SpinaleDecember 04, 2020
(Composite/ Wikimedia Commons)

No U.S. president thus far has sworn the oath of office with his hand on the “Jefferson Bible.” On April 30, 1789, in New York City, George Washington took the presidential oath while placing his hand on a Masonic Bible that had been published in 1767. It was opened at random, and the historical record notes that the verse Washington’s hand fell upon was Genesis 49:13—an odd snippet at the end of the book.

Presidents Warren Harding, Dwight Eisenhower (his first inaugural), Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush (first inaugural) used Washington’s Masonic Bible while swearing to protect and defend the Constitution. Barack Obama took his oath of office as he placed his hand on the same Bible Lincoln chose for his first inaugural. In 2013, he doubled down, again using Lincoln’s Bible while placing Martin Luther King Jr.’s traveling Bible beneath it. In 2017, Donald Trump swore on Lincoln’s Bible, along with his family Bible. Teddy Roosevelt’s was the only public swearing-in that did not follow Washington’s precedent to include a Bible—he was sworn in on Sept. 14, 1901 in Buffalo after William McKinley was assassinated.

The Jefferson Bibleby Peter Manseau

Princeton University Press

236p, $24.95

Many presidents open the Bible to a specific passage for their oath of office. For both inaugurations, Richard Nixon designated the following verse from Is. 2:4: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Jimmy Carter placed his hand on the words of Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Such verses align with the times these men took the presidential oath—times of war and upheaval.

The newest selection of the America Catholic Book Club is The Jefferson Bible: A Biography, by Peter Manseau.

When President-elect Biden assumes office in January, he will most likely place his hand atop a Douay Rheims family Bible published in 1893. He has used this Bible at each of his swearing-in ceremonies, from the time he took office as a senator to the second time he was sworn in as vice president in 2013. His son, Beau, used the same Bible when he took his oath of office as attorney general of Delaware. Were Joe Biden to use the Douay Rheims upon taking his oath in 2021, he would be the second president to use one—the first, of course, being President John F. Kennedy.

The Fitzgerald Bible possessed a familial heft; the names of men and women of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s kin from 1857 onward were inscribed in its pages. It is fitting that, in a country where Catholics fought hard against the use of the King James Bible in public schools, the two Catholic presidents will have taken the presidential oath using old family copies of the ecclesially sanctioned Douay Rheims—translated from the Latin Vulgate Bible assembled by St. Jerome. Such Bibles testify not only to Catholic piety, but also to the maternal immigrant histories and lineages of President Kennedy and President-elect Biden. The Bibles of inaugural ceremonies can denote a particular familial intimacy and personal piety while also conveying broad symbolic messages.

The Christian Scriptures remain interwoven with the rhetoric—complicated in allusion as well as that plain-spoken and direct—of the office of the President of the United States. Americans saw this clearly when Donald Trump held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church the evening of June 1, 2020 after protestors were removed from the White House perimeter with brute force. Trump was asked,“Is that your Bible?” to which he responded, “It’s a Bible.” Without the weightiness of a Bible that contained a personal history—“a Bible” that carried with it only an indefinite article as descriptor—“It’s a Bible”—the image of the President holding it became that much more superficial, that much more lacking substance.

The Christian Scriptures remain interwoven with the rhetoric—complicated in allusion as well as that plain-spoken and direct—of the office of the President of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson crafted a Bible that now carries a definitive definite article: It is the Jefferson Bible. In fact, Jefferson entitled the book that he fashioned for himself The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This one-off, hand-crafted book now has a book-length biography explaining its conception and construction, its discovery, its duplication and its reception history. The newest selection of the America Catholic Book Club, The Jefferson Bible: A Biography, by Peter Manseau, is a volume in the Princeton University Press “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.

The Catholic Book Club last selected from the Princeton Press series in July of 2014, with Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologicae: A Biography by Bernard McGinn. The series on Great Religious Books is truly remarkable. It makes modern scholarship about these mostly ancient texts accessible and actually (to a bibliophile) thrilling. The Jefferson Bible is among the more recent works in the series, along with the Book of Mormon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

To refer to the book’s “craft” is not a schmaltzy way of describing Jefferson’s work in compiling The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Sometime in the second decade of the 19th century, Jefferson began slicing up Greek, Latin, French and English volumes of the New Testament in order to glue certain Scripture passages into a book he bound and used for personal devotion over the last six years of his life. The Jefferson Bible is a work of craftsmanship, “made of twelve types of paper, ten varieties of ink (six in the printed matter and four in the handwritten notes), two adhesives, threading of both linen and silk, and goatskin leather.”

Sometime in the second decade of the 19th century, Jefferson began slicing up Greek, Latin, French and English volumes of the New Testament.

Peter Manseau, the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian, offers his definitive description of Jefferson’s peculiar book toward the end of his account of the work’s reception: “Jefferson did edit and arrange verses from the Gospels to craft a unified account of the life and teachings of Jesus with which he [Jefferson himself] could agree, and which would comport with the dictates of reason. No good faith reckoning with the book itself could lead to any other conclusion.”

Jefferson chose each word. Each cut-and-paste of Scripture, including the slicing off of parts of verses, represented a choice, a deliberation that reflected his understanding of Jesus as a man of the Enlightenment—and his sharp dismissal of anything that seemed to violate the laws of nature or communicate claims for Jesus’ divinity.

Ingeniously, Manseau uses the image of a barrow to frame the story of The Jefferson Bible and its reception. The term “barrow” here denotes a low hill or mound and, more specifically, a mound built over a common grave. He describes the young Thomas Jefferson’s fascination with barrows found throughout the landscape of Virginia. They were Native American burial sites, and Jefferson sought simply to dig them up, dissect their contents and proffer a theory that might explain their use in Native American culture.

Manseau sums up Jefferson’s disappointment at exhuming the contents of a particular barrow: “Jefferson’s orderly mind was apparently offended by the jumble he had discovered, which could not have been further from the image of a carefully arranged convening of the dead.” Clearly, Jefferson saw the Gospels in exactly the same way—a jumble where sublime order should be. And, likewise, Jefferson made excavations into the Evangelists’ heap of words and tried to create a portrait of a rather human Jesus devoid of bluster and religious longings.

Peter Manseau: "Jefferson’s is a hard gospel. The blind do not see; the lame do not walk; the multitudes will remain hungry if loaves and fishes must be multiplied to feed them.”

For example, when Jefferson assembles the entirety of the initial pericope of Matthew 12, he eliminates one verse, 12:13, from his crafted account: “Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the man stretched it out and it was restored, whole like the other.” Manseau describes the effect of Jefferson’s persistent choice to excise any miraculous element in this way: “Time and again, Jesus indicates that he might be able to perform a miracle of some kind, and then does nothing. While this no doubt made him more acceptable in Enlightenment circles, one imagines it would have made Jesus far less popular in Galilee.” Manseau continues, “He may have imagined his Life and Morals as scripture shorn of all its unreasonable elements, but Jefferson’s is a hard gospel. The blind do not see; the lame do not walk; the multitudes will remain hungry if loaves and fishes must be multiplied to feed them.”

Jefferson’s Jesus was, therefore, quite controversial. He described his project to John Adams and an Episcopal minister named Charles Clay, but Jefferson kept the product of his craftsmanship discreetly private. Though it contained the material products of the printing press, the Jefferson Bible was a singular work made by hand. As such, the reception of the work was quite complicated. Cyrus Adler acquired it for the Smithsonian from Jefferson’s great granddaughter, Carolina Ramsey Randolph, in 1893 or 1894—for $400. Jefferson’s work has had a turbulent public life ever since.

Thomas Jefferson’s Bible has itself become a barrow—a numinous artifact, imbued with the presence of a Founding Father and approached by various excavators. They have tried to analyze it, to make sense of it according to their own intellectual, religious, and historical commitments.

I will touch upon the reception history in the questions below. Please respond to any of the questions that spark your interest.

1. After some vigorous debate, Congress passed a bill put forth by Rep. John Fletcher Lacey of Iowa that called for the publication of 9,000 copies of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The work was finally published by the Government Printing Office and distributed to Senators and Representatives in 1904. Two men whose forebears were given copies of this (now quite valuable) reproduction were deeply affected by Jefferson’s work: Both Douglas Lurton and Forrest Church wrote stirring introductions to further reprintings of the Jefferson Bible that described their grandfather and father, respectively, who had served in Congress. How does the historical, familial or personal lineage of a printed book intensify the effect that book has on its reader?
2. Manseau also writes of Henry Jackson and Donald Harrington. Both these men modified Jefferson’s text in order to make Jefferson’s Bible more relevant to the challenges faced by their times. Jackson eliminated the four columns of text (Greek, Latin, French, English). He also rendered Jefferson’s verses in an updated English translation, the Weymouth Modern Speech New Testament. Harrington offered a moving introduction to Jefferson’s text, but was also bold enough to modify some of the verses that made Jefferson’s final cut. When does the modification of an ancient or archaic text for the ears of later readers begin to diminish the text? After all, the most recent scholarly translation of Beowulf begins with the word “Bro!”
3. Cyrus Adler, the scholar who rediscovered the Jefferson Bible and brought it to public view with an exhibition in Atlanta in 1895, was an observant Jew. When it was proposed by Lacey that Adler offer an introduction to the 1904 Government Printing Office edition of the Jefferson Bible, some conservative Christians and some Jewish groups recoiled. Conservative Christians cast anti-Semitic aspersions on Adler’s ability to introduce a Christian artifact crafted by a Christian Founding Father. Jews shuddered at the fact that a Jewish scholar was going along with the government printing of the Christian Scriptures that seemed to violate the establishment clause. Considering the complicated history of its reproduction and reception, how does the Jefferson Bible represent Jefferson’s commitment to freedom of religion in the United States?
4. In an Author’s Note, Manseau offers the following: “While The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth may not seem to have direct bearing on this legacy [the fact that Jefferson enslaved men, women and children], we cannot read it now without asking how Jefferson’s willingness to challenge convention in his beliefs complicates the common justification of his failings as unavoidable for a man of his times.” I think this question is absolutely piercing, absolutely vital, not only in thinking about Jefferson, but in thinking about so many historical figures—even men and women of only a few decades ago. How do we study historical figures who demonstrate ingenuity, forethought and commitment to justice on the one hand, and yet have been complicit in massive societal or ecclesial sins on the other?

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