Fortunately, this version of the book includes a forward by Forrest Church that explains the history of Jefferson’s choice to read the book and an afterward by Jaroslav Pelikan that explains the theological and intellectual context in which Jefferson wrote it. Without the context provided by these two authors, this would be an awfully strange little book – a subset of the Gospels of the King James Bible.
With the context, we can see not only the courage behind Jefferson’s attempt but also the foolhardiness of the notion that a single individual in the early 1800s could divine by personal instinct which parts of the Gospels were “diamonds” and which were “dung”.
It turns out that Jefferson essentially accepted most of the parables, some of the sermons, and some of the biography of Jesus, but he excised all of the supernatural. The virgin birth, the resurrection, all miracles, and any claims of divinity are gone.
What’s left is a story (true or not) of a man with some interesting ideas and lots of analogies. We get philosophy and ethics (explaining Jefferson’s own title for his book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth), but none of the blood sacrifice by proxy.
I also enjoyed reading the King James language; I’d generally read the New Testament in a modern translation like the NIV, so it was fun to run across the phrases that the King James contributed to our common tongue. However, without the useful section headings that I was used to from the NIV, I sometimes got lost in what Jesus was doing (“Did he just switch parables again?”).
This was definitely an interesting book to read to understand more of the history of religion and secularism in the United States.
Note: This review is cross-posted from my personal blog.
Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.