If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carfully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15).
So what remained in Jefferson’s editted version of the Bible?
Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, etc.
What Jefferson wanted to highlight with “his sacrilegious mutilation of the sacred text” was the core simplicity of Jesus’ message. Jefferson believed
. . . that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors–not theological doctrines of immense complexity.