Monday, March 20, 2006

Article Note: On Thomas Jefferson, Thomas the Apostle, and Jesus

Citation for the article:

Reece, Erik. "Jesus Without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas." Harper's Magazine December 2005: 33-41.

I read the article in print.

I found this article in Harper's interesting from its opening. I thought I knew a few things about the Founding Fathers and early U.S. History, but I did not know that Thomas Jefferson did a cut-and-paste with the Bible. From the article, here's what Jefferson did:

". . .he took a pair of scissors to the King James Bible two hundred years ago. Jefferson cut out the virgin birth, all the miracles--including the most important one, the Resurrection--then pasted together what was left and called it The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. . ." (33).

Mr. Jefferson felt that the Church had hijacked the religion. As I started reading the article, I wondered how many modern day Christians feel the same way about those who do the hijacking nowadays. It is known that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers are often accused of being atheists when they were actually deists. There is a distinction, one that many today seem to affirm or deny depending on their own political agendas, but we can leave that for another time.

The essayist goes on to discuss the Gospels' stories and how Jefferson saw them. The writer suggests that Jesus' teachings were more important than what or how he lived. Jefferson was interested in Jesus' message, a message that calls those who hear it to be better persons as well as treating others well. It is not an easy path. Based on Jefferson's distillation, here is a list of what Jesus taught"

  • "Be just; justice comes from virtue, which comes from the heart.
  • Treat people the way you want them to treat us.
  • Always work for peaceful resolutions, even to the point of returning violence with compassion.
  • Consider valuable the things that have no value.
  • Do not judge others.
  • Do not bear grudges.
  • Be modest and unpretentious.
  • Give out of true generosity, not because we expect to be paid" (35).
By the way, Jefferson's text can be found as The Jefferson Bible, published by Beacon Press. A search on Amazon should yield some results or try your local public library. Now, getting back to the article, the list above reflects a tough and demanding way to live. However, it is a list that has potential to make the world a better place. If only Jesus' followers would actually follow such teachings. I find it fascinating that these ideas are not unique to Christianity. Other religions and philosophical writings present these ideas. Heck, I bet even atheists and pagans embrace such ideas, even if the phrasing may differ. Maybe such ideas embody a sense of basic human decency. I am certainly not a believer in a religious sense, but I like to think that I work at being a better person and at treating those around me with dignity, respect and charity. It does not always work since I am human after all, but I try.

Reece goes on to discuss Jefferson's other views. He was very in favor of an agrarian society in contrast to Alexander Hamilton's advocacy for manufacturing and industry. It moves on to compare Jefferson's Bible with the (apocryphal to most Christians) Gospel of Thomas, which also emphasizes Jesus's teachings over his life. Actually, the discovery of that gospel makes for an interesting story itself, which Reece summarizes in his essay. In terms of the comparison, the writings of Thomas the Apostle and Thomas Jefferson are very similar. On another interesting note, Reece notes that scholars have noticed an "Eastern feel" to the Thomas' Gospel, similarities to Taoism and Buddhism. This is something that makes many contemporary Christians uncomfortable, yet I ask why not? Some scholars suggest that followers of Thomas the Apostle travelled as far as India. Could modern Christians be uncomfortable because their gospel of wealth and calls to eliminate all opposing faiths are in direct contradiction to what their teacher actually preached? I just wonder. Maybe some of the discomfort comes from this:

"The idea of making two into one is central to the theology of Thomas. Unlike Paul's lawgiver and eternal redeemer, this Jesus rejects the verbal and psychological dualisms that divide the world into good and evil, black and white, heaven and hell, body and soul, male and female, straight and gay. Like Zen Buddhists, Thomas's Jesus believes that to divide the world up into abstract categories is to miss seeing the world as it is" (38).

I think it is easier to condemn others. It can be very comfortable to stay within a group and judge others as lower or different. But one misses so much when one spends (or wastes) time judging others instead of embracing them and learning from them. Sadly, many Christians prefer the dualism that alienates. Sadly, Christians are not the only ones who fall for this. Many religious followers fall for the trap as well. I personally don't worry about religions; I worry more about their followers who usually try to repress my rights and that treat others less than decently in the name of their deity or belief system. It is worthy of notice that such discomfort likely caused early bishops to see Thomas' Gospel as heretical.

Reece notes that Jefferson would have been nervous with Thomas' mysticism. After all, Jefferson was a rationalist as well as deist. Reece also draws on Ralph Waldo Emerson to illustrate Thomas' work further. Reece also discusses his own experience, his loss of faith, and his discovery of Thomas' Gospel, leading to an uplifting conclusion. Overall, a thought-provoking essay.

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