from Old English, gōd spell "good news"
a writing that describes the life of Jesus

Sunday, July 11, 2010

mary gordon | the jeffersonian temptation

All Christians read like editors, holding in our hands a pencil that we do not fear to use whenever we see fit. Perhaps it is more true to say: all Christians are bowdlerizers. When we come to something we cannot or will not accept, we skip over it, hoping to find something we are happy to hold on to in the next chapter, the next verse, the next page, the next Evangelist.

Perhaps the most famous and audacious bowdlerizer of the New Testament is Thomas Jefferson. He simply took out all the parts of the New Testament he didn't like and put together his own. As a recreation from the pressures of the presidency, he took a pair of scissors to the editions of the New Testament in the four languages he knew - English, French, Latin, and Greek - reconstituting the Gospels so they would be a force for good. And not just generalized good: he was particular in his intentions. The original title of his compilation was "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the account of his life and doctrines, as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; being an Abridgement of the New Testament for use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of faith or fact beyond the level of their comprehensions."'

He had the enviable certainty of an Enlightenment thinker. He knew what were really the words of Jesus and which were not. How could he tell? Well, it was obvious. He could tell. After all, wasn't he the author of the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident"? With the same faith, he wrote to John Adams, "We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists and select, even from among them, the very words only of Jesus, pairing off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions of his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung hill."


One identifies with and envies the bowdlerizing Jefferson. I like thinking of Jefferson, his bewigged, pigtailed head (or did he take his wig off for what might have been sweaty labor - and do we see, rather, an unkempt redhead?), president of the ridiculously young United States, tall, lanky, fifty-plus years old, in shirtsleeves, intent on the pagees he is to ravage, taking a pair of scissors in his hands, the delicious shush shush of the scissors on the heavy rag paper, leaving behind him gaps in the text, letting the Enlightenment through, and the silver air of the newly dawning ninetheenth centruy, the air of post-revolutionary America and France. Looking forward to an age in which there would be no more bloodshed, only rationality and moral behavior. And he will see to it that Jesus, decoupled from magic and mystery, and "leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character, this Jesus, a walking tablet of the law, will be our guide."

But what does he do with the residuum? With the spoiled books, the incarnation of the unacceptable? Does he burn them? Bury them? Hide them away? They were costly and he was a lover of books, the creator of a great private library, which he sold to replace the Library of Congress, whose destruction by the British so enraged him that, according to his biographer, he suggested paying incendiaries in London to set British buildings afire in return.

It is tempting, then, to speculate: did he take pleasure in the blatant destructiveness of such an act, joy in it as a sadistic thrill, a bibliophile's black mass?

The pleasure of this kind of destruction and re-creation is connected to the pain and difficulty of a reading which attempts to be complete. It is this pain, or painfulness, that makes all of us secret sharers of Thomas Jefferson's enterprise. . . .

Which of us would be sure that, in Jefferson's words, we could "pick out the diamonds in the dung heap"? Isn't it one of the limits of Jefferson and his Enlightenment cohorts that they were so insistent on denying the importance of the dung? After all, without dung there would be no nourishment, no life. You can't eat diamonds.

I think one reason I prefer Jesus to Jefferson is that he understands there's no point in the separation. With Jesus, the mixed lot of humanness, the paradox of our nature, is, rather than being lamented, insisted upon, named and renamed.

So how do we as readers reject the Jeffersonian temptation? How do we read without a pair of scissors or a shovel or a match? How can we read the words that are there, all of them, and not even succumb to the temptation of a linguistic fudging or contortions that reduce the impact of actions prompted by an understanding, or misunderstanding, of these semiotic marks?

Mary Gordon, "Reading Jesus"
xvi-xviii and 91-94


  1. There is the "canon within the canon" that each of us carries. Our own "mental scissors" that we use to cut away what we can't understand. Perhaps it's the leftovers from the Enlightenment that we still have an overblown sense of confidence at times - or at least the notion that we should have a greater confidence than we do, so we seek to manage what we have in the Bible until we can comprehend it. Thanks for taking the time to point out - very well - the "Jeffersonian" tendencies; I'm encouraged to keep trying to read well.