Exploring the house I share for the duration of my sabbatical, I came upon a thin tome in the living room: The Jefferson Bible [ISBN 0-8070-7702-X]. It caught my eye because Seth Becker, a friend of ours who is a book collector, had recently shown us a facsimile edition of this book and explained its origins. I started to read the preface, and therein found interesting fodder for our continuing attempt to bring order to information.
The origins of the collection of the Library of Congress is
Thomas Jefferson’s Library, 6000 books which he offered for sale to the United
States for $23,999 in the aftermath of the burning of its predecessor in the
War of 1812. According to F. Forrester
Church, in his forward to The Jefferson
In light of the schismatic nature of current American
politics, it is somewhat reassuring to note that these same schisms were prominent
It might be inferred, from the character of the man who collected it, and
France, where the collection was made, that the library contained irreligious and immoral books… in languages that many cannot read, and most ought not.
Those pesky Frenchmen were apparently as disregardful of American sensibilities then as now. Nice to see that the verities of history endure. But I digress.
Jefferson’s scheme of classification was built upon the processes of mind employed upon them:
(1) Memory, which is applied to factual data, such as “History”
(2) Reason… which is applied to theoretical investigations, such as “Philosophy”; and
(3) Imagination, which is applied to innocent pleasures, such as the “Fine Arts.”
His departures from Bacon, if I read Church’s analysis correctly, had to do with Jefferson’s desire to secularize the catalog… to understand religious endeavor as subordinate to Reason, and indeed, The Jefferson Bible was his ambitious exercise in understanding the gospels themselves as a philosophical and moral system, rather than either the word of God or as a narrative of superstition.
He did so by the method of cut and paste – literally
razoring passages from four different renditions of the gospels, in Greek,
Latin, French, and English, and pasting them in a blank book. Jefferson’s attempt was simply to identify
the words of Jesus himself, which he judged “as distinguishable as diamonds in
a dunghill”, undistorted by the misinterpretations of others (which is what
postscript: There are many editions of The Jefferson Bible extant. I had some difficulty finding a link with the exact match of the ISBN I had in hand. The link in this post is as close as I could come (Beacon Press, 1989). In this case, the content that I found particularly interesting was the introduction by F. Forrester Church, son of the late Frank Church, Senator of Idaho, and the afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan. The historical context and analysis in these bookends to the actual text of Jefferson is quite interesting, and worth finding. In the preface, Church indicates that it was a custom since 1904 to give a copy of The Jefferson Bible to each new Senator.