(As published with The National Interest.)
Not all legends about America’s founders are false. Young George Washington didn’t really chop down the cherry tree, and Betsy Ross probably didn’t design the first Stars and Stripes. We teach these myths as part of our country’s origin story, initiating young Americans into the symbols and rituals of the republic.
But Thomas Jefferson really did redact the New Testament with a razor and glue, to make a Bible that was more to his liking. Hacking away miracles, Jesus’s divinity and the resurrection itself, he fashioned a radically rationalist scripture for a more enlightened age.
You can see the deist’s collage in the glass case in the center of the room. Here’s a King James Bible open to Matthew 10, with “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” left untouched by the scalpel. Next to it lies the God-free scrapbook of pasted verses that the Jefferson called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, like a heavy-handed work of conceptual art at the Hirshhorn across the Mall.
Image: Bibles used to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Via Smithsonian.