Editing The Bible

Have you heard of The Jefferson Bible?

As the story goes, Thomas Jefferson took a razor to the New Testament and cut out the portions that he thought strayed from Jesus’ own teachings. He removed passages relating to the mystical, and passages relating to doctrine that he ascribed to the Gospel authors. He then arranged what was left from the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order. He titled his work “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

When I first heard about this, I thought that Thomas Jefferson was quite bold and conceited to think that he could re-write the Bible and just eliminate the parts that he didn’t like! (Although, honestly, there are many of Paul’s writings that I could do without!) But now that I have learned more about Jefferson’s own beliefs and the context in which he undertook this project, I have a new respect and appreciation for this work.

Jefferson believed that faith was an individual, personal matter, and advocated the separation of church and state (literally, he worked to cut the ties between the state of Virginia and the Anglican church). He faced tremendous personal and political attacks for these views, but pressed on to fight for religious freedom. Of course, I know that our Founding Fathers adopted this as a foundational principle of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, but I forgot how truly revolutionary their ideas were at that time. When I think about it in this context, I can understand how such a brilliant, free-thinking man might want to free his Bible of passages that he found inconsistent with true Christian principles.

I certainly have no plans to re-write my Bible, but I have to admit that during our Easter service one passage from our Gospel reading (Mark 16: 1-8) grated on my nerves.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” . . . .

I actually like this telling of the Resurrection, but the split construction in “had already been rolled away” got under my skin. (I want it to say “already had been rolled away.”) Maybe it’s not as egregious a grammatical sin as a split infinitive, but it is the type of phrase that I revise when I spot it in my own writing, or in writing that I am reviewing for work.

As I was trying to get beyond the grammar and bring my attention back to the miracle we were celebrating, I smiled as I thought of the person who instilled this reaction in me–someone who has mentored me for 20 years at work. Not only is he a stickler for grammar, but he also is a pretty devout Jew with a wry sense of humor.


(His self-portrait with a note: “Please see me–Guess who?”)

He probably would be quite amused if he knew that the writing style he taught me had me wanting to edit the Easter Gospel!

Is there a common grammatical error that really annoys you?

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3 Responses to Editing The Bible

  1. Carrie says:

    I didn't know that about Jefferson. Very revolutionary. I actually enjoy the different grammatical styles I read in religious texts and older works. I usually find myself reading the passages a few times to understand the meaning. Thank you for the biblical history lesson today, I really enjoyed it.

    • Coco says:

      It is very interesting to see the different nuances and meanings that arise from the word choices of different translations and versions. The church I grew up in used the King James Bible — that has beautiful language!

  2. Maite says:

    All grammatical errors annoy me! Although I am not a bona fide biblical scholar it is a subject that I find very interesting and I have done quite a bit of reading on the subject. Once one knows how the official bible versions (depending on your religion) were compiled Jefferson's choice is not surprising!

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