Conversations on Morality: On The Jefferson Bible

Conversations on Morality

Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics

On The Jefferson Bible

The Jefferson Bible and Q
Eyler Coates
    Jefferson's compilation is very interesting, and the impact is something quite different from merely reading the Gospel accounts. We should remember that this was a very personal cut-and-paste job that Jefferson made for his own private use. I understand that not even some members of his own family knew of the existence of it. And it is well to understand that the genius of Jefferson was able to virtually replicate the Q Gospel, even before Q was discovered and anybody knew what "Q" meant! He did this purely on the basis of the internal evidences, sifted by his brilliant mind from what he considered an accretion to the teachings and story of a truly remarkable human being, i.e., Jesus.
G Riggs
    What I am ready to observe at this point, based on only the first two or three chapters, is that E.C. is correct as far as the uncanny resemblances between Jefferson's version and the presumed Q version (courtesy 20th-century scholarship) of Jesus' sayings are concerned. Of course, narrative links were apparently few and far between in so-called Q, so for that kind of material lots of Mark gets to be used (apparently) by Jefferson in addition to the uncanny pre-echoes of the presumed Q.
Eyler Coates
    It is my understanding that there have been found fragments of a document listing the sayings of Jesus, and thus substantiating the speculations of scholars about the existence of Q. In other words, Q is apparently more than mere conjecture. Am I mistaken about that?
Bill Jefferys
    The Gospel of Thomas demonstrates that the genre of a "sayings gospel" actually existed in antiquity. An early objection to Q was that it was an unknown form of literature. The discovery of Thomas showed that this was not a valid objection. However, no copies of Q have so far surfaced. Thomas, despite its similarities to Q, is not Q. The evidence for the existence of Q remains literary analysis.
    Bill anticipated me with respect to a "sayings gospel" genre, and the extant nature of Thomas only. One wishes Jefferson had had the chance to study all of the noncanonical gospels available in English today.

    They are all included in The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version, Robert J. Miller, ed. "SV, as it will be known, is a fresh translation from the original languages into idiomatic American English and is entirely free of ecclesiastical control"--from the Introduction to this exhaustive compendium of every extant scrap of writing that's out there--presumably. Elsewhere, in this--hopefully--rigorous, scholarly collection, Q is treated to a conjectural reconstruction out of Luke and Matthew--in that order, as Luke is deemed sounder textually--and presented with a separate intro describing Q as "a pre-Christian gospel." In other words, Q is a text that evolved possibly before any creedal or theological development around the figure of the "late" Jesus of Nazareth was even contemplated. The style of this new translation is perfectly frightful, but its scholarship appears quite scrupulous--at least, I hope it is. Others who know differently, please let us know.

    In reference to the term "Q gospels," What are the Q gospels? Have never heard the term. Thanks.
    By way of clarification, the conjectural "Q Gospel" was deduced by a mid-nineteenth-century German scholar working on the apparent textual relationships amongst the three canonical Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). He(?) noticed, in comparing the original Greek texts of Matthew and Luke, certain strikingly identical passages amongst Jesus's most fundamental sayings that appeared to have--not just a common--but, in fact, an identical source.

    On the one hand, it is generally assumed that Jesus and his followers conversed in Aramaic. Yet, on the other, there are so many distinctive turns of phrase unique to the Greek language of that time in all these parallel passages--appearing at precisely the same verses--as to strongly indicate the clear presence of a specific literary artifact originally written in Greek and antecedent to both Matthew and Luke.

    In comparing the textual consistency of the Matthew and Luke versions of these parallel passages, both nineteenth-century and modern scholarship has concurred that the cleaner transmission of these passages--when, that is, they are (very, very rarely) at variance--appears to be in Luke. Yet Luke is generally accepted as having been written later than Matthew! The problem thus posed is, if Matthew is to be regarded as the earlier Gospel of the two (and no one doubts that it is), then how come it is Matthew and not Luke that has the greater number of apparent textual tangles in the parallel passages? Clearly, Luke has managed to recover a cleaner text from an earlier, more authoritative source than the--already early--Gospel of Matthew. In any case, Luke's text clearly opens with a statement practically saying that the writer has attempted to recover authentic documents hitherto ignored or adversely affected by previous transmitters.

    It would seem from all this that any assumption taking the early Matthew Gospel as the original--Greek--source for these parallel sayings is unwarranted. Since the cleaner and more reliable text of these parallel sayings appears to be in Luke, and yet Luke is generally assumed to be the later Gospel, there must be a "source" Gospel in Greek, now lost, from which the most fundamental tenets of the Sermon on the Plain/Mount, plus a host of other essential sayings, derive.

    In terming this lost Gospel the "source" Gospel, its German "discoverer" from ca. 1850 used the German word for source, Quelle, to denote a "source" Gospel. Subsequently, instead of calling this Gospel the "Quelle Gospel," posterity has shortened the term to its common name, the Q Gospel. It is this Q Gospel that is now available in English translation, having been reconstructed in a scrupulously scholarly and stylistically frightful manner by the team for the Annotated Scholars Version of The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 1992).

Owen Hatfield
    Concerning the so-called "Q" gospel. So-called "scholars" never cease to amaze me. Santa Claus has more credibility than those who advance this theory. Wake up and smell the coffee. Only fools will build a castle seventy feet off the ground and then try to put supports underneath.

    The Q Gospel is a hypothetical construct, granted. In giving the detailed reasoning here for the supposition of such a lost gospel, I am neither wedded to it nor skeptical. There are simply certain anomalies that the nineteenth-century German scholar in question (or was it scholars?) perceived, which seemed to require an explanation. A lost "Quelle" or source Gospel was the explanation that was offered at the time.

    Granted, a fair number of initial premises are the foundation for the apparent perception of these anomalies. Therefore, the question must honestly be posed: "How valid are these initial premises to begin with?"

    To review, both the New Testament and modern scholarship concur in placing the Gospel of John last among the four gospels, making the three Greek Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke--all written in Greek) the earliest canonical grouping- -premise no. 1.

    That being so, it is striking that Luke should open with a reference (Chap. 1, Verse 1) to other transmitters of the tradition as being "many." In referring to these "many," he describes them as having "set forth in order" the salient aspects of Jesus's ministry. "Set forth in order" is generally taken as a reference to these things having been writ down by these "many"--premise no. 2.

    Since it is assumed that the Synoptics were written down before the Gospel of John (see premise no. 1), the canonical writings other than Luke, and referred to by Luke as "many," would probably not include the Gospel of John as well-- premise no. 3.

    But if the "many" invoked by Luke comprise only Matthew and Mark, that seems unlikely, since the word "many" would probably not refer to only two transmitters. So there must have been "many" such gospels other than the three Synoptics we are most familiar with--premise no. 4.

    Since certain noncanonical gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas disappeared for centuries before being rediscovered in our own time, it is assumed that there are a number of other rare and early gospels as well, gospels permanently lost or likewise awaiting rediscovery--premise no. 5.

    Whether we take the chronological order of the three Synoptics as being Matthew, Mark and Luke (the order in the New Testament) or Mark, Matthew and Luke (the consensus arrived at by modern scholarship), the last of the three is always Luke. So Luke is probably the latest--premise no. 6.

    The identical passages in Matthew and Luke's Greek originals that share a distinctive, idiosyncratic Greek idiom are markedly different from their surroundings. These "surroundings" include other remarks by Jesus as well as narrative passages, all of which are likewise rendered in Greek, but of a somewhat varied and different idiom from the parallel passages in Matthew/Luke. I freely admit I am not familiar with Greek, so I cannot vouch for the apparent idiosyncracies in style of these parallel passages. That being so, let's be really strict and say that the perception of unique, idiosyncratic Greek as being confined to the most strikingly parallel passages of Matthew/Luke is strictly that: a perception--hence, premise no. 7.

    When these parallel passages are--very, very occasionally-- variant, the rendering in Luke is generally accepted as the more plausible--premise no. 8.

    Since Luke is generally accepted as being slightly later than Matthew (see premise no. 6), its apparently cleaner transmission of the parallel passages cannot be taken as a sign that Luke is any kind of direct source for them--premise no. 9.

    But if Luke still appears to read more plausibly, it must have access to a source that Matthew either had some problems with or could not directly use--premise no. 10.

    Certain fundamental, structural aspects, both in presentation and in context, appear to have adversely influenced the-- occasionally--less plausible readings of Matthew--premise no. 11.

    These contextual, structural accommodations seem connected, sometimes, with Matthew's less plausible readings to a significant degree--so significant as to suggest an inadvertent shift of emphasis on the part of the original author of Matthew, rather than any later transmissional corruption in the ms. tradition for Matthew--premise no. 12.

    So Matthew does not appear to be any direct source for these parallel passages either--premise no. 13.

    The idiosyncratic, distinctive Greek style of these parallel passages--and their usually identical wording in Matthew and Luke--remains striking. Their identical wording in both Greek texts appears to preclude any notion that they are independently preserved in both Matthew and Luke through any concurrent transmission from an Aramaic source. Being two different individuals, Matthew and Luke could not have reproduced such identical translations from Jesus's original Aramaic--premise no. 14.

    Luke, though writing later, could not have been simply copying from the almost identical Matthew passages, since the few variants that Luke does have appear to come from some cleaner source than Matthew altogether--premise no. 15.

    Conclusion: A)The original, therefore, of these parallel--and identical--passages must have been also in Greek and not in Aramaic at all.
    . . B)That original Greek text has to have been something separate and apart from either Matthew or Luke; hence, a separate Gospel that functioned as a "source" ("Quelle")--a Q Gospel.

    One might be able to question a number of the premises on which these conclusions are based. Still, taken together, they appear to constitute a fairly direct line of reasoning. Perhaps, one could yet demur on two or three points. But frankly, I am still willing to state quite firmly that it remains unlikely that all 15 of these premises are flat-out wrong.

    That being the case, what of the conclusion? Is the supposition of a lost Q Gospel the only theory that will fit these perceived anomalies? So far, it is.

    But please, let's hear from you if you can take account of these anomalies any other way. As I say, I am not wedded to a hypothetical Q Gospel as the only solution. Thank you.

Eyler Coates
    I can't resist adding a few comments here because the process of creating the synoptic gospels appears to have had such similarities to what I have been doing with this website, with Cataloging the Web, as well as with The Mexican Pizza Riddle: compiling "an orderly account" from a group of preceding documents. Luke said of his own efforts in 1:3, "It seemed good to me also, having searched all things carefully from the very first, to write unto thee an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus..." In compiling these three websites, I have carefully searched preceding documents from the very beginning of the exchanges and created an orderly arrangement of what was said. In his redaction, Luke no doubt took a little more editorial license with his sources than I felt at liberty to do. Nevertheless, the resulting product in both cases (Luke's and mine) assumes a permanent form, while the source documents (in my case, the postings on the Newsgroups) fade into oblivion. Yet the internal evidences are there--admittedly more obvious in my work--that the end product was derived from previous sources. Once the better organized, more readable and informative account is established, the sources are no longer needed.

    This, by the way, also suggests that Q could have been a collection of documents containing sayings from which Luke made his redaction, which also included additions and comments of his own. I assume that the possibility of Q being a group of then-circulating documents is not contradicted by any of the premises.

The Text of the Jefferson Bible
    Rereading the Jefferson Bible after all these years was a bit startling. Having now finished it, I'm frankly struck by how many duplications of various passages Jefferson let stand. It seems not to have been given the kind of going over we would naturally expect from him. Of course, all duplications are--apparently--occasioned by his receiving alternate gospel versions of certain parables/incidents/whatever into his final text. The duplications are not word-for-word duplications, just different tellings of the same material brought in at different contexts. One wonders why Jefferson did not make more choices amongst the various versions he would use.
Eyler Coates
    I also noticed in following Jefferson and piecing the different portions of text together that some of the transitions seemed just a little bit awkward.
    Also, he does admit a certain amount of material from John, generally regarded as the furthest removed from the earliest sources reflected in the Synoptics.

    What remains of abiding interest, whether studied secularly or theologically, is the degree to which the ethical rigour of Jesus' remarks struck a chord in Jefferson and his colleagues. The notion of being forebearing with one's foes was echoed by Jefferson in his first Presidential address, a general distrust of the well-heeled has been a theme of many a democrat (small d) who has followed in Jefferson's wake, and so on.

Bob Johnson
    I have never understood why so many liberal theologians like to refer to the Jefferson Bible, almost with an attitude of smugness, as if to say, "See? THIS is REAL Christianity, NOT all that FUNDAMENTALIST stuff in Paul." While I agree with Jefferson's critiques of the Trinity, and feel the Trinity was imposed by (in Jefferson's own words) 'priests,' it is not obvious that Paul's writings (when interpreted correctly) necessitate a belief in the Trinity. As for fundamentalist MORALITY, since the vast majority of the references to 'hell' in the New Testament are straight out of Jesus' mouth and refer to the 'flaming fire' version (as opposed to the 'grave' version, as can be verified by a Strong's Concordance), it still seems to me that fundamentalist morality remains unscathed by the use of the Jefferson Bible instead of the KJV, original Hebrew and Greek texts, etc. Indeed, since most of the references to hell are due to Jesus, and since Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven, a Jefferson Bible would seem to put one well on the way to becoming a Baptist/Pentecostal redneck. This is not surprising in light of the fact that Jefferson, far from being a consistent libertarian, authored a law in Virginia in which lesbians caught in the act were to have a ring put in their nasal septa, etc. While I am a fundamentalist Christian, and believe unrepentant lesbians will burn in hell on Judgment Day, I would not advocate the punishment Jefferson advocated, since unlike him I really am a libertarian and believe in very little government. I simply point out Jefferson's legislative record so as to point out that Jefferson's own morality -- as probably influenced by his own religious beliefs -- was not all that un-fundamentalist. For further info on how one might construct a non-Trinitarian Christianity, see virtually any of my own writings on Mars Hill.

Dean Calbreath
    Bob Johnson thinks that it's just modern theologians who attack the apostle Paul as a corrupter of original Christianity. But Jefferson himself thought of Paul as the primary corrupter, as his letters to John Adams, etc., reveal. Jefferson's attacks are not only on the Trinity but on the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, both of which (especially the Resurrection) are crucial to Paul's theology. Jefferson's Bible deletes those topics because he didn't believe them.

    Jefferson was aware that there were other gospels around. In the letters between him and Adams, both men mourn that they have no easy access to those gospels, many of which were not translated into English at the time. Adams, in particular, was curious about whether the writers of the synoptic gospels actually witnessed the events they described and whether there were earlier writings that predated them. Like Jefferson, his writings anticipate the Q debate.

Corrections to the KJV Text
    One puzzle: most of the more recent translations duly point out that Mark 7:16 ("if any man have ears to hear, let him hear") is absent in some early manuscripts, and many modern editions omit it, perhaps wisely. But SV, so scrupulous in every other respect, leaves this verse in! Can any one out there tell me why? SV, in a footnote, duly states that this verse is missing "in some early mss.", but they neglect to specify which mss. lack it and the reason for their own--atypical--retention of it!

    Now I vaguely recall that, in another context, SV takes a reading from the Sinaiticus ms. in preference to that in the Vaticanus ms. Since the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus versions are the earliest, most authoritative versions of Mark--only the earliest gospel(!)--I'd give a cookie to know whether Mark 7:16 is present in one and absent in the other. I note that E.C. has duly removed it, following verse 51 in Chapter 6 of the Jefferson. Probably, this was the wisest course, but I'm still curious about the textual history for this verse.

    I myself have marked up one copy of the King James version with the newest corrections from the new Annotated Scholars Version prepared by Miller and Funk in 1992. Thus, like E.C.'s version at the Jefferson site, I have been able to have my cake and eat it too--retain all the poetry of an English classic and reap the maximum benefits of modern scholarship. I have not marked all the Gospels up in this way--far from it. I have only hand-corrected the Gospel of Mark--judged the earliest of the four--and the so-called Q passages in Luke--generally considered the sounder text for the Q passages as against the corresponding versions in Matthew. From these annotated versions of the King James Q(Luke) and the Mark Gospel I hope to establish some points of comparison with Jefferson eventually.

Eyler Coates

    We seem to share the same sentiments toward the King James Version. Some time ago, I made those kinds of corrections to the entire Bible! I tried to talk the American Bible Society into publishing it, and although they liked the idea, they did not think it would sell enough copies to justify their mass-market approach. I have put one book of the Old Testament on the WWW from that "corrected" version of the King James, The Book of Proverbs, and it is available at:


    In reply to GRiggs's last statement, I feel I may have an answer for you. Why do they put things in the Bible that don't appear in some early Mss.? The key word is some. Others do have the portion in question in the text examined in that Mss. When looking at whether or not they should put this portion into the Bible, they look at how many do have it in proportion to how many don't. They also look at the surrounding context and see if this part in question fits into the theme of the text surrounding its existance. Hopefully this answers your question.


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