I have the opportunity to teach a class on hermeneutics, or the art and science of biblical interpretation, for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We cover issues ranging from principles for understanding different genres in the Bible to the history of the development of the English Bible.
In one class session, we discussed the formation of the canon — the collection of books we know as the Old and New Testaments. Theologically speaking, Protestant Christians believe that the canon is not an “authorized” collection of writings upon which a/the church conferred its authority or approval. Rather, the canon is a “collection” of writings recognized as authoritative. So, “canonization is the process of recognizing that inherent authority, not bestowing it from an outside source.”
Historically, many have offered their own critique on the books of the Bible, or at least questioned the inclusion (or exclusion) of some writings. For example, Roman Catholics include the Apocrypha (an additional 15 books) in their Bible. Some, like author Dan Brown, insist that writings such as the Gnostic Gospels have unjustly been excluded from canonical status. Interestingly, even the great Church Reformer Martin Luther made disparaging remarks about the book of James, calling a “strawy epistle” that doesn’t measure up doctrinally to the book of Romans.
Others have taken matters of judgment into their own hands and created Bibles to their own liking. Marcion (AD 85-160), for example, created his own “canon” consisting of 10 letters from Paul and an edited Gospel of Luke, rejecting all the rest. Following Marcion’s lead, but for different reasons, Thomas Jefferson basically did the same thing.
Jefferson produced a work entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” “The Jefferson Bible” is actually a misnomer, but that label stuck after the manuscript became public by the efforts of Cyrus Adler in the late 1800s.
At age 77, Jefferson constructed his book by cutting excerpts from six printed volumes published in English, Latin, French, and Greek from the four Gospels of the New Testament.
He arranged them to tell a chronological and edited story of Jesus’s life, parables, and moral teaching. Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection.
Jefferson held that no tradition was so sacred as to escape reconsideration in view of new discoveries and the progress of knowledge brought about through the Enlightenment, a revolutionary movement of scientific experiment and rational enquiry.
Even more, Jefferson insisted that religious beliefs were purely of personal and private concern, also a conclusion of Enlightenment thinking. Since He grew up in a world where political rulers established a single faith as the official orthodoxy, and as a promoter of religious freedom in the dawning of the American experiment, the “cut and paste” approach to the life and teachings of Jesus found in the “Church’s Bible” (KJV) makes perfect sense as another, very practical, revolutionary act of defiance.
The story of Jefferson’s Bible is important historically and fascinating theologically. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has given us an incredible resource to dig deeper, including the opportunity to see and read the actual manuscript that Jefferson produced. Take some time and visit the Smithsonian’s website dedicated to the Jefferson Bible.
 Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Kregel, 2010), 57.