American Lines 02: Constructing Context

thomaspollman

New York, United States

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Illustrated here is a visualization of Thomas Jefferson’s enlightenment reconstruction of the Christian New Testament.

NOTE: Even when printed at the largest poster size, the biblical passages under the “Full Text” column are too small to be readable; and are included to give form to the text.


By the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s philosophical approach to questions of faith had achieved public notoriety as Federalist opposition rallied the faithful against the Virginian with whispers of atheism. The victorious Jefferson never publicly refuted the charges. He was disturbed by the growing power of the New England clergy, and remained dedicated to the doctrine of religious freedom and a strong “wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson now sought a more rational faith that might counter the religious divisions that he believed weakened the social harmony upon which the young republic’s experiment in self governance depended. He would seek to alter the political topography by striking at the foundations of the Christian theological landscape. Thomas Jefferson was unsatisfied with his Bible.

While sitting as third President of the United States, Jefferson embarked on a staggering project of biblical revisionism. Though he believed Jesus of Nazareth to be a great moral teacher, he noted that Jesus wrote nothing himself, and argued that his message had been clouded over the centuries by charlatans and opportunists who concocted notions of divinity and the suspension of the laws of nature for their own immediate purposes. To distill a factual account of Jesus’ ethical message unburdened by miracles and supernatural events, Thomas Jefferson took a razor blade to the New Testament. In multiple versions executed over three decades, he extracted relevant passages from the four evangelists and pasted them on to 46 octavo pages comprising a single, chronological volume – a project kept secret until his death.

The final version entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was eventually published by the U.S. Government Printing Office and issued to freshmen members of both houses of the U.S. Congress from 1904 to 1957.

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