Both Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Smith took up the task of reinterpreting the Bible, with vastly different results.
Kurt Graham, director of the Church History Museum, discussed those translations on Saturday, June 18, in Springville, Utah, at “Mormonism in Cultural Contexts, A Symposium in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday.”
"Make your own Bible,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1836. “Select and collect all of those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of a trumpet of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.”
The advice came after the fact for Jefferson and Joseph Smith.
“Little did Emerson know that two notable Americans had already done just that,” Graham said.
Jefferson took a pen knife and paste to the first four gospels of the Bible and rearranged the existing verses, while Smith added or clarified verses as part of his inspired translation. Jefferson called his work “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” and, in making it a cohesive narrative with no repeating stories, used only about 28 percent of the gospels.
“The Jefferson Bible, as it has come to be known, stripped the mysteries and miracles from the sacred text, a process Jefferson referred to as separating the ‘dung from the diamonds,’” Graham said.
Smith, on the other hand, approached his translation of the Bible, known today as the Joseph Smith Translation, as “a branch of my (prophetic) calling” that restored “plain and precious truths” that had been lost in the myriad of iterations of the single text, Graham said.
To Jefferson, “Jesus was a carpenter’s son, a wise philosopher who developed one of the greatest moral systems the world has ever known and by so doing, amassed a great following,” Graham said.
Jefferson edited his Bible to contain just the teachings of Jesus. There was “no virgin birth, no wine from water, no empty tomb,” Graham said. “With pen and paste, Jefferson surgically removed the Son of God from the pages. ... Thus, Smith’s Bible added or restored content. Wherein Jefferson took the miracles out, Smith adorned or amplified the existing mysteries.”
As one striking example of the differences, one need only go to the end of the Jefferson Bible, where it concludes with the stone rolling across the tomb. Jefferson believed that only Jesus’ teachings needed live on, not his physical body. Yet, both Jefferson and Joseph Smith were seeking to find the real, historic Jesus, albeit coming to different conclusions, Graham said.
He said there is one other overarching similarity between both Bible reinterpretations.
“Though Jefferson and Joseph may have disagreed whether God was again speaking to man, their respective efforts are evidence that in America, man was again speaking directly, confidentially, and authoritatively for God,” Graham said.