American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States, also took a pair of scissors to the Bible, publishing a thin volume of the parts he thought worth keeping. The original Jefferson Bible exists to this day, and is available online. But did Jefferson actually call the Good Book a dunghill, like some say?
The answer to that question is kind of yes, kind of no.
Yes, Jefferson thought that most of the Bible was, in modern vernacular, a load of crap, and yes, he did, by way of analogy, use the term “dunghill.” No question: If Barack Obama repeated Jefferson’s words, the Religious Right would condemn him to the sulfurous steam vents of Hell for calling the Bible a pile of poo. The dunghill would hit the fan.
But this is now and that was then, so stick with me for the other half of the answer, which requires some context and the words of Jefferson himself.
By comparison with some of Thomas Paine’s comments about the Bible, Jefferson’s critique was parlor talk. Jefferson saw himself as part of a dignified and righteous endeavor—a cadre of scholarly men working to extract the Real Rabbi from layers of mythology and superstition that congealed during the first and second centuries of Christianity. The analogy he used was separating dung from diamonds, and the words he kept—the diamonds–were the ones he thought to be authentic teachings of Jesus.
Jefferson’s quest to extract the man from the myth—the quest for the historical Jesus— is one that continues today.
Christians have never agreed on who or what Jesus was, which is one reason Christianity fragmented into over 30,000 denominations and non-denominations. In the beginning, Jesus worship featured small conflicting and splintering sects that scholar Bart Ehrman calls Lost Christianities. In the last 200 years, quarrelling theologians have been joined by legions of secular scholars—linguists, cultural anthropologists, antiquarians, hobbyist historians, creative writing professors, and even mental health professionals—each touting a version of the man behind the myth or questioning whether there actually was one.
Ironically, some of the first recorded attempts to differentiate Jesus-fiction from Jesus-fact were the Church councils that produced our modern Bible by declaring some early Christian writings to be divine in origin and others heretical. These councils lacked the tools of modern analysis, and their approach would be considered crude and naïve by today’s standards. Also most participants went into their committee meetings with a bias: that the kind of Jesus worship that had emerged in the center of political power—Rome—was the right kind. Committee members declared a “book” of writings in or out depending on whether the author claimed a close relationship with Jesus and whether the book aligned with the Roman variant of Christianity.
Convinced that they had separated divine revelation from dross, Church authorities sealed the “canon” or contents of the Bible, and as the Roman Church expanded with the Roman Empire, heretical texts and believers were burned. One twenty-year Christian crusade targeted a sect of Christians, Albigenses, who were deemed heretics.
By Jefferson’s day, the Enlightenment prevailed. The Protestant Reformation, two centuries earlier, had left the Bible itself largely intact (after excising the books that Protestants call Apocrypha) and, in fact, had vastly elevated its authority. But the American founding fathers and many intellectuals of their time no longer saw the gospels as gospel truth. Many were deists, who believed that spiritual truths are better found in the study of nature and the application of reason than in sacred texts. Jefferson, a man of his time, was no fan of Christian theologies or theologians, as excerpts from some of his letters make clear:
- “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Were I to enter on that arena, I should only add an unit to the number of Bedlamites.” — To Carey, 1816: N. Y. Pub Lib., MS, IV, 409
- “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe.” — To John Adams, 1813
- “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” — To Van der Kemp, 1816
- “The priests have so disfigured the simple religion of Jesus that no one who reads the sophistications they have engrafted on it, from the jargon of Plato, of Aristotle and other mystics, would conceive these could have been fathered on the sublime preacher of the Sermon on the Mount.” — To Dr. Waterhouse, 1815
- “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” —To Peter Carr, 1787
However, despite his distaste for organized religion and nonsense, Jefferson never questioned whether Jesus himself was a real historical character or an inspiring role model. In fact, it was these two assumptions that led to his comment about dung in letters to James Madison and W. Short:
But the greatest of all reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man. — To W. Short, Oct. 31, 1819
In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. –- To John Adams, 1804
To Jefferson’s mind, Jesus was a wise and beneficent moral teacher. The dross was the fabric of mythic stories that made him into a magical being, stories like the virgin birth, miracle healings, and the resurrection. He also loathed what he saw as superstition buried in Christian teachings about sin and salvation—the idea that we all are born into sin because of Adam and Eve, for example, or that a special few, the “elect” are chosen for an eternity in Heaven.
For Jefferson, as for hundreds of millions of people through history, the figure of Jesus became an inkblot test, a character drawn with enough ambiguity that he could project his own sense of what was right and good. Modern he-men have depicted Jesus as a body builder—a model for muscular Christianity. One well-heeled Evangelical preacher called him a guy you’d like to play golf with. Liberals talk about him as a friend to the poor. Conservatives as a righteous judge. As an educated man of the Enlightenment and a rebel against the British crown, Jefferson saw Jesus as a benevolent man of reason, killed ultimately not for our sins but for sedition. His Jesus was a mirror of his own aspirations—the values he sought in himself and the country he helped to found. The diamonds.
Would Jefferson have used the term dunghill in an analogy about the Bible if he were alive today? Certainly not from the White House, not if he had any sense of self-preservation.
On the other hand, a modern intellectual of his caliber might think of a dunghill as a treasure trove. Biologists sift through old dung to learn about who and what passed by before us, about the species mix and ecological conditions or agriculture and human flourishing. Sanitation experts increasingly think of dung as a valuable commodity. Yes, it is full of pathogens, but it’s also full of precious soil nutrients if we can simply figure out how to sterilize them and separate them out from the other kinds of waste that have less value.
Thomas Jefferson’s analogy may have been more fitting than he knew.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.