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The best parallel Bible of November 2011

November 2, 2011

The best parallel Bible of November 2011 is the same as the best parallel Bible of November 1820 or November 1904 – The Morals of Jesus (informally known as “the Jefferson Bible”) – first bound by Fred Mayo in Richmond, Virginia, then photographically reproduced in a single volume, then photographically reproduced by the Government Printing Office (a copy was given to each newly elected Senator, until the copies finally ran out in 1950), and now produced in a lavish volume by the Smithsonian Institute (Amazon price $21.50).

The volume is a parallel edition (Greek/Latin/French/English), meticulously cut and paste by Thomas Jefferson himself (who first began this project while he served as president).  He used two copies of each (he needed two copies because sometimes he needed to paste from both sides of the page) from Wingrave’s 1794 London edition of Johannes Leusden’s Greek New Testament Testament (which also included Latin), from Jacob Johnson’s Philadelphia 1804 edition of the King James New Testament, and from a Paris 1802 edition of the Jean-Frédéric Ostervald’s New Testament.

This book is photographically reproduced to be an accurate facsimile copy on heavy alkaline paper – you can even see one of Jefferson’s tiny red hairs that got pasted in on page 7 (just above the upper left corner of English verse 15).  Jefferson handwrote page numbers and notes in the margins.  He made corrections as needed.  Look at page 40, or more spectacularly at page 56, where Jefferson pastes in an additional verse folded over – reproduced using an exact paste in in this version.  On page 64 he edits Matthew 24:38 which says in the KJV, “For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,” – Jefferson carefully cuts out the “as. “  Jefferson was a man who carefully read every single word of his Morals of Jesus.

Jefferson pasted in a folded over map of the Holy Land and a second of the Mediterranean, this volume carefully reproduces both, folded over – as well as Jefferson’s handwritten title page and index. (I must say that I was considerably reassured that Jefferson’s handwriting was as bad as mine.)

Jefferson’s goal in his book – his edited version drawn from the Christian gospels – was to remove all references to superstition and supernatural, producing a work of Jesus’ as a teacher and moral philosopher, but completely compatible with Jefferson’s commitment to the power of reason.

The first portion of this facsimile contains 50 pages of front material – a brief history of Jefferson’s Bible, and most fascinating of all, a detailed discussion of the conservation process.  Anyone interested in old books is likely to find this fascinating.  This front section contains numerous illustrations:  Rembrandt Peale’s 1805 portrait of Jefferson, the original gold-tooled spine of Jefferson’s volume, Thomas Sully’s 1813 portrait of Benjamin Rush, John Trumbull’s miniature portrait of Thomas Paine, Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Joseph Priestley, (gorgeous portraits of four of my favorite founding fathers:  Paine, Rush, Jefferson, and Priestley– the book is almost worth the price for that alone), Gilbert Stuart’s 1824 portrait of John Adams, a black and white photograph of Cyrus Adler (Smithsonian librarian), a photograph of one of Jefferson’s English Testaments after Jefferson had cut it up, a photograph of microscopic examination of the volume, a photograph paste in on page 56 showing the iron-gall ink that Jefferson used, a photograph of the volume before it was restored, photographs showing challenges (adhesive failure, tearing at the ruled lines drawn by Jefferson, and the spine removal process.

Seeing this sort of facsimile edition is not only inspiring, it also makes me feel a type of closeness and understanding of Jefferson’s thought process.  It is as if a museum piece had suddenly been delivered to me by Amazon.

I think this volume will appeal to anyone who is interested in American history, unusual Bible versions, or book conservation.  The only reservation I have is that this volume was printed and bound in China by Oceanic Graphic Printing.  OGP is known for its meticulous work, especially with art books, but I felt considerable sadness that this book – a piece of American history– was not printed in the United States; in the same way that might feel if you were given an American flag that had a “made in China” label on it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 6:23 pm

    Lavish might just be the best adjective to describe this volume. Thanks for the review of the facsimile, as it really is like a museum piece so as to help us get into Jefferson’s thinking. (As for printing and binding in China, I imagine Jefferson would be just fine with that. I think he valued American and Chinese relations and borrowed architectural designs from China for his home.)

    The bloggers for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History have given us a wonderful look at the processes for conserving the Jefferson Bible. Here are some links:

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 4, 2011 1:27 am

    Thanks for blogging about this. I didn’t know what the Jefferson Bible was before. The Latin is from the Antwerp polyglot by Montanus.

    Here is a letter that Jefferson wrote to Charles Thomson, whose translation of the Septuagint was printed by Jane Aitken,

    “I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”1


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