It must have been a peculiar sight: The author of the Declaration of Independence, seated in his Monticello mansion, cutting the Bible into pieces.
But such was the pastime of Thomas Jefferson during his last decade, reviving a project he originated while serving as the nation's third president.
Driven by a desire to select what he considered the most attractive and authentic material in the four Gospels, Jefferson pasted up 46 pages of his favored passages. He took from translations in several languages -- Greek, Latin, French and English (the King James Version) -- and arranged his selections in parallel columns.
The English version has now been reissued as "The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Appropriately, publisher Beacon Press is an arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Jefferson's religious outlook fit the budding Unitarian movement of his day -- Unitarians recognized Jesus as an inspiring moral teacher but not a divine being -- though he never formally affiliated with it.
The Founding Father's treatment of the Bible, meanwhile, was radical.
The Old Testament was of no interest to Jefferson, who regarded Jesus as a reformer of "the depraved religion of his own country." Expressing his opinions mostly in letters to family and friends, Jefferson also repudiated the writings of the Apostle Paul, whom he considered the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus."
And he eliminated much of the material from the Gospels, whose compilers he castigated as "groveling authors" with "feeble minds." Jefferson excised all supernatural events and any hint that Jesus was God, or even had an unusual relationship with God -- including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.
"No miracles, no metaphysics, no mystery," said Martin E. Marty, a historian of American religion and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. All that's left are parables and aphorisms. As Marty put it: "He made a Socrates out of Jesus."
Deciding what to keep was easy, Jefferson wrote John Adams, because it was "as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill." What remained, he said, was "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."
Jefferson told another correspondent that the discards were "so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture." He wrote another that they reeked of "vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications."
Today, historians such as Yale University's Jaroslav Pelikan are struck by the project's "sheer audacity."
Jefferson did not make a technical study of ancient manuscripts or consider new theories from Europe about the literary sources that might underlie the biblical texts: He simply picked what he liked.
His anti-miracle mind-set forced him to chop some passages in half.
In Matthew 12, he included Jesus's assertion that it is lawful to do God's work on the Sabbath but eliminated the subsequent healing of the man with a withered hand (Verse 13). In John 9, he retained Jesus's statement that a man's blindness was not punishment for sin but dropped the actual cure of his infirmity (Verses 6-9).
The Rev. Forrest Church, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, prodded Beacon Press to issue the Jefferson Bible in 1989 and wrote an introduction for this edition.
Church first heard about Jefferson's work in 1957 when his father, Frank Church, was presented a copy upon being sworn in as a Democratic U.S. senator from Idaho. In 1904, the Government Printing Office had published more than 9,600 copies of Jefferson's Bible, and the tradition of giving copies to new senators and representatives lasted into the mid-1950s.
In 1997, a private organization revived the practice with an edition published by American Book Distributors, a division of Libertarian Press, said Donald Ritchie, of the Senate Historical Office.
Jefferson's Bible is a curious sidelight on an ever-intriguing figure. The third president's place among early American heroes has been challenged recently by the boost his predecessor and great rival, Adams, is receiving from a new biography by David McCullough.
According to McCullough's account, the two men were religious contrasts -- Jefferson the iconoclast and individualist, Adams the devoted Massachusetts Congregationalist who attended church twice on Sunday and hoped each July 4 would be marked with public worship services of thanksgiving.
Yet it was Adams who encouraged Jefferson to pursue his biblical research when they took up an active correspondence late in life.
Allen Guelzo, of Eastern College in Pennsylvania, says that Adams's personal theology was similar to Jefferson's and that the letters between the two show they had "mutual contempt" for Christian orthodoxy.
Jefferson intended the paste-up for his own use only, partly because he felt in principle that religious beliefs were private but also because his unconventional thinking had caused him political trouble.
In the 1800 presidential race, Jefferson had been maligned as a mocker of the Christian faith and denounced as an atheist. People were told to hide their Bibles for fear the new president would have them confiscated, said James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress.
The criticism stung. And after the election Jefferson protested to physician Benjamin Rush, his friend from Continental Congress days, that his beliefs were "very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me."
Mark Noll, an evangelical historian at Wheaton College in Illinois, believes that "Jefferson's respect for the New Testament needs to be taken seriously," even by those who accept the miracles that Jefferson himself spurned. Here was a man who studied Scripture every day during the last 50 years of his life, Noll notes.
Jefferson once said, "There is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian." That forecast was mistaken.
America was soon swept up in a spiritual revival known as the Second Great Awakening, a movement that required a personal commitment to Jesus as Savior. And liberal ideas about the Bible have never commanded much support among the masses.
So the Jefferson Bible can be seen as the timebound "product of an age, and a class, that was inebriated with Enlightenment rationalism," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University.
But Nathan O. Hatch, a historian and provost of the University of Notre Dame, thinks aspects of Jefferson's attitude were widely shared by Christians in the early decades of the American republic.
For them, "the past was largely a heavy weight to be discarded." Old authority and church tradition were to be succeeded by a purported restoration of New Testament purity.
Marty, the University of Chicago historian, thinks Jefferson's selective use of Jesus is "a good warning" for all readers of the Gospels.
Everyone who reads the Bible is tempted to be selective and ignore the "rough stuff," he observed. People who might scratch their heads over Jefferson need to ask themselves: "What am I doing to Jesus?"
Staff writer Bill Broadway contributed to this report.