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Jefferson’s Bible and the Tears of Christ

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March 31, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews, Worship & Arts
Jefferson’s Bible and the Tears of Christ
Source Bible for Thomas Jefferson Bible, around 1820. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Today's entry was written by Makoto Fujimura. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

At a New York University bookstore recently, I came across a facsimile of "Thomas Jefferson's Bible." Jefferson famously cut out parts of the Bible he could not embrace (mostly the miraculous accounts) and collaged them back together. In the introduction I read the fascinating account of how this "Bible" came to be, including the account of Jefferson's conversation with Dr. Joseph Priestley who challenged Jefferson to write out his own convictions about the "Christian System."

My curiosity immediately led me to see what he had cut out. All of the miracles and the Resurrection passages were gone, and the Gospels were rearranged in a linear fashion, edited and pasted together as a single narrative. Then I looked particularly to see what Jefferson did with John 11.

Why John 11? For the past several seasons of Lent, I have been meditating upon this account of three siblings: Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany. In particular, John 11:35 has become a central passage for me to consider in self-reflection, because an artist learns very early that creativity demands boundaries and limits to thrive. When I began on my recent journey to illuminate the Four Holy Gospels for Crossway publishing's celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, I needed to find a thematic boundary. I was so overwhelmed with the grand scale of the project that I chose this shortest passage in the Bible—“Jesus Wept”—and that decision has led to many discoveries along the way.

"Jesus Wept" is, to me, the most profound passage in the Bible. After I gave a recent lecture on this verse at Duke University, Richard Hays commented on my reflections: "The Incarnate Word of God stood wordless at Bethany." Indeed, Jesus' tears make no logical sense, as he came to Bethany with the specific mission to raise Lazarus from the grave. He told the disciples his mission (and why he intentionally delayed his arrival, knowing that Lazarus lay dying) and revealed to Martha that he was and is the "Resurrection and the Life." So why did he, upon seeing the tears of Mary, waste his time weeping, when he could have shown his power as the Son of God by wiping away every tear, telling people like her, "Ye of little faith, believe in me!"?

In my reflections, this "irrational," emotional response from Jesus became a central means to understand the role and even the necessity of art in the midst of suffering—what I have began to call our "Ground Zero" conditions. Art, like the tears of Christ, may seem useless, ephemeral and ultimately wasteful. But even though they evaporate into our atmosphere, the extravagant tears of God dropped on the hardened, dry soils of Bethany, or onto the ashes of our Ground Zero conditions, are still present with us. Because tears are ephemeral, they can be enduring and even permanent, as with “Jesus wept.” In the same way, perhaps our art can be so as well. What seems, at first, to be an irrational response to suffering may turn out, upon deep reflection, to be the most rational response of all.

Predictably, "Jesus Wept" did not make it into the Jefferson Bible. John 11 was cut out entirely, falling onto the floor of his Monticello home and discarded, along with Martha's confession. Jefferson's rationalism allowed only a distant deity that made sense in reference to objective ‘scientific’ calibrations, not ephemeral marks of compassion. Yet, when this attitude is actually applied to the sciences, they also become, like Jefferson's Bible, a “cut and paste” product, based on a limited viewpoint.

Even with my rudimentary understanding of the early phonetic and acoustic research my father was part of at Bell Labs in the 1970s, I know that the optimism of many scientists there was based on reductionistic assumptions. I described my father’s wrestling with the basic theses of linguistic research in a previous essay:

In the 1980s, [while in his] early 50’s, my father began to send a series of notes to his colleagues questioning the basic tenets of acoustics research, as he found them flawed and inadequate for the goals pursued. . . .[W]hat the early research assumed was that by segmenting speech patterns, you could have enough data to rebuild speech. It would be a bit like dissecting a frog, and stitching it back together, only to expect it to jump again -- A typical reductionist/modernist assumption. (Refractions 24: "The Resonance of Being")

My father began to challenge these underlying but over-simplified assumptions and as a result, came under criticism for abandoning many of the positions held by his peers. I continue:

My father’s Converter/Distributor theory (C/ D theory) assumes that computer technology is now capable of anticipating contextual patterns of speech, and is able to simulate an architectural structure to account for the morphing of speech production. Rather than the segmental approach, he calls his new thinking prosodic, as it accounts for the complexity of speech and language. But it would take years of research to get to a point of presenting his new ideas to the linguistics/phonetics community.

My father, who had rarely had problems finding support for his research before, was in for a battle. . . . He could not find funding, and found himself fighting the establishment of the research world—the very establishment he had helped to build. After my father’s many futile attempts to secure funding for his new research, my brother, a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, stepped in to fund a post for a graduate student at Ohio State, to help my father compile enough data to be able to begin his research.

To my father, the integrity of the scientific process demanded such a course. He never considered that his challenge to reductionism would be seen as a threat by many of his colleagues. He simply was seeking after Truth.

Even in the objective rigor of the research process, then, human factors intervene—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Our presuppositions surface eventually, and it becomes clear where we place our "faith. " My father's C/D theory is an intuitive leap, arising from his love for synthesis and beauty, but pulled up by hard data and a stubborn commitment to the truth of matter. It is an example of the way intuitive, subjective insight can connect the ephemeral with the rational, objective and concrete. Should we seek, then, to make the sciences a Jeffersonian cut-and-paste re-narration of our reality? Are we so inflexible in how we will understand the great mystery of our being? If so, the gap between that reduced ‘reality’ and what is truly human is the very gap into which Jesus' tears still fall.

Jesus wept for Lazarus, but also, perhaps, for Jefferson as he snipped out John 11 with his own hands; for to dismiss Jesus’ tears as irrational and unnecessary is to miss Jesus entirely. Jefferson sought to cut out the Deity, but also lost the Man. Without Jesus' full humanity, coupled with his Divinity, we do not have a Savior. Without this fullness of humanity—concrete and ephemeral, intuitive and objective—we lose perspective on why we are doing our research to begin with. If we assent to the fragmenting, segmental assumptions of modernity, we will have stitched the frog back together only to bury him anyway. If the dead are to live, we will require a Miracle Worker to show us that the world that is cohesive, and rational, but only when seen through a veil of tears.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker recognized worldwide as a cultural catalyst and champion of the reconciling power of creative art. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts (2003-2009), Fujimura speaks and exhibits his work across the globe, and founded the International Arts Movement (IAM) in 1992. He is the author of Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, a collection of essays on culture, art, and humanity, drawing upon images from science and the natural world. In 2001 he illuminated The Four Holy Gospels, an exquisitely designed and produced edition of the four canonical Gospels in the English Standard Version, published in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 1611. See more at www.makotofujimura.com.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #68808

April 2nd 2012

This articles is very good.  It tells us that while science is NOT the problem, a certain kind of science can be a serious problem, reductionist type of science which reduces the universe to matter/energy.  Unfortunately fundamentalists have their own kind of reductionism, reducing God and the universe to the Bible. 

We can take a negative stance against reductionism in its scientific and religious forms, or we can take a positive stance in favor of a positive understanding of faith and science that goes beyond reductionism. To me the later makes more sense, but of course this means that we must struggle against the status quo.

Celebrate God with Us througout Holy Week.    


liberale - #68818

April 2nd 2012

It is regretable that Jesus’ tears, as an expression of deep human emotions, have been cut out by Jefferson.

The Bible has been put together through a process of including “authentic” books and letters. In the process, many other books have been excluded. Those in the first centuries who did the choosing (also a kind of cut-and-paste) did it according to their own criteria, which in turn were based on the knowledge and culture of their times.

Nearly two thousand years later, Jefferson repeated the cut-and-paste work, this time on the Bible itself. Jefferson’s choosing may be far from perfect. But his very act reminds us of the human process of formation of the Bible.

Jon Garvey - #68819

April 3rd 2012

Liberale’s post seems a good example of damning the Bible with faint praise.

Others might think that “vetting for authenticity” at the time of composition is a little different from “eviscerating from personal prejudice” 1700 years later.

On the article itself it’s sad that Makoto’s father was an example of the fact that science is sometimes not as open, sef-correcting and unbiased an activity as it is sometimes, idealistically, portrayed. Do you suppose such phenomena were restricted to the field of phonetics and acoustics in the 1980s?

liberale - #68851

April 4th 2012

Just came across this relevant article. This article is so Christian and so deeply spiritual that I can’t help but quote in length.

Andrew Sullivan: Christianity in Crisis

“He [Jefferson] believed that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus, like Francis, was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything.”

“What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.

“This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.

“But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #68907

April 6th 2012


A blessed Good Friday to you. 

I really do not want to debate or ciriticize your view, but I think that you are missing something.

For instance the miracles that you want to overlook were primarily to heal the sick.  I can’t see why anyone would be against that and in fact it seems that much medicine in the West has grown out of the healing ministry of Jesus.

Since the Cross represents forgiveness and the Resurrection represents eternal life, I can’t see why anyone would be against these things also.  But the article is right, we live in an imperfect world where people turn good ideas around and use them against others.  All people of good will need to work together to stand against this without rejecting the good that many faithful Christians have done.        

liberale - #68915

April 7th 2012

It is good to have miraculous myths to point to humanistic ends—-healing the sick, forgive, hold dear life,* etc. As those myths are pointing to something deeper, so the final truth is not in the myths themselves. The final truth is in what they point to—-the humanistic ends. To defend the historicity of miraculous myths is missing the mark.  The mark is the humanistic ends.  To be the disciples (students) of Jesus is to learn his examples and teachings—-standing on the side of the poor and the oppressed, love our neighbours as ourselve, to heal, to forgive, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry ones.  The core of Jesus’ message to the human race might be simply humanism.  If that is the case, humanism is faithful to Jesus.  I believe many humanists appreciate the good that Christians have done.

All the best!

(*The idea of “eternal life” can be understood as an expression of holding dear life.)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #68916

April 7th 2012


Christians believe that Jesus wase 100% human and 100% God.  It is in and through Him that we know Who God is and What humans are meant to be, because humans are created in God’s image.

If humanity is the best of this world, that is good, but humans can be very bad and if we relativisticly allow everyone to set their own goals and values then we have anarchy and chaos.  Jesus tells us that we are not only responsible to ourselves, and to our brothers and sisters, we are responsible to our Creator to be the best we can be.

If there is no responsibility to anyone except ourselves because life has no Creator and thus no purpose, then reationally it seems to me that it is everyone for her and himself.  Life is good because it has meaning and purpose that can only come from its Creator.  I am not defending the historicity of myths, but the value and meaning of events and ideas nourished by those events.      

paulthackerstudio - #68917

April 7th 2012

Maybe I just not tuned into the same wavelength.
Too much talking. Not enough silence. Silence is God’s first language where the essence of love impregnates all of experience and language proves its inadequacy. This is why Jesus wept. There was nothing else to do amongst the heartache of His friends. The mystery of the appearance of Jesus will never be logical nor will he behave logically.
I also find it ironic that Mr. Fujimuro should be so up-in-arms about Jefferson cutting up the Bible to suit is purposes. Look http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon at the Old Testament canon before Luther got a hold of it. How is Luther or Jefferson any different? The King James Bible may be beautiful to read, it is my favorite, but there is something dark in the way it was constructed. King James had real hatred for Catholicism. I’m sure I would not have faired well in his kingdom. Whereas the pagan Centurion and the Good Thief and all the dying Mother Teresa cared for in the religious melting pot of India – all have experienced the creative, healing energies of God – in His kingdom.
I’m sure there are arguments and more words to be said by the learned. But our example in life is Christ and Him crucified.
Maybe someone cut it out of the Bible, but I don’t recalled Jesus arguing with Pilate or Caiaphas or the angry crowd in the blazing sun or the soldiers mocking and beating him or the men nailing him to the cross – or any that day that murdered Him. What is there to say?
Here is something to say:
“We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You,
Because by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world.”
– from the beginning of the Stations of the Cross traditionally prayed on Fridays during Lent.

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