Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, as according to Thomas Jefferson

Good Friday is a Christian religious holiday that marks the cruxification of Jesus and his death on the cross.

It's one of the most important holy days in the Christian faith, since it not only commemorates Jesus 'dying for our sins' but also sets up the celebration of his resurrection the following Sunday.

It's an interesting time of year for me, because as with much of Christian faith, I appreciate the story of Good Friday, but not the superstition surrounding it.

I'm a Christian in that I believe Jesus Christ was a real (albeit mortal) man whose life was at least reflected in the writings of the New Testament - but I'm no "Christian" because I don't believe he was the son of God, I don't believe he "bore our sins in his body" and I certainly don't believe he was resurrected from the dead.

This is an opinion shared by many - including iconic ginger Thomas Jefferson.

Although many ignorant folk celebrate him as a "good Christian American," the second president of this great nation was nothing of the sort.

Although no atheist (he often referenced a higher power, "nature's God" and providence) Thomas Jefferson was definitely no Christian, either - and argued that while there were worthwhile parts of the Gospels, the majority was "the fabric of very inferior minds" and sifting one from the other was like "picking out diamonds from dunghills."

Conservatives will disagree - and cheerfully pluck out-of-context quotes to illustrate Jefferson's supposed Christian faith - but they're wrong.

If you need proof of that, look no further than one of the many remarkable books Thomas Jefferson wrote - the one commonly referred to as "The Jefferson Bible."

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was his attempt to rationalize Christian theology with his pragmatic, rational view of the world. To that end, Jefferson carefully consolidated the life of Jesus from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and removed from them all reference to prophecies, superstition and anything supernatural.

Basically, it portrayed Jesus as a human philosopher who preached brotherly love, peace and tolerance - and as such, his "bible" ends on Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and his body was gently lifted to the ground by Joseph of Arimathaea.

There was no resurrection. There was no ghostly appearance to the disciples in the upper room. He certainly never encountered Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (and that pretty much confirms what I've always suspected - that Paul was a self-serving parasite whose religious sermons had nothing to do with the teachings or beliefs of Jesus.)

Jesus simply died - murdered cruelly and unfairly for preaching peace and understanding. Which, in many ways, makes his death monumentally more significant. That's why I prefer to think of Good Friday as Jefferson did: The closing chapter of Jesus' life; not the foreshadowing of a comic-book style comeback.

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth ends like this:
Then Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.

There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
A poignant end to an important story; and a way to make Christianity relevant even to those of us who don't believe in any of the religious mumbo-jumbo related to it.


Susanne said...

How many religious sermons of Paul's have you read? I don't see him self-serving at all and when my Muslim friend read through the NT with me a couple years ago, his opinion of Paul also changed.

Interesting post. :)

Roland Hulme said...

Hi Susanne!

Paul, to me, has always been a fraud. From my perspective, there was no resurrection - so Paul never met Jesus. He even admits he didn't learn Jesus' gospels from a man:

"Galatians 1:11-12: But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."

Given that I don't believe in the resurrection, I find Paul's story a little difficult to believe.

This only becomes an issue because all of the negative stuff attributed to Jesus is found in Paul - like how women shouldn't hold office in the church - "1 Timothy 2:12 I suffer not a woman" and how the only explicit mention of homosexuality being a sin was in 1:26-27 Epistle to the Romans.

It seems Paul claimed a lot of what he believed was actually "the word of Jesus" which I find suspicious and self-serving because Paul never met Jesus. Why Paul is even included in the Bible is beyond me.

To bring this back full circle to Thomas Jefferson - he wrote that Paul was "the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus."

Brian Shapiro said...

"Thomas Jefferson was definitely no Christian, either."

That's still just a matter of perspective. Jefferson attended Christian church services, believed in Christian morality to a tee (even wrote a bill in Virginia to criminalize sodomy), and preferred the Christian world view over that of other religions, calling Christian philosphy 'the most sublime & benevolent'. Plainly put, he opposed doctrinaire interpretations of Christianity.

Putting that into a broader context, non-deist Christians were not necessarily superstitious either, and theology before the Enlightenment often amounted to nothing more than ennobled metaphysics. Even St. Augustine, back in ~400AD, argued that the story of the Garden of Eden was not to be taken literally either. "Son of God" itself was seen in a metaphysical rather than concrete sense, in though that Jesus is believed to be special messenger of god, its also just a special application of a broader term. All people are also 'sons of God' and Christians and Jews are also more specifically 'sons of God', and Christians even more specifically, and Jesus only in the most specific sense. 'God' himself was often seen in Platonic terms, as equivalent to Plato's notion of the 'Good', which is why you have the word 'logos' appearing in some translations of the Bible. So its not correct to assume that all Christians interpreted their religion in a superstitious way.

Of course, Christians would often argue for an afterlife and eternal soul, but so did Jefferson -- he criticized Judaism for its lack of belief in an afterlife. It was also commonly argued in philosophy, ie Liebniz.

What a lot of deists wanted to do was *modernize* Christianity, which essentially in theology borrowed its way of talking about nature from alchemy, at a time in which alchemy was giving way to modern chemistry.

I think people have to read a lot of scholastic -era philosophy and theology to appreciate how Christianity was understood back then, it isn't the same in substance to what televangelists preach.