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Jefferson and His Unusual Bible


After serving his two terms as U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, his home outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and began work on constructing his own “Bible,” a collage of clippings from other Bibles in English, Greek, Latin, and French. Jefferson was most interested in the moral teachings of Jesus, and assembled the clippings from the Four Gospels of the New Testament in chronological order, creating a sort of “scrapbook” of Jesus’s life and philosophy. He glued the cut pieces onto loose pages in four columns for easy comparison. The pages were later bound into a book that was titled The Life And Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, now known as the Jefferson Bible.

A few months ago we visited the conservation lab at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where the Bible was being restored by conservator Janice Stagnitto Ellis. The book’s binding was cracked and damaged, and the pages fragile. It’s been a year of difficult work for Janice and her staff. Because the book is so stiff and delicate, it can only be partially opened, and many of the repairs were accomplished with tweezers.

It was a thrill to see Jefferson’s finished book, and we also enjoyed seeing one of the Bibles from which verses were extracted because it looked so much like an artist’s book with all the missing cutouts.

With the conservation mission accomplished, the Jefferson Bible will be on display at the NMAH’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, starting in November. For more information, visit the SI Newsdesk.