What the Founders “Really” Thought About the Bible

(Amazing) Historian Daniel Dreisbach, author of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, wrote a guest piece at fellow (amazing) historian Thomas Kidd’s blog, offering a condensed summation of his more detailed presentation in his book (can’t wait to pick it up off the “To Read Next” pile).

“The Bible,” Adams responded promptly, “contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth. It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it…. [W]ithout national Morality,” he continued, “a Republican Government cannot be maintained.”

Adams…was not alone among his contemporaries in making this remarkable claim. John Dickinson, the acclaimed “penman of the Revolution,” for example similarly observed, “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.” Such sentiments were common in the political discourse of the age.

Read the rest here.

More on the Jefferson, Onuf, Gordon-Reed, & the “Christian Nation” Brouhaha

This is probably the first of what will be at least a couple additional follow up remarks to my initial thoughts regarding the latest “Christian nation” controversy.

Let me begin by stating I’m actually a bit overwhelmed (in a good way) at the response those initial thoughts generated, because that’s all they were – thoughts. It wasn’t an essay or other more formal piece of writing. Just mere thoughts assembled into a somewhat cohesive fashion. As someone “scratching and clawing” to make a name for himself I truly appreciate the notice of individuals in the field, all the more so as I don’t possess a PhD nor am I formally published or affiliated with a college or university, though I hope one day to have these things come to pass….

I commented last time how Onuf, Gordon-Reed, and Fea affirmed Thomas Jefferson desired the “teachings” of Jesus, if not Christianity itself, to be inculcated within the United States in order to bring about a “Christian nation.” I wanted to explore this idea of Jesus’s “teachings” a bit more, because this is an area of inconsistency within Jefferson’s thought. Or perhaps a more accurate way to characterize it is remark that for an individual who valued logic and reason as much as Jefferson, there is a glaring flaw with both in this instance.

When Jefferson wrote of Jesus’s “teachings” he referred to a strictly human Jesus: no divinity, no miracles (including the Resurrection). By extension, as noted by John Fea in his commentary, Jefferson also denied Biblical inspiration and anything supernatural or inexplicable in the Bible. Contrary to David Barton, Jefferson rewrote the Bible and stripped it completely of the miraculous and the inexplicable, and fashioned it into a common ethical guidebook that could have been written by a Greek pagan as much as a divinely inspired Jew.

The flaw in the logic in this otherwise logical man is the “teachings” of Jesus include the inexplicable. This is basic apologetics for Catholics, the stuff learned in many Catholic households, most Catholic high schools, and even some Catholic middle schools. The reason(s) Jefferson was blind to it (whether by choice or ignorance) requires me to read further into the sources but speculation is still fun, so here goes.

Take the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, for example. That’s a rather explicit teaching. In Matthew 26:26, Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In Mark 14:22, Jesus says, “Take; this is my body.” In Luke 22:19 Jesus says, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” This is a teaching. Why not this teaching but others if you’re Jefferson? Jesus literally teaches to take bread, for it is his body (again, literal body – he never says “it represents,” or “it symbolizes” his body), and consume it, in remembrance of him.

Superficially I would guess this to be a reflection of Jefferson’s Enlightenment influence, and its general rejection of what we commonly associate with religion: the supernatural, the inexplicable, the divine – the very things Jefferson expunged from his Bible (admittedly this is a gross oversimplification of the Enlightenment and scholars like my former undergraduate professor Glenn Sunshine would object to my oversimplification even though they agree with my premise). However, Jefferson apparently did not feel he was rejecting religion, based on the research of Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed; he ardently felt he was a Christian. But by what authority did Jefferson claim his version of Christianity to be correct? It seems rather arbitrary. The so-called “moral teachings” of Jesus can be found in any number of pagan, other organized religious, or secular sources – why call oneself a “Christian” then? What distinguishes Christianity from these other sources are precisely the aspects Jefferson claimed not to accept, intellectually or as a matter of faith.

In the C-Span book discussion I linked in my previous post, Professor Onuf discussed how Jefferson desired to be rid of all the “interpreters” and the “intermediators” such as “priests.” Yet, was Jefferson himself not being hypercritical in his actions? Was he not acting as an “interpreter” for others? Onuf has demonstrated, I think convincingly, Jefferson was no hypocrite when it came to slavery, a frequent charge, but I find him to be one in this instance, and glaringly so. He is behaving as arbiter and pseudo-teaching authority to those who would listen to him. What is that but an “interpreter,” “intermediator,” or form of “priest”? All the more so since he distributed his Bible.

Onuf continues Jefferson further reasoned a “miracle violates nature,” and “wouldn’t it make sense to study God’s creation to better understand Him? Isn’t that a form of worship?” Onuf then says “this is the Deist position.” This very reasoning actually explains the origin of science. And this reasoning is unique to Catholicism. Unlike the Catholics, though, Jefferson simply couldn’t accept a god who intervened in human affairs and contradicted the laws of nature He set in motion. What I find personally fascinating is the juxtaposition: that two “individuals” could begin at the same starting point, yet diverge so widely at the end. This is perhaps where Jefferson most reveals his Enlightenment influence. (For the time being I am leaving the “Deism” comment be, but I suspect I will return to it whenever I get around to reading Carl Richard’s latest book.)

In arbitrarily expunging Jesus’s teachings down to that of “nice guy,” Jefferson fell into C. S. Lewis’s famous apologetic: either Jesus says who he says he is, or he’s a lunatic. And for such a rationally-oriented individual, it is remarkably odd, and contradictory, for Jefferson to opt for the “lunatic” Jesus. But then again, not for nothing is Jefferson known as the “American Sphinx” and a walking contradiction.

A Christmas Story: Luke and the Census

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’ius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:1-5)

In the spirit of Advent we will examine the controversy and historicity of the “census” Luke mentions in his gospel.

Scholars have long suggested Luke 2:1-5 to be one of the least historically credible accounts in the New Testament, primarily because Caesar Augustus never ordered an empire-wide census and the census of Quirinius did not occur until A.D. 6, while he was Roman legate of Syria. Considering the lengths to which all the Gospel writers go to place their respective accounts within historical context, on the surface Luke appears to give critics of Christianity and the reliability of the Bible evidence for their claims. However, current scholarship seems to have arrived at a reasonable explanation:

Herod the Great ruled over Palestine as king (by appointment from the Roman Senate) from 37 B.C. until his death, which has traditionally been placed in the spring of 4 B.C. Why is this important? That date for Herod’s death would mean Jesus’ birth would have had to occur between 6 and 4 B.C. (remember Matthew says Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king”), which has made the subsequent chronology tricky. Recent examining of the traditional evidence, though, is forcing a reevaluation of these dates. Scholars are increasingly suggesting Herod’s death may in fact have been later, in the spring of 1 B.C. This new, more developed and exegetical comprehension of the historical and archaeological records lends weight to the Church Fathers’ attempts to place the birth of Jesus, which they argued was between 3 and 2 B.C. If true, pieces start to fall into place….

Caesar Augustus initiated registrations of Roman citizens at various points during his reign, but there is an absence in the historical record of such census taking in the final years of the first century B.C. (Again, these were never empire-wide registrations; instead, they were regional.) Further, since census-taking was related to taxation, and Herod collected his own taxes, some have argued Augustus would have refrained from such a decree for Palestine while Herod ruled.

The problem is that Luke does not mention a “census”: he mentions an “enrollment,” a critical distinction. Josephus recounts that Judea was required to swear an oath of loyalty to Augustus toward the end of Herod’s rule (1), and archaeologists have unearthed artifacts indicating similar loyalty oaths were required elsewhere in the Empire around 3 B.C. Thus, the enrollment for which Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem was not a census, but rather a loyalty oath required by every resident of the Roman Empire. Remember that Augustus’s personal writings attest that the whole Roman world professed him to be “Father” of the Empire prior to “receiving” the official title by 2 B.C, further proof the enrollment in Bethlehem was not a census (2).

So far, so good, but the role of Quirinius is the most problematic aspect in defending Luke due to the dearth of archaeological and historical records pertaining to him. We do know, however, he was legate of Syria in A.D. 6 and conducted a census; yet, there is nothing indicating he held this position multiple times or that he oversaw more than one census. Thanks to Tacitus’s Annals, Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, and Strabo’s Geography, we additionally know Sulpicius Quirinius was a long-serving soldier in good standing, an influential political figure, and a friend to Emperor Tiberius, but nothing indicating a governing position during the time period in question (3). The question that has been raised is how could Luke associate Quirinius with an “enrollment” that occurred many years earlier?

Surprisingly, Luke provides the answer himself! Luke gives Pontius Pilate in 3:1 the identical title of “governor” he does to Quirinius. Since Pilate was a regional procurator, not legate of an entire province, it implies Quirinius was merely a functionary in the governing rule, an administrator, a bureaucrat, a logothete, not an imperial legate, at least in the time period Luke refers to. This case is strengthened by Justin Martyr who referred to Quirinius as a procurator in Judea (4), and by Tertullian, who said Saturninus was the official legate of Syria at the time of the Nativity (5). This would mean Quirinius was simply one of the government perfunctories tasked with administering the oath-taking.

Though it is worth noting both Justin Martyr and Tertullian write as if the Nativity revolved around a census-taking (accountable perhaps to problems of translation?), the recent findings on Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, and Quirinus, as well as the events surrounding them reveal that Luke’s Nativity account is indeed historically accurate. It demonstrates Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for their requisite oath to Caesar sometime between 3 and 2 B.C., whereupon Jesus was born, and the aforementioned Quirinius was not “governor” of Syria, but just another cog in the governmental machinery. Yet again, the Bible is shown to be one of the most historically reliable sources of information in the ancient world, probably even the most reliable.

1. “Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government….” Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter 2, Part 4.

2.  “When I administered my thirteenth consulate, the senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple, in the Julian senate-house, and in the forum of Augustus under the chario which had been placed there for me by a decision of the senate. When I wrote this I was seventy-six years old. “ Res Gestae, 35.

3. Catholic Bible Dictionary

4. “Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea.” The First Apology

5. “But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturnius….” Against Marcion, Book IV