A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 29, 2012
I have a Bible, a pair of scissors, a bottle of glue, and a notebook of blank paper. If I told you that I was getting ready to start cutting select passages from the Bible to glue on the blank paper in order to produce a new “Hammer Bible,” some of you might be appalled. Others might think I had lost my mind. Still others might just be mildly amused. Yet, that is precisely what President Thomas Jefferson did. In his later years, Jefferson took several different Bibles and a razor blade and extracted select passages from the four gospels. He then arranged those passages in the order that he thought best and glued them on blank paper, coming up with what he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. But the work has come to be commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s composition begins with an account of Jesus’ birth, but leaves out any references to angels, prophecy, or miracles. Jefferson also left out any references to the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection. After he completed his Life and Morals, around 1820, Jefferson shared it with some of his friends, but he didn’t give permission for it to be published during his lifetime. In writing to John Adams some years earlier about what he eventually hoped to accomplish, Jefferson stated, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his [meaning Jesus’] . . .” Several different versions of the Jefferson Bible are still available today, and it is especially popular with Unitarian Universalists.
But there is a school of thought, especially among religious conservatives, that one shouldn’t ignore or omit any verses from the Bible. I think I shared here once how that when I was a very young man, a Christian bookstore owner very emphatically informed me that I shouldn’t be looking for a red letter Bible (you know, the ones where the words of Christ are printed in red), because every single word of the Bible is the Word of God. The two verses I read from the Book of Revelation gives a warning that no one is to add anything to or take anything away from what has been written in that book. One would do so at one’s own peril. Such, however, is a characteristic of apocalyptic literature. But many people—Jews, Christians and Muslims—would also say we should not add anything to or take anything away from the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, or the Koran. But the truth is, cutting and pasting—in some form—is as old as the Bible itself, as each biblical writer or editor built on what had been done before, but at the same time eliminated things that no longer fit with the theology or worldview of the day and then pasted in new, evolving ideas. That is the way the Bible came together over a period of about 2,500 years.
Speaking of red letter editions, a group called The Jesus Seminar has done something similar to what Thomas Jefferson did and utilized red lettering in the process. The Jesus Seminar is a group of biblical scholars who met over an extended period of time and used several different methods of scholarship and biblical interpretation tools to try to determine what the actual words of Jesus were. We know that many of the words attributed to Jesus in the four gospels were actually the words of the early church who sought to remember and interpret the words of Jesus some 30-60 years after the fact. Some were actually the words of the particular gospel writer himself. And some are the words of the scribes who copied the books, and so on. So what the Jesus Seminar did was go through the words attributed to Jesus passage by passage, verse by verse, word for word, to try to get to the core of Jesus’ actual words and teachings. By voting on different passages, each verse attributed to Jesus was printed in red if the consensus was that these words most probably were the words of Jesus; those words less certain were printed in pink; those words that Jesus probably didn’t say but reflect Jesus’ ideas were printed in gray; and those words that most definitely were not the words of Jesus were printed in black. The finished product, titled The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (they included the Gospel of Thomas), is quite an interesting read. Though the Jesus Seminar didn’t actually use a razor blade and glue like Thomas Jefferson did, their goal was similar to his in that, like Jefferson, they sought to get to the heart of what Jesus really said.
But what about today? What about you and I? Most of us take from the Bible what we want and ignore the rest. We don’t actually cut from the Bible the passages we want with scissors or a razor blade. But we do so mentally. And the parts that we cut depends in large degree upon our theological orientation. Fundamentalists tend to cut certain verses from the Bible, and Liberals do the same, as does everyone else in-between. We tend to select those verses from the Bible that fit our own theological frame of reference and worldview. For instance, if within one’s theological frame of reference and worldview God is seen to be a wrathful deity bent on judgment and punishment, then such verses as “Prepare to meet thy God” (Amos 4:12) or “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) might be extracted as paramount. If, on the other hand, within one’s theological frame of reference and worldview God is all-inclusive love, then verses such as “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8) might be extracted as being paramount. Such are two simple examples, but you get the picture.
Now, while some may have problems with the idea that everyone cuts and pastes—mentally, at least—passages from the Bible that we like best, as progressive Christians we shouldn’t in the least. Because we realize that human minds and human hands wrote the books of the Bible, and even though we can still call the Bible inspired and believe it contains the Word of God (as John Shelby Spong puts it), we know that it also contains pre-scientific worldview ideas (such as the earth is flat), the prejudices of those who wrote or edited it (“women should remain quiet in churches”), and the culture of the times (“slaves obey your masters”). So as progressive Christians we realize that it falls to us to interpret the Bible maturely and rationally, using the minds that God gave us and the latest biblical scholarship and interpretative tools available to us. As Bishop Spong points out, one does not have to interpret the Bible literally to have a deep love for the Bible as that Book that contains the word of God. “The Bible is the Word of God,” Bishop Spong says In his book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, “in that it touches universal, timeless themes. . . . the Bible does touch the deep wells of truth, and to those deep wells it calls us again and again” (pp. 75, 76). But our task is to mine the eternal words to be found in the Bible from the temporal, pre-scientific, prejudicial, and cultural words that serve as wrapping. Bishop Spong warns that “theological truth” must “be separated from pre-scientific understandings and rethought in ways consistent with our understanding of reality. . .” (p. 31).
But one of the keys to understanding the Bible for Christians is interpreting the words of the Bible in light of the life, teachings, and compassion of Jesus. Any verse in the Bible that stands in direct contrast to the life, teachings, and compassion of Jesus should be weighed very carefully as to whether it can be considered the eternal Word of God. For instance, in the Old Testament book of Exodus, it says that “Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). And a stubborn and rebellious child shall be brought to the town elders who “shall stone him to death” (Deuteronomy 21:21). Shall we take those verses to be the eternal Word of God? Probably not, as we realize they have the imprint of an earlier worldview and cultural practices that are considered unlawful and immoral today.
So, you see, every one of us still “cuts and pastes” from the Bible today as we feel led, whether we recognize it or admit to it or not. We just don’t take a razor blade or scissors to do it. But that’s okay. The truth is, if each of us did, in fact, take scissors and glue and cut and pasted the passages in the Bible that we hold dear, we would have as many different personal Bibles as we do people here this morning. One of the tenets of this United Church is “We value the right of individuals to develop and hold their own personal religious philosophies and to know and express God in their own way.” We don’t tell people what Bible verses or creed they have to believe in order to be a member here.
Again, one doesn’t have to read the Bible literally to love the Bible and draw inspiration from its pages. But we do have to read it, don’t we? So go forth and read. And happy cutting and pasting. Amen.
Work cited: John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.