Monday, March 21, 2011

Saving the Jefferson Bible

In my message yesterday I was talking about how I have come to understand the stories of Jesus the healer and exorcist. I mentioned that there was a time when I practiced the Thomas Jefferson method of reading the Bible. I cut out - figuratively - all the stories I didn't like. I just ignored them.

Jefferson, of course, literally cut them out. Or more precisely he cut out the passages of the Bible he did like and created his own private Bible. This morning I saw a Washington Post article reprinted in the Star Tribune about Smithsonian Institution attempts to save the Bible, which is apparently falling apart:

For more than 116 years, the Jefferson Bible, as it is known, has been one of the iconic possessions of the Smithsonian Institution. Now a group of conservators and curators has removed the 86 pages from the original binding and is examining every inch to stabilize its condition, study its words and craftsmanship, and guarantee that future generations can learn more about the artifact and the man.

The pages, with verses glued on each side, are brittle and stiff -- 90 percent show some damage. Jefferson used a mix of animal glue and starch as an adhesive. The handsewn binding is tight, making the spine rigid.

On one table in the basement workshop, Jefferson's title page for "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" is elaborately written in his clear hand.

"There are 12 different types of paper and seven different types of ink," said Janice Stagnitto Ellis, the museum's paper conservator. "We took tiny samples of ink from the ruled line. The paper fibers are weak."

Jefferson was meticulous, she said, leaving precise gaps in each book as he removed the verses that supported his religious and moral beliefs. He used two English texts, as well as two French and two Greek and Latin, arranging his selections in chronological order over four columns.

He was also an editor. "Apparently he didn't like the construction here of 'for as in a day,' so he edited out the 'as,'" explained Ellis, pointing with a silver micro-spatula to the little square where he had eliminated the word.

"This is a private document he created for himself," said Harry Rubenstein, the chair of the museum's political history division. "He never sold it because he didn't want it to be public. He wanted to avoid bringing back the arguments that he was anti-Christian."

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