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Easter: A day of renewal, from many points of view

IN THE last years of his life, Thomas Jefferson completed a project that he’d been working on for some time: a new version of the story of Jesus that he thought would be more coherent and credible to educated sons of the Enlightenment like himself. Jefferson cut out fragments of the Gospels and rearranged them into a document that became known as “The Jefferson Bible,” an account of Jesus’s life that omitted, among other things, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, raising of the dead, driving out devils and the event that believing Christians celebrate today, the Resurrection.

The result, writes Garry Wills, “is the tale of . . .a very good man, perhaps the best of good men . . .a man who would not pretend to work miracles, to wrestle with demons, or to have unique access to God the Father. . . . Jefferson’s Jesus is shorn of his paradoxes and left with platitudes.”

These words are from a book (“What Jesus Meant”) that Mr. Wills, a historian and journalist, describes as “devotional” and which wrestles not only with Jefferson’s odd notions but with the concepts of modern scholars whom he considers adherents of a “new fundamentalism” that “believes in the literal sense of the Bible — it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus.” Mr. Wills speaks for many people of faith when he writes: “With certain religious figures, the original story . . .does not begin with literal facts that are later ‘embellished.’ . . . The first reports spreading from such figures are all a blaze of holiness and miracle.”
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