Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 14 November 1813

From John Adams

Quincy Nov. 14: 1813

Dear Sir

Accept my thanks for the comprehensive Syllabus, in your favour of Oct. 12.

The Psalms of David, in Sublimity beauty, pathos and originality, or in one Word, in poetry, are Superiour to all the Odes Hymns and Songs in any language. But I had rather read them in our prose translation, than in any version I have Seen. His Morality however, often Shocks me, like Tristram Shandy’s execrations.

Blacklocks translation of Horace’s “Justum is admirable; Superiour to Addisons. Could David be translated as well; his Superiority would be universally acknowledged. We cannot compare the Sybbiline Poetry. By Virgils Pollio we may conjecture, there was Prophecy as well as Sublimity. Why have those Verses been annihilated? I Suspect platonick Christianity, pharisaical Judaism, or machiavilian Politicks, in this case; as in all other cases of the destruction of records and litterary monuments. The Auri Sacra fames, et dominandi Sæva cupido.

Among all your researches in Hebrew History and Controversy have you ever met a book, the design of which is to prove, that the ten Commandments, as We have them in our Catechisms and hung up in our Churches, were not the Ten Commandments written by the Finger of God upon tables, delivered to Moses on mount Sinai and broken by him in a passion with Aaron for his golden calf, nor those afterwards engraved by him on Tables of Stone; but a very different Sett of Commandments?

There is such a book by J. W. Goethens Schristen. Berlin 1775–1779. I wish to See this Book.

you will See the Subject and perceive the question in Exodus 20. 1–17. 22–28.  chapter 24. 3 &c  ch. 24. 12.  ch. 25. 31  ch. 31. 18.  ch. 31. 19.  ch. 34. 1.  ch. 34. 10 &c.

I will make a Covenant with all this People. Observe that which I command this day.


Thou Shall not adore any other God. Therefore take heed, not to enter into covenant, with the Inhabitants of this country; neither take for your Sons, their daughters in marriage. They would allure thee to the Worship of false Gods. Much less Shall you in any place, erect Images.


The Feast of unleavened bread, Shall thou keep. Seven days, Shall thou eat unleavened bread, at the time of the month Abib; to remember that about that time, I delivered thee from Egypt


Every first born of the mother is mine; the male of thine herd, be it Stock or flock. But you Shall replace the first born of an Ass with a Sheep. The first born of your Sons Shall you redeem. No Man Shall appear before me with empty hands.


Six days Shall thou labour: the Seventh day, thou shall rest from ploughing and gathering.


The Feast of Weeks shalt thou keep, with the firstlings of the wheat Harvest: and the Feast of Harvesting, at the end of the year.


Thrice, in every year, all male persons shall appear before the Lord. Nobody shall invade your Country, as long as you obey this Command.


Thou shall not Sacrifice the blood of a Sacrifice of mine, upon leavened bread.


The Sacrifice of the Passover Shall not remain, till the next day.


The Firstlings of the produce of your land, thou Shalt bring to the House of the Lord.


Thou shalt not boil the kid, while it is yet Sucking.


And the Lord Spake to Moses: Write these Words; as, after these Words I made with you, and with Israel a Covenant.


I know not whether Goethens translated or abridged from the Hebrew, or whether he used any translation Greek, Latin, or German. But he differs in form and Words, Somewhat from our Version. Exod. 34. 10. to 28. The Sense Seems to be the Same. The Tables were the evidence of the covenant, by which the Almighty attached the People of Israel to himself. By these laws they were Seperated from all other nations, and were reminded of the principal Epochas of their History.

When and where originated our Ten commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during or after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or amendment might come in there.

But you must be weary, as I am at present, of Problems, conjectures, and paradoxes, concerning Hebrew, Grecian and Christian and all other Antiquities; but while We believe that the finis bonorum will be happy, We may leave learned men to this disquisition and Criticism1

I admire your Employment, in Selecting the Philosophy and Divinity of Jesus and Seperating it from all intermixtures. If I had Eyes and Nerves, I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand. To examine the Mishna Gemara Cabbala Jezirah, Sohar Cosri and Talmud of the Hebrews would require the life of Methuselah, and after all, his 969 years would be wasted to very little purpose.2 The Dæmon of Hierarchical despotism has been at Work, both with the Mishna and Gemara. In 1238 a French Jew, made a discovery to the Pope (Gregory 9th) of the heresies of the Talmud. The Pope Sent 35 Articles of Error, to the Archbishops of France, requiring them to Seize the books of the Jews, and burn all that contained any Errors. He wrote in the same terms to the Kings of France, England Arragon, Castile Leon, Navarre and Portugal. In consequence of this Order 20 Cartloads of Hebrew Books were burnt in France: and how many times 20 cartloads were destroyed in the other Kingdoms? The Talmud of Babylon and that of Jerusalem were composed from 120 to 500 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. If Lightfoot derived Light from what escaped from Gregorys fury3 in explaining many passages in the New Testament, by comparing the Expressions of the Mishna, with those of the Apostles and Evangelists, how many proofs of the Corruptions of Christianity might We find in the Passages burnt?

John Adams

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 13 Dec. 1813 and so recorded in SJL, although SJL gives the date of composition as 15 Nov. 1813. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers).

A translation of horace’s “justum (from the Odes, 3.3) by Joseph Addison appears in the latter’s Miscellaneous Works, in Verse and Prose (London, 1726; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4546), 1:142–7. Virgil’s fourth eclogue is also known as the pollio because it was written during the consulship of Caius Asinius Pollio (Fairclough, Virgil description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Virgil, ed. rev. by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library, 1999–2000, 2 vols. description ends , 1:48–53).auri sacra fames, et dominandi sæva cupido: “accursed hunger for gold, and cruel lust for power.” The first clause is from Virgil’sAeneid, 3.57 (Virgil, 1:376–7).The biblical story of Aaron and his golden calf is in Exodus 32.1–20.j. w. goethens schristen: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, D. Goethens Schriften, 4 vols. (Berlin, 1775–79). This work included Goethe’s argument that the biblical Ten Commandents inscribed on stone tablets were the “Ritual Commandments” recorded in Exodus 34.11–26, rather than the “Ethical Commandments” from Exodus 20.2–17 and Deuteronomy 5.6–21 generally accepted as forming the Decalogue (Bernard M. Levinson, “Goethe’s Analysis of Exodus 34 and Its Influence on Wellhausen: The Pfropfung of the Documentary Hypothesis,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenchaft 114 [2002]: 212–23).finis bonorum: “chief good.” The jezirah, Zohar (sohar), and cosri are kabbalistic works. John lightfoot was an English biblical scholar. George Wythe bequeathed a copy of his works to TJ (The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot D.D., 2 vols. [London, 1684; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1530]).

1RC: “disquisitions and Criticisms.” FC: “disquisition and criticism.”

2Adams here canceled “Accept my thanks for all favors. John Adams.”

3Preceding five words interlined in place of “them.”

Index Entries

  • Aaron (Hebrew priest; Moses’s brother) search
  • Adams, John; and Ten Commandments search
  • Adams, John; and TJ’s syllabus on Jesus’s doctrines search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on destruction of historical records search
  • Adams, John; on Psalms of David search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Addison, Joseph; as translator of Horace search
  • Bible; Deuteronomy referenced search
  • Bible; Exodus referenced search
  • Bible; Psalms referenced search
  • Bible; Ten Commandments search
  • Blacklock, Thomas; as translator of Horace search
  • D[oktor]Goethens Schriften (Goethe) search
  • Eclogues (Virgil) search
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; and Ten Commandments search
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; D. Goethens Schriften search
  • Gregory IX, pope; orders burning of Hebrew books search
  • Horace; translators of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; bequests search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; syllabus of Jesus’s doctrines search
  • Jerusalem; destruction of search
  • Lightfoot, John; English theologian search
  • Methuselah (Old Testament figure) search
  • Moses (Hebrew prophet) search
  • Sterne, Laurence; The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman search
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Sterne) search
  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro); Eclogues search
  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro); J. Adams quotes search
  • Wythe, George; bequeaths books to TJ search