Nearly 15 years ago, while developing a documentary about early Christianity, the filmmaker Marilyn Mellowes came upon an unexpected version of the Gospels. This one had been assembled by Thomas Jefferson. During his presidency, he had literally cut and pasted the standard biblical account into a text more to his liking, omitting Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection and supernatural miracles while maintaining the ethical teachings. Having always considered Jefferson “cerebral and slightly allergic to religion,” Mellowes was instantly intrigued. The story of the Jefferson Bible, as the refashioned scripture became known, did not fit into her documentary about nascent Christianity. But it stuck in her memory. And the paradoxical idea that the man credited with creating the metaphor of a wall between church and state cared and studied so deeply about Christianity helped to inspire a documentary about the history and influence of religion in American public life.

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