His moral doctrines, relating to kindred [family] and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: “good will to fellow men; esp: active effort to promote human welfare”], not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince [ibid, “display clearly: reveal] the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all the others.
To Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson
P. 519 – 522
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson had received from another friend, Dr. Joseph Priestly, “his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared”.” That prompted Jefferson to consider the comparison more broadly, and he wrote a “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.” He included that summary with this letter to Dr. Rush. It compared Jesus’ views with those of seven ancient philosophers (Socrates, Epicurus and Cicero among the better known ones) and with those of the Jews.
He examined only the moral principles taught by the Jews, the philosophers and Jesus (without any consideration of his divinity). He put Jesus’ doctrine ahead of the philosophers and way ahead of the Jews, for two reasons:
1. How one should treat family and friends was “more pure and perfect.”
2. Beyond that, Jesus’ promotion of “universal philanthropy,” not just to some but to “all mankind,” creating a common family united in love, kindness and service.
The title of Jefferson’s study began with the word “syllabus.” It was a summary only. Pursuing the subject in depth, which he was not prepared to do, would prove Jesus’ moral code to be unquestionably superior.
Jefferson could not have known any of this had Jesus not spoken very publicly about religion.
This post is part of a series of five, all taken from the same letter:
1. Why I don’t talk about religion publicly
2. Why you shouldn’t talk about religion publicly
3. Although I don’t talk about religion publicly
4. Jesus did talk about religion publicly
5. What made Jesus different