I had promised some day to write … my view of the Christian system … [after taking] a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkeable of the antient philosophers … I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus … a pure[r] deism, and juster notions of the attributes of god, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice, & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. this view would purposely omit the question of his divinity & even of his inspiration … [and] shew a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught; and eminently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers.
To Joseph Priestley, April 9, 1803
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders take pains to assess the morals of even wiser ones.
Priestley (1733-1804) was a renowned English-born scientist, philosopher, theologian, and Jefferson confidante. The work envisioned here was completed in 1804 with the title, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” Fifteen years later, in 1819, he produced an expanded version called, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” That final version, excerpts from the four Gospels was produced in parallel form, with English, Greek, Latin and French translations on each page. Both were produced solely for his personal, private meditation, and made known to only a very few. Some years after his death, it would come be known, however incorrectly, as “The Jefferson Bible.”
Jefferson’s work focused only on Jesus’ words and historical accounts from the Gospels. Omitted were any claims of divinity and all of his miracles. Those, Jefferson believed, had been added by Jesus’ disciples to embellish their teacher. Even so, he found Jesus to be “more perfect” than all ancient philosophers “and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught.”