Mr. Jefferson’s Compilation
Robert Coats, Jr., Editor)
Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Canby, “Of all the systems of morality,
ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so
pure as that of Jesus.” He described his own compilation to Charles Thomson as
“a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and
arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or
subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.” He
told John Adams that he was rescuing the Philosophy of Jesus and the “pure
principles which he taught,” from the “artificial vestments in which they
have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as
instruments of riches and power for themselves.” After having selected from
the evangelists “the very words only of Jesus,” he believed “there will be
found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever
been offered to man.”
The most difficult decision to be made in presenting
’s compilation for the World Wide Web is the choice of the English translation
to be used.
’s original paste-up job included side-by-side versions of the text in Greek,
Latin, French and English, the latter being the King James Version (
). This version, though unquestionably the most beautiful ever made, has been
widely discredited in this century because of its many inaccuracies and because
so many of the words of the text are either obsolete or have changed so much in
meaning that they are confusing and misleading to the reader. Certainly,
Jefferson, who was fluent in Greek, Latin and French, had these side-by-side
versions to guide him to a fuller understanding of the text and did not rely
solely on the King James. There is no question that, if
were supervising this project, he would prefer a version that was as accurate
as possible, especially if it were to be the only one made available.
Needless to say, it would have been simpler for the editor to present only the
King James Version, just as it was in
’s original compilation. But the purpose here is to offer a work that fulfills
’s intentions for a meaningful, living book, not to pedantically present a
document for historical interest alone. Happily, the editor had a corrected
edition of the King James Version available to him from a previous project. This
had all the faults of the old King James removed without significantly altering
the beauty of the King James language, and this is the version that is offered
here. The only drawback in using a modern rendition of the ancient texts is the
discovery that three of the verses included by
in his compilation were not actually a part of the most ancient manuscripts.
These three verses, noted in the “Table of Texts,” are of minimal
significance however, and their omission does not affect the reading in any
Previous editions of
’s compilation display the source of each verse along with the verses
themselves, thus retaining the paste-up character of the original. This tends to
distract readers from the message of the text, and forces them constantly to be
aware of cuts and omissions.
editor suggests that The Jefferson Bible be read as Thomas Jefferson intended,
without even thinking about what was left out or moved from one place to
another. His purpose was to present a code of morals, suitable for instruction
in ordinary living, not a code of religious dogmas and supernatural beliefs. It
is the editor’s hope that readers of The Jefferson Bible will be better able
to appreciate the strikingly sublime ethical philosophy of Jesus when his words
are separated from the other doctrinal issues, and that they will be able to
agree with Jefferson that these “doctrines of Jesus are simple and tend all to
the happiness of man.”
Robert Coates, Sr.
’s Syllabus of an Estimate of the
Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus,
Compared with Those of Others.
a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush,
described his views on Jesus and the Christian religion, as well as his own
religious beliefs. He appended to this description a Syllabus that compared the
teachings of Jesus to those of the earlier Greek and Roman philosophers, and to
the religion of the Jews of Jesus’ time. This letter and the appended Syllabus
are interesting to anyone studying the Jefferson Bible because they explain
’s views which later led him to make the compilation of the moral philosophy
of Jesus in the form presented. Both the letter and the Syllabus are presented
below, and may be found in the Memorial Edition of Jefferson’s Writings, Vol.
10, pg. 379. Following the syllabus is a letter to William Short, which contains
further discussion of the syllabus. This letter is found in Vol. 11 of the
Memorial Edition, pg. 243.
To Dr. Benjamin Rush.
, April 21, 1803.
some of the delightful conversations with you in the evenings of 1798–99, and
which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our
country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I
then promised you that one day or other I would give you my views of it. They
are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that
anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To
the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine
precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he
wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all
others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he
never claimed any other. At the short interval since these conversations, when I
could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been
under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded
beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late
, I received from Dr. Priestley his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus
Compared.” This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field,
it became a subject of reflection while on the road and unoccupied otherwise.
The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus or outline of such an estimate
of the comparative merits of Christianity as I wished to see executed by someone
of more leisure and information for the task than myself. This I now send you as
the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding
it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those
who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I
am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public,
because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to
draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself
into that inquisition over the rights of conscience which the laws have so
justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for
himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by
change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case,
to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent
opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God
and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.
of an Estimate of the
Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus,
Compared with Those of Others.
a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the
Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among
the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the
corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.
a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of
the sects of ancient philosophy or of their individuals; particularly
Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.
Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those
passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind.
In this branch of philosophy they were really great.
In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They
embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism,
or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards
our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as
within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity
and love to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of
Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of
him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.
Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound
dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around
us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed
reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.
this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure;
his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life
correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and
of the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear
Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not
Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own
brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power
and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their
advantages; and the committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on
unlettered and ignorant men, who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long
after the transactions had passed.
According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform
mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar
and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet
attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching,
which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a
complete system of morals.
Hence the doctrines he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments
only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often
They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing
followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the
simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian
sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until
they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus
himself as an impostor.
these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up
in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most
perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.
question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with
it, claimed for him by some of his followers and denied by others, is foreign to
the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his
He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only
God, and giving them juster notions of His attributes and government.
His moral doctrines, relating to kindred 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, 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 the
peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only.
He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the
region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either
doubted or disbelieved by the Jews, and wielded it with efficacy as an important
incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.
To William Short.
, April 13, 1820.
favor of March the 27th is received, and as you request, a copy of the syllabus
is now enclosed. It was originally written to Dr. Rush. On his death, fearing
that the inquisition of the public might get hold of it, I asked the return of
it from the family, which they kindly complied with. At the request of another
friend, I had given him a copy. He lent it to his friend to read, who
copied it, and in a few months it appeared in the Theological Magazine of
London. Happily that repository is scarcely known in this country, and the
syllabus, therefore, is still a secret, and in your hands I am sure it will
while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and
high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of
religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I
am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of
repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to
redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of His character, the purity and
sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of His inculcations, the beauty
of the apologues in which He conveys them, that I so much admire; sometimes,
indeed, needing indulgence to eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies, too, may be
founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings
and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers, I find many passages of fine
imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others,
again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism
and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should
have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the
dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some,
and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors,
Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.
These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try
to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that His past
composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by
man. The syllabus is therefore of His doctrines, not all of mine.
I read them as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture
of approbation and dissent . . . .
’s note:] To explain, I will exhibit the heads of Seneca’s and
’s philosophical works, the most extensive of any we have received from
the ancients. Of ten heads in Seneca, seven relate to ourselves, viz. de
ira, consolatio, de tranquilitate, de constantia sapientis, de otio
sapientis, de vita beata, de brevitate vitae; two relate to others, de
clementia, de beneficiis; and one relates to the government of the
world, de providentia. Of eleven tracts of Cicero, five respect
ourselves, viz. de finibus, Tusculana, academica, paradoxa, de Senectute;
one, de officiis, relates partly to ourselves, partly to others; one,
de amicitia, relates to others; and four are on different subjects,
to wit, de natura deorum, de divinatione, de fato, and sommium