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History in Review

The Gospel in Brief

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The Gospel in Brief
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Isabel Hapgood
Dover Publication, Inc., 2008, 173 pages
ISBN: 978-0-486-46811-2

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 26, 2009

The Russian Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), best known for his novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, considered by many to have been the greatest novelist, had a spiritual crisis when he was fifty years old. He met with many wise individuals seeking answers to his questions, but was unsatisfied with their responses. So he turned to the study of Christianity and discovered a solution to his problems in his own unique understanding of the Christian Gospels.

Tolstoy, like many other writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, was convinced that Jesus' teachings were perverted by the people who transmitted them and that the explanations of his teachings in the non-Gospel New Testament books and in the writings of the church after his death have little or no relation to what he actually said. All of Jesus' disciples, Tolstoy wrote, without exception, were illiterate and uneducated workmen who the New Testament itself repeatedly testifies did not understand what Jesus was saying. Those who followed the disciples wrote what they wanted to write using Jesus to promote their own agenda.

The Bible writers, he says, inserted all kinds of miracles and superstitious notions that, being unnatural, could never have occurred.

So Tolstoy decided to rewrite the Gospels as a single book and only include the ethical teachings of Jesus. He took statements from each of the four Gospels, without concern for chronology, mixing the wording of one Gospel writer into the discussion by another. By mixing the ideas, he erased the agenda of each Gospel writer, for each had his own program, and created his own. Additionally, the Tolstoy version of Jesus' teaching is totally unlike the teachings of the Christian churches.

Why Tolstoy can say on the one hand that the Gospel writers did not understand Jesus while using their words in his own Gospel is difficult to understand. Be this as it may, the Tolstoy reading of the Gospel, as translated masterfully by Isabel Hapgood, is very thought provoking. Readers may accept his theology in whole, or in part, or reject it out of hand. But all who pay attention to his ideas will find them interesting.

Tolstoy did not believe in the conventional notion of God. God is the name given to "the infinite source of being." This infinite source of being is incomprehensible. It is not involved in current human affairs. It created everything out of love. People are related to the infinite source in spirit, not in the flesh, for the source is not physical.

People are the product or sons of this "father," another name that people apply to the infinite source. Thus Jesus is the son of what people call God, and so are all other humans the father's son. Jesus was not God; he was as human as all other people.

However, Jesus understood what others do not, that everything that the infinite source created was created with love. Therefore, if people want to relate to God, as they should, they can only do so by being like God, showing love to all people, indeed to all that God created. Tolstoy writes, "The Gospel puts in the place of what men call 'God' a right understanding of life. Without this understanding there is no life; men only live in so far as they understand life." Thus, the basic human command is to love unconditionally, to "love thy neighbor as thyself." As stated in Matthew 5:44, "love not only your own countrymen, but people of other nations." Tolstoy emphasizes that loving means acting toward people with love, not just thinking or feeling, and not just celebrating religious ceremonies.

Matthew 5 mentions five basic commands, and love is the fifth mentioned, but the first in importance. The others are (1) "Do not be angry, do not abuse; but having quarreled, make peace in such a way that no one may have cause for offense against you." (2) "Do not think that love toward woman is good; do not admire the beauty of women, but live with the one to whom you have become united, and do not leave her." (3) "Understand that every oath is evil" and therefore never swear. (4) "Do not resist evil, do not judge and do not go to law (courts), do not complain and do not punish."

Tolstoy followed the dictates of the first and fifth commands by remarkably translating the New Testament phrase "Pharisees" as "orthodox." This is an extremely significant innovation. Unfortunately, beginning in the second half of the first century C.E., disputes arose among the traditionally-minded Jews and the Jews who accepted the teachings of Jesus and the non-Jews that they converted to their beliefs. These disputes led to insults thrown by both groups. Some of these insults made their way into the New Testament. As a result, the New Testament used the term Pharisees, a noun that described some of the Jews, Jews who later evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, to describe Jews as a whole. This usage led many New Testament readers to suppose that all the Jews of Jesus' time rejected him and has led some people to anti-Semitism. These readers ignored other New Testament statements that made it clear that many Jews accepted Jesus' teachings. An example is John 12:19, "And the orthodox high priest saw all this and said to each other: 'See what this man is doing. The whole people are following him."

Tolstoy removes this egregious problem by substituting the word "orthodox." This not only voids the text of anti-Jewish notions, but makes the writing clearer. The text is saying that from time to time, "orthodox" teachers, meaning those who held the ancient teachings, questioned Jesus' new instructions.

By making this change, Tolstoy is illustrating Jesus basic teaching to show love for everyone.

Years later, in 1903, Tolstoy showed his compliance with the first and fifth commands again when he wrote and published stories in aid of Jews who were made destitute by the massacres throughout Russia in that year. These very sensitive tales can be read in collections such as Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy, translated by L. and A. Maude, Walking Lion Press, 2006.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century philosopher, and a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House.

Related Reviews:

The Jefferson Bible, by Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson believed that the pure-principled teachings of Jesus should have been separated from the dogma and abuse of organized religion of the day. This led him to recast, by cutting and pasting from the gospels, a new narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus.

The Human Tradition in Imperial Russia, edited by Christine D. Worobec.
A collection of twelve essays that highlight some of the major social issues in Imperial Russia, and which provide insights into what life was like under the Tzars.

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