Tolstoy's Gospel


By Eric Mader


Leo Tolstoy: The Gospel in Brief

University of Nebraska Press: 215 pp.


Are you acquainted with Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief?  At its time, this book virtually kept me alive. . . .  If you are not acquainted with it, then you cannot imagine what an effect it can have upon a person.  --Ludwig Wittgenstein


With his Gospel in Brief, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy offered the world his interpretation of Jesus' teachings in the most brazen way possible: by rewriting the four Gospels.  Tolstoy justified his work by arguing that the biblical Gospels themselves could not be taken as entirely reliable historical documents, and that therefore getting a correct understanding of Jesus meant sifting and winnowing.


[I]t is a gross error to represent the four Gospels, as is often done, to be books sacred in every verse and every syllable.  The reader must not forget that Jesus never Himself wrote a book, as did, for instance, Plato, Philo, or Marcus Aurelius; that He, moreover, did not, as Socrates did, transmit His teaching to informed and literate men, but spoke to a crowd of illiterate men. . . .  The reader must not forget that it is the teaching of Christ which may be sacred, but in no way can a certain measure of verses and syllables be so. . . .  (20-1)


Tolstoy could not accept the argument that the Scriptures, every verse and syllable, were written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  In this he agreed with Thomas Jefferson, who also sought a pared down Gospel and reworked the biblical texts to create a new version.  But the two men approached the task of "rewriting the Gospels" differently.  Oddly, Tolstoy, though closer to orthodoxy than Jefferson, showed less respect for the received biblical text.  Jefferson limited himself for the most part to removing passages he considered inauthentic; he left intact the sayings and other material he accepted.  Tolstoy rewrote everything, leaving no single passage quite as it appears in the Bible.  How could this be justified?


As there is breathtaking human magnitude in Tolstoy's novels, putting him near the rank of Shakespeare, so there's obvious hubris in his attempt to rewrite the Gospels.  But Tolstoy was by no means trying to present a "new" version of Jesus, a novelistic character cut to fit his own philosophy.  Rather, after much suffering and study, Tolstoy believed he'd discovered the core of Jesus' teaching, the kernel that made sense of the parables as well as Jesus' actions and death.  He discovered this through sifting and comparing the accounts and words in the four biblical Gospels.  That he decided to write his own version didn't mean, then, that he thought Jesus' message was somehow absent from the biblical Gospels.  No, he believed the message was there but was at risk of being missed because the Gospel writers themselves only partly understood it and so, to a degree, misrepresented it.


It is remarkable that Tolstoy's understanding of Jesus' meaning has key elements in common with a group of sayings in the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas.  Though the debate is far from settled, and will most likely never be settled, many scholars believe the sayings in Thomas have as decent a chance of authenticity as the sayings in the New Testament.  Since Thomas was only discovered mid-20th century, however, Tolstoy could have known nothing about it.  Yet Jesus as presented in The Gospel in Brief is in crucial respects similar to the Jesus we hear in Thomas.  One might argue that the two have more in common with each other than either does with Jesus as found in any of the canonical Gospels.


As with Thomas, Tolstoy's Jesus stresses that the Kingdom of  the Father is latent in the world already: it is not to be waited for as something God will inaugurate in some future time or place. Here is Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas:


If your leaders say to you, "Look!  The Kingdom is in the sky!" then the birds will be there before you are.  If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are.  Rather, the Kindgom is within you and it is outside of you.  When you understand yourselves you will be understood.  And you will realize that you are Sons of the living Father.  If you do not know yourselves, then you exist in poverty and you are that poverty.  (Saying 3)


Here is Tolstoy's Jesus:


[T]he kingdom of God is on earth, and . . . he who makes an effort can enter into it.

     And the orhtodox came to Jesus, and began asking him: "How, then, and when will the kingdom of God come?"  And he answered them: "The kingdom of God which I preach is not such as former prophets preached.  They said that God would come with divers visible signs, but I speak of a kingdom of God, the coming of which may not be seen with the eyes.  And if anyone shall say to you, 'See, it is come, or it shall come,' or, 'See, it is here or there,' do not believe them.  The kingdom of God is not in time, or in place, of any kind.  It is like lightning, seen here, there, and everywhere.  And it has neither time nor place, because the kingdom of God, the one which I preach, is within you.  (61-2)


Of course these sentences from Tolstoy are a reworked version of what we find in Luke, and so cannot be particularly unorthodox.  In Luke we read:


Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of  God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here is it,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

   Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.  Men will tell you, 'There he is!' or 'Here he is!'  Do not go running after them.  For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other."  (Luke 17:20-25)


But beyond considerations on the time and place of the Kingdom, Thomas and Tolstoy share other crucial theological or christological assertions: first, that the Kingdom announced by Jesus is to be entered while one still lives on the earth; second, that one must make an effort to enter the Kingdom (it is not gained "by grace through faith"); third, that Jesus himself is not in essence different from any other person who might realize or enter the Kingdom.  Thomas is slightly more ambiguous on this last point, but Tolstoy makes it very clear: Jesus considered himself a man with a special relationship to the Father who sought to awaken other men to the same relationship to the Father, a relationship which, he would insist, they already had in potential.  In Tolstoy's version, the title "Son of man" is not one Jesus applies only to himself, but is a name for the spiritual core of each individual: that part which is awoken to life when one serves the will of the Father.  Tolstoy's thinking here approaches Gnostic formulations of the heavenly "spark" at man's core, only in Tolstoy the spark is not understood as "trapped" here on earth as a result of some cosmic Fall, but is rather the divine gift of life God gives us:


For no man has ever gone up to heaven, but there is only man on earth, come down from heaven, and himself of heaven.  Now this same heavenly Son in man it is that must be lifted up, that everyone may believe in him and not perish, but may have heavenly life.  For God gave His Son, of the same essence as Himself, not for men's destruction, but for their happiness.  He gave him in order that everyone might have life without end.  For He did not bring forth His Son, this life, into the world of men in order to destroy the world of men; but He brought forth His Son, this life, in order that the world of men might be made alive through him. (63-4)


Tolstoy's interpretation of the "Christ" is parallel with his concept of the "Son of man":


And one of the orthodox said: "Teacher, what, in your opinion, is the chief commandment of the whole law?"

   The orthodox thought that Jesus would get confused in the answer about the law.  But Jesus said: "It is, to love the Lord with all one's soul, in whose power we are.  From it the second commandment follows, which is, to love one's neighbor.  Because the same Lord is in him.  And this is the substance of all that is written in all your books."

   And Jesus said further: "In your opinion, what is Christ?  Is he someone's son?"  They said: "In our opinion, Christ is the son of David."  Then he said to them: "How, then, does David call Christ his Lord?  Christ is neither son of David, nor anyone's son after the flesh; but Christ is that same Lord, our Ruler, whom we know in ourselves as our life.  Christ is that understanding which is in us." (171-2)


Such teaching is of course heresy in any orthodox church, and Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief is heretical on many points.  Yet I wouldn't for this reason discourage Christian readers, of whatever denomination, from reading it.  Quite the contrary.  Tolstoy's version of the Gospels opens up new possibilities of interpretation: angles that will add to one's understanding of Jesus even if one disagrees with Tolstoy on many of the essentials.


Clearly Tolstoy's rewriting is not done as if to say, "This is how Jesus must have said it."  Tolstoy knows he cannot know exactly what Jesus said.  Rather he rewrites and rearranges the material so as to bring forward an interpretation.  To show the importance of a specific parable or saying, for example, he will put it in a particular context, one intended to shed new light on it.  Often, in this procedure, I would judge him to be successful.  Sometimes he is not.  Readers who know the Gospels well will recognize Tolstoy's novel use of sayings in the following characteristic passage:


You cannot judge, because you, all men, are blind, and do not see the truth.  How, with obstructed eyes, will you discern the mote in your brother's eye?  You must first clear your own eye.  But whose eyes are clear?  Can a blind man lead a blind man?  Both will fall into the pit.  Thus, also, they who judge and punish, like the blind, are leading the blind.

   They who judge and condemn people to violent treatment, wounds, maiming, death, wish to teach people.  But what else can come from their teaching, than that the pupil will learn his lesson, and will become quite like the teacher?  What, then, will he do, when he has learnt his lesson?  The same as the teacher does: violence, murder.

   And do not think to find justice in the courts.  To seek legal justice, to hand matters over to human courts, is the same as to cast precious pearls before swine; they will trample upon them, and tear you to pieces.  (78)


This passage is characteristic both in its success and failure.  The discourse moves logically; Jesus' point about human courts and judgment is here stated more trenchantly and completely than in Matthew (if indeed we can even call this Jesus' point).  Yet I do not find the use of the saying about casting pearls before swine to be as effective as its use by the biblical writers.  Also, there is a flatness in the wording of the saying regarding the mote in one's brother's eye.  The biblical version is stronger.


The weaknesses in this passage raise two issues, one a matter of accident, the other more substantial.  The first issue is that of the translation, which, although I can't personally compare it to the Russian, is wooden and often awkward.  Certainly Isabel Hapgood's English is not an accurate reflection Tolstoy's Russian.  The man who wrote Anna Karenina could never have written sentences like many one finds in this volume.  The English is stylistically weak.


The second concerns the very style of Jesus' teaching, and how Tolstoy, by changing it, perhaps to a degree undermines it.  Jesus spoke in parables for a reason, and his sayings were most likely preserved as sayings (logia) because that is how his teaching was remembered.  Jesus was almost certainly a master of irony and gnomic utterance.  There is a terseness and mystery to the figure we encounter in the Gospels, especially in the (more authentic) first three Gospels.  Jesus' parables, especially those about the Kingdom, do not reveal themselves easily, if at all.  Yet in Tolstoy's version Jesus typically tells the parable, then explains it at length, which then leads to further discourse or the next parable.  Disciples or others ask one sentence questions and Tolstoy's Jesus responds with a handful of paragraphs.  There's a sense in which Tolstoy's title The Gospel in Brief is incorrect.


Again rather like the Gospel of Thomas, in The Gospel in Brief the teaching is all.  Whereas in the biblical Gospels Jesus' actions are as important as his words, in Tolstoy's version very little happens: the text is almost entirely a matter of lecturing.  The writer begins with the birth and temptations in the desert and ends with the crucifixion, but there's nothing in terms of the many healings.  Perhaps Tolstoy avoids narrating the miracles (and this will irk many Christians) because he doesn't really believe in them, or perhaps it's because he simply wants to focus on the teaching.  This is how he explains it in his introduction:


These passages are omitted in this abridgement, because, containing nothing of the teaching, and describing only events which passed before, during, or after the period in which Jesus taught, they complicate the exposition.  However one takes them, under any circumstance, they bring to the teaching of Jesus neither contradiction nor confirmation of its truth.  Their sole significance for Christianity was that they proved the divinity of Jesus Christ for him who was not persuaded of this divinity beforehand.  But they are useless to one whom stories of miracles are powerless to convince, and who, besides, doubts the divinity of Jesus as evidenced in His teaching. (20)


It is hardly necessary to point out how wrong Tolstoy is in writing that the miracles "[contain] nothing of the teaching."  But I believe he is right to assert that the miracles are "useless to one whom stories of miracles are powerless to convince."  In fact there are many modern men and women who are kept from considering Jesus' teaching because they immediately react negatively to the stories of miracles.  Offended that so many around them should believe such things, they get it in their head, without even studying it, that the whole of Jesus' teaching must be offensive.  Perhaps if they approached the teaching first, studying it as a teaching about the Spirit and humanity, about humanity's place in relation to God and the (always potential) Kingdom of God, they may find much more in Christianity than they expected.


Finally there is something compelling in the way Tolstoy's vision makes such clear sense out of the most basic concepts of Jesus' teaching: God the Father, the Kingdom, the imperative of love and forgiveness, the imperative of humility, the imperative to give one's life for others.  To bring out his sense of the spiritual light in the Gospels is his goal, as he states in his introduction:


The source of the Christian teaching is the Gospels, and there I found the explanation of the spirit which animates the life of all who really live.  But along with the flow of that pure, life-giving water I perceived much mire and slime unrightfully mingled therewith . . . .

   . . .  despite the false commentaries of the Churches . . . when I reached the source of light I was dazzled with its splendor . . . . (23)


Tolstoy's work is written then in service to the light he has perceived and against "the false commentaries of the Churches."  This anti-ecclesial edge is evident in his choice throughout not to characterize Jesus' antagonists as "Pharisees" or by any of the other Jewish sectarian names but by the words "orthodox teachers" or "orthodox leaders."  In fact, in a departure which I at least find excessive, he doesn't use the word "synagogue" where the Gospels do but replaces it on occasion by "church."  Tolstoy certainly saw this as a way to make his point that Jesus struggled against the same kind of religious legalism and obscurantism that could be found in his contemporary Russia.  But it is surely going too far.


Jesus inaugurated something new, as the saying of the new wineskins and much else in Christian scriptures make clear.  But where the Gospels as a whole imply a two-part movement to the new dispensation--first, that men must repent, because, second, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand as something that will soon overturn the earth from the outside: a sudden divine intervention in the form of a Day of Judgment--Tolstoy's stress is on humanity and how this newness of the Kingdom must be brought about in the hearts of men and women.


When Philip  knew Jesus, he went and found his brother Nathanael, and said to him: "We have found the chosen of God, of whom the prophets and Moses wrote.  This is Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth." . . . Nathanael went with his brother, and met Jesus; and, when he had heard him, he said to Jesus: "Yes, now I see that this is true, that you are the Son of God and the King of Israel."  Jesus said to him: "Learn something more important than that.  Henceforth heaven is opened, and people may be in communion with the forces of heaven.  Henceforth God will no longer be separate from men." (42-3)


And why can the Kingdom of Heaven be "opened" to people?  Why is there no longer a separation?  According to Tolstoy, it is not no much because the blood sacrifice of the Christ has redeemed our sins and opened a bridge over which we might enter Heaven.  Rather it is because, already at the heart of man, there is something that precedes creation and the fall, something that men must realize (here in the double sense of know and bring about).  This is what Jesus announces, what Tolstoy calls the Son of man.  As Tolstoy's Jesus prays it in the Garden of Gethsemane:


Thy understanding is the truth, My Father!  I wish them to be as I am; to understand as I do, that the true life began before the beginning of the world. (200)


Does Tolstoy intend to say by this that the spirit in man is uncreated?  If so, it would mean in effect that any man would be able to say, along with Jesus in the Gospel of John: "Before Abraham was, I am."  Again Tolstoy parallels ancient Gnosticism.  For the Gnostics, to know this kind of being, this uncreated "I am," was a necessary precondition of knowing and entering the Kingdom.  Another passage in The Gospel in Brief suggests the same interpretation:


[Jesus said:] "Your orthodox teachers go about everywhere, and compel people to swear and vow that they will fulfill the law.  But by this they only pervert people, an dmake them worse than before.  It is impossible to promise with one's body for one's soul.  In your soul, God is; therefore people cannot promise for God to men." (165-6)


God is in the soul of man.  Man has a divine element in him.  These passages and much else in The Gospel in Brief may be seen to lower the status of Jesus as the unique Son of God.  Of course one might also insist that they don't lower the status of Jesus so much as raise the potential status of those who would realize the Kingdom.  Doesn't the biblical Jesus also perhaps imply a similar potential?


Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, "Why couldn't we drive [the demon out of the boy]?"

   He replied, "Because you have so little faith.  I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you."  (Matthew 17:19-20)


Humanity has the power, if only it had the faith.


One should note that although there are parallels between Tolsoy's thinking and ancient Gnosticism, Tolstoy cannot really be called a Gnostic, at least not in the classical sense, because he does not subscribe to the doctrine of a flawed demiurgic creation.  Tolstoy's cosmos is not the scene of disaster it is for most of the ancient Gnostics.


Tolstoy's understanding of the End Times is also formulated in terms of the teaching and its reception among men, rather than in terms of a particular divine Judgment Day:


And Jesus said: "I tell you truly, the whole of this temple, with all its embellishments, shall be destroyed, and nothing shall remain of it.  There is one temple of God; that is, the hearts of men when they love each other."

   And they asked him: "When shall there be such a temple?"

   And Jesus said to them: "That will not be soon.  People will yet long be deceived in the name of my teaching, and wars and rebellions will be the result.  And there will be great lawlessness, and little love.  But when the true teaching shall spread among all men, then will be the end of evil and temptations." (174-5)


Does Tolstoy's Jesus teach that the coming of the Kingdom is entirely a matter of something that happens in humanity itself?  I don't believe so.  I would say that here the Kingdom is a matter of a relationship that comes about between humanity and God--that the Kingdom comes when humanity realizes in itself the will of the Father.


Serious students of the Gospels, especially those who consider Jesus' teaching a matter of revelation, will find much to challenge and fascinate them in this book.  How Tolstoy's Jesus might relate to the real Jesus is a complex question, one we probably will never be able to answer.  Was the "historical Jesus" more like the man we find in Matthew or the man we find in The Gospel in Brief?  I myself would vote for Matthew.  Even so, Tolstoy's burning need to find the truth combined with his genius as interpreter of humanity illuminate this work with flashes of undeniable insight.  There are instances where he may indeed have found out Jesus' deeper meaning.  And isn't this struggle to interpret Jesus one of the great tasks tradition has given us?


August 2007



Check Tolstoy's *Gospel in Brief* at






This page is at