Tolstoy’s Gospels in Brief

The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus, by Leo Tolstoy

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  1. Just finished The Gospel in Brief by Leo Tolstoy, a refreshingly different retelling of the four gospels of the Christian Bible.

    This short account of the four Gospels is “my own synthesis,” in Tolstoy’s own words in the preface, “organized according to the meaning of the teaching.”

    “The division of the Gospel into twelve chapters,” he goes on, “came about of itself from the sense of the teaching. This is the meaning behind those chapters:

    1) Man [sic] is the son of an infinite source: a son of that Father not by the flesh but by the spirit.

    2) Therefore man should serve that source in spirit.

    3) The life of all men has a divine origin. It alone is holy.

    4) Therefore man should serve that source in the life of all men. Such is the will of the Father.

    5) The service of the will of that Father of life gives life.

    6) Therefore the gratification of one’s own will is not necessary for life.

    7) Temporal life is food for the true life.

    8) Therefore the true life is independent of time: it is in the present.

    9) Time is an illusion of life; life in the past and in the future conceals from men the true life of the present.

    10) Therefore man should strive to destroy the illusion of the temporal life of the past and future.

    11) True life is life in the present, common to all men and manifesting itself in love.

    12) Therefore, he who lives by love in the present, through the common life of all men, unites with the Father, the source and foundation of life.

    So each two chapters are related as cause and effect.”

    Then he says that “When I had finished my work I found to my surprise and joy that the Lord’s Prayer [the “Our Father”] is nothing other than a very concise expression of the whole teaching of Jesus in the very order in which I had arranged the chapters, and that each phrase of the prayer corresponds to the meaning and sequence of the chapters:

    1. Our Father,
    1) Man is a son of God

    2. Who art in Heaven,
    2) God is the infinite spiritual source of life.

    3. Hallowed be Thy Name,
    3) May this source of life be held holy

    4. Thy Kingdom come,
    4) May his power be realized in all men

    5. Thy will be done, as in heaven,
    5) May the will oft his infinite source be fulfilled as it is in himself

    6. So on earth,
    6) so also in the bodily life.

    7. Give us our daily bread,
    7) Temporal life is the food of the true life.

    8. Each day.
    8) True life is in the present.

    9. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,
    9) And let not the mistakes and errors of the past hide that true life from us.

    10. And lead us not into temptation,
    10) And may they not lead us into delusion,

    11. But deliver us from evil,
    11) And so there shall be no evil.

    12. For thine is the kingdom the power, and the glory,
    12) And may thy power, and strength, and wisdom, prevail.

    In chapter 4 (Thy Kingdom come, or May his power be realized in all men [sic]), Tolstoy describes Jesus’s five commandments:

    “I. Do not be angry, but live at peace with all men.
    II. Do not indulge yourself in sexual gratification.
    III. Do not promise anything on oath to anyone.
    IV. Do not resist evil, do not judge and do not go to law.
    V. Make no distinction of nationality, but love foreigners as your own people.

    All these commandments are contained in one: All that you wish men to do to you, do you to them.”

    Incidentally, according to AC Grayling in Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (see below post), the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein acquired and read Tolstoy’s account of the gospels, apparently at some time during the first half of 1915 on the eastern front of the war, “and was profoundly moved by it. (It seems that later, when he read the Gospels themselves and found them to be somewhat different, he had to be persuaded of their superiority over the Tolstoy version)” (p. 7).

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