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Tolstoy's Gospel

Tolstoy's Gospel

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Published by mr-norman
Tolstoy, his "Gospel in Brief," Wittgenstein, and the Gospel of Thomas in one article! What could top that?

For Tolstoy's "The Gospel in Brief" see http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24156903M/The_gospel_in_brief.

This article includes Tolstoy as part of our current far-ranging discussion on the origins of Christianity in light of the gnostic gospels, the thought-provoking shake-up in modern thought by Wittgenstein.

All this stands as contrast to the coherent presentation of Buddhist thought and practice to the West now available (but to which Tolstoy had but little access at his time). Nonetheless it positions Tolstoy as giant visionary pioneer and cutting-edge thinker.

Tolstoy, his "Gospel in Brief," Wittgenstein, and the Gospel of Thomas in one article! What could top that?

For Tolstoy's "The Gospel in Brief" see http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24156903M/The_gospel_in_brief.

This article includes Tolstoy as part of our current far-ranging discussion on the origins of Christianity in light of the gnostic gospels, the thought-provoking shake-up in modern thought by Wittgenstein.

All this stands as contrast to the coherent presentation of Buddhist thought and practice to the West now available (but to which Tolstoy had but little access at his time). Nonetheless it positions Tolstoy as giant visionary pioneer and cutting-edge thinker.

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Published by: mr-norman on Sep 25, 2013
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01/23/2015

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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 youcannot imagine what an effect it can have upon a person.
--LudwigWittgenstein 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 Tolstoy justified his work by arguing that the biblical Gospels themselves could not be taken asentirely reliable historical documents, and that therefore getting a correct understanding of Jesus meant sifting and winnowing.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 inevery verse and every syllable. The reader must not forget that Jesus never Himself wrotea 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 crowdof illiterate men. . . . The reader must not forget that it is the teaching of Christ whichmay 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, werewritten under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this he agreed with Thomas Jefferson, whoalso sought a pared down Gospel and reworked the biblical texts to create a new version. Butthe 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; heleft intact the sayings and other material he accepted. Tolstoy rewrote everything, leaving nosingle 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 coreof Jesus' teaching, the kernel that made sense of the parables as well as Jesus' actions anddeath. 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 messagewas there but was at risk of being missed because the Gospel writers themselves only partlyunderstood it and so, to a degree, misrepresented it. It is remarkable that Tolstoy's understanding of Jesus' meaning has key elements in commonwith 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 inThomas have as decent a chance of authenticity as the sayings in the New Testament. SinceThomas was only discovered mid-20th century, however, Tolstoy could have known nothingabout it. Yet Jesus as presented in
The Gospel in Brief 
is in crucial respects similar to theJesus 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 worldalready: 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 bethere 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 youunderstand 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 arethat 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 thekingdom of God come?" And he answered them: "The kingdom of God which I preach isnot such as former prophets preached. They said that God would come with divers visiblesigns, but I speak of a kingdom of God, the coming of which may not be seen with theeyes. And if anyone shall say to you, 'See, it is come, or it shall come,' or, 'See, it is hereor there,' do not believe them. The kingdom of God is not in time, or in place, of anykind. 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, andso cannot be particularly unorthodox. In Luke we read: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesusreplied, "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 thedas of the Son of Man, but ou will not see it. Men will tell ou, 'There he is!' or 'Here
 
 he is!' Do not go running after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like thelightning 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 shareother crucial theological or christological assertions: first, that the Kingdom announced byJesus is to be entered while one still lives on the earth; second, that one must make an effort toenter the Kingdom (it is not gained "by grace through faith"); third, that Jesus himself is not inessence different from any other person who might realize or enter the Kingdom. Thomas isslightly more ambiguous on this last point, but Tolstoy makes it very clear: Jesus consideredhimself a man with a special relationship to the Father who sought to awaken other men to thesame 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 whenone 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 fromheaven, and himself of heaven. Now this same heavenly Son in man it is that must belifted 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 Hedid not bring forth His Son, this life, into the world of men in order to destroy the worldof men; but He brought forth His Son, this life, in order that the world of men might bemade 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 commandmentof the whole law?"The orthodox thought that Jesus would get confused in the answer about the law. ButJesus said: "It is, to love the Lord with all one's soul, in whose power we are. From it thesecond commandment follows, which is, to love one's neighbor. Because the same Lordis 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?" Theysaid: "In our opinion, Christ is the son of David." Then he said to them: "How, then, doesDavid call Christ his Lord? Christ is neither son of David, nor anyone's son after theflesh; 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 
isheretical 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

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