Reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief was a truly disconcerting experience.
Other writers have sought to re-tell the four gospels in a single narrative — Norman Mailer, for instance, with The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Charles Dickens with The Life of Our Lord (1849), and Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).
Depending on their approach, they have stayed close to or strayed far from the details of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they’ve written in their own words.
Ostensibly, Tolstoy takes a different tack in The Gospel in Brief. He has, he writes, “effected the fusion of the four Gospels into one, according to the real sense of the teachings.”
What he’s done, on the face of it, is to take all the verses in all four gospels and arrange them as he wishes in order tell the story of Jesus in the manner he wishes. So some verses from Luke will be followed by several from Mark and then several from Matthew.
Except what you think you see isn’t really what you get.
“Presented in full”
Tolstoy writes in an introduction that, in his account, “the Gospel according to the four Evangelists is presented in full.”
Yet, not really “in full.” That’s because in the next sentence, he writes:
But in the rendering now given, all passages are omitted which treat of the following matters, namely, — John the Baptist’s conception and birth, his imprisonment
and death; Christ’s birth, and his genealogy; his mother’s flight with him into Egypt; his miracles at Cana and Capernaum; the casting out of devils; the walking on the sea; the cursing of the fig-tree; the healing of sick, and the raising of dead people; the resurrection of Christ himself; and finally, the reference to prophecies fulfilled in his life.
Tolstoy published The Gospel in Brief in 1893 when he was in his mid-60s and his greatest works of fiction — War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877), and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) — were well behind him.
He had become enthralled with the ethical teachings of Jesus and wrote extensively about a Christ-based pacifism which later had a deep impact on such non-violent leaders as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.
Complicating “the exposition”
As for miracles and the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion — Tolstoy didn’t need or care about them, it seems.
Indeed, in his introduction, he explains that he decided to exclude reports of most of the miraculous acts attributed to Jesus as well as the other material because “they complicate the exposition.” Continue reading