Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy

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Book review: “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy

tolstoy -- gospelReading 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.”

Their only purpose for the Christian church, he writes, “was that they proved the divinity 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.”

I think Tolstoy saw Jesus as just another man — albeit a great man. At least, that’s one of the things I came away with after reading of his book. Of course, as I’ve said, it was a jarring text to move through, so maybe I missed something.

Real human beings

Okay, so Tolstoy leaves out the miracles. I can see that. He wants to zoom in on the turn-the-other-cheek stuff.

What I had a hard time understanding — and what further unsettled me — was his decision to drop certain details from the storytelling of the Evangelists.

It seemed really odd that such a great novelist would drop from his text quirky details that, for me, gave a gospel account a feel of authenticity, a sense of real human beings acting in the uniquely individual way of human beings.

Consider, for instance, the woman caught in adultery. Here’s the account in the New International Version English translation for John 8: 2-11:

At dawn (Jesus) appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

The punch line of this story is the sentence which has entered the language in a slightly different translation — “Let he without sin cast the first stone.” It goes right to the center of the teachings of Jesus.

Yet, for me, that doodling in the dust has always been significant as well. I know some writers have asserted that Jesus was writing the names and sins of those present. I don’t buy it.

I think he was just doodling. Just doing the sort of odd arresting thing that an actor will bring to a scene to give a bit of verisimilitude, like touching his ear or smoothing his beard. An actor does that because that’s what a human being does. Each of us has an idiosyncratic way of moving, listening, whatever.

“Jesus answered nothing”

Here’s how Tolstoy renders the scene:

The orthodox once brought a woman to Jesus, and said: “See, this woman was taken in adultery. Now, by the law she should be stoned to death. What do you say?”

Jesus answered nothing, and waited for them to bethink themselves. But they pressed him, and asked what he would adjudge to this woman. Then he said: “He among you who is without fault, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.” He said nothing more.

Then the orthodox looked within themselves, and their consciences smote them; and they who were in front sought to get behind the others, and all went away. And Jesus remained alone with the woman. He looked round, and saw that there was none else. “Well,” said he to the woman, “has no one condemned you?” She said: “No one.” Then he said: “And I do not condemn you. Go, and henceforth sin no more.”

Tolstoy drops the doodling in the dirt. And he spells out that “the orthodox” — the term he uses for the Jewish leaders, scholars and teachers — were conscience-stricken.

I prefer John’s elliptical way of saying the same thing: The accusers just go away, the oldest first. The reader or listener is left to imagine what was going on in their heads.

Tolstoy does add a nice detail — that those in front tried to move to the back before the whole crowd melts away.

New commandments

Yet, that’s another example of how I found The Gospel in Brief distracting. Tolstoy’s additions of a word, a phrase or several sentences are woven into the words from the Evangelists. Short of checking each passage in the canonic gospels, it’s difficult to know what’s Tolstoy and what’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

Still, many of his additions are very evident — and very perplexing.

For instance, Tolstoy inserts five new commandments into the gospels which he details and then sums up this way:

And so: — I. Do not be angry, but be at peace with all men. II. Do not seek delight in sexual gratification. III. Do not swear anything to anyone. IV. Do not oppose evil, do not judge and do not go to law. V. Do not make any distinction among men as to nationality, and love strangers like your own people.

My feeling is that, if he were going to shift things around so much and insert new material, even to the point of additional commandments, Tolstoy should have just taken the route of writing a novel about Jesus.

Translation or transformation

It’s not that I think the quotes of Jesus that appear in the gospels are verbatim, or the stories for that matter. Yet, these were put on paper (or papyrus or whatever was used 2,000 years ago) by people who had talked with and listened to people who had known Jesus. They were much more likely to have gotten the core of what Jesus had to say than a writer — however great — nineteen hundred years later.

There has been a great effort over the past century, particularly since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to use the earliest available versions of the gospels in making modern translations.

As a result, some of the best-known and most deeply loved language in the gospels — even the Our Father — have been recast.

But none of the recastings has been as drastic as Tolstoy’s. Here it is:

Oar Father, without beginning and without end, like heaven!

May Thy being only be holy.

May power be only Thine, so that Thy will be done, without beginning and without end, on earth.

Give me food of life in the present.

Smooth out my former mistakes, and wipe them away; even as I so do with all the mistakes of my brothers, that I may not fall into temptation, and may be saved from evil.

Because Thine is the power and might, and Thine the judgment.

Lost

It’s a pretty brash thing to take a prayer at the heart of the Christian faith and transform it to such a degree.

The rest of Tolstoy’s gospel is of the same cloth. Some of what he presents is interesting and even thought-provoking.

But, when I get to a phrase like “May Thy being only be holy,” I throw up my hands.

I’m lost. Just plain lost.

Patrick T. Reardon
12.17.13

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