This short exposition of the Gospel is a summary of a large work which exists in manuscript and cannot be published in Russia.
That work consists of four parts:
- An account (Confession) of the course of my own life and of the thoughts which led me to the conviction that the Christian teaching contains the truth.
- An examination of the Christian teaching: first according to its interpretation by the Orthodox Russo-Greek Church, then according to its interpretation by the Church in general-by the Apostles, the Councils, the so-called Fathers of the Church-and an exposure of what is false in those interpretations.
- An examination of Christian teaching not according to those interpretations but solely according to what has come down to us of Christ's teaching, as ascribed to him in the Gospels.
- An exposition of the real meaning of Christ's teaching, the reasons why it has been perverted, and, the consequences to which it should lead.
From the third of those parts the present account has been compiled.
The harmonization of the four Gospels has been in accord with the sense of the teaching. In making it I hardly had to digress from the order in it is set down in the Gospels, so that there are not more but fewer transpositions of the verses than in most of the concordances known to me, or than in Grechulevich's arrangement of the Four Gospels. In my treatment of the Gospel of John there are no transpositions, but everything follows the order of the original.
The division of the Gospel into twelve chapters (or six if each two be united) came about of itself from the sense of the teaching. This is the meaning of those chapters:
- Man is the son of an infinite source: a son of that Father not by the flesh but by the spirit.
- Therefore man should serve that source in spirit.
- The life of all men has a divine origin. It alone is holy.
- Therefore man should serve that source in the life of all men. Such is the will of the Father.
- The service of the will of that Father of life gives life.
- Therefore the gratification of one's own will is not necessary for life.
- Temporal life is food for the true life.
- Therefore the true life is independent of time: it is in the present.
- Time is an illusion of life; life in the past and in the future conceals from men the true life of the present.
- Therefore man should strive to destroy the illusion of the temporal life of the past and future.
- True life is life in the present, common to all men and manifesting itself in love.
- 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.
In addition to these twelve chapters an introduction from the first chapter of the Gospel of John is added, in which the writer of that Gospel speaks, in his own name, as to the meaning of the whole teaching, and a conclusion from the same writer's Epistle (written probably before the Gospel) containing a general deduction from all that precedes.
These two parts do not form an essential part of the teaching, but though they both might be omitted without losing the sense of the teaching (the more so as they come in the name of John and not of Jesus) I have retained them because in a straightforward understanding of Christ's teaching these parts, confirming one another and the whole, furnish, in contradiction to the queer interpretation of the Churches, the plainest indication of the meaning that should be ascribed to the teaching.
At the beginning of each chapter, besides a brief indication of its subject, I have given the words which correspond to that chapter from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.
When I had finished my work I found to my surprise and joy that the Lord's
Prayer is nothing but 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:
- Our Father, Man is a son of God
- Which art in Heaven, God is the infinite spiritual source of life.
- Hallowed be Thy Name, May this source of life be held holy
- Thy Kingdom come, May his power be realized in all men
- Thy will be done, as in heaven, May the will of this infinite source be fulfilled as it is in himself
- So on earth, so also in the bodily life.
- Give us our daily bread, Temporal life is the food of the true life.
- Each day. True life is in the present.
- And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And let not the mistakes and errors of the past hide that true life from us.
- And lead us not into temptation, And may they not lead us into delusion,
- But deliver us from evil, And so there shall be no evil.
- For thine is the kingdom the power, and the glory, And may thy power, and strength, and wisdom, prevail.
In the full exposition, in the third part, everything in the Gospels is set down without any omissions. But in the present rendering the following are omitted: the conception and birth of John the Baptist, his imprisonment and death, the birth of Jesus, his genealogy, his mother's flight with him to Egypt; his miracles at Cana and Caperaum; the casting out of the devils; the walking on the sea; the blasting of the fig-tree; the healing of the sick; the raising of the dead; the resurrection of Christ himself, and the references to prophecies fulfilled by his life.
Those passages are omitted in the present short exposition because, containing nothing of the teaching but only describing events that took place before, during, or after the period in which Jesus taught, they complicate the exposition. Those verses, however they may be understood, do not contain either contradiction or confirmation of the teaching. Their sole significance for Christianity was to prove the divinity of Jesus to those who did not believe in it. But for one who understands that a story of miracles is unconvincing, and who also doubts that the divinity of Jesus is asserted in his teaching, those verses drop away of themselves as superfluous.
In the larger work every deviation from the ordinary version, as well as every inserted comment and every omission, is explained and justified by comparison of the different variants of the Gospels, by examination of contexts, and by philological and other considerations. In the present brief rendering all such proofs and refutations of the false understanding of the Churches, as well as the detailed notes and references, are omitted, on the ground that however exact and correct the discussions of each separate passage may be, they cannot carry conviction as to the true understanding of the teaching. The justness of the understanding of the teaching is better proved not by the discussion of particular passages but by its own unity, clarity, simplicity and completeness, and by its accordance with the inner feeling of all who seek the truth.
In respect of all the divergences of my rendering from the Church's authorized text, the reader should not forget that the customary conception that the four Gospels with all their verses and syllables are sacred books is a very gross error.
The reader should remember that Jesus never wrote any book himself, as Plato, Philo, or Marcus Aurelius did; nor even, like Socrates, transmitted his teaching to educated men, but that he spoke to many uneducated men and only long after his death did people begin to write down what they had heard about him. The reader should remember that there were very many such accounts from among which the Churches selected first three Gospels and then one more, and that in selecting those best Gospels as the proverb,-'There is no stick without knots' says-they had to take in many knots with what they selected from the whole mass of writings about Christ, and that there are many passages in the canonical Gospels just as poor as in the rejected apocryphal ones.
The reader should remember that it is the teaching of Christ which may be sacred, but certainly not any definite number of verses and syllables, and that certain verses picked out from here to there cannot become sacred merely because people say they are.
Moreover the reader should remember that these selected Gospels are also the work of thousands of different human brains and hands, that they have been selected, added to, and commented on, for centuries, that all the copies that have come down to us from the fourth century are written in continuous script without punctuation, so that even after the fourth and fifth centuries they have been subject to very diverse readings, and that there are not less than fifty thousand such variations of the Gospels.
This should all be borne in mind by the reader, that he may not be misled by the customary view that the Gospels in their present form have come to us direct from the Holy Ghost.
The reader should remember that far from it being blameworthy to discard useless passages from the Gospels and elucidate some passages by others, it is on the contrary irrational not to do so and to hold a certain number of verses and syllables as sacred.
On the other hand I beg readers to remember that if I do not regard the Gospels as sacred books that have come down to us from the Holy Ghost, even less do I regard them as mere historical monuments of religious literature. I understand the theological as well as the historical view of the Gospels, but regard them myself differently, and so I beg the reader not to be confused either by the church view or by the historical view customary in day among educated people, neither of which I hold.
I regard Christianity neither as an inclusive divine revelation nor as an historical phenomenon, but as a teaching which-gives us the meaning of life. I was led to Christianity neither by theological nor historical investigations but by this-that when I was fifty years old, having asked myself and all the learned men around me what I am and what is the meaning of my life, and received the answer that I am a fortuitous concatenation of atoms and that life has no meaning but is itself an evil, I fell into despair and wanted to put an end to my life; but remembered that formerly in childhood when I believed, life had a meaning for me, and that for the great mass of men about me who believe and are not corrupted by riches life has a meaning; and I doubted the validity of the reply given me by the learned men of my circle and I tried to understand the reply Christianity gives to those who live a real life. And I began to seek Christianity in the Christian teaching that guides such men's lives. I began to study the Christianity which I saw applied in life and to compare that applied Christianity with its source.
The source of Christian teaching is the Gospels, and in them I found the explanation of the spirit which guides the life of all who really live. But together with this source of the pure water of life I found, wrongfully united with it, mud and slime which had hidden its purity from me: by the side of and bound up with the lofty Christian teaching I found a Hebrew and a Church teaching alien to it. I was in the position of a man who receives a bag of stinking dirt, and only after long struggle and much labor finds that amid that dirt lie priceless pearls; and he understands that he was not to blame for disliking the stinking dirt, and that those who have collected and preserved these pearls together with the dirt are also not to blame but deserve love and respect.
I did not know the light and had thought there was no light of truth to be found in life, but having convinced myself that men live by that light alone, I began to look for its source and found it in the Gospels, despite the false Church interpretations. And on reaching that source of light I was dazzled by it, and found full replies to my questions as to the meaning of my own life and that of others-answers in full agreement with those I knew of from other nations, but which in my opinion were superior to them all.
I was looking for an answer to the question of life and not to theological or historical questions, and so for me the chief question was not whether Jesus was or was not God, or from whom the Holy Ghost proceeded and so forth, and equally unimportant and unnecessary was it for me to know when and by whom each Gospel was written and whether such and such a parable may, or may not, be ascribed to Christ. What was important to me was this light which has enlightened mankind for eighteen hundred years and which enlightened and still enlightens me; but how to name the source of that light, and what materials he or someone else had kindled, did not concern me.
On that this preface might end were the Gospels recently discovered books and had Christ's teaching not suffered eighteen hundred years of false interpretation. But now to understand the teaching of Jesus it is necessary to know clearly the chief methods used in these false interpretations. The most customary method of false interpretation, and one which we have grown up with, consists of preaching under the name of Christianity not what Christ taught but a church teaching composed of explanations of very contradictory writings into which Christ's teaching enters only to a small degree, and even then distorted and twisted to fit together with other writings. According to this false interpretation Christ s teaching is only one link in a chain of revelations beginning with the commencement of the world and continuing in the Church until now. These false interpreters call Jesus God; but the fact that they recognize him as God does not make them attribute more importance to his words and teaching than to the words of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, the Apocalypse, or even to the decisions of the Councils and the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
These false interpreters do not admit any understanding of the teaching of Jesus which does not conform to the previous and subsequent revelations; so that their aim is not to explain the meaning of Christ's teaching, but as far as possible to harmonize various extremely contradictory writings, such as the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Acts-that is, all that is supposed to constitute the Holy Scriptures.
Such explanations aiming not at truth but at reconciling the irreconcilable, namely, the writings of the Old and the New Testament, can obviously be innumerable, as indeed they are. Among them are the Epistles of Paul and the decisions of the Councils (which begin with the formulary: 'It has pleased Us and the Holy Ghost'), and such enactments as those of the Popes, the Synods, the pseudo-Christs, and all the false interpreters who affirm that the Holy Ghost speaks through their lips. They all employ one and the same gross method of affirming, the truth of their interpretations by the assertion that their interpretations are not human utterances but revelations from the Holy Ghost. Without entering on an examination of these beliefs, each of which calls itself the true one, one cannot help seeing that by the method common to them all of acknowledging the whole immense quantity of so-called scriptures of the Old and New Testament as equally sacred, they themselves impose an insuperable obstacle to an understanding of Christ's teaching; and that from this mistake arises the possibility and inevitability of endlessly divergent interpretations of the teaching. The reconcilement of a number of revelations can be infinitely varied, but the interpretation of the teaching of one person (and one looked upon as God) should not occasion discord.
If God descended to earth to teach people, his teaching, by the very purpose of his coming, cannot be understood in more than one way. If God came down to earth to reveal truth to men, at least he would have revealed it so that all might understand: if he did not do that he was not God; and if the divine truths are such that even God could not make them intelligible to mankind, men certainly cannot do so.
If Jesus is not God, but a great man, then still less can his teaching produce discord. For the teaching of a great man is only great because it expresses intelligibly and clearly what others have expressed unintelligibly and obscurely. What is incomprehensible in a great man's teaching is not great, and therefore a great man's teaching does not engender sects. Only an exposition which affirms that it is a revelation from the Holy Ghost and is the sole truth, and that all other expositions are lies, gives birth to discord and to the mutual animosities among the Churches that result therefrom. However much the various Churches affirm that they do not condemn other communities, that they have no hatred of them but pray for union, it is untrue. Never, since the time of Arius, has the affirmation of any dogma arisen from any other cause than the desire to condemn a contrary belief as false. It is a supreme degree of pride and ill will to others to assert that a particular dogma is a divine revelation proceeding from the Holy Ghost: the highest presumption because nothing more arrogant can be said than that the words spoken by me are uttered through me by God; and the greatest ill will because the avowal of oneself as in possession of the sole indubitable truth implies an assertion of' the falsity of all who disagree. Yet that is just what all the Churches say, and from this alone flows and has flowed all the evil which has been committed and still is committed in the world in the name of religion.
But besides the temporary evil which such an interpretation by the Churches and the sects produces, it has another important inner defect which gives an obscure, indefinite, and insincere character to their assertions. This defect consists in the fact that all the Churches-having acknowledged the latest revelation of the Holy Ghost, who descended on the apostles and has passed and still passes to the supposedly elect-nowhere define directly, definitely, and finally, in what that revelation consists; and yet they base their belief on that supposedly continuing revelation and call it Christian. All the churchmen who acknowledge the revelation from the Holy Ghost recognize (like the Mohammedans) three revelations: that of Moses, of Jesus, and of the Holy Ghost. But in the Mohammedan religion it is believed that after Moses and Jesus, Mahomet is the last of the prophets and that he explained the revelations of Moses and Jesus, and this revelation of Mahomet every True Believer has before him.
But it is not so with the Church faith. That also, like the Mohammedan, acknowledges three revelations: that of Moses, of Jesus, and of the Holy Ghost, but it does not call itself Holy Ghostism after the name of the last revealer, but affirms that the basis of its faith is the teaching of Christ. So that while preaching, its own doctrines it attributes their authority to Christ. Churchmen acknowledging the last revelation explaining all previous ones, should say so and call their religion by the name of whoever received the last revelation-acknowledging it to be that of Paul, or of this or that Council of the Church, or of the Pope, or of the Patriarch. And if the last revelation was that of the Fathers, a decree of the Eastern Patriarchs, a Papal encyclical, or the syllabus or catechism of Luther or of Philaret-they should say so and call their religion accordingly, because the last revelation which explains all the preceding is always the most important one. But they do not do so, but while preaching doctrines quite alien to Christ's teaching, affirm that their doctrine was taught by Christ. So that according to their teaching Jesus declared that by his blood he had redeemed the human race ruined by Adam's sins; that God is three persons; that the Holy Ghost descended upon the apostles and was transmitted to the priesthood by the laying on of hands; that seven sacraments are necessary for salvation; that communion should be received in two kinds, and so on. They would have us believe that all this is the teaching of Jesus, whereas in reality there is not a word about any of it in his teaching. Those false teachers should call their teaching and religion the teaching, and religion of the Holy Ghost but not of Christ; for only that faith can be called Christian which recognizes the revelation of Christ reaching us in the Gospels as the final revelation. It would seem that the matter is plain and not worth speaking about, but, strange to say, up to now the teaching of Christ is not separated on the one side from an artificial and quite unjustifiable amalgamation with the Old Testament, and on the other from the arbitrary additions and perversions made in the name of the Holy Ghost.
To this day there are some who, calling Jesus the second person of the Trinity, do not conceive of his teaching otherwise than in conjunction with those pseudo revelations of the third Person which they find in the Old Testament, the Epistles, the decrees of the Councils and the decisions of the Fathers, and they preach the strangest beliefs, affirming them to be the religion of Christ. Others not acknowledging Jesus as God, similarly conceive of his teaching not as he could have taught it but as understood by Paul and other commentators. While regarding Jesus not as God but as a man, these commentators deny him a most legitimate human right, that of answering only for his own words and not for false interpretations of them. Trying to explain his teaching, these learned commentators attribute to Jesus things he never thought of saying. The representatives of this school of interpreters-beginning with the most popular of them, Renan-without troubling to separate what Jesus himself taught from what the slanders of his commentators have laid upon him, and without troubling to understand his teaching more profoundly, try to understand the meaning of his appearance and the spread of his teaching by, the events of his life a and the circumstances of his time.
The problem that confronts them is this: eighteen hundred years ago a certain pauper appeared and said certain things. He was flogged and executed. And ever since that time (though there have been numbers of just men who died for their faith), milliards of people, wise and foolish, learned and ignorant, have clung to the belief that this man alone among men was God. How is this amazing fact to be explained? The churchmen say that it occurred because Jesus was God. In that case it is all understandable. But if he was not God how are we to explain that everyone looked upon just this common man as God? And the learned men of that school assiduously explore every detail of the life of Jesus, without noticing that however much they explore those details (in reality they have gathered none), even if they were able to reconstruct his whole life in the minutist detail, the question why he, just he, had such an influence on people would still remain unanswered. The answer is not to be found in knowledge of the society Jesus was born into, or how he was educated, and so on, still less is it to be found in knowledge of what was being done in Rome, or in the fact that the people of that time were inclined to superstition, but only by knowing what this man preached that has caused people, from that time to this, to distinguish him from all others and to acknowledge him as God. It would seem that the first thing to do is to try to understand that man's teaching, and naturally his own teaching and not coarse interpretations of it that have been spread since his time. But this is not done. These learned historians of Christianity are so pleased to have understood that Jesus was not God and are so anxious to prove that his teaching is not divine and is therefore not obligatory, that forgetting that the more they prove him to have been an ordinary man and his teaching not to be divine the further they are from solving the problem before them-they strain all their strength to do so. To see this surprising error clearly, it is worth recalling an article by Havet, a follower of Renan's, who affirms that Jesus Christ n'avait rien de chretien, or Souris, who enthusiastically argues that Jesus Christ was a very coarse and stupid man.
The essential thing is, not to prove that Jesus was not God and that therefore his doctrine is not divine, or to prove that he was a Catholic, but to know in all its purity what constituted that which was so lofty and so precious to men that they, have acknowledged and still acknowledge its preacher to have been God.
And so if the reader belongs to the great majority of educated people brought up in the Church belief but who have abandoned its incompatibilities with common sense and conscience-whether he has retained a love and respect for the spirit of the Christian teaching or (as the proverb puts it 'has thrown his fur coat into the fire because he is angry with the bugs') considers all Christianity a harmful superstition-I ask him to remember that what repels him and seems to him a superstition is not the teaching of Christ; that Christ cannot be held responsible for that monstrous tradition that has been interwoven with his teaching and presented as Christianity: that to prejudge of Christianity, on the teaching of Christ as it has come down to us must be learned -that is, the words and actions attributed to Christ and that have an instructive meaning. Studying the teaching of Christ in that way the reader will convince himself that Christianity, far from being a mixture of the lofty and the low, or a superstition, is a very strict, pure, and complete metaphysical and ethical doctrine, higher than which the reason of man has not yet reached, and in the orbit of which (without recognizing the fact) human activity-political, learned, poetic, and philosophic-is moving.
If the reader belongs to that small minority of educated people who hold to the Church religion and profess it not for outward purposes but for inward tranquility, I ask him to remember that the teaching of Christ as set forth in this book (despite the identity of name) is quite a different teaching from that which he professes, and that therefore the question for him is not whether the doctrine here offered agrees or disagrees with his belief, but is simply, which best accords with his reason and conscience-the Church teaching composed of adjustments of many scriptures, or the teaching of Christ alone? The question for him is merely whether he wishes to accept the new teaching or to retain his own belief.
But if the reader is one of those who outwardly profess the Church creed and values it not because he believes it to be true but because he considers that to profess and preach it is profitable to him, then let him remember that however many adherents he may have, however powerful they may be, on whatever thrones they may sit, and by whatever great names they may call themselves, he is not one of the accusers but of the accused. Let such readers remember that there is nothing for them to prove, that they have long ago said what they had to say and that even if they could prove what they wish to, they would only prove, each for himself, what is proved by all the hundreds of opposing Churches; and that it is not for them to demonstrate, but to excuse themselves: to excuse themselves for the blasphemy of adjusting the teaching of the God-Christ to suit the teaching of Ezras, of the Councils, and Theophilacts, and allowing themselves to interpret and alter the words of God in conformity with the words of men; to excuse themselves for their libels on God by which they have thrown all the fanaticism they had in their hearts onto the God-Jesus and given it out as his teaching; to excuse themselves for the fraud by which, having hidden the teaching of God who came to bestow blessing on the world, they have replaced it by their own blasphemous creed, and by that substitution have deprived and still deprive milliards of people of the blessing Christ brought to men, and instead of the peace and love he brought have introduced into the world sects, condemnations, murders, and all manner of crimes.
For such readers there are only two ways out: humble confession and renunciation of their lies, or a persecution of those who expose them for what they have done and are still doing.
If they will not disavow their lies, only one thing remains for them: to persecute me-for which I, completing what I have written, prepare myself with joy and with fear of my own weakness.
Yasnaya Polyana, 1883.
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More from Leo Tolstoy
- Full name: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
- Russian novelist and philosopher
- Born September 9th, 1828 and died November 20th, 1910
- Best known for War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877)