Gospels in Brief (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Gospels in Brief (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Leo Tolstoy's The Gospels in Brief (1881) is a daring attempt by Russia's greatest novelist to rewrite "the greatest story ever told." This book appeared soon after the writer experienced a period of deep despair that led to a conversion in his personal life. Following what might best be described as a mid-life crisis, Tolstoy devoted himself to a rational religion for the masses based on the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. He rejected all the mystery and miracles in Christianity and focused instead on the powerful truth in Jesus' words - a truth he believed that the church's emphasis on mystery, miracles, and the divinity of Jesus had long obscured.

In order to show the true essence of what Jesus taught, Tolstoy resolved to make a new translation of the four Gospels from Greek into Russian. He rejected anything that he considered not part of Jesus' original teaching, including all references to the Resurrection, and then rearranged these teachings in a way that highlighted Tolstoy's own understanding about the divine purpose for human existence. His ideas became the foundation for a new religious movement bearing his name (Tolstoyism) and influenced such political activists as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411429314
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 477 KB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 at his family’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana, located approximately 130 miles south of Moscow.  By the age of thirty-three, Tolstoy had squandered a large portion of his inheritance through gambling and partying.  He also had served as an officer in the army and seen the horrors of combat during the Crimean War (1853-56).  While in the artillery corps, Tolstoy began writing a series of semi-autobiographical works. He is best known, however, for the works Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

Date of Birth:

September 9, 1828

Date of Death:

November 20, 1910

Place of Birth:

Tula Province, Russia

Place of Death:

Astapovo, Russia

Education:

Privately educated by French and German tutors; attended the University of Kazan, 1844-47

Read an Excerpt

Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospels in Brief (1881) is a daring attempt by Russia’s greatest novelist to rewrite “the greatest story ever told.”  This book appeared soon after the writer experienced a period of deep despair that led to a conversion in his personal life.  Following what might best be described as a mid-life crisis, Tolstoy devoted himself to a rational religion for the masses based on the moral teachings of Jesus Christ.  He rejected all the mystery and miracles in Christianity and focused instead on the powerful truth in Jesus’ words – a truth he believed that the church’s emphasis on mystery, miracles, and the divinity of Jesus had long obscured.  In order to show the true essence of what Jesus taught, Tolstoy resolved to make a new translation of the four Gospels from Greek into Russian.  He rejected anything that he considered not part of Jesus’ original teaching, including all references to the Resurrection, and then rearranged these teachings in a way that highlighted Tolstoy’s own understanding about the divine purpose for human existence.  The combined forces of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church in the late nineteenth century would surely have succeeded in silencing anyone else who might have tried such a radical revision of the core teachings of Christianity, but Tolstoy’s reputation, both in Russia and abroad, together with his social status as a member of the nobility, protected him.  His ideas became the foundation for a new religious movement bearing his name (Tolstoyism) and influenced such political activists as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

This side of Tolstoy’s life is little known to today’s reading public, in part because Tolstoyism ceased to exist as an organized movement soon after the 1917 communist revolution in Russia.  Tolstoy himself did not live to see the communists come to power.  He died at the age of eighty-two in 1910.  Nonetheless, he did witness many changes in Russia over a long life that had as many subplots and characters as one of his novels.  He was more than a great writer, although his literary talent brought him celebrity status and wealth, which in turn fueled much of his subsequent success as a religious philosopher, critic of the political and religious establishment, and champion of social reform.  He was born in 1828 at his family’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana, which is located approximately 130 miles south of Moscow.  By the time he was ten both his parents had died and, together with his sister and three brothers, he came under the care of various relatives.  Being a member of the wealthy Russian aristocracy meant that Tolstoy received his elementary and secondary education from foreign tutors.  He then began but never completed studies at the University of Kazan.  By the age of thirty-three, Tolstoy had squandered a large portion of his inheritance through gambling and partying.  He also had served as an officer in the army and seen the horrors of combat during the Crimean War (1853-56).  While in the artillery corps, Tolstoy began writing a series of semi-autobiographical works, including the trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857), as well accounts of a soldier’s life in war time (Sevastopol Sketches, 1855-56).

 

Tolstoy enjoyed a dramatic shift in fortune between 1862 and 1877.  In 1862, he fell in love with seventeen-year-old Sofya Andreyevna Bers ("Sonya").  They married that same year, and Sonya promptly took charge of running Yasnaya Polyana and caring for their rapidly expanding family.  The couple became parents to thirteen children in all, nine of whom lived to adulthood.  Tolstoy’s concern for the financial wellbeing of his wife and children pushed him to a more serious attitude toward writing.  With Sonya’s encouragement, he began War and Peace (1867-69), an epic historical novel on the Napoleon wars, which was initially published in six volumes.  His other great novel, Anna Karenina, appeared first as a serialized work in the early 1870s and then as a book in 1878.  In both of these works, Tolstoy questions conventional wisdom and social norms even as he probes the inner lives of his main characters.   War and Peace rejects the idea that great individuals make history.  Forgotten masses of common people acting together, not individual “heroes” like Napoleon, determined the course of that epic conflict.  The novelist addresses personal upheavals with the same skepticism toward traditional explanations in Anna Karenina, the tragic story of a noblewoman who is destroyed by a belief in romantic love that leads her to commit adultery and abandon her family.  The novel reveals the emptiness of Russian high society whose artificial standards for behavior lack any moral foundation.  Hope for marital and personal happiness is found in the subplot of Kitty and Levin, who abandon aristocratic society for a simple life modeled on peasant values.  The worldview presented in Tolstoy’s two great novels later became part of the writer’s religious philosophy.

 

By the age of fifty, Tolstoy was at the pinnacle of personal and professional success.  He had great wealth, good health, a loving family, and international acclaim.  But he also was dogged by doubts about the long-term significance of his achievements.  He became acutely aware of his own mortality and wondered what would be left of all his seemingly splendid achievements after his death.  This existential crisis led him initially to an intellectual search for answers in the works of great thinkers and an attempt to embrace the rites and rituals of Russian Orthodoxy.  Neither of these paths provided the answers he sought.  Resolution came from two other sources: an idealized vision of peasant life that he combined with a radical interpretation of biblical teachings.  Both of these ideas had long been part of Tolstoy’s life and were widely accepted by his contemporaries.  The first was distinctively Russian, the second markedly European.  Prior to his mid-life crisis, Tolstoy had often commented on the simple virtues of the peasants on his estate and undertaken projects to improve their material conditions through education.  Many Russian intellectuals turned to the peasantry for answers during the era of the Great Reforms that took place for some twenty years after the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861.  Tolstoy’s unique contribution was to combine this Russian love of the peasantry with a version of humanistic Christianity that had emerged during the European Enlightenment.  Philosophers such as England’s John Locke (1632-1704) and Ireland’s John Toland (1670-1722), along with many of their contemporaries, argued for a version of Christianity based on logic as opposed to mystery, on human reason rather than divine revelation.  Tolstoy embraced their quest over a century later.

 

Tolstoy was unsuccessful in his attempts to have The Gospels in Brief published in Russia during his lifetime.  Manuscript versions and foreign editions, however, circulated among his followers and intellectual circles in Russia.  Its purpose was simple: to present the teachings of Jesus as clearly as possible so that every person could know how to live in this earthly world.  Tolstoy believed that God existed but could never be proven.  He also believed that the Church was an obstacle to living life in harmony with humanity’s limited place in the world because dogmatic Christianity emphasized the divinity of Christ and promised future happiness for believers rather than providing useful guidance for fulfillment in life in the present.  By retranslating and reorganizing the Gospels and adding his own commentary, Tolstoy intended to provide a practical guide for every life based on the solution he had discovered to his own spiritual despair.

 

As a result, the Christian teaching that emerges from this book is based on the author’s personal experiences and his own understanding of the meaning of truth.  Every person is a creation of the “infinite principle” (that is, God), which means that every person has the ability to recognize truth and order his or her life around it.  In other words, every reasonable person can follow Tolstoy’s path to see the truth in Jesus’ words.  The pure teaching of Jesus, although surrounded by “mud and ooze” from centuries of misguided interpretation, shines out with brightness and clarity from the Gospels and the Gospels alone. All other sections of the Bible, including the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament, obfuscate the purity of Jesus’ ideas.  According to Tolstoy, Jesus provided five simple rules for living as children of the Father of life and not as a slave to the whims of the flesh.  In their simplest form, these rules say to avoid anger, avoid lust, do not swear oaths, meet evil with non-resistance, and treat everyone—both the just and the unjust—with goodness.  The authority of church and state alike becomes superfluous as a consequence of Tolstoy’s rules for living.  Poverty is a virtue, since all property could be held only through the use of force.  Church rituals add nothing to following these rules and so are dismissed as useless.  The supreme law for human behavior is love.  Tolstoy’s vision of a perfectly fulfilled life—a personal utopia as it were—is based on individuals who follow the internal summons to love one another.  Nothing else matters.

 

Tolstoy spent the last thirty years of his life attempting to spread the teachings in The Gospels in Brief and to live them out in his own life.  In works like "The Death of Ivan Ilich" (1886) and The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within You (1893), Tolstoy dwells on the meaning of death and the power of nonviolent resistance.  His last novel, Resurrection (1899), is practically a sermon against all the evils of Russian society and religion.  During these years, Tolstoy adopted vegetarianism and the simple garb of the Russian peasantry.  He also embraced a peasant’s life of physical labor dictated by nature’s rhythms as the way to live in the present moment.  He stopped drinking and smoking.  He also made repeated unsuccessful attempts to give up all sexual relations.  Ironically, his pursuit of the ideals of Tolstoyism led to conflicts in his personal life.  Sonya rejected both his attempts at total chastity and at relinquishing copyrights to the works he produced prior to 1880.  She acted out of concern for their marriage and the financial needs of their large family.  The struggle between the formerly close husband and wife continued until his death.

 

The last decade of Tolstoy’s life was a time of troubles and productivity for the great writer.  The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1901 for his attacks on the church and denial of the divinity of Christ.  Tolstoy responded with a statement that rallied public opinion to his support.  He wrote several plays, stories, and novels, and international acclaim for his genius grew.  Yet, his family quarreled over property and the rights to his works.  They did not renounce their upper-class lifestyle and were embarrassed by his eccentricities.  Relations between Leo and Sonya worsened, and she came to resent the constant stream of disciples who sought guidance from the great writer and philosopher.  Tolstoy did not understand her unwillingness to accept the rules for living that seemed so obvious to him.  In the end, Tolstoy wanted to enter a monastery in order to be free from possessions, but the Church refused to lift its edict of excommunication.  His health in decline, Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana and spent his last days in a futile attempt to get to the Caucasus.  He died in Astopovo, a small town in Riazan province, in 1910.  The Church refused to allow any of its priests to conduct a Christian funeral when Tolstoy’s body was buried on the edge of his estate.  A century after his death, Leo Tolstoy’s writings attract new generations of readers thanks to the beauty of his prose, his insights into the human condition, and the power of his ideas.

 

Edward Roslof holds a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has taught at Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and United Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as the Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia.

Introduction

Leo Tolstoy's The Gospels in Brief (1881) is a daring attempt by Russia's greatest novelist to rewrite "the greatest story ever told." This book appeared soon after the writer experienced a period of deep despair that led to a conversion in his personal life. Following what might best be described as a mid-life crisis, Tolstoy devoted himself to a rational religion for the masses based on the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. He rejected all the mystery and miracles in Christianity and focused instead on the powerful truth in Jesus' words - a truth he believed that the church's emphasis on mystery, miracles, and the divinity of Jesus had long obscured. In order to show the true essence of what Jesus taught, Tolstoy resolved to make a new translation of the four Gospels from Greek into Russian. He rejected anything that he considered not part of Jesus' original teaching, including all references to the Resurrection, and then rearranged these teachings in a way that highlighted Tolstoy's own understanding about the divine purpose for human existence. The combined forces of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church in the late nineteenth century would surely have succeeded in silencing anyone else who might have tried such a radical revision of the core teachings of Christianity, but Tolstoy's reputation, both in Russia and abroad, together with his social status as a member of the nobility, protected him. His ideas became the foundation for a new religious movement bearing his name (Tolstoyism) and influenced such political activists as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This side of Tolstoy's life is little known to today's reading public, in partbecause Tolstoyism ceased to exist as an organized movement soon after the 1917 communist revolution in Russia. Tolstoy himself did not live to see the communists come to power. He died at the age of eighty-two in 1910. Nonetheless, he did witness many changes in Russia over a long life that had as many subplots and characters as one of his novels. He was more than a great writer, although his literary talent brought him celebrity status and wealth, which in turn fueled much of his subsequent success as a religious philosopher, critic of the political and religious establishment, and champion of social reform. He was born in 1828 at his family's estate in Yasnaya Polyana, which is located approximately 130 miles south of Moscow. By the time he was ten both his parents had died and, together with his sister and three brothers, he came under the care of various relatives. Being a member of the wealthy Russian aristocracy meant that Tolstoy received his elementary and secondary education from foreign tutors. He then began but never completed studies at the University of Kazan. By the age of thirty-three, Tolstoy had squandered a large portion of his inheritance through gambling and partying. He also had served as an officer in the army and seen the horrors of combat during the Crimean War (1853-56). While in the artillery corps, Tolstoy began writing a series of semi-autobiographical works, including the trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857), as well accounts of a soldier's life in war time (Sevastopol Sketches, 1855-56).

Tolstoy enjoyed a dramatic shift in fortune between 1862 and 1877. In 1862, he fell in love with seventeen-year-old Sofya Andreyevna Bers ("Sonya"). They married that same year, and Sonya promptly took charge of running Yasnaya Polyana and caring for their rapidly expanding family. The couple became parents to thirteen children in all, nine of whom lived to adulthood. Tolstoy's concern for the financial wellbeing of his wife and children pushed him to a more serious attitude toward writing. With Sonya's encouragement, he began War and Peace (1867-69), an epic historical novel on the Napoleon wars, which was initially published in six volumes. His other great novel, Anna Karenina, appeared first as a serialized work in the early 1870s and then as a book in 1878. In both of these works, Tolstoy questions conventional wisdom and social norms even as he probes the inner lives of his main characters. War and Peace rejects the idea that great individuals make history. Forgotten masses of common people acting together, not individual "heroes" like Napoleon, determined the course of that epic conflict. The novelist addresses personal upheavals with the same skepticism toward traditional explanations in Anna Karenina, the tragic story of a noblewoman who is destroyed by a belief in romantic love that leads her to commit adultery and abandon her family. The novel reveals the emptiness of Russian high society whose artificial standards for behavior lack any moral foundation. Hope for marital and personal happiness is found in the subplot of Kitty and Levin, who abandon aristocratic society for a simple life modeled on peasant values. The worldview presented in Tolstoy's two great novels later became part of the writer's religious philosophy.

By the age of fifty, Tolstoy was at the pinnacle of personal and professional success. He had great wealth, good health, a loving family, and international acclaim. But he also was dogged by doubts about the long-term significance of his achievements. He became acutely aware of his own mortality and wondered what would be left of all his seemingly splendid achievements after his death. This existential crisis led him initially to an intellectual search for answers in the works of great thinkers and an attempt to embrace the rites and rituals of Russian Orthodoxy. Neither of these paths provided the answers he sought. Resolution came from two other sources: an idealized vision of peasant life that he combined with a radical interpretation of biblical teachings. Both of these ideas had long been part of Tolstoy's life and were widely accepted by his contemporaries. The first was distinctively Russian, the second markedly European. Prior to his mid-life crisis, Tolstoy had often commented on the simple virtues of the peasants on his estate and undertaken projects to improve their material conditions through education. Many Russian intellectuals turned to the peasantry for answers during the era of the Great Reforms that took place for some twenty years after the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Tolstoy's unique contribution was to combine this Russian love of the peasantry with a version of humanistic Christianity that had emerged during the European Enlightenment. Philosophers such as England's John Locke (1632-1704) and Ireland's John Toland (1670-1722), along with many of their contemporaries, argued for a version of Christianity based on logic as opposed to mystery, on human reason rather than divine revelation. Tolstoy embraced their quest over a century later.

Tolstoy was unsuccessful in his attempts to have The Gospels in Brief published in Russia during his lifetime. Manuscript versions and foreign editions, however, circulated among his followers and intellectual circles in Russia. Its purpose was simple: to present the teachings of Jesus as clearly as possible so that every person could know how to live in this earthly world. Tolstoy believed that God existed but could never be proven. He also believed that the Church was an obstacle to living life in harmony with humanity's limited place in the world because dogmatic Christianity emphasized the divinity of Christ and promised future happiness for believers rather than providing useful guidance for fulfillment in life in the present. By retranslating and reorganizing the Gospels and adding his own commentary, Tolstoy intended to provide a practical guide for every life based on the solution he had discovered to his own spiritual despair.

As a result, the Christian teaching that emerges from this book is based on the author's personal experiences and his own understanding of the meaning of truth. Every person is a creation of the "infinite principle" (that is, God), which means that every person has the ability to recognize truth and order his or her life around it. In other words, every reasonable person can follow Tolstoy's path to see the truth in Jesus' words. The pure teaching of Jesus, although surrounded by "mud and ooze" from centuries of misguided interpretation, shines out with brightness and clarity from the Gospels and the Gospels alone. All other sections of the Bible, including the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament, obfuscate the purity of Jesus' ideas. According to Tolstoy, Jesus provided five simple rules for living as children of the Father of life and not as a slave to the whims of the flesh. In their simplest form, these rules say to avoid anger, avoid lust, do not swear oaths, meet evil with non-resistance, and treat everyone-both the just and the unjust-with goodness. The authority of church and state alike becomes superfluous as a consequence of Tolstoy's rules for living. Poverty is a virtue, since all property could be held only through the use of force. Church rituals add nothing to following these rules and so are dismissed as useless. The supreme law for human behavior is love. Tolstoy's vision of a perfectly fulfilled life-a personal utopia as it were-is based on individuals who follow the internal summons to love one another. Nothing else matters.

Tolstoy spent the last thirty years of his life attempting to spread the teachings in The Gospels in Brief and to live them out in his own life. In works like "The Death of Ivan Ilich" (1886) and The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within You (1893), Tolstoy dwells on the meaning of death and the power of nonviolent resistance. His last novel, Resurrection (1899), is practically a sermon against all the evils of Russian society and religion. During these years, Tolstoy adopted vegetarianism and the simple garb of the Russian peasantry. He also embraced a peasant's life of physical labor dictated by nature's rhythms as the way to live in the present moment. He stopped drinking and smoking. He also made repeated unsuccessful attempts to give up all sexual relations. Ironically, his pursuit of the ideals of Tolstoyism led to conflicts in his personal life. Sonya rejected both his attempts at total chastity and at relinquishing copyrights to the works he produced prior to 1880. She acted out of concern for their marriage and the financial needs of their large family. The struggle between the formerly close husband and wife continued until his death.

The last decade of Tolstoy's life was a time of troubles and productivity for the great writer. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1901 for his attacks on the church and denial of the divinity of Christ. Tolstoy responded with a statement that rallied public opinion to his support. He wrote several plays, stories, and novels, and international acclaim for his genius grew. Yet, his family quarreled over property and the rights to his works. They did not renounce their upper-class lifestyle and were embarrassed by his eccentricities. Relations between Leo and Sonya worsened, and she came to resent the constant stream of disciples who sought guidance from the great writer and philosopher. Tolstoy did not understand her unwillingness to accept the rules for living that seemed so obvious to him. In the end, Tolstoy wanted to enter a monastery in order to be free from possessions, but the Church refused to lift its edict of excommunication. His health in decline, Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana and spent his last days in a futile attempt to get to the Caucasus. He died in Astopovo, a small town in Riazan province, in 1910. The Church refused to allow any of its priests to conduct a Christian funeral when Tolstoy's body was buried on the edge of his estate. A century after his death, Leo Tolstoy's writings attract new generations of readers thanks to the beauty of his prose, his insights into the human condition, and the power of his ideas.

Edward Roslof holds a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught at Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and United Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as the Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia.

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