WHAT I BELIEVE


by Leo Tolstoy


◄Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6►




Everything tended to convince me that I had now found the true interpretation of Christ’s doctrine.  But it was a long while before I could get used to the strange thought that after so many men had professed the doctrine of Christ during 1,800 years, and had devoted their lives to the study of His teachings, it was given to me to discover His doctrine as something altogether new.[8]  It seemed strange, nevertheless so it was.  Christ’s doctrine of ‘non-resistance’ seemed to rise before me as something hitherto unknown and unfamiliar to me.  And I asked myself how this could be.  Had some false conception of Christ’s doctrine prevented my understanding it?

When I first began to read the gospel I was not in the position of one who heard the teaching of Christ for the first time.  I already had a complete theory concerning the sense in which it was to be taken.  Christ did not appear to me as a prophet, come to reveal the law of God to man, but rather as an expounder and amplifier of the indubitable divine law well known to me.  I already possessed a complete, definite, and very complicated doctrine concerning God and the creation of the world and of man, as well as concerning the commandments of God, as transmitted to us through Moses.

In the gospel I found the words, ‘You have been told, “An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, do not resist evil.’  The precept, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ was the commandment given by God to Moses.  The precept, ‘I say to you, do not resist evil,’ was a new commandment that reversed the first.

Had I considered the doctrine of Christ simply, without the theological theory I had imbibed from my earliest childhood, I should have understood the true sense of these simple words.  I should have seen that Christ sets aside the old law and gives a new one.  But it had been instilled into me that Christ did not reject the Law of Moses – that, on the contrary, he confirmed it to the least jot and tittle, and amplified it.  The seventeenth and eighteenth verses of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, which seem to confirm that assertion, had, in my former studies of the gospel, struck me by their obscurity, and had raised doubts in my mind.

On reading the Old Testament, especially the last books of Moses, in which so many trivial, useless, and even cruel laws are laid down, each preceded by the words, ‘And God said to Moses,’ it seemed passing strange to me that Christ should have confirmed such laws; His doing so seemed incomprehensible.  But I then left the problem unsolved.  I blindly believed the teaching of my childhood:  that these commandments were inspired by the Holy Ghost, that they were in perfect harmony with each other, that Christ confirmed the Law of Moses, and that He amplified and completed it.  I could, indeed, never clearly explain to myself wherein the amplification lay, nor how the striking opposition, so obvious to all, between the verses 17-20 and the words ‘but I say to you’ could be harmonized.  But when I at last really understood the clear and simple meaning of Christ’s doctrine, I saw that these two commandments were in direct opposition to each other; that there could be no question of harmony between them, or of the one being an amplification of the other; that it was necessary to accept either the one or the other, and that the interpretation of verses 17-20 of the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, which, as I have already said, had struck me by their want of clarity, was erroneous.

On a second reading of the same verses 17-20, which had seemed so unintelligible to me, their meaning flashed full upon me.

This again was not the result of my having discovered anything new, or having made any alteration of the words; it was due solely to my having cast aside the false interpretation that had been given to them.

Christ says (Matthew 5:17-19), ‘Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or (the teaching of) the prophets.  I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle (the least particle) shall in no way pass from the law, until all is fulfilled.’

And (verse 20) he adds, ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Christ means by these words, ‘I have not come to destroy the eternal law, for the fulfillment of which your books and prophecies are written; but I have come to teach you how to fulfill that eternal law.  I do not speak of the law that your teachers, the Pharisees, call the law of God, but of the eternal law, which is less liable to change than heaven and earth.’

I here give the meaning of the text in other words, solely for the purpose of drawing the mind away from the incorrect interpretation usually offered.  If this incorrect interpretation did not exist, we should see that the idea of Christ could not be better or more definitely expressed than by these words.

The interpretation that Christ does not reject the Mosaic Law is based on the fact that in this passage, without any ostensible reason (except the comparison of the jot of the written law) and contrary to the true sense, the word ‘ law’ is treated as meaning the ‘written law,’ and not the eternal law.  But Christ does not speak here of the written law.  If Christ, in this passage, had spoken of the written law, He would have used the words ‘the law and the prophets,’ as He always does in speaking of the written law; but He uses a very different expression:  ‘the law or the prophets.’  Had Christ meant to speak of the written law, He would have used the words ‘the law and the prophets’ in the next verse, which is but the continuation of the preceding one; but there He uses the word ‘law’ alone.

Moreover we find, in the gospel according to St. Luke, that Christ uses the same words in a manner that leaves no doubt as to their true meaning (Luke 16:15).  Christ says to the Pharisees, who thought to justify themselves by the written law, ‘You are those who justify themselves before men; but God knows your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.  The law and the prophets were until John.  Since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presses into it.’  And immediately after this, in the 17th verse, we read, ‘And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.’  The words ‘the law and the prophets, until John,’ annul the written law.  The words ‘it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail,’ confirm the eternal law.  In the first text Christ says ‘the law and the prophets,’ i.e. the written law; in the second He uses the word ‘law’ alone, i.e. the eternal law.  It is obvious, therefore, that the eternal law is here set in opposition to the written law, and that exactly the same occurs in the context of the gospel of St. Matthew, where the eternal law is expressed by the words ‘the law or the prophets.’[9]

The history of the different renderings of this text (v.17-18) is very curious.  In most of the transcripts the word ‘law’ is not followed by the words ‘and the prophets.’  In this case there can be no doubt of its signifying ‘the eternal law.’  In other transcripts, as, for instance, in those of Tischendorf and the canonical transcripts, the word ‘prophets’ is added – not with the conjunction and, but with the disjunctive or – ‘the law or the prophets,’ which likewise excludes the meaning of ‘the written law,’ and confirms that of the ‘eternal law.’

In some transcripts again, which are not adopted by the Church, we find the word ‘prophets’ preceded by the conjunction and, and not by or; in these transcripts, after the repetition of the word ‘law,’ the words ‘and the prophets’ are again added.  Thus the meaning given to the whole saying, by this remodeling, is that Christ’s words refer only to the written law.

These variations give us the history of the various interpretations to which this passage has been subjected.  One point is obvious:  Christ speaks here, as He does in the gospel according to St. Luke, of the eternal law; but we find men among the transcribers of the gospels who have added the words ‘and the prophets’ to the word ‘law,’ with the design of rendering the Mosaic Law obligatory, and have thus altered the sense of the text.

Other Christians, again, who reject the Mosaic Law, either leave out the word completely, or substitute the word η (or), for the word και (and).  And thus the passage enters the canon with the disjunctive or.  Yet though the text adopted by the canon is so indubitably clear, our canonical commentators continue to expound on the passage in the spirit of the alterations that have not been adopted.

Countless commentators have treated this passage, and as the expounder agrees less with the simple, direct sense of the doctrine of Christ, the further his commentary must necessarily be from the true sense of that doctrine.  The majority of expounders retain the apocryphal sense, which the text rejects.

In order to be convinced that Christ speaks in this verse only of the eternal law, it will suffice to fully understand the word that has given rise to these false interpretations.  In Russian, it is ‘законъ’ (law); in Greek νομος; in Hebrew, ‘tora.’  This word has two principal meanings in the Russian, Greek, and Hebrew languages:  the one, the unexpressed, unwritten law; the other, the written expression of what certain men call the law.  Indeed, the difference exists in all languages.

In Greek, in the epistles of Paul, the difference is sometimes marked by the use of the article.  In speaking of the written law, the apostle omits the article before the word law, and when he speaks of the eternal law, the article is prefixed.

The ancient Hebrews, the prophets, and Isaiah always use the word ‘tora’ (the law) to indicate the eternal, unwritten, but revealed law of God.  This same word ‘tora’ (the law) was first used by Ezra, and later we find it in the Talmud, as signifying the five books of Moses, which bear the general title of ‘tora’ in the same sense as our word ‘Bible,’ with this difference, however, that we distinguish the Bible from the law of God by two different denominations, while in the Hebrew language there is but one word for both.

Therefore Christ, using the word ‘tora,’ takes it in the two different accepted meanings of the word – either confirming it, as Isaiah and the other prophets do, in the sense of the law of God, which is eternal, or rejecting it, when He refers to the Mosaic Law.  But in order to make a distinction between the different meanings of the word, he always adds ‘and the prophets,’ and the pronoun ‘your,’ in speaking of the written law.

When Christ says, ‘As you would want men to treat you, also treat them likewise; this is the whole law and the prophets,’ He refers to the written law.  He tells us that the whole written law may be reduced to this sole expression of the eternal law; and, by these His words, He annuls the written law.

When He says (Luke 16:16), ‘The law and the prophets until John the Baptist,’ He refers to the written law, and by these words asserts that it is no longer obligatory.

When He says (John 7:19), ‘Didn’t Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keeps the law?’ or (John 8:17), ‘Isn’t it said in your law?’ or again (John 15:25), ‘The word that is written in their law,’ He refers to the written law – the law that He rejects – the law by which He was, soon after, sentenced to death.  John 19:7:  ‘The Jews answered Him,  “We have a law, and by our law He ought to die”.’  It is obvious that this law of the Hebrews, by which Christ Himself was sentenced to death, was not the law that He taught.  But when Christ says, ‘I come, not to destroy the law, but to teach you to fulfill it, for nothing can be altered in the law, but all must be fulfilled,’ He does not speak of the written law, but of the divine, eternal law.

It may be said that these proofs are controvertible; that I have skillfully assorted the contexts, and have carefully concealed all that could contradict my interpretation; that the commentaries given by the Church are very clear and convincing, and that Christ did not destroy the Law of Moses, but that He left it in full force.  Let us suppose this to be the case.  What, then, does Christ teach?

According to the commentaries of the Church, He taught men that He was the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God the Father, and that He had come down from heaven to redeem mankind from the sin of Adam.  But whoever has read the gospel knows that Christ says nothing of this, or, at least, alludes to it in very ambiguous terms; the passages in which Christ speaks of Himself as being the Second Person of the Trinity, and of His redeeming mankind, are the shortest and least perspicuous in the gospels.  In what, then, does the rest of Christ’s teaching consist?

It is impossible to deny, what all Christians have always acknowledged, that the main point in Christ’s doctrine consists in His rules of life – how men are to live together.  Now, if we admit that Christ taught a new system of life, we must form some definite idea of the men among whom He taught.

Take, for instance, the Russians, the English, the Chinese, the Hindus, or even any wild insular tribe, and you will be sure to find that they all have their own rules of life, their own laws; and that no teacher could introduce new laws of life without destroying the former ones; he could not teach without infringing them.  Such would be the case everywhere.  The teacher would inevitably have to begin by destroying our laws, which have grown precious and almost sacred in our eyes.

Perhaps in our days it might happen that the teacher of a new doctrine of life would only destroy our civil laws, our government, and our customs without interfering with the laws that we call divine, though this is hardly probable.  But the Hebrews had only one law – a divine law that embraced life in its minutest details.  What could a preacher teach them if he began by declaring that the entire law of the people to whom he preached was inviolable?

But let us assume that this is not regarded as a proof.  Then let those who assert that Christ’s words confirm the Mosaic Law explain to themselves who they were whom Christ denounced during His whole life; who did He speak against, calling them Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes?  Who was it that refused to follow the doctrine of Christ, and crucified Him?

If Christ acknowledged the Mosaic Law, where were the true followers of the law, whom Christ must have approved of?  Is there a single one?  We are told that the Pharisees were a sect.  The Hebrews do not say so.  They call the Pharisees the true fulfillers of the law.  But let us suppose they were a sect.  The Sadducees were also a sect.  Where, then, were the true believers – those who did not belong to any sect?

In the gospel according to St. John, all the enemies of Christ are called Hebrews.  They do not assent to Christ’s doctrine; they oppose it only because they are Hebrews.  But in the gospel the Pharisees and Sadducees are not the only enemies of Christ; the lawgivers, who keep the Mosaic Law, the scribes, who study it, and the elders, who are considered as the representatives of the popular wisdom, are likewise called the enemies of Christ.

Christ says, ‘I did not come to call the righteous to repentance,’ to a change of life, μετανοια, ‘but sinners.’  Where were the righteous, and who were they?  Surely Nicodemus was not the only one?  And even Nicodemus is described as being a good man, but one who had gone astray.

We have grown so used to the singular interpretation given to us, that the Pharisees and some wicked Hebrews crucified Christ, that the simple question never occurs to us, ‘Where were the true Hebrews, who kept the law and who were neither Pharisees nor wicked men?’  No sooner does the question arise than all grows clear.  Christ, be He God or man, brought His doctrine to a people who already had a law that gave them definite rules of life, and which they called the law of God.  In what light could Christ have considered that law?

Every prophet – teacher of a faith – on revealing the law of God to a people, will find that they already possess a law that they consider as the divine law, and he cannot avoid a twofold application of the word, as referring either to what men wrongly consider the law of God (your law) or as referring to the true eternal law of God.  Moreover, not only is the preacher of the new doctrine unable to avoid the two-fold use of the word, but it often happens that he does not even endeavor to do so, and purposely unites both ideas, in order to point out that the law confessed by those he tries to convert, though defective as a whole, is not devoid of some divine truths.  And it is just these truths, so familiar to his hearers, which every preacher will take as the basis of his preaching.  Christ does so in addressing the Hebrews, who have the same word ‘tora’ for both laws.  Referring to the Mosaic Law, and more often still to the prophets, especially the prophet Isaiah, whom he often quotes, Christ acknowledges that in the Hebrew law, and in the prophets, there are eternal truths, divine truths, which coincide with the eternal law; and He bases His doctrine upon them, as for instance in the saying ‘Love God and your neighbor.’

Christ expresses this idea on many occasions, e.g., Luke 10:26:  ‘What is written in the law?  How do you read it?  We may find the eternal truth in the law, if we can read.  And He points out more than once that the precept contained in their law of love to God and their neighbor was a precept of the eternal law.

After the parables by which he explains His doctrine to His disciples, Christ says, as if in reference to all that had preceded, ‘Therefore every scribe (i.e. every man who can read and has been taught the truth) is like a householder who brings forth out of his treasure (indiscriminately) things old and new.’  (Matthew 13:52)

It is thus that St. Irenaus understands these words, and so does the Church, and yet, arbitrarily transgressing the true sense of the saying, they attribute to these words the meaning that the whole ancient law is sacred.  The obvious meaning of the text is that he who seeks for what is good, takes not only what is new, but what is old too, and that its being old is not a sufficient reason for throwing it aside.  Christ means, by this saying, that He does not deny what is eternal in the ancient law.  But when questioned concerning the law or its forms, He says, ‘We do not pour new wine into old bottles.’  Christ could not confirm the whole law, neither could He completely deny the law and the prophets; He could neither deny the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ nor the prophets, in whose word He often clothes His thought.

And so, instead of our understanding these clear and simple words as they were said, and in the sense that the whole doctrine of Christ confirms, an obscure interpretation is given to us, which introduces inconsistency where there is none, and thus destroys the true sense of the doctrine, leaving nothing but words, and in reality re-establishing the Mosaic teaching with all its barbarous cruelty.

According to the commentaries of the Church, and those of the fifth century in particular, Christ did not destroy the written law, but confirmed it.  But we are not told how He confirmed it, or how the law of Christ and the Mosaic Law can be supposed to be united into one.  We find nothing in these commentaries but a play upon words.  We are told that Christ kept the Mosaic Law by the prophecies concerning Himself being fulfilled; and that Christ fulfilled the law through us, through the faith of men in Him.  No effort is made to solve the only question that is of essential importance to every believer:  how these two contradictory laws, referring to life, can be united into one.  The inconsistency of the text, which says that Christ does not destroy the law, with the one in which we read, ‘It has been said…but I say to you,’ (indeed the contradiction between the whole spirit of the Mosaic Law and the doctrine of Christ) remains in all its force.

Let everyone who is interested in this question examine for himself the commentaries on this passage given to us by the Church, beginning from John Chrysostom to the present time.  It is only after having read these that he will see clearly not only that no explanation of the contradiction is given, but also that a contradiction has been skillfully inserted where there was none before.  The impossible attempts at uniting what cannot be united are clear proof that this was not an involuntary mental error, but was effected with some definite purpose in view; that it was found necessary; and the cause of its having been found necessary is obvious.

Let us see what John Chrysostom says in answer to those who reject the Mosaic Law (Commentary of the gospel according to St. Matthew, vol. 1, pp. 320, 321). 

‘On examining the ancient law that enjoins us to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the objection is raised, ‘How can He who speaks thus be righteous?  What answer can we give?’  Why, that it is, on the contrary, the best token of God’s love toward man.  It was not that we should really take an eye for an eye that He gave us this law, but that we should avoid wronging others for fear of suffering the same at their hands.  As, for instance, when threatening the Ninevites with destruction, His desire was not to destroy them (had He indeed decreed their destruction He would not have spoken of it); His purpose was only, by His menaces, to induce them to amend their lives and, by so doing, turn His wrath aside.  Thus likewise the hot-tempered, who are ready to put out their neighbors’ eyes, are threatened with punishment for the sole purpose of making their fears of punishment restrain them from injuring their fellow-creatures.  If this is cruelty, there is cruelty likewise in the commandment that forbids murder, or the one that interdicts adultery.  But such an argument would only prove a man to have reached the last stage of madness.  And I so dread calling these commandments cruel, that I should rather be inclined to consider a contrary law as wrong, according to plain common sense.  You call God cruel because He has enjoined taking an eye for an eye; but I say that many would have had a greater right to call Him cruel, as you do, had He not given this commandment.’

John Chrysostom plainly acknowledges the law of a tooth for a tooth to be the divine law, and the reverse of that law – i.e. Christ’s doctrine of non-resistance – to be wrong.

Pages 322, 323:  ‘Let us suppose that the law is entirely cast aside,’ says John Chrysostom further, ‘that all fear of promised punishment is done away with, that the wicked are left to live according to their inclinations, without fear of punishment – adulterers, murderers, thieves, and perjurers.  Wouldn’t all be overthrown; wouldn’t houses, marketplaces, cities, lands, seas, and the whole universe be full of iniquity?  This is obvious.  For if even the existence of laws, fear and threats of punishment, can hardly keep the evil intentioned with bounds, what would there then be to restrain men from evil deeds, if all obstacles were removed?  What disasters would then rush in torrents into the lives of men!  Cruelty does not lie in leaving the wicked free to act as they please, but in letting the innocent man suffer without defending him.  If a man were to collect a crowd of miscreants around him, and having furnished them with weapons, were to send them forth into the town to kill all those they met in the streets, could anything be more barbarous?  And if another were to bind these armed men and imprison them, releasing the victims these miscreants had threatened with death, could anything be more humane?’

But John Chrysostom does not tell us by what the other is to be guided in his definition of the wicked.  May he not himself be a wicked man, and imprison the good?

‘Now apply this example to the law.  He who gave the commandment, “an eye for an eye” has bound the minds of the wicked in chains of fear, and may be compared to the man who bound the miscreants; but if no punishment were appointed for criminals, would it not be arming them with the weapons of fearlessness, and acting like him who gave weapons to the miscreants, and sent them forth into the town?’

If John Chrysostom does acknowledge the doctrine of Christ, he ought to have told us who is to take an ‘eye for an eye,’ or a ‘tooth for a tooth,’ and cast into prison.  If He who gave the commandment, that is, God Himself, were to inflict the threatened punishment, there would be no inconsistency; but it must be done by men, the men who were forbidden to do so by the Son of God.  God said, ‘An eye of an eye.’  The Son says, ‘Do not act thus.’  One of the two commandments must be acknowledged as just.  John Chrysostom and the Church follow the commandments of the Father – i.e., the Mosaic Law – and reject the commandments of the Son, while ostensibly professing His doctrine.

Christ rejects the Mosaic Law, and gives His own in its stead.  For him who believes in Christ there is no contradiction.  He pays no heed to the Mosaic Law, believes in Christ’s doctrine, and fulfills it.  Neither is there any contradiction for him who believes in the Mosaic Law.  The Hebrews do not consider the words of Christ valid, and they believe in the Mosaic Law.  There is a contradiction only for those who, while choosing to live according to the Mosaic Law, try to persuade themselves and others that they believe in the doctrine of the Christ; only for those whom Christ calls, ‘You hypocrites, you generation of vipers.’

Instead of acknowledging one of the two – either the Mosaic Law or the doctrine of Christ – we say that both are divine truths.

But no sooner does the question touch upon life itself, than the doctrine of Christ is straightway cast aside, and the Mosaic Law is acknowledged.

If we examine this false interpretation closely, we shall see in it one phase of the awful struggle between good and evil, light and darkness.

Christ appears amidst the Hebrews, who were entangled in countless minute rules, laid down by their Levites, and called by them the divine law, each of which was preceded by the words, ‘And God said to Moses.’

Not only the relations in which man stands to God, but the sacrifices, feast days, fasts, the relations between men – public, civil, and family relations – all the details of private life, circumcision, ablution of themselves and their cups, their clothes, all – even in the most trifling details – were encompassed by rules, and these were acknowledged as the commandments of God, the law of God.  What could a prophet do – I do not say Christ-God – but what could a prophet, a teacher do, when teaching such a people, without first destroying the obligations of a law by which everything, down to the smallest detail of life, was thus regulated?  Christ does what any other prophet would do.  He takes from the old law, considered by the people as divine, what is truly the law of God.  He takes the basic principles, setting all the rest aside, and He adds to it His own revelation of the eternal law.  Though all need not be cast aside, a law that is considered obligatory in all its minutest details must inevitably be violated.  This is what Christ does, and He is accused of destroying the law of God; and He is crucified for this.  But His teaching remains among His disciples, and passes on to other peoples.  Yet, in the course of ages, and among the new peoples who receive Christ’s truth, the same human interpretations and explanations shoot up.  Again the shallow precepts of man appear in place of the divine revelation.  Instead of the words, ‘And God said to Moses,’ we now read, ‘By the revelation of the Holy Spirit.’  Again the letter rather than the spirit of the doctrine is preferred.  It is a striking fact that the doctrine of Christ is united to all this ‘tora,’ which He rejected.  This ‘tora’ is said to be the revelation of the Spirit of Truth – i.e., of the Holy Ghost – and so Christ is taken in the meshes of His own revelation.

And now, after 1800 years, the strange duty has fallen to my lot to discover the sense of Christ’s doctrine as something new.

It was no small discovery that I had to make.  I had to do what all those who seek to know God and His law have to do:  to find out the eternal law of God from amidst the precepts that men call His law.


◄Chapter 4

Table of Contents

Chapter 6►




[8] Tolstoy was, at the time he wrote this, ignorant of what are commonly referred to as ‘peace churches.’  He went on to write that his realizations were not so new, after all, in The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

[9] As if to dispel all doubt as to the law He means, He, immediately after, most decisively casts aside the Mosaic Law for the divine law, of which not one jot or tittle can fail, by the most direct contradiction that we meet with in the gospels, of the Law of Moses.  He says (Luke 16:18), ‘Whoever puts away his wife, and marries another, commits adultery’; i.e., the written law permits divorce, but according to the eternal law it is a sin.