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Chapter 5

The true meaning of the doctrine of Jesus was revealed to me; everything confirmed its truth. But for a long time I could not accustom myself to the strange fact, that after the eighteen centuries during which the law of Jesus had been professed by millions of human beings, after the eighteen centuries during which thousands of men had consecrated their lives to the study of this law, I had discovered it for myself anew. But strange as it seemed, so it was. Jesus' law, "Resist not evil," was to me wholly new, something of which I had never had any conception before. I asked myself how this could be; I must certainly have had a false idea of the doctrine of Jesus to cause such a misunderstanding. And a false idea of it I unquestionably had. When I began to read the Gospel, I was not in the condition of one who, having heard nothing of the doctrine of Jesus, becomes acquainted with it for the first time; on the contrary, I had a preconceived theory as to the manner in which I ought to understand it. Jesus did not appeal to me as a prophet revealing the divine law, but as one who continued and amplified the absolute divine law which I already knew; for I had very definite and complex notions about God, the creator of the world and of man, and about the commandments of God given to men through the instrumentality of Moses.

When I came to the words, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil,"—the words, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," expressed the law given by God to Moses; the words, "But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil," expressed the new law, which was a negation of the first. If I had seen Jesus' words, simply, in their true sense, and not as a part of the theological theory that I had imbibed at my mother's breast, I should have understood immediately that Jesus abrogated the old law, and substituted for it a new law. But I had been taught that Jesus did not abrogate the law of Moses, that, on the contrary, he confirmed it to the slightest iota, and that he made it more complete. Verses 17-20 of the fifth chapter of Matthew always impressed me, when I read the Gospel, by their obscurity, and they plunged me into doubt. I knew the Old Testament, particularly the last books of Moses, very thoroughly, and recalling certain passages in which minute doctrines, often absurd and even cruel in their purport, are preceded by the words, "And the Lord said unto Moses," it seemed to me very singular that Jesus should confirm all these injunctions; I could not understand why he did so. But I allowed the question to pass without solution, and accepted with confidence the explanations inculcated in my infancy,—that the two laws were equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, that they were in perfect accord, and that Jesus confirmed the law of Moses while completing and amplifying it. I did not concern myself with accounting for the process of this amplification, with the solution of the contradictions apparent throughout the whole Gospel, in verses 17-20 of the fifth chapter, in the words, "But I say unto you."

Now that I understood the clear and simple meaning of the doctrine of Jesus, I saw clearly that the two laws are directly opposed to one another; that they can never be harmonized; that, instead of supplementing one by the other, we must inevitably choose between the two; and that the received explanation of the verses, Matthew v. 17-20, which had impressed me by their obscurity, must be incorrect.

When I now came to read once more the verses that had before impressed me as obscure, I was astonished at the clear and simple meaning which was suddenly revealed to me. This meaning was revealed, not by any combination and transposition, but solely by rejecting the factitious explanations with which the words had been encumbered. According to Matthew, Jesus said (v. 17-18):—

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets (the doctrine of the prophets): I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."

And in verse 20 he added:—

"For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."

I am not come (Jesus said) to destroy the eternal law of whose fulfilment your books of prophecy foretell. I am come to teach you the fulfilment of the eternal law; not of the law that your scribes and pharisees call the divine law, but of that eternal law which is more immutable than the earth and the heavens.

I have expressed the idea in other words in order to detach the thoughts of my readers from the traditional false interpretation. If this false interpretation had never existed, the idea expressed in the verses could not be rendered in a better or more definite manner.

The view that Jesus did not abrogate the old law arises from the arbitrary conclusion that "law" in this passage signifies the written law instead of the law eternal, the reference to the iota—jot and tittle—perhaps furnishing the grounds for such an opinion. But if Jesus had been speaking of the written law, he would have used the expression "the law and the prophets," which he always employed in speaking of the written law; here, however, he uses a different expression,—"the law or the prophets." If Jesus had meant the written law, he would have used the expression, "the law and the prophets," in the verses that follow and that continue the thought; but he says, briefly, "the law." Moreover, according to Luke, Jesus made use of the same phraseology, and the context renders the meaning inevitable. According to Luke, Jesus said to the Pharisees, who assumed the justice of their written law:—

"Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is 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 presseth into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." (Luke xvi. 15-17.)

In the words, "The law and the prophets were until John," Jesus abrogated the written law; in the words, "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail," Jesus confirmed the law eternal. In the first passage cited he said, "the law and the prophets," that is, the written law; in the second he said "the law" simply, therefore the law eternal. It is clear, then, that the eternal law is opposed to the written law,[3] exactly as in the context of Matthew where the eternal law is defined by the phrase, "the law or the prophets."

The history of the variants of the text of these verses is quite worthy of notice. The majority of texts have simply "the law," without the addition, "and the prophets," thus avoiding a false interpretation in the sense of the written law. In other texts, notably that of Tischendorf, and in the canonical versions, we find the word "prophets" used, not with the conjunction "and," but with the conjunction "or,"—"the law or the prophets,"—which also excludes any question of the written law, and indicates, as the proper signification, the law eternal. In several other versions, not countenanced by the Church, we find the word "prophets" used with the conjunction "and," not with "or"; and in these versions every repetition of the words "the law" is followed by the phrase, "and the prophets," which would indicate that Jesus spoke only of the written law.

The history of the commentaries on the passage in question coincides with that of the variants. The only clear meaning is that authorized by Luke,—that Jesus spoke of the eternal law. But among the copyists of the Gospel were some who desired that the written law of Moses should continue to be regarded as obligatory. They therefore added to the words "the law" the phrase "and the prophets," and thereby changed the interpretation of the text.

Other Christians, not recognizing to the same degree the authority of the books of Moses, suppressed the added phrase, and replaced the particle καί, "and," with ἤ, "or"; and with this substitution the passage was admitted to the canon. Nevertheless, in spite of the unequivocal clearness of the text as thus written, the commentators perpetuated the interpretation supported by the phrase which had been rejected in the canon. The passage evoked innumerable comments, which stray from the true signification in proportion to the lack, on the part of the commentators, of fidelity to the simple and obvious meaning of Jesus' doctrine. Most of them recognize the reading rejected by the canonical text.

To be absolutely convinced that Jesus spoke only of the eternal law, we need only examine the true meaning of the word which has given rise to so many false interpretations. The word "law" (in Greek νόμος, in Hebrew תּוֹרָהּ, torah) has in all languages two principal meanings: one, law in the abstract sense, independent of formulŠ; the other, the written statutes which men generally recognize as law. In the Greek of Paul's Epistles the distinction is indicated by the use of the article. Without the article Paul uses νόμος the most frequently in the sense of the divine eternal law. By the ancient Hebrews, as in books of Isaiah and the other prophets, תּוֹרָהּ, torah, is always used in the sense of an eternal revelation, a divine intuition. It was not till the time of Esdras, and later in the Talmud, that "Torah" was used in the same sense in which we use the word "Bible"—with this difference, that while we have words to distinguish between the Bible and the divine law, the Jews employed the same word to express both meanings.

And so Jesus sometimes speaks of law as the divine law (of Isaiah and the other prophets), in which case he confirms it; and sometimes in the sense of the written law of the Pentateuch, in which case he rejects it. To distinguish the difference, he always, in speaking of the written law, adds, "and the prophets," or prefixes the word "your,"—"your law."

When he says: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. vii. 12), he speaks of the written law. The entire written law, he says, may be reduced to this expression of the eternal law, and by these words he abrogated the eternal law. When he says, "The law and the prophets were until John" (Luke xvi. 16), he speaks of the written law, and abrogates it. When he says, "Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law" (John vii. 19), "It is also written in your law" (John viii. 17), "that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law" (John xv. 25), he speaks of the written law, the law whose authority he denied, the law that condemned him to death: "The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die" (John xix. 7). It is plain that this Jewish law, which authorized condemnation to death, was not the law of Jesus. But when Jesus says, "I am not come to destroy the law, but to teach you the fulfilment of the law; for nothing of this law shall be changed, but all shall be fulfilled," then he speaks, not of the written law, but of the divine and eternal law.

Admit that all this is merely formal proof; admit that I have carefully combined contexts and variants, and excluded everything contrary to my theory; admit that the commentators of the Church are clear and convincing, that, in fact, Jesus did not abrogate the law of Moses, but upheld it—admit this: then the question is, what were the teachings of Jesus?

According to the Church, he taught that he was the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, and that he came into the world to atone by his death for Adam's sin. Those, however, who have read the Gospels know that Jesus taught nothing of the sort, or at least spoke but very vaguely on these topics. The passages in which Jesus affirms that he is the second person of the Trinity, and that he was to atone for the sins of humanity, form a very inconsiderable and very obscure portion of the Gospels. In what, then, does the rest of Jesus' doctrine consist? It is impossible to deny, for all Christians have recognized the fact, that the doctrine of Jesus aims summarily to regulate the lives of men, to teach them how they ought to live with regard to one another. But to realize that Jesus taught men a new way of life, we must have some idea of the condition of the people to whom his teachings were addressed.

When we examine into the social development of the Russians, the English, the Chinese, the Indians, or even the races of insular savages, we find that each people invariably has certain practical rules or laws which govern its existence; consequently, if any one would inculcate a new law, he must at the same time abolish the old; in any race or nation this would be inevitable. Laws that we are accustomed to regard as almost sacred would assuredly be abrogated; with us, perhaps, it might happen that a reformer who taught a new law would abolish only our civil laws, the official code, our administrative customs, without touching what we consider as our divine laws, although it is difficult to believe that such could be the case. But with the Jewish people, who had but one law, and that recognized as divine,—a law which enveloped life to its minutest details,—what could a reformer accomplish if he declared in advance that the existing law was inviolable?

Admit that this argument is not conclusive, and try to interpret the words of Jesus as an affirmation of the entire Mosaic law; in that case, who were the Pharisees, the scribes, the doctors of the law, denounced by Jesus during the whole of his ministry? Who were they that rejected the doctrine of Jesus and, their High Priests at their head, crucified him? If Jesus approved the law of Moses, where were the faithful followers of that law, who practised it sincerely, and must thereby have obtained Jesus' approval? Is it possible that there was not one such? The Pharisees, we are told, constituted a sect; where, then, were the righteous?

In the Gospel of John the enemies of Jesus are spoken of directly as "the Jews." They are opposed to the doctrine of Jesus; they are hostile because they are Jews. But it is not only the Pharisees and the Sadducees who figure in the Gospels as the enemies of Jesus: we also find mention of the doctors of the law, the guardians of the law of Moses, the scribes, the interpreters of the law, the ancients, those who are always considered as representatives of the people's wisdom. Jesus said, "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance," to change their way of life (μετάνοια). But where were the righteous? Was Nicodemus the only one? He is represented as a good, but misguided man.

We are so habituated to the singular opinion that Jesus was crucified by the Pharisees and a number of Jewish shopkeepers, that we never think to ask, Where were the true Jews, the good Jews, the Jews that practised the law? When we have once propounded this query, everything becomes perfectly clear. Jesus, whether he was God or man, brought his doctrine to a people possessing rules, called the divine law, governing their whole existence. How could Jesus avoid denouncing that law?

Every prophet, every founder of a religion, inevitably meets, in revealing the divine law to men, with institutions which are regarded as upheld by the laws of God. He cannot, therefore, avoid a double use of the word "law," which expresses what his hearers wrongfully consider the law of God ("your law"), and the law he has come to proclaim, the true law, the divine and eternal law. A reformer not only cannot avoid the use of the word in this manner; often he does not wish to avoid it, but purposely confounds the two ideas, thus indicating that, in the law confessed by those whom he would convert, there are still some eternal truths. Every reformer takes these truths, so well known to his hearers, as the basis of his teaching. This is precisely what Jesus did in addressing the Jews, by whom the two laws were vaguely grouped together as "Torah." Jesus recognized that the Mosaic law, and still more the prophetical books, especially the writings of Isaiah, whose words he constantly quotes,—Jesus recognized that these contained divine and eternal truths in harmony with the eternal law, and these he takes as the basis of his own doctrine. This method was many times referred to by Jesus; thus he said, "What is written in the law? how readest thou?" (Luke x. 26). That is, one may find eternal truth in the law, if one reads it aright. And more than once he affirms that the commandments of the Mosaic law, to love the Lord and one's neighbor, are also commandments of the eternal law. At the conclusion of the parables by which Jesus explained the meaning of his doctrine to his disciples, he pronounced words that have a bearing upon all that precedes:—

"Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven (the truth) is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure (without distinction) things new and old." (Matt. xiii. 52.)

The Church understands these words, as they were understood by IrenŠus; but at the same time, in defiance of the true signification, it arbitrarily attributes to them the meaning that everything old is sacred. The manifest meaning is this: He who seeks for the good, takes not only the new, but also the old; and because a thing is old, he does not therefore reject it. By these words Jesus meant that he did not deny what was eternal in the old law. But when they spoke to him of the whole law, or of the formalities exacted by the old law, his reply was that new wine should not be put into old bottles. Jesus could not affirm the whole law; neither could he deny the entire teachings of the law and the prophets,—the law which says, "love thy neighbor as thyself," the prophets whose words often served to express his own thoughts. And yet, in place of this clear and simple explanation of Jesus' words, we are offered a vague interpretation which introduces needless contradictions, which reduces the doctrine of Jesus to nothingness, and which re-establishes the doctrine of Moses in all its savage cruelty.

Commentators of the Church, particularly those who have written since the fifth century, tell us that Jesus did not abolish the written law; that, on the contrary, he affirmed it. But in what way? How is it possible that the law of Jesus should harmonize with the law of Moses? To these inquiries we get no response. The commentators all make use of a verbal juggle to the effect that Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses, and that the sayings of the prophets were fulfilled in his person; that Jesus fulfilled the law as our mediator by our faith in him. And the essential question for every believer—How to harmonize two conflicting laws, each designed to regulate the lives of men?—is left without the slightest attempt at explanation. Thus the contradiction between the verse where it is said that Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil the law, and Jesus' saying, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye... But I say unto you,"—the contradiction between the doctrine of Jesus and the very spirit of the Mosaic doctrine,—is left without any mitigation.

Let those who are interested in the question look through the Church commentaries touching this passage from the time of Chrysostom to our day. After a perusal of the voluminous explanations offered, they will be convinced not only of the complete absence of any solution for the contradiction, but of the presence of a new, factitious contradiction arising in its place. Let us see what Chrysostom says in reply to those who reject the law of Moses:—

"He made this law, not that we might strike out one another's eyes, but that fear of suffering by others might restrain us from doing any such thing to them. As therefore He threatened the Ninevites with overthrow, not that He might destroy them (for had that been His will, He ought to have been silent), but that He might by fear make them better, and so quiet His wrath: so also hath He appointed a punishment for those who wantonly assail the eyes of others, that if good principle dispose them not to refrain from such cruelty, fear may restrain them from injuring their neighbors' sight.

"And if this be cruelty, it is cruelty also for the murderer to be restrained, and the adulterer checked. But these are the sayings of senseless men, and of those that are mad to the extreme of madness. For I, so far from saying that this comes of cruelty, should say that the contrary to this would be unlawful, according to men's reckoning. And whereas thou sayest, 'Because He commanded to pluck out an eye for an eye, therefore He is cruel'; I say that if He had not given this commandment, then He would have seemed, in the judgment of most men, to be that which thou sayest He is."

Chrysostom clearly recognized the law. An eye for an eye, as divine, and the contrary of that law, that is, the doctrine of Jesus, Resist not evil, as an iniquity. "For let us suppose," says Chrysostom further:—

"For let us suppose that this law had been altogether done away, and that no one feared the punishment ensuing thereupon, but that license had been given to all the wicked to follow their own dispositions in all security to adulterers, and to murderers, to perjured persons, and to parricides; would not all things have been turned upside down? would not cities, market-places and houses, sea and land, and the whole world have been filled with unnumbered pollutions and murders? Every one sees it. For if, when there are laws, and fear, and threatening, our evil dispositions are hardly checked; were even this security taken away, what is there to prevent men's choosing vice? and what degree of mischief would not then come revelling upon the whole of human life?

"The rather, since cruelty lies not only in allowing the bad to do what they will, but in another thing too quite as much,—to overlook, and leave uncared for, him who hath done no wrong, but who is without cause or reason suffering ill. For tell me; were any one to gather together wicked men from all quarters, and arm them with swords, and bid them go about the whole city, and massacre all that came in their way, could there be anything more like a wild beast than he? And what if some others should bind, and confine with the utmost strictness, those whom that man had armed, and should snatch from those lawless hands them who were on the point of being butchered; could anything be greater humanity than this?"

Chrysostom does not say what would be the estimate of these others in the opinion of the wicked. And what if these others were themselves wicked and cast the innocent into prison? Chrysostom continues:—

"Now then, I bid thee transfer these examples to the Law likewise; for He that commands to pluck out an eye for an eye hath laid the fear as a kind of strong chain upon the souls of the bad, and so resembles him who detains those assassins in prison; whereas he who appoints no punishment for them, doth all but arm them by such security, and acts the part of that other, who was putting the swords in their hands, and letting them loose over the whole city." ("Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew," xvi.)

If Chrysostom had understood the law of Jesus, he would have said, Who is it that strikes out another's eyes? who is it that casts men into prison? If God, who made the law, does this, then there is no contradiction; but it is men who carry out the decrees, and the Son of God has said to men that they must abstain from violence. God commanded to strike out, and the Son of God commanded not to strike out. We must accept one commandment or the other; and Chrysostom, like all the rest of the Church, accepted the commandment of Moses and denied that of the Christ, whose doctrine he nevertheless claims to believe.

Jesus abolished the Mosaic law, and gave his own law in its place. To one who really believes in Jesus there is not the slightest contradiction; such an one will pay no attention to the law of Moses, but will practise the law of Jesus, which he believes. To one who believes in the law of Moses there is no contradiction. The Jews looked upon the words of Jesus as foolishness, and believed in the law of Moses. The contradiction is only for those who would follow the law of Moses under the cover of the law of Jesus—for those whom Jesus denounced as hypocrites, as a generation of vipers.

Instead of recognizing as divine truth the one or the other of the two laws, the law of Moses or that of Jesus, we recognize the divine quality of both. But when the question comes with regard to the acts of every-day life, we reject the law of Jesus and follow that of Moses. And this false interpretation, when we realize its importance, reveals the source of that terrible drama which records the struggle between evil and good, between darkness and light.

To the Jewish people, trained to the innumerable formal regulations instituted by the Levites in the rubric of divine laws, each preceded by the words, "And the Lord said unto Moses"—to the Jewish people Jesus appeared. He found everything, to the minutest detail, prescribed by rule; not only the relation of man with God, but his sacrifices, his feasts, his fasts, his social, civil, and family duties, the details of personal habits, circumcision, the purification of the body, of domestic utensils, of clothing—all these regulated by laws recognized as commandments of God, and therefore as divine.

Excluding the question of Jesus' divine mission, what could any prophet or reformer do who wished to establish his own doctrines among a people so enveloped in formalism—what but abolish the law by which all these details were regulated? Jesus selected from what men considered as the law of God the portions which were really divine; he took what served his purpose, rejected the rest, and upon this foundation established the eternal law. It was not necessary to abolish all, but inevitable to abrogate much that was looked upon as obligatory. This Jesus did, and was accused of destroying the divine law; for this he was condemned and put to death. But his doctrine was cherished by his disciples, traversed the centuries, and is transmitted to other peoples. Under these conditions it is again hidden beneath heterogeneous dogmas, obscure comments, and factitious explanations. Pitiable human sophisms replace the divine revelation. For the formula, "And the Lord said unto Moses," we substitute "Thus saith the Holy Spirit." And again formalism hides the truth. Most astounding of all, the doctrine of Jesus is amalgamated with the written law, whose authority he was forced to deny. This Torah, this written law, is declared to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth; and thus Jesus is taken in the snare of his own revelation—his doctrine is reduced to nothingness.

This is why, after eighteen hundred years, it so singularly happened that I discovered the meaning of the doctrine of Jesus as some new thing. But no; I did not discover it; I did simply what all must do who seek after God and His law; I sought for the eternal law amid the incongruous elements that men call by that name.


[3] More than this, as if to do away with all doubt about the law to which he referred, Jesus cites immediately, in connection with this passage, the most decisive instance of the negation of the law of Moses by the eternal law, the law of which not the smallest jot is to fail: "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery." (Luke xvi. 18.) That is, according to the written law divorce is permissible; according to the eternal law it is forbidden.

Leo Tolstoy

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