March 3, 2015: The Five New Commandments of Christ

Lent Day 14, What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 6

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1877. Located at Museum of National History of Frederiksborg Castle

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1877. Located at Museum of National History of Frederiksborg Castle

Chapter 6 of What I Believe made me wish once again that I could read Greek. Because in this chapter Tolstoy does some deep diving into translations and interpretations of some key verses in the Sermon on the Mount. He believes this is where Christ clearly states five new commandments, each of which takes a key principle from old Mosaic law and changes its meaning in a radical way. These are the verses that begin with “You have heard….but I tell you….”

In understanding the true meaning of these verses Tolstoy finds it necessary to scrupulously examine subtle changes in the Church’s translations from the Greek scriptures. In doing so he is able to clear up some of the most confusing statements in the Gospels. Once he penetrated the web of “intentional perversions of the text” and identified the errors in Church doctrine, Tolstoy felt he understood the true meaning of each of the commandments and he found them to be in perfect harmony with the whole teaching of Christ.

Speaking of Matthew 5:32, the verse about divorce, Tolstoy says: “And once more I received a confirmation of the truth that the meaning of Christ’s doctrine is simple and clear. His commandments are definite, and of highest practical importance; but the interpretations given to us, based on a desire to justify existing evils, have so obscured His doctrine that we can with difficulty fathom its meanings.”

One begins to see why the Eastern Orthodox Church excommunicated him. Of course by the time they fired him he had already quit. In this chapter Tolstoy goes on the slam the Church in even more emphatic ways; if you are interested I would encourage you to read that part yourself.

Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ

  1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26
  2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32
  3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37
  4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42
  5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48


* * * * * * * * *

All of these verses, according to Tolstoy, were either twisted or ignored by Church leaders and teachers throughout the centuries. He provides detailed reasoning and evidence from his research for his version of each commandment. I find myself  prone to think his reasoning is correct, but if anyone reads this book and this chapter I would love to hear your thoughts.

The fifth commandment is an especially radical departure from the traditional interpretation of these verses. Part of Tolstoy’s reasoning is based on some deep research into the Biblical meanings of the words “neighbor” and “enemy.” If we were to actually take these words seriously there would be some dramatic implications for the way we humans conduct, um, war and peace. So I think tomorrow I will spend some time taking a closer look at the reasons for Tolstoy’s interpretation of the famous “love your enemy” verses from the Sermon on the Mount.

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