Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) contributed mightily to the revival of biblical conflicts and contexts in the social and cultural imaginary of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the moment of his death, he was renowned worldwide for his fatidic advocacy of nonviolence adopted from the Major Prophets and Christ’s teaching.

The Excommunicated Prophet.

Tolstoy’s disputatious artistic leanings determined that Jesus was the man who had acceded through temptations and struggle to the highest comprehension and practice of nonviolent love, having mastered the awareness of divine logos that was the closest in spirit to Lord the Father. To contemporaries, such iconoclasm bore a striking resemblance to the visions of an Old Testament seer. Maxim Gorky recalled his impressions upon seeing Tolstoy at the Crimean shore, around 1901–1902, and it seemed that should Tolstoy wave his hand, “the sea will become solid and glossy, the stones will begin to move and cry out, everything around him will come to life” (Gorky, 1920, p. 56). Tolstoy was convalescing in the Crimea following his excommunication by the decree of the Holy Synod of Russia (1901). The church accused Tolstoy of satanic perdition by way of which, with the bait of his heresies, he had been leading astray Orthodox laity. Tolstoy refused to recant.

Thirty-five years earlier the Bible had already compelled his attention in War and Peace (1863–1868) to the extent that its content cooperated with the historical forces that move nations, families, and individuals. With the goal of pinpointing archetypical patterns for the correlation of the divine and human wills, Tolstoy was selecting Bible passages for his four Slavonic Readers compiled from 1868 during the publication of War and Peace and in 1872, 1874–1875 around the time he was writing Anna Karenina (1873–1877). His choice of an epigraph for Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay” (Heb 10:30), was that of an intuitive novice who confessed to not remembering where to locate the Sermon on the Mount (Tolstoy, Vol. 61, p. 307; all translations mine, referenced volume and page in the critical edition of Tolstoy’s complete works, edited by Chertkov et al., 1928–1958). Through his autobiographical seeker after God, Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy is reading the Bible and testing its viability in the age of scientific skepticism, cultural secularism, and social utilitarianism. Parallel to the novel, Tolstoy writes dozens of fragments that examine how modern commitments distract from spirituality and turns them into A Confession (1878–1882), a powerful existential composition relying heavily on Solomon’s Laments and the Ecclesiastes to describe in figurative detail his own desperate struggle to recover faith. It is at the appendix to this cry for faith, aptly subtitled “An Introduction to an Unfinished Work,” that Tolstoy promises to return with a more definite answer following his systematic study of the scriptures, the patristics, and modern theology.

He followed through with his promise, going on to produce in the 1880s his Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels (the four Gospels reconfigured, with commentary), Gospel in Brief, A Critique of Dogmatic Theology, What I Believe, as well as the tracts What Then Shall We Do? and On Life, detailing how to defend life from our own predicaments using the imperishable teachings of the Bible. The work continued in the 1890s with The Kingdom of God Is within You and What Is Art? In the 1900s, with the same unflagging vehemence, Tolstoy spoke in the press on topics ranging from pacifism, conscientious objection, freedom of conscience, and the defense of labor and uttered protests against political and government violence—all copiously and steadily supported by quotes from Tanak (especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joseph) and the Gospels (especially Matthew, Luke, and John). The Prophets, Leviticus, and Kings and their modern interpreters as well as the Talmud selections on the above topics enjoy pride of place in Tolstoy’s calendars The Circle of Reading (1904–1908), Thoughts for Every Day (1907–1910), and The Path of Life (1910). Tolstoy and the church were claiming their Bible in a polemical match that the church did not believe it could win. The official pretext for the excommunication was Tolstoy’s “ridicule of the holy Eucharist” in his final long novel, Resurrection (1899), that is, his scathing description of the rite in the courthouse chapel before sentencing and the sanctification of punishment through the Bible by the punitive machine. (Tolstoy used its proceeds to relocate the persecuted religious dissenters, the Doukhobors, to Canada.) At the end of this least understood of Tolstoy’s novels, its title hero, Nekhliudov, reads the Sermon on the Mount after observing the inhumane conditions suffered by prisoners in Siberia, and the glimmer of a timid, but excited hope of spiritual resurrection lights up his soul.

Tolstoy’s Biblia.

The International Bible Society was very active in Russia starting in the early nineteenth century, and the tsars supported the printing and distribution of its books whether with the approval of the Holy Synod or the Vatican. “The Bible Society is our whole government,” jokes the revolutionary Mason and future Decembrist Pierre Bezukhov in the first Epilogue of War and Peace. Like his characters, Tolstoy owned numerous copies of the Bible (two Church Slavonic editions of the Septuagint [1862, 1882] and, separately, of Genesis [1908], and 29 non-Russian editions—five of which are multivolume sets with commentary—all preserved at his library at Yasnaya Polyana). Traces of his hard work on these multilingual sources, especially Church Slavonic, French, and Greek versions, are everywhere in evidence in the innumerable marginalia.

The examination of these notations reveals that Tolstoy did not hold the Bible to be an untouchable holy writ. In his widely circulated response to the Synod excommunication, Tolstoy commented on the great readability of the scripture. In this sense, the Bible to him was a tool of accessing wisdom through tough labor. Even as he was wrangling with himself, like Augustine in Book VIII of the Confessions, he could not simply fling himself beneath a fig tree expecting that all the inadequacy and evil would disappear when an angel threw the scripture in his lap as a completed gift of grace: “Take it and read, take it and read.” The idolatry of so-called holy books, based on their “saintity,” the English word Tolstoy uses in his letter to an American Shaker Alonzo Hollister (1889), is of the worst kind (Tolstoy, Vol. 64, p. 320). In Thoughts for Every Day, he commented that the Gospels, the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Upanishads survived for so long thanks to the durability of wisdom expressed in them and not because they are objects of worship (Tolstoy, Vol. 43, p. 152). His Bible was Biblia, literally a collection of books to be read slowly and critically over a lifetime, pencil in hand, and only one choice among select books of wisdom.

Tolstoy advises mastering the Vedas and the Brahmins, the Zend-Avesta, Lao-Tzu, and Buddha, and Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca before proceeding to the reading of Jewish Prophets, especially the first 10 chapters of Isaiah. The first time one reads the Gospels, what seems unclear or nonsensical should be crossed, so that a harmony out of the preserved passages is composed (Tolstoy, Vol. 64, pp. 224–225). In his 1896 summary statement on how to read the Gospels, Tolstoy insists that they do not stand in need of a learned exegesis as something incomprehensible to the purview of an attentive reader. Written 18 centuries before Tolstoy’s time by “superstitious and poorly educated people,” it would behoove highlighting in such a book only what inspires an active awareness of the content while dropping or correcting the rest. Tolstoy recommends using a blue pencil around the clear passages, aiding this awareness; he recommends adding red within the blue circle around the words uttered by Christ: “passages marked in red in this manner will provide the gist of Christ’s teaching to the reader” (Tolstoy, Vol. 39, p. 115).

The Old and New Testament in Tolstoy’s Aesthetic Critique and His Art.

Tolstoy’s approach recalls Luther’s in his dispute on free will with Erasmus, and it bears on the elaboration of Tolstoy’s biblical aesthetics. Rather than seeking to elude and distort the clearest passages by way of either Erasmus’s diatribe or Voltaire’s satire concerning the incongruity of the New Testament data, Tolstoy practices judiciousness around the serious causes of scriptural figurae, denuding the Word’s meaning. When the meaning reveals itself, in a moment of ultimate clarity, transformative moments of the kinds of Luther’s Turmerlebnis or Nekhliudov’s momentary inner conversion are possible. Tolstoy stands much closer to Schleiermacher’s Romantic hermeneutics than, say, to Strauss’s and Renan’s contingency-laden historicism. He would be averse to superimposing a new interpretive construct on the foundation of biblical cultural edifice in the fashion of Matthew Arnold. Instead, by continually defamiliarizing the verses of scripture turned to the realities of life it is possible to come to the core of the Word. In this way, one is enveloped in the awareness of logos and its light (Tolstoy calls this state of awareness razumenie, or reasonable consciousness) and enters into an active, resurrecting relationship with the divine.

In his later work titled “The Sole Commandment” (edinaia zapoved’, 1909), connoting nonviolent struggle for justice through love, Tolstoy wonders how reasonable people would believe in such “strange, silly, inane legends as those of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the even sillier and unnecessary miracles: the loaves and the annunciations, resurrection, the healing and raising forth with icons, expiation of sins through the faith in the mysteries, and the similarly inane Hindu, Buddhist and other legends” (Vol. 38, p. 111). Tolstoy protested the canonization of these miracles in Raphael’s Transfigurazione and eliminated as senseless during his rework of the Gospels the episodes of the raising of Lazarus and the wedding at Cana (these two are vital for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov).

Tolstoy’s focus on active awareness had made him defensive of other biblical miracles. Thus he invokes the example of Joshua of Nun in his enactment of Moses’s commandments when arguing in the closing chapters of the Second Epilogue to War and Peace about the historic fulfillment of necessity, which does not at all contradict the biblical Word. A few years later, in the philosophical fragments of the 1870s adjoining Anna Karenina, he makes a connection between Moses’s ability to intuit divine presence and will in the “I am who I am” with Christ’s realization of this will in his own words and deeds (“He is what he says”). The same miracles of awareness Tolstoy describes approvingly in his commentary on Abraham and Isaac in What I Believe, which to him is primarily an example of the absolute form of personal sacrifice comparable only to the sacrifice offered by Christ (Vol. 23, p. 406).

Of all biblical stories, Tolstoy considered the history of Joseph’s selling into captivity (Gen 37) to be a consummate masterpiece that could convert its reader toward loving the whole Bible (Tolstoy, Vol. 61, p. 310). It is on this story, discovered by him in 1872 that he patterned most of his short didactic art, including the first story in this genre, his “God Sees the Truth but Waits” (1872), or the much later “Alyosha the Pot” (1905). In general, he regarded the Yahwistic skill and the art of the Prophets and David to be far superior to the writing skills of the Synoptics, preferring John to Matthew, Luke, or Mark.

However, Tolstoy never overcame his dislike of the “filth of the Old Testament” (Vol. 45, pp. 289–290) and its patterns of lenience—as he understood them— toward material being, especially its lusting after property and sexual pleasures. Primarily, Tolstoy disputed the legacies of vengeance and messianic exclusivity allegedly adopted from Judaism by repressive modern states. Tolstoy often quoted Hebrews 10:30 alongside Matthew 18:21–22, containing Jesus’s injunction to Peter to forgive not seven but “seventy times seven” in order to dispute the prerogative to punish (as in epigraphs to his novel Resurrection). The Circle of Reading paraphrased Hebrews 10:30 and John 8:3–11 to reemphasize the idea: “The greater part of human misfortune results from the acknowledgment by the sinful people of their right to punish. Vengeance is mine, I shall repay” (Vol. 42, p. 17). On these scores, Tolstoy’s comparisons of the Torah with the Gospels continued to be unflattering to the former. By contrast with Moses, who could bring his people close to the Promised Land, Christ could not see the fruit of his teaching (Vol. 65, pp. 117–118). This made him a better suited topic for Tolstoy’s art. The best crafted scenes in Tolstoy’s rework and retelling of the Gospels occur around the description of the struggles in which Jesus, a tramp, a rebel, a pariah, is practicing the sole most important commandment of the Law of nonviolent love on his route toward self-sacrifice. Christ’s martyrdom, his Passion, was neither beautiful nor a miracle; it was the laborious struggle of a man tortured by senseless tormentors and by the conflict within himself, until his final breath on the Cross—and had to be represented as such. Christ’s mission had to be reproduced in art with all the intensity and unpredictability, the open-endedness, of a man’s struggle for faith and salvation.

Tolstoy’s commentary on the religious rework of biblical media is especially telling. His commentary of 1886 on Nikolai Gay’s canvas Last Supper (1863) was motivated by criticism of Gay’s Christ as historically inauthentic, apolitical (why does he let Judas leave to betray him?), and not conventionally beautiful (Gay’s Christ was patterned on the revolutionary Alexander Herzen). Tolstoy thinks that by entering into these artistic dialogues through a partnered recreation of the biblical, a living synthesis of art and religion wherein Christ is the embodied meaning of nonviolent love would occur and Christ is resurrected in his teaching (Vol. 25, pp. 139–143). Just because literary works or other artworks may be based on biblical episodes and topics does not automatically qualify them as good works of art or true examples of religious art. Anna Karenina presents a discussion of the artist Mikhailov’s painting, “Christ before Pilate,” in which Christ is represented not as a God but as a Jew in the realist method of the historical school. Yet for the artist this is the face dearest to him, the face of Christ. When Anna responds spontaneously to the kindness and forgiveness of Christ’s face, the artist confirms to himself the superiority of spiritual life over the life of the flesh (Vol. 19, p. 41). Hence, Christ is not a face or an image at all, but an attitude of kind forgiveness.

In What Is Art? Tolstoy speaks passionately about the necessity to return to the Bible for the depth of feeling, sincerity, and the beautiful precision of form as one would need to return to healthy nutrition in order to revive the vitality of modern art. Euphemisms, allegory, symbols, and other figurae of the Bible were its tropes of hopeful modesty and submission in the face of the divine and the inexpressible. In modern art, Tolstoy observes the opposite extremes: either a proclivity to shock by exposing the naked body or to obfuscate the truth by shrouding it in muddled, cerebral symbology—out of a conceited despair or vain satiety. By pointing to the examples of the good, lasting works of art and their ability to infect with lofty truths and sincere feelings (The Iliad, The Odyssey, the stories of Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph, the Jewish Prophets, the Psalms, Gospel parables, the history of Sakya Muni, and Vedic Hymns), Tolstoy arrives at his theory of artistic infection (Vol. 30, p. 109).

Based on these principles, Tolstoy’s version of the Bible resulted in the appearance of new master strokes in prose and drama, from cameo rework of the legends and the Apocrypha, such as “Three Wise Men,” “What Do People Live By?,” “The Destruction of Hell and Its Restoration,” “Peter the Breadman,” “The Realm of Darkness,” “The Living Corpse,” and “Light Shineth in Darkness,” and in his creative fiction abounding in biblical material and echoes, such as “The Death of Ivan Il’ich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Father Sergius,” “Master and Man,” “The Divine and the Human,” “The False Coupon,” and “Khadzhi- Murad.” Tolstoy was noting the healthiest form of survival of the biblical element in everyday proverbs, particularly among commoners and peasants, as in the following example recorded in his Notebook of 1887: “By the looks of his beard, he is an Abraham; by the looks of his deeds he is a Ham!” (Vol. 40, p. 53).

Since 11 September 2001, the interest in Tolstoy’s religious ideas and their artistic, philosophical, and civic incarnation has grown steadily. Tolstoy and the Bible is a vital topic to discuss in relation to major cultural pressures of our millennium, with its uncertainty about the meaning of beauty and human values, with its shaken conviction in the possibilities of defending the autonomy of freedom and justice, and with its growing fear about the precarious conditions of life threatened by environmental, economic, and political instability on a global scale.


  • Biblioteka L. N. Tolstogo v Iasnoi Poliane: Bibliograficheskoe opisanie [The Library of L. N. Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana: A Bibliographic Description]. Parts I, II, III. Moscow: Kniga, 1972–2000. This reference source should be the initial step for anyone willing to understand Tolstoy and the Bible by first looking at his habits of reading the Bible. The next step, or a long series of steps, would be the physical examination and textological study of these items in Tolstoy’s library at Yasnaya Polyana.
  • Gorky, Maxim. Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy. Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920.
  • Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A comprehensive and indispensable study of Tolstoy’s theology organized thematically rather than chronologically through the reading of his diaries and major prose, within the context of Eastern Orthodoxy and its intellectual currents.
  • Jahn, Gary R. “A Note on Miracle Motifs in the Later Works of Lev Tolstoj.” In Tolstoy’s Short Fiction, 2d ed., edited and with revised translation by Michael R. Katz, pp. 476–482. New York: Norton, 2008.
  • Matual, David. Tolstoy’s Translation of the Gospels: A Critical Study. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1992. The first and only of its kind, this study offers a systematic critique of Tolstoy’s exegetic enterprise.
  • Medzhibovskaya, Inessa. Tolstoy and the Religious Culture of His Time: A Biography of a Long Conversion, 1845–1887. Revised paperback edition. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2009. In its detail, historical grounding, and comparative scope, this intellectual and cultural biography is the fullest available discussion of Tolstoy’s evolution as a religious thinker, reformer, and artist.
  • Morson, Gary Saul. “Tolstoy’s Absolute Language.” In Tolstoy’s Short Fiction, 2d ed., edited and with revised translation by Michael R. Katz, pp. 357–366. New York: Norton, 2008.
  • Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. Tolstoy’s Quest for God. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2007. In this book, written as a form of psychobiography, the author analyzes Tolstoy’s diaries as primary evidence for his personal quest for God. The realities of Tolstoy’s art are brought to bear on his interest in the Bible.
  • Steiner, George. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in Old Criticism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. This study adopts Georg Lukács’s scheme of identifying Tolstoy with the epic genre and Dostoyevsky with the dramatic genre and fruitfully incorporates the discussion of fictional theology of both authors and their religious convictions in the context of the artistic ideas of their time, pitting Tolstoy against the Old Testament and Dostoyevsky against the New Testament.
  • Tolstoy, L. N. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii [Complete Works]. 90 vols. Edited by V. G. Chertkov et al. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1928–1958. The so-called Jubilee edition of Tolstoy is not a complete edition of everything that Tolstoy wrote but the most complete annotated edition of Tolstoy’s work in any language available to this time. For those studying Tolstoy and the Bible, this edition, now digitized, remains obligatory. Those unable to read Russian should try to obtain volumes of Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translations of Tolstoy’s fiction and nonfiction. The same by Leo Wiener would also be serviceable. Although often obsolete in their usage, these translations were authorized by Tolstoy and his closest circle, and their volume is the closest in terms of approximating the content of 90 volumes of the Jubilee.

With the publication of War and Peace, Tolstoy was singled out immediately for the biblical stature of his work. His religious messages and his active profession of an anarchic form of Christianity after 1878 is no longer a matter of cautious conversation among scholars. However, the number of biblical studies of Tolstoy remains modest, but the list is growing, since the current tendency in scholarship is not to separate Tolstoy the religious seeker and thinker from Tolstoy the artist. In addition to the more specialized work below, any substantial biography or a comprehensive study of Tolstoy’s life and work (e.g., those of Aylmer Maude, Ernest Simmons, A. N. Wilson, Rosamund Bartlett) would serve as a useful first immersion.

Inessa Medzhibovskaya