Have you ever wanted to ‘rewrite’ the Bible to better fit your worldview? Maybe edit out the nastier bits in Leviticus? Cut out the infrequently read Ester and Nahum? Give Revelation a happy ending? Then check out a new play at The NoHo Arts Center called ‘The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord’. In their lifetimes Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy respectively re-edited, re-told, and re-wrote the Gospels to align more with their assertions surrounding the teaching of Jesus. In the play author Scott Carter (producer and writer for ‘Real Time With Bill Maher’) traps the three men in a sort of purgatory where they argue and debate the ecclesiastic and political merits of their individual literary deconstructions, and attempt to meld them into one. What follows is a fascinating and often humorous ecclesiastic debate about which of their Gospels makes a better moralistic guide. But before you go to the play it might be interesting to take a look at their actual Gospels. Below is a brief description of each volume, with links to their complete texts.
‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Thomas Jefferson
Completed in 1820 for his own private use this 84 page volume was cobbled together by Jefferson using a razor, scissors, glue, and two copies of the King James version of the Bible. Jefferson cut select sections of the Gospels and pasted them into a blank book, arranging them in chronological order, intermingling the accounts of Luke, Mark, John and Mathew. He left out almost everything that smacked of the supernatural or passages that he felt were added embellishments. Gone were the virgin birth, all references to Jesus as a deity and, most astonishingly, the Resurrection. The surgical edits (some done mid-parable) and the reordering of verses makes for a somewhat jerky narrative, but more direct and engaging philosophical primer.
‘The Life of Our Lord’ by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens, the creator of Ebenezer Scrooge and The Artful Dodger, brought his matchless storytelling skills to bear when the penned ‘The Life of Our Lord’, a faithful re-telling of the Christ story. Written for his children he would read the book to them every Christmas, acting out all the characters in a particularly grand theatrical style. (Dickens once aspired to play upon the stage, and often read his own works in public, leading critic Thomas Carlyle to comment that Dickens was ‘a whole tragic, comic, heroic theatre visible performing under one hat’. In ‘The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord’ Dickens’ talent for melodramatic acting is delightfully portrayed.)
‘The Gospel in Brief’ by Leo Tolstoy
Like Jefferson Tolstoy also sought to combine the Gospels into a single volume, but instead of cutting and re-pasting pages of a Bible Tolstoy composed his own literary work. Like Jefferson Tolstoy’s focus was the expurgation of the miracles and other supernatural elements, distilling the story down to what he saw as the essentials of Christianity, which he expressed as five ‘commands’: 1) Do not be angry, but live at peace with all men, 2) Do not indulge yourself in sexual gratification, 3) Do not promise anything on oath to anyone, 4) Do not resist evil and do not judge and do not go to law, and 6) Make no distinction of nationality, but love foreigners as your own people.
The life of Jesus has been called the greatest story ever told. As retold by Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy it’s also the inspiration for three very different, very profoundly personal reflections on morality from three of history’s greatest writers.