The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman offers a realist's view of the Jesus story

‘This is a story’. The back cover of Philip Pullman’s latest book features no blurbs from fellow writers or flowery descriptions, just these four words in gold capitals. Despite the disclaimer, not everyone is treating The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as a work of fiction – Pullman has already reported receiving ‘scores’ of threatening letters from religious fundamentalists.

A highly successful children’s writer, Pullman is no stranger to the ire of the religious right – his bestselling Northern Lights trilogy depicted God as a senile old man and the books are among the most banned in contemporary American schools. From its first sentence The Good Man presents a similarly iconoclastic interpretation of the gospel’s familiar narrative.

‘This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.’ Yes, that’s Jesus and his brother Christ. All the other familiar New Testament characters are present and correct – Joseph, Mary, Joachim and Anna, the priest Zacharias, even Herod and the Shepherds – but Pullman’s Bible story is unlikely to appear in many catechism curricula.

In that fateful Bethlehem stable we find Mary giving birth to twin boys. Jesus, Pullman reveals in prose so The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christsimple it borders, at times, on the demotic, ‘was a strong and cheerful baby, but Christ was often ill’. The latter grows up into an intelligent, studious and unpopular boy, while the youthful Jesus is unpredictable, disrespectful and rarely wants for friends.

The English-born author keeps to the broad strokes of the gospel’s version of Jesus’ early life – we see him being baptized by John, spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness and eventually preaching the word of God. While Jesus grows into a radical, socially aware proselytiser, roaming Judea attracting followers, Christ slips into the background, becoming his brother’s unofficial biographer, at the behest of a ‘stranger’ who is later revealed to be an angel.

Initially, Christ reports Jesus’s words and deeds with an reasonable degree of faithfulness, adding the occasional lyrical flourish but maintaining factual accuracy. As the popularity of Jesus grows, however, the brothers’ relationship starts to resemble less Marx and Engels and more Socrates and Plato – no longer content to chronicle Jesus’s life as it was, Christ starts to write it as it ‘should have been’.

A good man he may have been, but Pullman’s Jesus is no miracle worker: variously we learn that a steward at Cana was minded to release wine he was hoarding; the five loaves and two fishes merely convinced the crowd to share what food they had; and myriad healed cripples were malingering beggars, paid a small fee for their deceptive services.

The book’s central thesis – that the story of Jesus’s life was manipulated to meet the aims of his successors in the Church – is laid bare in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here the traditional gospel parable of transcendent faith is replaced by a haunting depiction of a broken Jesus praying to God without answer: ‘You’re not there. You’ve never heard me. I’d be better to talk to a tree, to talk to a dog, an owl, a little grasshopper. They’ll always be there.’

Christ is convinced by the malevolent angel to betray his brother to the Roman authorities and, later, to play body double for the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus. Pusillanimous as it is, this duplicity gives the apostles the necessary faith to dedicate themselves to their master’s message – without which, Pullman intimates, the story of Jesus, the son of a Galilean carpenter, would have long been forgotten.

Revisiting the Bible has become something of a literary trope but The Good Man exhibits none of Dan Brown’s tricksy – and ultimately fatuous – chicanery. Canongate’s Myths series, of which this novel is the latest offering, has already seen Jesus urinating on the head of an apostle in novelist Michael Faber’s retelling of the myth of Prometheus, but Pullman’s offering is neither crude nor intentionally shocking.

Instead he subtly reveals the fantastic elements of the New Testament as just that, fantasy, stories carefully collected and sculpted by St Paul and maintained by the church.

There are echoes of the inquisition parable from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, both in The Good Man’s treatment of the church and its striking dénouement. Where Dostoevsky’s Jesus returns to earth in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition and is put him to death by a hierarchy fearful that his presence would interfere with their mission, Pullman’s becomes a pawn; his life neutered and stripped of its incendiary political meaning by an omnipotent church.

Pullman is an avowed atheistic but this powerful, engaging work is no facile critique of organised religion. Skillfully crafted and expertly paced, The Good Man is a remarkable exposition of how the stories that we live our lives by are created and propagated. Fundamentalists might not appreciate its relativism, but in the current climate ‘this is a story’ is a particularly poignant Easter mantra.

Peter Geoghegan

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