Book review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman


  • This book was published in 2010 by Canongate as part of its ‘Great myths’ series. Various authors were invited to rewrite a classic ‘myth’ of their choosing. Philip Pullman chose the story of Jesus, trying to separate out what could have really happened from the Christ ‘myth’ that he assumes was created by Jesus’ followers.

    For a novelist to approach this is interesting, as the discussion in Biblical studies about trying to discern the ‘historical Jesus’ behind the stories in the gospels has been going on for well over a century.  The ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of Faith’ have sometimes been juxtaposed by theologians, as if they were almost two different people, and that is the tack that Pullman takes in his story.

    In Pullman’s version of events, Jesus had a twin brother, born shortly after him. Because of various prophecies about messiah-ship, this twin is given the nickname ‘Christ’. Jesus and Christ grow up together, although don’t particularly get along. Christ chronicles Jesus’ teaching and the things he does, sometimes altering it to make it sound better. He also has the idea that Jesus needs to found an organisation to further his ‘good news’ – this ‘church’ could become a powerful institution. Eventually, Christ is tricked into handing Jesus over to the authorities, who kill him. However, a mysterious stranger reassures Christ that his brother’s name will live forever in the ‘church’ that will now be reliant on the fabricated version of events that Christ has written down.

    There are some good points to say about this book. Pullman has obviously done his research and read the gospels thoroughly. Some of the more baffling sayings of Jesus appear in the narrative, as are some of the less well-known parables. He has also included material from various Gnostic gospels. He asks some good questions, like how did anyone know what Jesus said in Gethsemane when the gospels record that he was alone, and he was arrested immediately afterwards and did not have the opportunity to speak to his disciples. Pullman doesn’t believe in the resurrection, so there’s no chance of a post-death debriefing for the disciples.

    So, there are some interesting points. And the central thrust – that there may be a difference between the historical human person, Jesus, and the view of Christ as the incarnate, divine, Son of God, held by the Church – is legitimate. The gospels were written by people who believed in the ‘Christ of Faith’. However, the writers also firmly identified the object of their faith – the risen Christ – with an itinerant Jewish rabbi called Jesus. That’s the conundrum at the heart of any so-called search of the ‘real Jesus’ – the people who wrote about him considered the risen Christ to be the real Jesus.

    However, there are considerable issues with Pullman’s myth-making. On an artistic level the book is disjointed. On the one hand, Pullman wants to push the idea that all of Jesus’ ‘miracles’ can be explained away through naturalistic means. People ‘think’ they get better, or they recover after a while anyway. ‘Lepers’ who are healed weren’t really leprous. Seeing a small boy offer his loaves and fishes to feed the crowd inspired everyone in the crowd to share what little food they had and the bonhomie made them all feel they had eaten well.

    Well, any reader doesn’t have to go too far to find serious commentaries on the gospel that will be full of ‘explanations’ for the miracles that remove supernatural elements. So, there’s nothing new in that. But Pullman also wants to include supernatural elements in his myth. He includes two Gnostic stories of miracles done by the child Jesus, except he shifts the magical elements on to Christ performing the miracles. He keeps the idea of an angelic visitation at Jesus’ birth, but the ‘voice’ at Jesus’ baptism is something that Christ imagines as he watches his brother getting baptised.

    This paradoxical mix of absolutely dismissing any supernaturalism in the life of Jesus, and then including angels and bizarre magical stories makes the book incoherent. Go one way or the other – explain it all away, or ramp it up to make it as fantastical as possible. But to try and do both makes the story feel confused.

    Another criticism of the story from an artistic point of view is that it borrows a joke from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. That film had some interesting comments on religious credulity, but even so, re-using one of its jokes (about a leper being cleansed and then losing his livelihood as a beggar) is lazy writing. Given that Pullman had the opportunity to include a short essay at the end, he could have at least credited the Monty Python team for writing some of his material for him.

    The essay is interesting. Pullman is a self-declared opponent of Christianity, particularly institutional religion. But it would seem that Pullman has less of an issue with Jesus than with Jesus’ followers.  He despises ‘the Church’ and makes an interesting case that Jesus never intended to found his own religion. Again, this is a point of view held by many theologians.

    However, in the story, Pullman describes Jesus’ frightened and confused followers being supernaturally empowered by an event after his death, similar to that described in the Pentecost account in Acts. Added into this is the mysterious person that manipulates Christ, and seems to be pulling other strings behind the scenes. It’s left ambiguous who the mystery man is, and it may be this is Pullman introducing God into the story.

    In the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Pullman’s ‘God’ character is a manipulative oppressor of humanity. God seems to have the same character in this book too, using a good man, Jesus, to create a monstrous repressive institution. This is why Christ is a scoundrel, because he enables this to happen through editing his brother’s words and turning explainable, if slightly extraordinary, events into miracles.

    Christ doesn’t have bad intentions in the book. He sincerely believes that he will help spread his brother’s message, which is a conciliatory tone for Pullman towards people who belong to the Church. Pullman allows for people to misguidedly support the institution that he regards as inherently evil, but when they realise the suffering it will cause, he hopes that, like his protagonist, Christ, they will reject the institution.

    In conclusion, this book is an interesting look at a thorny problem: do we see the ‘real’ Jesus when we read the gospels? But it also seems to reveal what Pullman really thinks – that any ‘God’ would be an oppressor and therefore evil, and not beyond using an innocent man with good intentions, as part of a divine plan to enslave humanity through a repressive authoritarian institution.

    It therefore almost seems a shame that Pullman is an atheist, because that means he believes there is no ‘God’ for him to rage at. His retelling of Jesus’ night in Gethsemane, with Jesus concluding that he is talking to empty air, and being disappointed because there is no one listening to his complaints, shows the sad emptiness of angry atheism – the object that enrages doesn’t have the decency to exist to listen to their criticism.

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