Thursday, March 03, 2011

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ

This is a story - so proclaims the back cover of the dust jacket of this Philip Pullman offering. It's a story of how stories become stories, in this alternative reading of the gospels, projected back in time.

The story revolves around two men, brothers, twin brothers, Jesus and Christ, born to Mary and one who claims to be an angel. Pullman in this way seeks to retell the gospel using the two contrasting characters.

Jesus, in the story, is, according to the title, a good man. After a boisterous childhood (where his brother Christ always got him out of trouble), he travels the countryside teaching people, doing things out of passion, but not performing any miracles. Christ, his twin brother, is portrayed differently - a childhood of reading and praying, scheming, calculating, in the shadows.

Throughout the book there are plenty of twists / alternative readings of what the gospel texts present as the life, teaching, miracles and actions of the Lord Jesus. Right at the start of Jesus' ministry, the temptations aren't presented by the devil, but by his brother Christ, who tempts him to perform miracles and influence people by trickery; and who tries to get Jesus to back his idea of a worldwide church - and thus have the kingdoms of the world and their power.

As Jesus' ministry develops, Christ is influenced himself by a shadowy stranger who attempts to exploit the situation for his own ends, and for the ends of the church. So Christ begins to keep a record of what Jesus has been saying and doing - with an extended discussion on truth and history - history is what happens, but truth is what should have happened (which will better serve the kingdom). This is particularly seen in how Christ records the teaching and miracles:

'The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified' in what Jesus says. One example is when Mary and Martha bicker about helping or listening to Jesus - here in the book Jesus sides with Martha, because once bread is burnt, it can't be eaten, whereas she'll be able to hear Jesus' teaching again. 'When Christ heard of this, he knew it would be another of those saying of Jesus that would be better as truth then as history.'

Similarly, we're presented with the old liberal explanations of the miracles (denying any supernatural element outright). So Peter's mother-in-law 'presently she felt well again'. The Cana miracle of water into wine was actually Jesus shaming the steward of the feast who had tried to steal the wine and was forced to bring it out again. 'Some people who were sick felt themselves uplifted by his presence, and declared themselves cured.' And the prime example, where the feeding of the five thousand was just Jesus sharing his picnic and encouraging everyone else to share theirs.

The revisionism becomes clearest (and most sad) when we reach the passion and crucifixion. Again, through the shadowy stranger's influence and direction, Christ is the betrayer, so that Jesus is executed on the cross. Christ then becomes the 'risen Jesus' - his identical twin brother who appears to the disciples, showing that he's alive, and that explains the change in the disciples - Jesus' body having been removed from the tomb the night before to ensure the ruse worked.

In some cases, there were potentially helpful insights - the sermon on the mount is presented as Jesus preaching, but also answering questions and objections as he goes. Similarly, there are sometimes background details and possible motivations that could help to illuminate the gospels. So it's not all bad.

It's just mostly bad. On reading this alternative gospel, it is clear that it's no gospel at all. Pullman's prejudice against the church, faith, and the supernatural shine clearly from virtually every page. The way Jesus is presented, as this 'good man' with a vision of the kingdom coming makes no sense at all if he was just another man - a visionary idealist who doesn't believe God is there or is listening.

Pullman has been particularly ingenious at attempting to write this as a possible original backstory to the gospels as we have them - what really happened, but it's simply implausible and doesn't make much sense at times. Having read this, my hope is that it drives people to read the canonical gospels afresh, to find the real Lord Jesus - while rejecting this book, which should really be titled 'The God-Man Jesus Christ and the Scoundrel Philip Pullman.'


  1. I read this book when it first came out...being interested by the approach. I also came to the same conclusions - this is a book that was written not for enlightenment or debate but for putting forward an atheistic view of God (oxymoron?!) in the ruse of a novel. I was thoroughly unimpressed not only by the blatant disregard for the sources used, but also by the lack of any true storyline.

  2. Thanks for a full and interesting review. I've read the thoughts of many who don't have the faith, and so it's been really helpful to hear from the other side of the debate. I've just finished reading and reviewing the book, and I found the concept novel, but the execution slightly flawed. You clearly have a far greater understanding of the source text than me, and so your insights are most welcome. Thanks.