Philip Pullman has never shied away from presenting controversial notions about the Bible and Christianity.
His novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” challenges many traditional Christian beliefs in a series of short episodes that supposedly depict how events described in the New Testament and other non-canonical books that tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth really happened.
Pullman is probably best know for the “His Dark Materials” series. Those books generated some controversy in Christian circles after the author introduced villains associated with a church similar to the real world’s Roman Catholic Church and had several of his characters criticize organized religion in general.
Eventually, Pullman had the audacity to reveal that God, as described in the Bible, was really just an angel who lied about his true nature before seizing power and eventually creating Judaism and Christianity. In the third book, “The Amber Spyglass”, Pullman even went so far as to have his young protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry accidentally kill the false god.
It should come as no surprise that Pullman continues to challenge Christian doctrine and present revisionist takes on stories from the Bible.
“The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” plays with the idea that Jesus had a twin brother who came up with many of the teachings found in the Gospels. Pullman never reveals his real name, but he states that Mary called him Christ because he was the baby the shepherds identified as the future Messiah in his version of Luke chapter two.
On the back cover of the edition being reviewed, Pullman said “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility. … it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”
Pullman’s book could be summed up as “The Jesus Seminar: the Novel.” His version of Jesus is fairly similar to The Jesus Seminar’s. Essentially, he was just a rabbi with some radical teachings who thought God would establish a utopian kingdom on earth within his lifetime. He was only interested in Jewish converts and never claimed to be the Son of God.
Any passages in the Gospels about sin causing separation from God and the divinity of Jesus were just bits his younger brother added to the stories later. Pullman’s Christ was also responsible for concepts such as the virgin birth, communion and anything else in the Gospels that would seem to conflict with what the members of The Jesus Seminar consider to be the historical Jesus.
Pullman’s Jesus apparently could miraculously heal people, but the author says that some of the miracles in the Gospel accounts didn’t actually happen or were mundane events that were misinterpreted by his followers.
For example, in Pullman’s version of the feeding of the 5,000 from Matthew chapter 14 Jesus didn’t create enough food for everybody in the crowd that followed him. After Jesus prayed over the five loaves and two small fish, it turned out that a lot of people had snacks stashed away somewhere and they were shamed into sharing their food with the people who hadn’t brought any with them.
In a sequence that may be disturbing for Christian readers, the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness from Matthew chapter four is rewritten as a debate between the two brothers. Christ looks forward to a day when Gentiles (non-Jews) are part of a large, highly structured religious organization that sounds like the Catholic Church. Jesus is horrified by his brother’s proposal and condemns it as “the work of Satan.”
Throughout the book, Pullman seems to have several axes to grind with the Catholic Church and their traditional dogma. He goes so far as to have Jesus condemn pedophile priests at one point in the narrative. Catholic readers may find some of those passages offensive.
Pullman also has issues with most of the stories in the Gospel of John, presumably because skeptics tend to dismiss the whole book as a work of fiction. Conventional wisdom among some contemporary Bible scholars is that the author (or authors) of John came up with a bunch of theological concepts that weren’t actually taught by Jesus.
An evangelical Christian might argue that Pullman rejects the Gospel of John because it makes some of the strongest arguments in favor of the idea that Jesus had the dualistic nature of being (as some Christian traditions put it) both fully God and fully man.
For Christians from the more conservative end of the spectrum, the book mostly has value as a good summary of arguments made by people who don’t interpret the Bible literally. Evangelical Christian parents may want to discuss the book with their children if they let them read it, because very little of the narrative is consistent with fundamentalist (for want of a better word) teachings about Jesus.
People from other Christian traditions may see it as validating some of their personal beliefs, even if Pullman (a self-described agnostic) probably didn’t intend for the book to be read that way. Reactions to his novel will vary wildly depending on what the reader already believes.
At any rate, “The Good Man Jesus” is an exceptionally well-written novel that explores some of the things skeptics say about Jesus in an accessible and entertaining way. It is definitely worth reading for its literary merits even if someone utterly rejects Pullman’s version of Jesus.