The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (GMJSC) is part of the Canongate Myth Series, a series where ancient myths are “reimagined” and “rewritten” in novella form by prominent contemporary authors. In this case the author is notable atheist and fantasy writer Phillip Pullman. GMJSC is a fictionalised biography of Jesus Christ, and is utterly fascinating in its differences and commentary on the story that so many of us know, and that many believe and love. The main and obvious difference in the story is the splitting of the mainstream conception of Jesus Christ’s character, actions and role into two distinct characters: the twins Jesus and Christ. The story begins, as most do, with the birth of the protagonists (Jesus and Christ) in Bethlehem, and follows the intertwining journeys of the two until right after the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. Many prominent Biblical figures (from around Jesus Christ’s time) are present, however the roles of many other prominent biblical figures are absconded and absorbed by Jesus and Christ themselves. All in all it follows the biblical storyline with a few artistic tweaks by Pullman.
I came across GMJSC while perusing Pullman’s page on Amazon as I had thoroughly enjoyed his Dark Materials series. Furthermore, the idea of a fictionalized biography of Jesus thoroughly intrigued me, especially when written by a notable atheist and critic of organised hierarchical religions and especially the Christian (read Catholic) church. And finally, GMJSC has been praised by none other than Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose legendary book “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” has enthralled and educated me for a very long time (it is so detailed and fact ridden I am still working my way through it 2 years after purchasing it).
Not being a Biblical scholar, and there having been many years since I attended Sunday school (or church at all for that matter), I am not in a place to judge the accuracy of Pullman’s story. The generic and well known events that take place are of course biblically accurate (birth in Bethlehem, arrest at the Mount of Olives, Pontius Pilot, Crucifixion etc.), however, many of the minute details are either beyond my memory or have been fictionalized in such subtle ways as to have not drawn my attention. In his review of the book in Literary Review, Diarmaid MacCulloch claims that “Virtually everything in his novella, except for the storyteller’s brilliant restructuring of the tale as of two brothers, is foreshadowed in what Protestant professors have been saying in Tubingen and Berlin over the last two centuries”. So we can at the very least we can be assured that Pullman’s story conforms with centuries of critical examination and thought if not the Bible itself.
What makes this novella special is what Pullman brings to the mix. It contains a brilliant homage to the Biblical story intertwined with equally brilliant commentary on organised religion, the Christian Bible and Christianity itself. The story provides plausible explanations and motives for many perceived “miracles” and many of Jesus Christ’s actions. Explanations that can be readily utilised in day-to-day arguments both for and against Christianity. Furthermore, Pullman’s commentary gives voice to many misgivings about the structure and direction of the Christian church that I, and possibly many others, have felt for a long time. A notable example being: “As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power… the devil enters in to them. It isn’t long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other”, a thought that has been proved true throughout history, and is especially true now. This is the magic of Pullman and GMJSC.
GMJSC is a brilliant story and a must read for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has obviously been written and marketed for atheists, however if entered into with an open mind it is a remarkable tool for discussion and reflection on the nature and history of organised religion and especially Christianity. Notable scholar of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch, has attested its Biblical accuracy and Pullman is anyway hardly a newcomer to fiction relating to Christianity. It provides much needed commentary on seldom-approached aspects, and offers explanations for Biblical events that many will not have come across. All in all a very good, a very informative, and a very deep story.
Genre: Historical/Biblical Fiction
Author: Phillip Pullman
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
Publisher: Canongate U.S.
Amazon Link: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ