ALL TOO HUMAN
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
By Philip Pullman (Canongate 235pp £14.99)
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For five years now, Canongate's Myths series has been imaginatively recasting the ancient stories that are the foothills of myth across cultures from China to ancient Greece and the Amazon; now comes one of the major peaks. So far none of the various distinguished authors in the series has had such a risky task as Philip Pullman in his retelling of the four Gospels: Margaret Atwood's sideways glance at the Odyssey or Salley Vickers on the Oedipus story are hardly as vulnerable as Pullman to the fury of devotees worldwide. I wonder whom Canongate has signed up to have a go at the Koran. In Pullman's book there is material enough for the virulence of the self-righteous: a transformation of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels that follows on from Pullman's earlier indictments of institutional religion. It turns a gaze on the Jewish prophet from Nazareth that is both satirical and serious, blending canonical gospel, ancient apocrypha, modern critical commentary and the wit and subtle invention of a great storyteller.
As in the Gospels, we begin with Mary, but in the first sentence we are confronted with the proposition that in the stable in Bethlehem she has not one son but two. Jesus is a fine healthy boy, while Christ (whose name Mary chose from the Greek translation of the Jewish word 'Messiah') is a delicate child, not expected to live. Of the two, Christ is his mother's favourite. All this has been the result of an Annunciation to Mary, a clandestine and nocturnal visit nine months before by a young man who looks like one of the youths whom the naive Mary sees lounging around the village well, but who that night reassures her that he is an angel. Ah yes, the reader thinks, we know what sort of story this is going to be: a rationalisation of myth.
But it's not so simple, because this stranger comes back in much the same way years later to the adult Christ, speaking quietly to him through a window, and Christ is never sure what he is, angel or man. In a sly hint to those who know their Bible, the stranger says that there is a legion beside himself. But if he is a devil, or Satan the Tempter, then so, in Pullman's tale, is Christ.
For even before Christ has met the stranger, the relationship between the siblings has shown all the emotional complications that twins may experience. Christ's quick thinking has got the twelve-year-old Jesus out of a tight situation in the Temple, and Christ's apparently magical powers have saved Jesus from an accusation of sabbath breaking (Pullman draws here on a medieval apocryphal tale that the child Saviour made live sparrows out of mud). Sibling rivalry drives the quiet, thoughtful Christ both to love and envy Jesus: successively he assumes the roles of Tempter, the Four Evangelists, Judas and Paul of Tarsus to his extrovert brother, who has taken up a wandering, charismatic ministry through Palestine, bringing love and healing to the lost.
Christ is indeed that saddest figure in the Gospels, the conscientious, quiet-living brother of the Prodigal Son, who is forgotten and thrust aside in the excitement when the bedraggled young man comes back to a festive welcome from his doting father. In Pullman's apocrypha, this Gospel parable becomes the reality of family life for Joseph and Mary. Christ takes to following Jesus secretly, listening to his words, writing them down and tidying them up when their message is troubling or a challenge to common sense: yet he cannot bring himself wholly to supersede the message he hears, and traces remain of the wildness of the original. Christ's record of Jesus's teaching becomes a strange mixture with a new agenda: as the angel-stranger says to Christ, Jesus 'is the history, and you are the truth'. It is Christ who invents the Church, an invention that is far from Jesus's intentions (his ultimate goal is not nearly so clear). Humiliated by his own failure to love a repulsive beggar unconditionally, Christ decides that the only way that the world's ills can be healed is for his brother to suffer publicly for the people. Whether Christ is capable of seeing that a crucifixion will be the outcome of his betrayal is irrelevant to the treachery. I will not spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the story is intended to point to Christianity as it exists today, in all its beauty, poetry, and artistic creativity, as well as the side of Christian history that is disfigured by intolerance, arrogance, stupidity and cruelty.
Pullman knows his biblical scholarship. 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 Tübingen and Berlin over the last two centuries. Friedrich Nietzsche, obsessed with recovering the 'real' Jesus, the affirmer of life, behind the pale abstractions of Christian faith and culture, would have recognised what Pullman is up to. Once Pullman would have been burned at the stake for blasphemy, like poor Michael Servetus in John Calvin's Geneva back in 1553; now, unless he is very unlucky, probably the worst result will be a great deal of angry noise out in the blogosphere. But when the pious fume, they might reflect that some of the greatest blasphemers have been trying to discover what is authentic in the experience of the sacred, and that like Philip Pullman's troubled, unscrupulous and over-scrupulous Christ, those blasphemers have hoped to solve the puzzle of reconciling history and truth.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Fellow of St Cross College and Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University. His latest book is 'A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years' (Penguin/Allen Lane).