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

What if the Jesus portrayed in the Bible were actually twins? That’s the basic premise behind Philip Pullman’s book. Jesus and his brother (known only as Christ in the book, although he was given a common name as well) sort of trade off being the Jesus of the Bible – Christ gets the incidents in childhood and post-Resurrection, while Jesus is the adult preacher who is crucified.

As alternate Jesus portrayals go, I prefer Lamb, by Christopher Moore, but this one’s really good too. It’s not a criticism of Christianity as a religion – in fact, in many ways it promotes the ideals of Christianity: love God, believe, and love your neighbour. It’s more an unsubtle skewering of what Christianity became: the power and corruption of the church in particular, but one that acknowledges that without the organization of the church, Christianity would never have survived, spread, and thrived.

I found the character of Christ the most interesting (not surprisingly, since he’s the main POV character). He’s always in the shadow of his more outgoing brother, to the point where people forget that Jesus even had a twin. He’s the one who argues with the priests in the temple when they are twelve, and the one who hears the voice from the dove at Jesus’s baptism. But Jesus is the one who performs miracles and goes into the wilderness and preaches to the crowds, even when he’d rather be left alone. Christ stays in the shadows, not even among the disciples, faithfully recording (and “improving” for posterity) his brother’s words and deeds.

The main theme of this book – as with many debates on Biblical scholarship and theology – is the difference between truth and history. Simply telling the bare facts of what happened may be historical, but it’s not necessarily truthful. Truth is always a subjective judgement, based on interpretation of the history/facts.  This is one thing that I’ve nearly always believed about the Bible: it may not be literally true and historically accurate, but it has a deeper truth that is essentially unconnected with its accuracy. This is also the basic message that I’ve taken from this book (whether it was Pullman’s intent or not): Christianity, at its core, has truth; the organized church may not.

I was a bit disappointed that Pullman included some of the more troubling (to me) statements of Jesus without any other explanation or interpretation (“I come not in peace but with a sword”; “You must hate your father and mother”; et c.) – I suppose it would have been too obvious to have double characters be responsible for these apparent contradictions. As it was, Christ fulfils several of the alternate roles: he is the tempter in the wilderness and Judas at the garden, to name just two, as well as being the resurrected Jesus.

It’s so interesting to me how Pullman has created a book that denies a core belief of Christianity (the resurrected Jesus) while still upholding the main tenets of the faith (worship God, love one another, etc.). That’s incredibly tricky to do, and takes incredible skill. (Lamb is funnier, though.)

This book is, apparently, one of a series of retold myths. I read The Penelopiad , another entry, shortly after it came out, and to be honest thought it was one of Atwood’s weaker books. This book doesn’t quite live up to His Dark Materials, but it’s still quite good (and a quick read, as well – I read it in just a few hours). I may have to seek out the rest of the books in the series as well; I do love good retellings.

 

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