The writer Philip and the theologian Phil

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

By Philip Pullman

Pullman’s book is the kind of literary dynamite that you find hard to believe did not exist previously. The idea is simple: re-tell the Jesus story by splitting the protagonist into two in order to show how the life of an honest and moral man become the story of a politician. Ingenious, isn’t it? How come it took over 2,000 years for someone to write this version?

Of course, Pullman shouldn’t be concerned with that question. He’s clearly spent his time focused on Biblical text and, more crucially, his plans of how to transform them into a spellbinding book. It is not academic, it is not fantasy that denies god, and it is certainly not Dawkins. Nevertheless, it is an economical and gentle unpicking of religion. Pullman shows very plausibly how the Jesus story could have become so famous and so influential. That is Pullman’s agenda here. He does not want to disprove religionists; he simply wants to propose the means of production of their greatest story.

There are countless history books whose authors have delved into caves in Palestine and poured over ancient scrolls to clean up the ambiguities left by the various accounts that make up the Bible. I have no doubt that many provide convincing arguments. Clearly, none are as convincing as the Bible, which continues to wield much more power than the occasional archaeology report. The fact that ambiguities remain passes most Christians by. It’s simply too convenient for many Christians to take the New Testament as reportage. But, any sensible person must acknowledge that it was subject to influence and revision over many years by many individuals. It is this flawed and dangerous aspect that Pullman explores here.

I don’t expect many Christians to abandon god as a result of having read this book. I don’t even expect any Christian to like it. But I would expect (as I hope this was Pullman’s humble aim) that, if they read this, they at least acknowledge the question marks hanging over the Jesus story. After all, any rational person would recognise the fluid nature of every other story from history: why not this one?

Pullman’s book is a gift, not just to atheists, but to storytellers and readers. And, in its own small way, it’s a daring dismantling of the greatest story ever told.

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