The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman book cover
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) is Philip Pullman’s creative reimagining of Jesus’s life. Drawing mainly on the gospels of Mark and Matthew, the novel weaves biblical stories with the author’s own fantasy and invention to make a statement about spirituality and organised religion. The most significant deviance from the original text is the suggestion that Mary, rather than mothering one child, in fact gave birth to twins: the lively and popular Jesus, and the weak but scholarly Christ. Under this premise, the novel goes on to describe well-known stories from the bible with small twists; Jesus playing the central role, and Christ chronicling his brother’s good work from a distance.

The Christ character is dogged throughout by visits from a mysterious stranger who encourages him to record Jesus’s life, but stresses that history should be shaped to convey an ideal truth rather than a literal one. Thus Christ’s record of his brother’s life slowly becomes distorted, a metaphor for organised religion’s massaging of truth and a literal example of Christian revisionism. Pullman keeps the brothers apart for much of the novel, never allowing their conflicting ideologies to collide, perhaps symbolic of the divide between spirituality and the church. Beyond this context, the novel is an exploration of how stories and myths are created, and how history is recorded. Interestingly, although Pullman downplays Jesus’s miracles, treating them as psychological or conjuring tricks, there is an acknowledgement of the supernatural throughout, a hint of something beyond this world. Although he denies Jesus his divinity it should be noted that Pullman’s anger is directed at the church, not Jesus, who he paints as an enigmatic humanist, averse to religious structure but still deeply spiritual.

The book is written in the style of the gospels, with very short chapters and a sparse narrative. Despite the evident logic, this quickly becomes irritating; while biblical tales are often read and examined in isolation, allowing for such a style, most will read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ like any other novel, and thus the pedestrian prose creates an obstacle to one’s enjoyment of the book. Equally, the dialogue, written in modern colloquialisms, often grates and feels uncomfortable in the characters’ mouths. Some of the key passages too feel contrived; characters either taking on the author’s own voice, or making stunningly prophetic assertions about future uses of the biblical texts.

The vast majority of the text is faithful to the gospels; the pleasure is in the small, imagined nuances that cast the well-known stories in a different light. Certainly Pullman knows the source text well and, as many of the deviances are subtle, one really needs a basic knowledge of the gospels to fully enjoy The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Probably the two greatest and most significant passages retold are Jesus’s agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Resurrection itself. These are perhaps the two key scenes in the book, but sadly they are clunky and predictable respectively. There is a sense that Pullman is enjoying an in-joke, that through the jumbled and, at times, incoherent work he is drawing parallels with the bible, and that criticism levelled at The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by outraged Christians is inadvertently a condemnation of their own beliefs. As a whole though, the book feels light-weight and neither adds to the debate, nor provides sufficient persuasion to ignite discussion.

As I read this I had the expectation that there would be a moment of profundity that expanded its relevance beyond the basic themes, but sadly that moment never came. The rewriting of Jesus’s agonising in the garden of Gethsemane was the closest thing to it, but that didn’t really work for me. I also found the writing too dry. Parts of the bible are profoundly beautiful, whether you believe in the message as a whole or not, but I felt that was completely lacking from Pullman’s rewriting.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on Amazon (US)

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