The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, is from Canongate’s Myths series – in which contemporary writers retell a myth in a new and memorable way. Pullman has pulled off quite a feat in taking the foundation story of the Christian religion and bringing the well known tales encompassing Jesus’s birth, ministry and death to readers in a fresh and enticing form. He explores how history is recorded – what is included and how this is intended to influence those of the future. The author asks challenging and thought-provoking questions but in a beautifully clear and simple way.
Major events covered in the biblical gospels are included in the story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus’s life and death. The key twist in the tale is that Mary gives birth to twin boys – Jesus and Christ.
As a boy Jesus is the volatile naughty one, often defended and thereby protected by his more considering and compliant brother. When Jesus becomes a preacher, Christ writes down his teachings that they may be remembered accurately. He is encouraged in this endeavour by a stranger who visits from time to time and takes care of the scrolls. Jesus comes across as raw and unswerving, passionate in what he promotes. Christ smooths his words out to make them more palatable and useful.
What do I mean by useful? Christ believes that the growing number of followers should be brought together in a church, with leaders appointed to continue the teaching and carry out the good works encouraged. When he spoke of this to his brother, Jesus vehemently opposed the idea. It was Jesus’s belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. No planning for the future was therefore needed. What mattered was to get people to repent of their sins and start to behave better, that they may be saved now.
The reader is offered a closer account of Christ than Jesus. It is easy to empathise with the thoughtful brother’s reasoning, even though with hindsight his hopes for the church appear naive. I was disappointed by the inclusion of one scene in which he chooses to sin – it seemed unnecessary and against character. Apart from that, the development of the brothers is skilfully rendered, especially as they come to realise how the wheels they have set in motion are heading in unintended directions, hurtling beyond their control. There is nothing magical in either of their actions. Crowds are always looking for something new and sensational to be a part of, and gossips interpret for attention as suits them.
I enjoyed the author’s Afterword in which he shares his personal views on God and religious belief. He asks: if time travel were possible, would church leaders try to prevent their Messiah being so barbarically put to death? Actions have consequences, as both Jesus and Christ discover to their cost.
I have enjoyed several of the Myths series and this easily stands with the best. It offers an imaginative take on the potential power of storytelling to control and influence. A fascinating and memorable read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.