The truth and the word: extract from Philip Pullman‘s new retelling of the Jesus story
The conception of Jesus
At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel.
Mary was bewildered.
“But my husband is away,” she said.
“Ah, the Lord wants this to happen at once. I have come from him especially to bring it about. Mary, you are blessed among women, that this should come to you! You must give thanks to the Lord.”
And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.
When Joseph came home from the work that had taken him away, he was dismayed beyond measure to find his wife expecting a child. He hid his head in his cloak, he threw himself to the ground, he wept bitterly, he covered himself with ashes.
“Lord,” he cried, “forgive me! Forgive me! What sort of care is this? I took this child as a virgin from the temple, and look at her now! I should have kept her safe, but I left her alone just as Adam left Eve, and look, the serpent has come to her in the same way!”
He called her to him and said “Mary, my poor child, what have you done? You that were so pure and good, to have betrayed your innocence! Who is the man that did this?”
She wept bitterly, and said “I’ve done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!”
Joseph was troubled. If this was really God’s will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.
The birth of Jesus, and the coming of the shepherds
Not long afterwards there came a decree from the Roman emperor, saying that everyone should go to their ancestral town in order to be counted in a great census. Joseph lived in Nazareth in Galilee, but his family had come from Bethlehem in Judea, some days’ journey to the south. He thought to himself: How shall I have them record Mary’s name? I can list my sons, but what shall I do with her? Shall I call her my wife? I’d be ashamed. Should I call her my daughter? But people know that she’s not my daughter, and besides, it’s obvious that she’s expecting a child. What can I do?
In the end he set off, with Mary riding a donkey behind him. The child was due to be born any day, and still Joseph did not know what he was going to say about his wife. When they had nearly reached Bethlehem, he turned around to see how she was, and saw her looking sad. Perhaps she’s in pain, he thought. A little later he turned around again, and this time saw her laughing.
“What is it?” he said. “A moment ago you were looking sad, and now you’re laughing.”
“I saw two men,” she said, “and one of them was weeping and crying, and the other was laughing and rejoicing.”
There was no one in sight. He thought: How can this be?
But he said no more, and soon they came to the town. Every inn was full, and Mary was crying and trembling, for the child was about to be born.
“There’s no room,” said the last innkeeper they asked. “But you can sleep in the stable – the beasts will keep you warm.”
Joseph spread their bedding on the straw and made Mary comfortable, and ran to find a midwife. When he came back the child was already born, but the midwife said “There’s another to come. She is having twins.”
And sure enough, a second child was born soon afterwards. They were both boys, and the first was strong and healthy, but the second was small, weak, and sickly. Mary wrapped the strong boy in cloth and laid him in the feeding trough, and suckled the other first, because she felt sorry for him.
That night there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside the town. An angel appeared to them glowing with light, and the shepherds were terrified until the angel said “Don’t be afraid. Tonight a child has been born in the town, and he will be the Messiah. You will know him by this sign: you will find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
The shepherds were pious Jews, and they knew what the Messiah meant. The prophets had foretold that the Messiah, the Anointed One, would come to rescue the Israelites from their oppression. The Jews had had many oppressors over the centuries; the latest were the Romans, who had occupied Palestine for some years now. Many people expected the Messiah to lead the Jewish people in battle and free them from the power of Rome.
So they set off to the town to find him. Hearing the sound of a baby’s cry, they made their way to the stable beside the inn, where they found an elderly man watching over a young woman who was nursing a new-born baby. Beside them in the feeding trough lay another baby wrapped in bands of cloth, and this was the one that was crying. And it was the second child, the sickly one, because Mary had nursed him first and set him to lie down while she nursed the other.
“We have come to see the Messiah,” said the shepherds, and explained about the angel and how he had told them where to find the baby.
“This one?” said Joseph.
“That is what we were told. That is how we knew him. Who would have thought to look for a child in a feeding trough? It must be him. He must be the one sent from God.”
Mary heard this without surprise. Hadn’t she been told something similar by the angel who came to her bedroom? However, she was proud and happy that her little helpless son was receiving such tribute and praise. The other didn’t need it; he was strong and quiet and calm, like Joseph. One for Joseph, and one for me, thought Mary, and kept this idea in her heart, and said nothing of it.
The visit to Jerusalem
When the twins were twelve years old, Joseph and Mary took them to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. They travelled down in a company of other families, and there were many adults to keep an eye on the children. After the festival, when they were gathering everyone together to leave, Mary made sure that Christ was with her, and said “Where is Jesus? I can’t see him anywhere.”
“I think he’s with the family of Zachaeus,” said Christ. “He was playing with Simon and Jude. He told me he was going to travel home with them.”
So they set off, and Mary and Joseph thought no more about him, imagining him safe with the other family. But when it was time for the evening meal, Mary sent Christ to Zachaeus’s family to call Jesus, and he came back excited and anxious.
“He’s not with them! He told me he was going to play with them, but he never did! They haven’t seen him anywhere!”
Mary and Joseph searched among their relatives and friends, and asked every group of travellers if they had seen Jesus, but none of them knew where he was. This one said they had last seen him playing outside the temple, that one said they had heard him say he was going to the market-place, another said they were sure he was with Thomas, or Saul, or Jacob. In the end Joseph and Mary had to accept that he had been left behind, and they packed their things away and turned back towards Jerusalem. Christ rode on the donkey, because Mary was worried that he might be tired.
They searched through the city for three days, but Jesus was nowhere to be found. Finally Christ said “Mama, should we go to the temple and pray for him?”
Since they had looked everywhere else, they thought they would try that. And as soon as they entered the temple grounds, they heard a commotion.
“That’ll be him,” said Joseph. Sure enough, it was. The priests had found Jesus daubing his name on the wall with clay, and were deciding how to punish him.
“It’s only clay!” he was saying, brushing the dirt off his hands. “As soon as it rains, it’ll come off again! I wouldn’t dream of damaging the temple. I was writing my name there in the hope that God would see it and remember me.”
“Blasphemer!” said a priest.
And he would have struck Jesus, but Christ stepped forward and spoke. “Please, sir,” he said, “my brother is not a blasphemer. He was writing his name in clay so as to express the words of Job, ‘Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?'”
“That may be,” said another, “but he knows full well he’s done wrong. Look – he’s tried to wash his hands and conceal the evidence.”
“Well, of course he has,” said Christ. “He has done it to fulfil the words of Jeremiah, ‘Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before you.'”
“But to run away from your family!” Mary said to Jesus. “We’ve been terrified! Anything could have happened to you. But you’re so selfish, you don’t know what it means to think of others. Your family means nothing to you!”
Jesus hung his head. But Christ said: “No, Mama, I’m sure he means well. And this too was foretold. He’s done this so that the psalm can come true, ‘I have borne reproach, and shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.'”
The priests and teachers of the temple were amazed at the knowledge of the little Christ, and praised his learning and quickness of mind. Since he had pleaded so well, they allowed Jesus to go unpunished.
But on the way back to Nazareth, Joseph said privately to Jesus “What were you thinking of, to upset your mother like that? You know how tender-hearted she is. She was worried sick about you.”
“And you, Father, were you worried?”
“I was worried for her, and I was worried for you.”
“You didn’t need to worry for me. I was safe enough.”
Joseph said no more.
A stranger came to Christ and spoke to him privately.
“I’m interested in you,” he said. “Your brother is attracting all the attention, but I think you are the one I should speak to.”
“Who are you?” said Christ. “And how do you know about me? I have never spoken in public, unlike Jesus.”
“I heard a story about your birth. Some shepherds saw a vision that led them to you, and some magicians from the East brought you gifts. Isn’t that so?”
“Why, yes,” said Christ.
“And I spoke to your mother yesterday, and she told me of what happened when John baptised Jesus. You heard a voice speaking from a cloud.”
“My mother should not have spoken of that,” said Christ modestly.
“And some years ago, you confounded the priests in the temple at Jerusalem when your brother got into trouble. People remember these things.”
“But – who are you? And what do you want?”
“I want to make sure that you have your rightful reward. I want the world to know your name as well as that of Jesus. In fact I want your name to shine with even greater splendour. He is a man, and only a man, but you are the word of God.”
“I don’t know that expression, the word of God. What does it mean? And again, sir – who are you?”
“There is time, and there is what is beyond time. There is darkness, and there is light. There is the world and the flesh, and there is God. These things are separated by a gulf deeper than any man can measure, and no man can cross it; but the word of God can come from God to the world and the flesh, from light to darkness, from what is beyond time into time. Now I must go away, and you must watch and wait, but I shall come to you again.”
And he left. Christ had not found out his name, but the stranger had spoken with such knowledge and clarity that Christ knew, without having to ask, that he was an important teacher, no doubt a priest, perhaps from Jerusalem itself. After all, he had mentioned the incident in the temple, and how else would he have heard about it?
The stranger talks of truth and history
Christ never knew when the stranger would come to him. The next time he appeared it was late at night, and the stranger’s voice spoke quietly through his window:
“Christ, come and tell me what has been happening.”
Christ gathered his scrolls together and left the house on tiptoe. The stranger beckoned him away from the town and up on to the dark hillside where they could talk without being overheard. The stranger listened without interrupting while Christ told him everything Jesus had done since the sermon on the mountain.
“Well done,” said the stranger. “This is excellent work. How did you hear about the events in Tyre and Sidon? You did not go there, I think.”
“I asked one of his disciples to keep me informed,” said Christ. “Without letting Jesus know, of course. I hope that was permitted?”
“You have a real talent for this task.”
“Thank you, sir. There is one thing that would help me do it better, though. If I knew the reason for your enquiries I could look more purposefully. Are you from the Sanhedrin?”
“Is that what you think? And what do you understand of the function of the Sanhedrin?”
“Why, it’s the body that determines great matters of law and doctrine. And of course it deals with taxes and administrative business, and – and so on. Naturally I don’t mean to imply that it’s a mere bureaucracy, although such things are, of course, necessary in human affairs . . .”
“What did you tell the disciple who is your informant?”
“I told him that I was writing the history of the Kingdom of God, and that he would be helping in that great task.”
“A very good answer. You could do worse than apply it to your own question. In helping me, you are helping to write that history. But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.”
“I do,” said Christ. “And, sir, if you read my scrolls –”
“I shall read them with close attention, and with gratitude for your unselfish and courageous work.”
The stranger took the bundle of scrolls under his cloak, and stood up to leave.
“Remember what I told you when we first met,” he said. “There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.”
“When will you come again?” said Christ.
“I shall come when I am needed. And when I come again, we shall talk about your brother.”
A moment later, the stranger had disappeared in the darkness of the hillside. Christ sat for a long time in the cold wind, pondering on what the stranger had said. The words “we who know” were some of the most thrilling he had ever heard. And he began to wonder if he had been right to think that the stranger came from the Sanhedrin; the man hadn’t exactly denied it, but he seemed to have a range of knowledge and a point of view that was quite unlike those of any lawyer or rabbi Christ had ever heard.
In fact, now that he thought about it, Christ realised that the stranger was unlike anyone he had ever come across. What he said was so strikingly different from anything Christ had read in the Torah, or heard in the synagogue, that he began to wonder whether the stranger was a Jew at all. He spoke Aramaic perfectly, but it was much more likely, given all the circumstances, that he was a Gentile, perhaps a Greek philosopher from Athens or Alexandria.
And Christ went home to his bed, full of humble joy at his own prescience; for hadn’t he spoken to Jesus in the wilderness about the need to include the Gentiles in the great organisation that would embody the Kingdom of God?
Christ and the prostitute
On the few occasions when Christ came close to Jesus, he did his best to avoid contact with him, but from time to time someone would ask him who he was, what he was doing, whether he was one of Jesus’s followers, and so on. He managed to deal with questions of this kind quite easily by adopting a manner of mild courtesy and friendliness, and by making himself inconspicuous. In truth, he attracted little attention and kept to himself, but like any other man he sometimes longed for company.
Once, in a town Jesus had not visited before and where his followers were little known, Christ got into conversation with a woman. She was one of the prostitutes Jesus made welcome, but she had not gone in to dinner with the rest of them. When she saw Christ on his own, she said “Would you like to come to my house?”
Knowing what sort of woman she was, and realising that no one would see them, he agreed.
He followed her to her house, and went in after her, and waited while she looked in the inner room to see that her children were asleep.
When she lit the lamp and looked at him she was startled, and said “Master, forgive me! The street was dark, and I couldn’t see your face.”
“I’m not Jesus,” said Christ. “I’m his brother.”
“You look so like him. Have you come to me for business?”
He could say nothing, but she understood, and invited him to lie on the bed with her. The business was concluded rapidly, and afterwards Christ felt moved to explain why he had accepted her invitation.
“My brother maintains that sinners will be forgiven more readily than those who are righteous,” he said. “I have not sinned very much; perhaps I have not sinned enough to earn the forgiveness of God.”
“You came to me not because I tempted you, then, but out of piety? I wouldn’t earn much if that was the case with every man.”
“Of course I was tempted. Otherwise I would not have been able to lie with you.”
“Will you tell your brother about this?”
“I don’t talk much to my brother. He has never listened to me.”
“You sound bitter.”
“I don’t feel bitter. I love my brother. He has a great task, and I wish I could serve him better than I do. If I sound downcast, it’s perhaps because I’m conscious of the depth of my failure to be like him.”
“Do you want to be like him?”
“More than anything. He does things out of passion, and I do them out of calculation. I can see further than he can; I can see the consequences of things he doesn’t think twice about. But he acts with the whole of himself at every moment, and I’m always holding something back out of caution, or prudence, or because I want to watch and record rather than participate.”
“If you let go of your caution, you might be carried away by passion as he is.”
“No,” said Christ. “There are some who live by every rule and cling tightly to their rectitude because they fear being swept away by a tempest of passion, and there are others who cling to the rules because they fear that there is no passion there at all, and that if they let go they would simply remain where they are, foolish and unmoved; and they could bear that least of all. Living a life of iron control lets them pretend to themselves that only by the mightiest effort of will can they hold great passions at bay. I am one of those. I know it, and I can do nothing about it.”
“It’s something to know it, at least.”
“If my brother wanted to talk about it, he would make it into a story that was unforgettable. All I can do is describe it.”
“And describing it is something, at least.”
“Yes, it is something, but not much.”
“Do you envy your brother, then?”
“I admire him, I love him, I long for his approval. But he cares little for his family; he’s often said so. If I vanished he wouldn’t notice, if I died he wouldn’t care. I think of him all the time, and he thinks of me not at all. I love him, and my love torments me. There are times when I feel like a ghost beside him; as if he alone is real, and I’m just a daydream. But envy him? Do I begrudge him the love and the admiration that so many give him so freely? No. I truly believe that he deserves it all, and more. I want to serve him . . . No, I believe that I am serving him, in ways he will never know about.”
“Was it like that when you were young?”
“He would get into trouble, and I would get him out of it, or plead for him, or distract the grown-ups’ attention by a clever trick or a winning remark. He was never grateful; he took it for granted that I would rescue him. And I didn’t mind. I was happy to serve him. I am happy to serve him.”
“If you were more like him, you could not serve him so well.”
“I could serve others better.”
Then the woman said “Sir, am I a sinner?”
“Yes. But my brother would say your sins are forgiven.”
“Do you say that?”
“I believe it to be true.”
“Then, sir, would you do something for me?”
And the woman opened her robe and showed him her breast. It was ravaged with an ulcerating cancer.
“If you believe my sins are forgiven,” she said, “please heal me.”
Christ turned his head away, and then looked back at her and said “Your sins are forgiven.”
“Must I believe that too?”
“Yes. I must believe it, and you must believe it.”
“Tell me again.”
“Your sins are forgiven. Truly.”
“How will I know?”
“You must have faith.”
“If I have faith, will I be healed?”
“I will have faith, if you do, sir.”
“Tell me once more.”
“I have said it . . . Very well: your sins are forgiven.”
“And yet I’m not healed,” she said.
She closed her robe.
Christ said “And I am not my brother. Didn’t I tell you that? Why did you ask me to heal you, if you knew I was not Jesus? Did I ever claim to be able to heal you? I said to you ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ If you don’t have sufficient faith after you’ve heard that, the fault is yours.”
The woman turned away and faced the wall, and drew her robe over her head.
Christ left her house. He was ashamed, and he went out of the town and climbed to a quiet place among the rocks, and prayed that his own sins might be forgiven. He wept a little. He was afraid the angel might come to him, and he hid all night.