Philip Pullman’s reimagining of the New Testament is fierce and beautiful

People not in the know could be forgiven for thinking that the central character in Christianity had a first name, Jesus, and a surname, Christ. The more informed will know that the second word is not a cognomen, but a title – Christ, Greek for Messiah, the agent of God in the Hebrew scriptures, who will one day enter history to redeem his people and bring justice on earth. And anyone interested in religion will know that the difference between Jews and Christians is that the former are still waiting for Messiah, whereas the latter believe he has already come in the person of Jesus: hence, Jesus Christ. Christianity did not stop at its appropriation of the Hebrew concept of Messiah; it went on to trump other religions by claiming that Jesus was God himself, entered into history.

Now, even if you believe that a Jew called Jesus, born around 4BC, was also the incarnation of God, it remains an interesting question how such an astounding fact was discovered. After all, there have always been delusional people who claimed to be God, so how did so many come to think this particular claim was true? Setting both scepticism and credulity aside for the moment, it is worth pondering the history of such a move. The obvious first step is to turn to the gospels in the New Testament for evidence. This does not help us much, because these documents assume, rather than prove, the truth of the claim: by the time they came to be written, the process of Jesus’s divinisation was well advanced. (Although we can detect elements of the process in the contrast between the undeveloped Christology of Mark’s gospel, the first to be written, and the claim that Jesus was the pre-existent word of God of John’s gospel, the last.)

Historians have not been prepared to leave the matter there, of course, and one of the most fascinating scholarly enterprises of recent history has been what is called the quest of the historical Jesus: given that the Jesus we encounter in the New Testament is already the object of the church’s faith and worship, can we get back to the man himself before he was identified as God, either honestly or fraudulently, depending on your point of view? As you would expect in such a controversial exercise, scholars of the quest have varied enormously in their claims. In this review I only want to look at a single, very famous approach, because Philip Pullman’s powerful new telling of the Jesus story reminded me of its tragic conclusion.

It is impossible to think about this history without using some technical terms, and the most important is the word apocalyptic, meaning to reveal or uncover. Behind it lies humanity’s ancient longing for a better world, a longing that distilled itself into the conviction that God’s patience with human wickedness would snap and, like Gary Cooper in the eschatological western High Noon, he would put on his gun belt and walk into history to restore order. Most scholars think that Jesus, outraged by the cruelty and inequality of his era, preached not only the need for, but the imminent arrival of, God’s new order or kingdom. He was clearly understood by his followers in messianic terms, and the fact that the early church was in daily expectation of his return lends weight to the apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus. In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published one of the most famous theological texts of the modern era, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he defined Jesus as an ultimately tragic figure whose apocalyptic consciousness impelled him to his death. This is his famous conclusion:

“There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions… the wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still.”

Though he wears his scholarship lightly as befits a master storyteller, there is no doubt in my mind that Pullman has a complete grasp of the intricacies of the quest for the historical Jesus. Like Schweitzer, he thinks Jesus was an immeasurably great man who died to bring in a better world, the difference being that Schweitzer believed Jesus died trying to force God’s hand, whereas for Pullman Jesus realised in the garden of Gethsemane that there was probably no God, so any bettering of the human condition is now up to us.

The other bit of the historical quest that still has to be explained is how the Jesus of history ended up reigning at the right hand of God in heaven, while down here things go bloodily on as they always have done. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is Pullman’s story of how that transition came about. It is a fierce and beautiful book which, like the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, will move even those who disagree with it. For Pullman, Jesus was captured by cunning ecclesiastics who know humankind prefers religious opiates to moral challenges. “Jesus…is asking too much of people. We know they’re not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same. And that is what the Church will be.”

In Pullman’s allegorical retelling of the Christian story, Mary gives birth to twins, the first born called Jesus, the second born Christ. Christ, a feeble, introspective character, is Mary’s favourite, while Jesus is strong and quiet and calm. “One for Joseph, and one for me, thought Mary.” Pullman has serious fun with the interaction between the brothers. It is Christ, impressed by his brother’s oratory and moral passion, who puts the three satanic questions to him during his period in the desert. And in the parable of the prodigal son, Christ knows Jesus is fingering him as the timid, mean-spirited, stay-at-home older brother.

One day a mysterious stranger approaches Christ and recruits him to keep an account of the words and actions of Jesus – from a particular perspective. Whatever agency is behind the mysterious stranger – and it is easy to detect the shadow of the Magisterium from the Dark Materials trilogy – he gives Christ clear instructions on how to keep the record. “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.” This is actually a fair summary of one theory as to how the theological tone of the gospel records was gradually heightened. Christ himself is a conflicted figure in the book, but the stranger manages to overcome every scruple he has about spying on his brother and theologically doctoring the record of his words and actions.

But there is worse to come. Jesus is wrestling with God in Gethsemane about the future: “Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property. That it should not condemn, but only forgive.” The stranger has other plans, however, and in order to fulfil them he recruits Christ to betray Jesus. Christ delivers the Judas kiss at the arrest of Jesus, and the plot moves poignantly to its conclusion. Jesus is crucified; the resurrection is arranged; and gradually the power of the story of the man who became God is slowly infused into history, controlled by the stranger and the shadowy authority he represents. There is no doubt that Pullman has an honest contempt for the institution that hijacked the poor man of Nazareth for its purposes of spiritual and material domination, but he is too honest to ignore one of the supreme ironies of history. Almost his last words are these: “But this is the tragedy: without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten.”

Which is why, in conclusion, I want to return to Schweitzer. Schweitzer believed Jesus had died mistaken and forsaken. This conclusion drove him from the study of theology to the work of practical love. He wrote of this period in his life: “I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years I had been giving myself out in words…this new form of activity I could not represent to myself as being talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting it into practice.” In 1913 he went with his wife to Lambaréné in what was then the French colony of Gabon as a doctor. He spent his life there, no longer talking about Jesus but still trying to follow him. Countless others have done the same.

In spite of the scandal of the church’s enduring corruptions, its incessant internal disputes, and its abuse of the weak and vulnerable, it still carries through time the dangerous memory of Jesus. And there are many who, though they may no longer talk about Jesus, still try to follow him. I am certain that the good man Pullman would say amen to that.

Richard Holloway was bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000 and is the author of Between the Monster and the Saint (Canongate) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds