Christian belief in Jesus relies on the idea that Jesus existed and he was a very special man. That he worked miracles — e.g. whether he cured the sick. That he was the son of God, born to a virgin. If Jesus was not as unique as Christianity tells us he was, then Christianity loses its reason-to-be.
Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Jesus story shows, hypothetically, how the all-important miracles in the Bible could have been invented. Pullman creates situations to “explain” how the events in Jesus’s life could have happened.
Pullman, like many other people before him, has also done a lot of research into the Biblical text which, apparently, has revealed the possible origins of the Jesus myths. He said he wants people to compare texts, his and that of the Bible, in order to show up the inconsistency of the Bible.
In Pullman’s story Jesus has a twin brother called Christ. Christ is the weaker brother, but his mother's favourite.
Christ is also the more human, fallible character. Self-righteous when young, made arrogant by his mother’s singular love. Cowardly and jealous of his brother when older, Later regretful and more self-aware.
Christ is got by a mysterious stranger to betray Jesus. So he is also the Judas character of the Bible. The mysterious stranger Christ believes to be an angel. But the stranger also represents a political force, perhaps a conspiracy to create an ongoing church around Jesus. Not Jesus as he is in Pullman’s story — pious, annoying, but also full of doubt — but a mythical made-up person.
In Pullman’s story no virgin gives birth. Mary is seduced by a man claiming to be an angel. Loaves and fishes are not conjured up by Jesus but produced with the ingenuity and solidarity of human beings. Other miracles are products of rumour and hearsay which, when written down as if it were truth, became... the Gospels!
Incendiary stuff then? Indeed Pullman has been threatened by some more troubled fundamentalists. But for my money this is a subtle and sympathetic retelling of the Jesus story.
It’s not difficult to write a diatribe against the endurance of belief in miracles. You only have to walk down the road in any poorer London borough, look at all the evangelical churches, many of them African churches promising poor people money and disabled and dying people cures. Go home, get on a computer and have a rant: nothing simpler. More difficult is evoking and thereby unmasking the emotions that attract human beings to religion and drive them to “reinvent” god.
As ever with Pullman there is plenty of ambiguity and mystery in The Good Man… The reader is left to guess at what is really going on. The unsettling thing reading this book, is what you find yourself thinking about, what emotional memories are evoked.
Around the age of eight or nine I decided to stop believing in god. This wasn’t on the basis of some great philosophical theory! It was was because I found god and his son Jesus scary.
They were supernatural beings and like ghosts and poltergeists etc (popular in the 70s) were just too weird to think about. There was even an actual ghost, a Holy Ghost, in there somewhere. And Jesus, with his overwhelmingly perfect personality, was also creepy.
That is a feeling that has never left me and hasn’t been helped by things such as the impossibly blue eyes of Robert Powell’s Jesus in the TV series Jesus of Nazareth (well it was the 70s, and there wasn’t much on!)
Of course I’ve always told myself that my actual fear of god as a child was a path to wisdom. Because as I grew older I began to realise that belief in god is based on human fear. But the unsettling thing is to find, reading the story of Jesus as told by Pullman, is that I still have this emotional fear, it is still operational.
Pullman’s story is about the need to exaggerate, and to dismiss, to believe in something and to disbelieve in something, to make choices and express these choices as truth while in reality we are trying to escape our own fear. It’s a prickly view of human life, but it does give us an insight into how ignorance and stupidity get to rule the world.