What is truth?” demands Pilate of his Jewish prisoner, believed by some to be the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. He receives no answer: “And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”
This one-sided exchange appears only in the Book of John, whose narrative of the Passion departs significantly from the various accounts given in the so-called synoptic Gospels, which, for their part, also differ widely in emphasis, detail, and apparent intention. While Matthew, Mark, and John all mention Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s questions (a salient detail given Isaiah’s prophesy of a “man of sorrows,” who is “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” and “openeth not his mouth”), John alone has Jesus carry his own cross (Simon of Cyrene does the job in the other Gospels), and, most importantly, places the Last Supper not during Passover, as the Synoptics claim, but before it, presumably in order to have the meal coincide not with the feast itself, but with the slaughter of the paschal lambs.
What is truth? As these brief examples illustrate (and it would be easy to adduce many more), the truth of Jesus, as it emerges from the Gospels, is far from clear: To paraphrase Wilde, the Gospel truth is rarely pure and never simple. Yet it seems safe to say that few Christians are troubled by these discrepancies, if aware of them: The (more or less) coherent narrative version of Jesus’s life, as commemorated by Western culture, makes it easy to forget the divergent and often contradictory accounts we have in the New Testament.
The accepted story of Jesus’ birth, for example, takes the pious shepherds (unique to Luke), and combines them with Matthew’s wise men and his description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. On this and numerous other points in Jesus’ life, one need only return to the Bible to see the (purported) feasibility of the accepted narrative unravel. Add to this the grave problems of historical chronology surrounding Jesus — and the existence of several non-canonical early Christian texts which present Jesus, variously, as a roguish 5-year old given to killing and resurrecting his playmates, as the lover of Mary of Magdala, as gay, and as unconcerned with any claim to divinity — and the “truth” of Jesus, quite apart from his status as the Christ, the Anointed One, begins to recede into a Rashômon-like obscurity.
The relevance of all this to Philip Pullman’s recently-published novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is that when the inevitable attacks on the book come flying from the usual quarters, it must be recognized that Pullman’s book, in spite of its manifestly subversive bent, is firmly grounded in a tradition that extends back to and before the Gospels themselves (the anonymous author of Luke, for example, begins his Gospel with an allusion to the “many” accounts of Jesus’ life that preceded his own), and which tradition continues into our own era, with its flourishing of theo-biographical activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries (which saw the publication of lives of Jesus by, among others, Schleiermacher, Strauss, Renan, Jogand-Pagès, and Schweitzer), and, more recently, the production of such films as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ, and, of course, The Passion of the Christ. All of these narratives necessarily take liberties with their source material, as Mark (or, rather, the anonymous writer who goes by that name) assuredly did with the oral tradition he drew upon when writing his Gospel — which most scholars agree was the earliest of the Synoptics and the primary source for both Matthew and Luke.
The subversiveness of Pullman’s novel, therefore, consists in its attacking, from within, the very tradition of which it is a part. The title summarizes Pullman’s greatest innovation and contribution to this tradition. Imagine if Mary gave birth to twins. One of them, the good man Jesus, is strong and charismatic, an uncompromising idealist given to fiery yet ambiguous pronouncements about the Kingdom of God, a poet of moral provocation who will, soon enough, draw the attentions of the worldly authorities. The other twin, Christ, is clever but sickly, calculating and cautious where his brother is impetuous and bold. Christ is also the writer of the two. While Jesus enthralls his listeners with his passionate, incendiary sermons, Christ is there at the edge of the crowd, stylus in hand, recording for posterity his brother’s words, but not without some pious alterations and additions of his own.
You can see where this is heading. In Pullman’s novel, Jesus the preacher stands in for the historical Jesus (insofar as we can discern his face, as through a glass darkly, in the Gospels and the other early Christian texts). His prudent, observant brother represents the church that attached itself to this figure. Throughout Pullman’s novel, Christ is associated not just with Judas Iscariot (in Pullman’s tale it is Christ who betrays Jesus to the Romans), but, crucially, with Paul, a writer of genius with whom, as Frank Kermode has remarked, “narratives beget not more narratives but theology.” The real target of Pullman’s attack is not the teachings of Jesus, but the church’s acquisition of human, all-too-human power and its establishment of a fixed set of beliefs, from which, as Christ tells his brother, “all doubt `is` vanquished,” and “all dissent swept away.” To this temptation — Pullman also has Christ play the Satanic role of tempter during Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness — Jesus hotly replies by calling him a “phantom” and a “shadow of a man”: in sum, a scoundrel.
Readers of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will recall the author’s manifest animosity toward institutionalized Christianity in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular (the primary villain of the series is a powerful organization pointedly called the Magisterium). The Good Man Jesus continues in the same critical vein, yet places, rather audaciously, some of the best lines of denunciation in the mouth of Jesus. In the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, Jesus imagines with horror the church his brother wishes to build, with its preening, sanctimonious clergy living in luxury in the midst of misery, its murderous and implacable anti-Semitism, its bloody inquisitions and countless wars, and, more recently and topically, its systemic, decades-long cover-up of the rape and sexual torture of children by ordained clergy. After Jesus has been betrayed by his brother (readers will be reminded of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor) and brought before Pilate, Pullman omits Pilate’s more philosophical questions, including the one I cited above: “What is truth?” Whatever the truth of Jesus himself — that beguiling, troubling, profoundly paradoxical man whom Whitman calls “the beautiful gentle God” of Judaea — the nightmarish résumé of the church that claims to be the representative of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is beyond dispute, a matter not of theological truth, but of historical fact. As Jesus, that good man, once said of false prophets, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” •
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
By Philip Pullman
$24, 256 pages