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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

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This is a story. In this ingenious and spell-binding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told. Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. For, above all, this book is about how stories become stories.

265 pages, Paperback

First published December 4, 2009

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About the author

Philip Pullman

220 books23.1k followers
As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don't think it's the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.

The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader's mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I'm not going to explain.

Anyway, I'm not in the message business; I'm in the "Once upon a time" business.

Philip Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, which has been named one of the top 100 novels of all time by Newsweek and one of the all-time greatest novels by Entertainment Weekly. In 2004, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He lives in Oxford, England.

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Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
March 23, 2020
Come Back Alfred, We Love You

In 1904 the French Catholic theologian, Alfred Loisy, published a book called L'Evangile et l'Eglise, The Gospel and the Church. In it he pithily phrases the central fact of early Christianity: "Jesus foretold the Kingdom, but it was the Church that came." Loisy was attempting to refute the individualism of the Protestant theologian, Adolf Harnack, by pointing to the historical necessity of an ecclesial organisation. For his trouble, he was censured and eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church for the arch-heresy of Modernism. No one was sure how to define Modernism, but the churchly authorities were certain they knew it when they saw it in the writings of Loisy.

It is now generally recognised that Loisy was correct. Jesus expected the arrival of the Kingdom of God within his generation. And not only Jesus. Throughout the next two Christian generations, at least, it was presumed that the end was nigh, that the Messiah would return with a terrible swift sword. The protagonist of this 'imminent eschatology', as it is called, was Paul of Tarsus. It is Paul's letters that are by years, often decades, the first Christian Scriptures and undoubtedly influenced how the later gospels were written.

Nonetheless the 'tension', as theologians call it, between the Pauline Christ and the Jesus of the gospels is real. This is most apparent in two specific areas. First in the universal ethic of love propounded by Jesus, not just among human beings, but also between God, who was all forgiving, and humanity. In Paul, this ethic is made conditional upon something called pistis, faith, and becomes organisationally controlled by his authority. Second, Jesus makes clear his sole concern is with Judaism and the continuation of the traditions of the Torah. In opposition to the Apostles who actually knew Jesus, Paul claims Jesus's message as equally applicable to Gentiles as well as to the Jews; and he, quite contrary to the words of Jesus, unilaterally abrogates the eternal covenant with the Jews and any necessity to follow Jewish traditions.

Although Paul's expectations of the return of the Messiah were unfounded, he did a fairly good job of creating the organisation that would be its substitute, just as Loisy had quipped. Paul, not Jesus, it has often been said among theologians, created Christianity. And he created it not as the carrier of the ethical message of Jesus but as the emblem of the triumphant Christ who, despite sensory experience to the contrary, had already conquered evil in the world, freed the world from sin, and now led, from the grave, a new worldwide religion, whose spokesman was Paul.

Pullman's book captures this difference between the evangelical Jesus and the ecclesial Christ by the simple device of Mary, wife of Joseph, having twins, one called Jesus, the other Christ. Jesus is more or less the figure we know from the gospels: human, uncertain, complex, sometimes contradictory, but always on message. Christ, the younger brother and favourite of his mother, on the other hand, plays several roles in Pullman's narrative. 

Christ is first of all the recorder and, progressively, the augmenter, of Jesus's preaching, a sort of composite evangelist. He also is the betrayer, the Judas figure, who is convinced by the mysterious Stranger, obviously the Deceiver of old, to play Abraham to Jesus's Isaac and instigate Jesus's death. And, finally, he is the Pauline figure, the spiritual entrepreneur, who establishes a Gentile-oriented organisation which is, in his mind, a version of the Kingdom on earth. His modifications and interpretations of Jesus's remarks and mis-quoting of the Hebrew bible (a Pauline vice) conveniently endorse and support this organisation.

Pullman's theology therefore is well grounded even if his literary portrayal seems radical. The points he makes in casting Jesus as confronting Christ are important ones that true believers would prefer not to be raised or discussed. "It's a matter of faith," they typically say. But their faith is a faith in Paul and his literary hero, Christ. What they really mean is that they do not have sufficient faith in Jesus to confront the very real inconsistencies, not to say paradoxes, in the creation of Christianity. The possibility that Paul betrayed the man he never met and sacrificed him to establish his own position of power is too unsettling to be taken seriously.

Pullman isn't having it. By making such a dramatic distinction between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Pauline Christianity, he is putting down a challenge squarely to those who call themselves Christians. No longer, thank goodness, does the threat of excommunication which hung over Loisy mean much a century later. It’s safe now Alfred; you can come back.

Postscript: first more on Paul, see: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... and https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,517 reviews10.9k followers
June 17, 2011
Photobucket ..... Photobucket .... Photobucket

Open Mind...Hey Big C, what's up?

Controversy: I’ve got another book review to do and this one could be a MAJOR PROBLEMO so I was really hoping you could help me out and be there when I post it.

Open Mind: Of course, you know I’m always glad to assist if my being present will help people get through one of your reviews.

Controversy: Believe me OM, without you there, this review is doomsville before it begins. Without you, we would have Inflammatory Rhetoric
showing up, with or without Offensive Name Calling
and they would simply blow up the review. In fact, given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I was hoping that you might be able to get some of the “others” to help out as well just so things don’t get out of hand.

Open Mind: That bad?

Controversy: Potentially. I just want to take whatever precautions I can to at least try and present this in a respectful manner so we can avoid any appearances by Intentionally Hurtful Comment
or that lowlife assclown Nasty Comment Thread
over this. I mean, it's just a book review but those two have still shown up often enough in the past that it concerns me they might be out there trolling.

Open Mind: Well we were just finishing up watching the first season of Entourage so we’re all here. How about I put you on speaker so we can all listen to what you have to say?

Controversy: Sounds great and thanks, OM.

Open Mind: Not a problem...[pause]...okay, we’re all here Big C...what have you got?

Controversy: Well, here’s the thing. The review I'm doing is about a very radical, anti-Christian re-telling/re-imagining of the life of Jesus.

Tolerance for Opposing Views: Big C, hi it’s TOV…I know that “re-imaginings,” especially about religious figures and writings can often stir strong feelings in people, but are you sure that it is intentionally “anti-Christian”?

Controversy: It’s written by PHILIP PULLMAN!

[multiple voices in unison]: OHHHHH SHIIIITTT!!!

Controversy: Exactly, are you starting to see.

Respect and Courteousness: Hey, Big C, its RAC, what’s the name of this book?

Controversy: Are you ready for this? "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ."

Open Mind: Photobucket ....are you serious?

Controversy: Serious as anal rape.

Tact: Controversy!!

Controversy: Sorry Tact, just a joke, I can’t help it.

Tact: Try, it’s in very poor taste!!!

Tolerance for Opposing Views: I’m a bit surprised Big C. Knowing your own views about “bash” pieces. Why did you even read it?

Controversy: Well, TOV, you see I loved His Dark Materialsand didn’t think it was anywhere near as “blatantly” “anti-Christian” as most people did. I just thought it was a phenomenal story that I really, really enjoyed. What a person’s private views are doesn’t usually impact whether I will read their work. So, when I saw this, I wanted to give it a try.

Open Mind: Well, was this one as “bad” as it sounds?

Controversy: That’s the problem. On one hand, I would have to say A BIG YES...and on the other hand I would say kinda yes and no.

Clear Unambiguous Statements: C’mon Big C...it’s me...you are going to have to explain that a little more clearly.

Controversy: I know CUS, I’m just not sure how to say this so people understand where I am coming from.

Clear Unambiguous Statements: That’s why I’m here to help, now just give it a shot.

Controversy: All right, just give me a second to organize my thoughts...[pause]...Okay, is it “anti-Christian”?...BIG YES…Is it offensive?...again YES…but let me clarify this last statement. To devout Christians this book is clearly OFFENSIVE and I don’t think that you can find anything of merit in this book even if you enjoyed His Dark Materials. This book is clearly an attack on the fundamental beliefs of their faith and they have every right to refuse to read it or, if they do read it, to rip it a new one big enough to park a truck inside.

My desire to “clarify” stems from the fact that, for me, what I saw Pullman saying was something like, “I don’t believe what Christians believe, I think they are misguided and have been led down a false path and this book is an ‘alternative explanation’ for the events that gave rise to the Christian faith.” That can clearly be described as OFFENSIVE to a lot of people and I would not argue the point. However, for me, it was a matter of tone.

Clear Unambiguous Statements: What do you mean by tone, Big C?

Controversy: Well, I would have had a real problem with the book if I had seen Pullman saying, “Not only do I not believe in Christianity but because you are Christian, you are stupid and evil and I hold you in contempt.” Now I am not saying that Pullman doesn't believe that because I don't know, but I didn’t read that kind of "hateful" tone in his words. Now, that may be a subtle distinction for some, but it means a lot to me. It is the difference between “I disagree with you” and “I disagree with you and you are fucktard for believing what you believe.” The former is what our country was built on and the latter is what we too often have to put up with in order to preserve the former. I believe people have the right to believe what they want and to express and try to explain it to people so long as they don’t INTENTIONALLY DEMEAN AND BELITTLE people who think differently.

Clear Unambiguous Statements: That was much better, but you are soapboxing a bit.

Controversy: Thanks and I know. I was just trying to make a point.

Rational Discourse: Big C, it's Ratty. Why don’t you describe the book and then we can discuss how you felt about it and how best to present your analysis.

Controversy: Fine by me, Ratty. The novella is basically Pullman’s interpretation and re-telling of the life of Jesus and the creation of the Christian faith using the various gospels as source material. When I say Pullman uses the gospels as source material, what I mean is that the narrative follows the basic timeline of the new testament gospels and includes many of the critical events that are described about the life of Jesus (e.g., from his conception through his crucifixion and even the resurrection).

Polite Questioning: Pardon me, sorry to interrupt, but if Pullman does not believe in the divinity of Jesus how does he address the resurrection?

Controversy: Sorry PQ, you know I don’t do spoilers. You will have to read it yourself.

Anyway, Pullman follows the time-line and events described in the gospels and then filters them through the lens of his own beliefs and convictions for purposes of his story.

Clear Unambiguous Statements: Can you give us an example?

Controversy: Sure, CAS. One prime example happens early on when Pullman describes Mary’s conception of Jesus. In the biblical version (and I am not a scholar so please forgive any technical mistakes in this description) Mary, a virgin, is visited by an angel, told she will conceive the Son of God and then Jesus is conceived through the blessing of the “Holy Spirit.” ...NOW BRACE YOURSELF...in Pullman’s version, no miracle is implied and it is STRONGLY SUGGESTED that the “angel” who visited Mary was merely a slimy, opportunistic con man taking advantage of Mary’s naiveté and beliefs in order to seduce her while Joseph was out of town.

[multiple voices in unison]: NO FUCKING WAY!!!!

Controversy: I told you people would find it OFFENSIVE.

Anyway, Mary and Joseph eventually find their way to Bethlehem and here is where Pullman introduces the major “structural” difference between his story and the gospels. Mary gives birth to twins. The first is Jesus and the second, a sickly child (whose real name is never actually revealed), is simply referred to by Mary as her little Christ.

Even though most people are probably generally familiar with the story of Jesus, I want to be careful not to give away any major spoilers while still giving a decent description of the basic plot. Please forgive me if I go too far in one direction or the other.

Anyway, as the twins grow up Jesus becomes a teacher and, to my less than scholarly understanding, appears to be portrayed fairly consistent with the biblical Jesus with two major differences. First, the “miracles” of Jesus are either given alternative explanations or significantly downplayed. Second, Jesus does not refer to himself or imply that he is the Son of God. His message is a very simple one. Love your neighbor, be forgiving, give to the poor, help those in need and basically be the best person you can be.

It is in the person of “the scoundrel” Christ that Pullman pours most of the energy of his narrative. I would describe Pullman’s Christ as a passionate, though easily corrupted, “believer” that Jesus is the Messiah. He follows Jesus around wherever he goes and writes down his words and his actions in order to save them for posterity. He sees Jesus as the one sent by God to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven and is deeply frustrated that Jesus refuses to accept that mantle or assist in any way in the creation of an “organized following” (i.e., a church). This becomes the central friction of the book. Jesus teaching a message of love and peace and Christ believing that message needs to be delivered in a way that would have the “most powerful impact” on people.

Eventually, Christ meets a mysterious “person” who convinces Christ that for the good of mankind, it is absolutely critical that the life of Jesus be the foundation of creating a world wide following of his believers...Side Note: This stranger is never identified, but by the end of the book I thought it was very clear who Pullman intended him to be...

Anyway, the stranger convinces Christ that it may be necessary to “tweak” or “rewrite” some of the words and events of the life of Jesus in order to preserve the fundamental “truth” of the events. The stranger convinces Christ that the “Truth” of Jesus’ life (or what should have happened) is much more important than the History (or what did happen). I will stop there as I think the above gives a good enough description of the dynamic that Pullman has introduced to the story without spoiling how that dynamic eventually plays out.

Well, that’s it….comments, questions, suggestions.

Rational Discourse:..Dude, this thing has a Flaming Troll sighting written all over it.
I don’t see how we are going to keep him from showing up with his cousin Malicious Non Sequitur.

Open Mind: Hey, don’t be so pessimistic, Ratty. There’s always hope...Wow, Big C, this one is little tough even for me. I think maybe you should just give a few final thoughts on the story, maybe what you took from it, and just let people decide for themselves. Otherwise, I just think you run the risk of going off on unnecessary tangents.

Unnecessary Tangent: HEY!!

Open Mind: Sorry, UT no offense meant…Go ahead Big C.

Controversy: Okay, well I am rating the book 3.5 stars because I enjoyed Pullman’s writing and the controversial nature of it made it extremely memorable and so it is certainly a reading experience that I will remember. Also, from a completely “non partisan” perspective, I was amazed at how ingenious Pullman was at taking the gospels and basically turning them on their head by simply making some fairly subtle changes to them, with the end result being a complete 180 degrees different from the source material. As an analogy, it was like someone turning the movie Rambo into a Romantic Comedy while only being able to make a few detail changes to the original film. You can certainly hate what they did to the original film (and believe me, many will) but it is hard to discount the creativeness of the achievement.

Overall, I was impressed with Pullman’s writing and his story was certainly evocative as it stirred a lot of emotions (even of many of them were negative). Thus, while I may not agree with his conclusions, you can tell this was a writer passionate about his subject matter. I can always respect that.

The part of Controversy was played by me (with a visual assist by Harlan Ellison). The part of the other “helpers” were played by the chorus of voices inside my head...except for Unnecessary Tangent who was played by Peter Griffin.
Profile Image for Tom Doggett.
19 reviews5 followers
May 26, 2010
I liked this book far more than I thought I would, and after I was finished couldn't help but say the same thing I said after finishing the "His Dark Materials" trilogy upon the recommendation of a friend: was I *supposed* to like this?

The book is, of course, a retelling of the familiar Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth but told from a modern perspective, understanding and commenting on everything good and especially bad that Christianity has become. Setting aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not Jesus himself would recognize modern Christian organizations I think we can safely agree that at least the writers of the four canonical Gospels had no idea what would eventually arise from their small movement. Something similar to this book might have been their reaction to everything that Christianity has become through the intervening millennia from them to our modern day.

The story is simple: Pullman takes the familiar canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and weaves what is probably the first harmony to also employ other famous early Christian gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas (in a small way) and the Protoevangelium of James (which he uses nearly unchanged to begin the book). However, in the midst of this unusual gospel harmony Pullman employs an even more unusual twist: instead of being the story of Jesus Christ instead we have the birth and life of twin boys, Jesus and his brother Christ. Pullman is able to separate the prophetic and apocalyptic nature of Jesus's ancient teachings into the character of Jesus and the authoritarian, structured organization of modern Christianity into the character of Christ. This twisting and dividing provides Pullman an excellent pulpit from which he can preach his own gospel, giving his approval to some ideas and teachings from the New Testament while denouncing and disrupting the things he hates. Of course, it's about far more than that, but on the whole the book presents the reader with the battling paradox of a relationship with God: while religion is ordered and structured through other people, devotion to God is a private and sometimes lonely affair. The two have always had difficulty mixing and have never really been friends.

Even for those who are turned off by Pullman's obvious and, to be honest, unsubtle distaste for modern Christianity the book provides a lot of food for thought as to how we personally approach God in our own private worship, how we treat others, and how fully we follow (or ignore) the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament for those of us who claim to be Christians.

And, on a final note, I cannot refrain from mentioning how much study Pullman must have done in preparing this book. The mere use of such ancient, non-biblical traditions as the Protoevanglium was a joy to read and discover. Even the central conceit of the book, that Jesus had a twin brother, is present in some early Christian documents like the Acts of Thomas. Together with the modern viewpoint, these serve to make the book a fascinating, if occasionally aggravating, read for students of early Christianity.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,239 reviews2,230 followers
April 4, 2017
An interesting premise which was badly executed.

Those who have studied the persona of Jesus Christ will be puzzled at an apparent contradiction. Jesus was a rebel: he revolted against the priestly dictatorship of Judaism, made a mockery of its bureaucratic institutions and changed its concept of a vengeful and angry God into a benevolent one. Jesus was reforming Judaism in a way which threatened to change its very structure when he was betrayed by his own people and killed by the Roman authorities.

By all means, the story should have ended there: but Jesus rose from the dead as Christ, the Messiah and created a whole new religion in his name. The man who had preached the Kingdom of God for everyone became the symbol of the new faith, a semi-godly being to be worshipped. The new religion soon overtook Judaism in its love of institutions and its rigid definition of faith.

Philip Pullman explains this apparent contradiction by splitting Jesus Christ into twins: Jesus, the good man but a rebel and a constant pain in the arse to the religious authorities; and Christ, who loves his brother and believes in what he is saying, but who is more of a conformist and sees the need for religious institutions and organisation. Christ follows Jesus about, recording his sayings for posterity, but providing subtle twists of his own: in this enterprise he is guided by a stranger, whom Christ thinks is an angel, but the reader gets the feeling that it is a certain gentleman with horns and a forked tail. After Jesus's death it is Christ and the persona of Jesus which he has built up which resurrects.


I love retellings of myths. Myths are essentially poetic renderings of man's search for meaning in life, and when the writer reinterprets them they take on wonderful new shapes. As Joseph Campbell said, it is the artist and the writer who are the modern-day equivalents of the myth-makers of yore.

From this point of view, Pullman had a winner here: he had the chance to dig into the complex personality of Christ and bring forth the apparent inconsistencies through the interactions between the twins, as well as their interactions with the world in general. The concept of doubles is a strong trope in literature, and the author could have drawn on the depth of literary associations as well as mythical ones of this motif to produce a really complex narrative.

Instead, he takes the easy way out. The story is nothing but a simplistic retelling of the New Testament, with the character of the twin brother added. It reads like a story with adult themes written for children. There is no philosophical discussion, no metaphorical exploration and no mythical analysis except of a very facile nature.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
September 25, 2014
The night after his book was published, Philip dreamed that he met Jesus. He was dressed all in white, sitting at a table on which there was a bottle of wine, two glasses and a copy of Philip's novel.

"Please explain it to me," said Jesus politely.

The rest of this review is available elsewhere (the location cannot be given for Goodreads policy reasons)
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews6,946 followers
April 10, 2014

Well played, Pullman.

Philip Pullman meets Alyosha and tells him his story.

Alyosha flushed. ‘But... that’s absurd!' he cried. 'Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him — as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church.... That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false - those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!..'

Later Ivan came storming into Pullman's front porch, after learning from Alyosha about the novel length expansion of his prose poem. ‘That’s plagiarism!’ cried Ivan to Pullman's face, highly delighted. ‘You stole that from my poem! Thank you though.'

Then he turned on a surprised Alyosha and announced, 'Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.’

Pullman went back to the project he was working on, what is a little borrowing as long as you borrow from the best.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,179 reviews9,246 followers
March 21, 2015

So, another one of your beloved pop theology books, hey?

This time a novel.

More of a fable.

An ironical retelling.

Yes, but to what purpose? Let’s cut to the chase here, leaving out the dubious legerdemain of having Christ be Jesus’ evil twin – sorry, “conflicted” twin. Mr Pullman suggests that Jesus was a crazy idealist, that his extreme ideas about the Kingdom of God, which he thought would arrive in the next week or so, and his frankly bizarre moral code, was more of a hindrance than a help.

He’s got a point. PP’s Jesus is a raving hippy, asking people to ditch their families like he’s ditched his own, and go off to love the wretched and cure people of their psychosomatic ailments and love the ittle bunnies.

Mm, well, the New Testament’s Jesus is not a million miles away, you know.

Oh, scoundrel!

But it has a whole lot of gravitas which PP’s can’t have. It’s all a bit trendy-vicar, all this modern slangy retelling of parables and miracles. You know, I think the New Testament will still be read when Philip Pullman is completely forgotten.

So then he has Jesus despairing in Gethsemane. He has a real long rant about God being so silent and inscrutable that he may as well not exist. He says:

This is all I can do now, whisper into the silence. How much longer will I even feel like doing that? You’re not there. You’ve never heard me. I’d do better to talk to a tree

Yes. It’s quite flat. Compare that with King James’ devastating glimpse of Jesus on the cross:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

To this day, that gives me chills. And for them to put that in the actual Bible - it's amazing.

Well, but you probably shouldn’t make such comparisons. It’s unfair.

No. But PP kind of makes you want to. He’s using the same dark materials.

Yes, very good. So anyway, the gist of the thing is that there are behind the scenes manipulators observing Jesus and when he gets executed they perpetrate this giant hoax.

A pious fraud.

Yes, exactly. The idea is that no one – eventually, not even Jesus, could live up to Jesus’ new morality, you’d have to be insane, BUT what was possible was to create a new religion based sort of loosely on Jesus which could be a force for moderate improvement, rather than the terminal over-the-edge Kingdom-of-God-is-upon-you stuff.

So rather as if the Church was the grown up version. The gradualists take over from the nutcases. The parliamentary road to socialism displaces revolutionary communism. I get it.

PP doesn’t say it was a bad thing either. The pious fraud of the resurrection was done in order to kick-start the enterprise, like a bank loan. Without that, Jesus would just have been another ranting Jewish wannabe-Messiah.

But the people love magic.

Exactly. And what’s more magic than the dead rising?

Oh wait – I have to tell you this one. I heard an interview with a movie director, one of those indie guys, and he was making a movie based on the idea of Jesus as the first zombie. The interviewer said – but he wasn’t the first was he. And the director said yes, he rose from the dead, see, like a zombie. He was the first zombie. And the interviewer said “But what about Lazarus?”. And there was a silence. Finally the director said slowly “So Jesus was the second zombie…”

Ha - people really are rather impertinent these days.

It's true. Another glass of burgundy?

Just a little one then. Verry verry small tiny little one.

Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,006 followers
January 6, 2011
Philip Pullman's book based on the life of Jesus has garnered quite a lot of angry reviews and controversy. Some people have even decided that they don't need for him to die and be judged by their god to know that he's "going to hell" -- they can judge that for themselves, in their infinite wisdom! The problem seems to be that Pullman, like many people in the modern world, doesn't believe the stories of the Bible are anything more or less than the stories that come to us from Ancient Greece or Rome. The series he's writing for, Canongate's myth series, has touched on those mythologies before, which are often (but not universally) considered to be fictional now: it is a bit of a step from that to doing this.

If anything, I think Pullman sticks too close to the source material. He has an intriguing idea: Jesus had a twin brother, and when he 'rises from the dead', it is that twin brother, still living, who actually speaks to his followers as though he is Jesus. I suspect that was the germ of the story, though a whole commentary about truth and history, and the purpose of rewritten history, is built around it.

Still, despite this idea, he sticks very close to the words of the Bible. His writing has a parable-like quality, here: it's clear and easy to read, but with some beautiful imagery. One of my favourite quotations is copied below, in which Jesus speaks to a God who does not seem to answer, about what he believes a church should be.

"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 and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, 'Get out, you don't belong here?' Does the tree say to the hungry man, 'This fruit is not for you?' Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?"

Passages like this are the reason I rated this book so highly.

Pullman is critical of the church, mostly the Catholic church, with some very specific digs at it, including the abuse of children by priests. But his words stay close to those of the Bible, often repeating it almost word for word, like it's just a more colloquial translation. There wasn't enough of the new frame story, I think.

I don't think Pullman's views are so insensitive. If your religion can't bear criticism and opposition, then you need to think about why that is. His portrayal of Jesus as a good, human, doubting man ends up being a lovely one, a tender one. He never claims that what he's saying is truth, only that this is one way it could have happened: this is clearly fiction.
Profile Image for Maciek.
558 reviews3,271 followers
October 2, 2020
" A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse."

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

"It is not His teachings which make Jesus so remarkable, although these would be enough to give Him distinction. It is a combination of the teachings with the man Himself. The two cannot be separated."

-Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity

"Not enogh evidence, God; not enough evidence."

-Bertrand Russel

Can the belief in divinity of Jesus be separated from the belief of righteousness of his teachings? Philip Pullman takes a step further and in his latest book does an extraordinary thing: splits the figure of Jesus Christ into two men, Jesus and Christ.

From childhood onwards, Jesus is the popular one, favored by people, prone to commit mischief; Christ is quiet, contemplative, and often gets his brother out of trouble the former has got himself into. As time goes on, the brothers go on a separate but intervined path; Jesus becomes an activist, a revolutionary moral teacher, whose preachings are heard and talked about; He delivers a sermon on the mountain, and the words "KING JESUS" appear carved on trees, painted with mud on the walls of buildings, attracting more and more attention. Christ is always near his brother, somewhere in the crowd, writing down his teaching and words. But as Jesus begins to face problems resulting from exposure and controversy, Christ faces his own problems as well: are his brother's teaching moral? Is it moral to command people to leave all their worldly posessions to follow him, claiming that this would allow them the entry to the kingdom of God? Is it moral to order his followers to hate their own families in order for them to become his true disciples? How can he understand and interpret his brother's vision? How can he convey them for people to make them understand and follow them?

This is a story about stories, myths, legends. How they are born, shaped, how they affect people, and how they survive. The need of people for protection from up on high, hope of survival for the weak and the meek. Pullman's retelling of the story of Jesus is exactly what it says: a story. The character of Jesus is not romanticized; although he is a charismatic preacher, he also has flaws which are all to human, as favoring the Jews and not wanting to preach to the gentiles. He wants God's Kindom to come and conquer, rather than estabilish a church. He is in love with this world, and is in despair because of it at the same time. Christ, his scribe, wants his brother's teachings to appeal to the common man; He writes down what he says, but sometimes is compelled to change a little, or add something more for the sake of the story. There is also another character in this story who plays an important part, but its best to discover and analyze him on your own.

Pullman writes simply, but with the enchanting elegance of a fable; he weaves events one into another, and leaves the reader plenty of room for thought and interpretation. The story draws the reader more and more as the pages are turned, moving in unexpected directions. The denouement is quick and well known, but the journey there is memorable and fascinating. The chapter where Jesus prays at the garden of Gethsemane is mindblowing in its lyrical beauty and heartbreaking emotion of despair. It is probably the most powerful moment in the story, full of moving, devastating beauty.

Is this story offensive? To many, it probably will be. It is a shame that many people will be turned away from it, because books as such are considered "blasphemous". It is even more sad that many people will not read this book, because of the enforced and preconceived opinions of their parents, spouses or friends. They will make their opinion on this book without even reading it; they will condemn something they completely do not know. For me, literature is the field where great moral battles take place. This is one of them, and is no less interesting that the sources it draws from, and I'd dare to say that it offers an interesting perspective that is even more interesting that the Gospels.

In the end, the best thing which can be said about The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is that it is a book which makes its readers think. No one is forced to read it, an if one choses to then he or she is not forced to like it; people are free to express their opinions about this book, positive and negative. Everyone is free to discuss it and criticize it; no one is allowed to censor it, and stop it from being published and read. We are far too great of a species to enslave ourselves to an unalterable, unchallegnable mind, set in stone, never to be altered. I encourage everyone to indulge in the pleasure of thinking for themselves. Much more wisdom, enlightement and happiness is to be found that way.
Profile Image for Tamora Pierce.
Author 91 books83.1k followers
May 9, 2010
When I heard about Philip Pullman's new book, I thought the witch fires would soon be lit in the U.K. and here, but having read it, I think that if there's an outcry, it will be mostly because of the title. The book is a cool, considerate allegory about a pair of brothers. It invites the reader to thought rather than hysteria. I suspect it's the non-readers who will be inclined to hysteria, if they hear of it.

His premise: two sons are born to Mary (who may or may not have been visited by an angel). Jesus is the weaker of the two at birth. He needs more of his mother's care during childhood illnesses and accidents. Christ is the stronger of the twins, with the probing mind, the one who committed those early prodigies. When the adult Jesus becomes uneasy and goes into the desert, he returns as a charismatic preacher. Christ fades into the background and follows his brother, writing down what Jesus says and writing down the miracles, which may or may not be miracles. Christ hopes for a day when there is a vast community of believers, who will teach, convert, hold ceremonies and celebrations, all in the name of his brother's church. He is counseled in this aim by a man he calls "the stranger," who approves his plan and takes his writings away to make copies.

The events of Jesus's life are staged on a very everyday plane with family jealousies and mood swings among the disciples, with Christ occasionally writing his thoughts and arguments with his twin. The stranger is never identified, but he is pushing, like Christ, for laying the ground for a great church.

As in His Dark Materials, Mr. Pullman is coming at organized religion, particularly those sprung from Christianity. Here he examines and challenges the writings in the official New Testaments. The language is modern, I think so he can more easily make his point. It was an easy, enjoyable read for me, though it doesn't fit my idea of good fiction. It's pure allegory, as pure as John Bunyan. The characters are there to make a point; they're two dimensional, which is a shame, because one of my favorite things is Pullman's way with characters. This is a morality play in fictional form; a short satiric novel not as vicious as GULLIVER'S TRAVELS or the essay "A Reasonable Proposal," but transcending them in what they ask their reader to consider.

It's my believe that good Christians will welcome this book as another way to examine, and affirm, their faith, while bad ones will scream about it despite refusing to read it. This is my opinion--yours may vary.

Profile Image for Ammar.
445 reviews217 followers
March 22, 2017
interesting retelling of the Bible through the Myth Series. Pullman a known atheist tackles the story of the bible. How stories become stories , how sometimes people add glamour and elaborate details to put them in a good light.

The story told from the view of an intersting narrator , a twin of Jesus called Christ. The runt of the litter of the holy family. Who hears the voice of God, sees the dove, feel the holy spirit and the one who saved Jesus from many problems growing up, yet gets neglected ...

An intersting, easy read yet it makes you ponder and think about how things become to take the shape they eventually take.
Profile Image for James.
423 reviews
January 6, 2018
‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ is Philip Pullman’s intelligent, controversial, shocking, challenging, thought-provoking, considered, compelling and highly memorable retelling of the story of Jesus.

This is a novel which is all these things and more – whilst perhaps on the face of it Pullman’s book is fundamentally anti-religious, anti-organised religion, atheist or at the very least agnostic at its heart – ‘Good Man Jesus/Scoundrel Christ’ is it seems more than that, fundamentally taking us to task, challenging us to question belief systems that we may or may not hold and any acceptance of a faith or faiths that could be construed as a merely blind and unquestioning acceptance.

Ostensibly this is a story which is very straightforward – it’s based on a central premise, a ‘what if’ a ‘good man’ Jesus had a twin, a ‘scoundrel’ Christ…what then? How could this alternative story have unfolded...? How would history, religion, theology, authority have dealt with that? How would we ourselves have dealt with that? The unspoken intimation is that ‘scoundrel’ Christ is in fact Judas. This is also a novel about stories themselves, about how stories can become fact, about how histories can be written – this then (as it says on the cover) ‘Is A Story’ – a story to be considered, questioned and thought about.

This story – in any other hands other than Pullman’s, with such a narrative might well have proved clumsy, heavy-handed, over simplified, crass and told to ill effect – but in Pullman’s, it is delivered so well, so thoughtfully, so memorably – simple yet complex, shocking yet considered – it is an excellent ‘story’ indeed.

Whatever the readers religious belief system may or may not be – this is a ‘story’ that is a good one, well told, an important one and should be read by all who have any interest in this subject.
Profile Image for Daniela.
167 reviews91 followers
April 10, 2022
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ apart from being one of the best titled books of the century (probably) is a retelling of one of the world's most famous stories: how Jesus became God.

Pullman constructs a clever narrative which involves two twin brothers and a stranger whose identity is never fully disclosed - my guess is Paul of Tarsus because why wouldn't he be trying to ruin everything? Pullman uses this plot as an 18th century polemist would. He argues that while set in good, humanitarian ideas, Christianity was appropriated since the beginning by men who aimed to rule and control. Christ's claim to Godhood - posteriously constructed - is only an instrument of such control. He is not God because he is righteous, he is God because that gives more power to his claims. That might be true but obviously goodness and justice should be enough to stand alone without throwing God into the equation. This is, of course, the root of all atheism. If you take out Christ's Godhood, you are left with a man of his time who believed in things like mercy, justice, compassion because they were the right things to believe in order to live a better life in society.

As what it is, a work of polemics on religion, it is quite valuable. Fans of Pullman will recognize his ideas as they are replicated in His Dark Materials so if one is new to Pullman I would recommend reading this one before HDM.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,001 reviews439 followers
September 28, 2020
This is a story of Jesus Christ “retold” by the author, imagining that Jesus had a twin, Christ. It involves all of the parables, teaching, exhortations, and miracles of Jesus Christ from the New Testament with new twists and revisions. It was a quick read, in part because the parables, teaching, exhortations, and miracles of Jesus Christ I already knew from being raised a Christian. I just had to slow down and see where Pullman was going with the revisions. It was interesting, but I can’t say it was one of those books that in my opinion merits more than 3 stars. It’s a goodread.

• So for those who want a rather detailed synopsis of the story of Jesus Christ as re-told by Philip Pullman read this very thorough review (but I am not sure then there is a compelling reason to read the book): https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...
• (gives away a bit less): https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-en...

Profile Image for Dan Thompson.
Author 8 books140 followers
August 25, 2013
I'm not a religious man. I think I should make that very clear, but a book review is no place for me to argue my stance on that. I do think it is fair to say however, that the mythology of religion appeals to me more than the actual spirituality of it. Of course, people who know me will also know that Philip Pullman is my favourite author, and with his often vocal stance on religion, I thought his 2010 release, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ would make for a fascinating read. The blurb didn't really give anything away of what to expect, and I thought what the hell. Let's give this a go.

The book itself is actually a part of the Canongate Myth Series and retells the story of Jesus, but in such a controversial and alternate way as the world knows. Mary didn't give birth to a son, she gave birth to twin boys; one called Jesus and one called Christ. And as the book progresses, we see the boys develop, drift away from one another and ultimately take a different stand on the 'coming of God's Kingdom'. It is an interesting concept that tells the history from the bible, but in such a modern and up-to-date way.

I have to admit though, that this wasn't really what I expected. It is a unique, complex and interesting device to adapt the story with two figures. Obviously one representing the human side of Jesus, the other the more spiritual. However, the book lacked any kind of religious sarcasm I was expecting from Pullman. It was as if he adapted the two figures into the history already told in the bible - and let's be frank, it is a pretty boring story. It wasn't exciting, it lacked any real depth, and the political situation the people found themselves in during the Roman occupation was completely two-dimensional. I hate to admit it, but this was a chore to read. I even put the book down for a while, hoping to come back to it with perhaps a little more energy and inspiration to seek the ending. Sadly, this did little to ignite my reading pleasure.

I found both characters utterly annoying. Jesus was arrogant, hypocritical and totally uninspiring. At first, you could be forgiven for thinking that this represents Pullman's view on Christianity, his voice coming through thick and strong, but sadly it isn't. Jesus preaches, he inspires the people, but the admiration doesn't seep through to the reader, as we see him shun his family and distance his brother. Christ actually takes it upon himself, with guidance from a 'stranger' to write down the truth Jesus speaks, keeping his distance so his brother isn't aware of his actions. But Christ is guilty of being whiny and moany; you often find yourself telling the guy to 'grow a pair' and stand up for his beliefs, but Pullman portrays him as a coward, who is tempted by sin. He creates such a show of Christ's 'sacrifice' towards the end of the book, but when it comes down to it, the actual betrayal lasts a minute paragraph.

Where Pullman's voice does come through however, is how Christ adds a little bit poetic licence when transcribing the sermons and speeches of his brother. He is completely engulfed that the world needs a Church, a sort of physical embodiment of God's Kingdom on Earth, whereas his brother is in total disagreement. The book tries to be clever, especially with its controversial title, but ultimately fails on all fronts - well for me anyway.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is at best an unsuccessful attempt at retelling the 'myth' of Jesus Christ. It has an interesting concept of two brothers, who take a different stance on what God's vision is, but it lacks the miraculous message many Christians I assume finds in scripture. The language is pretty cold, lacking depth and interest, which would be forgiven if the book was more a satirical look at religion, but Pullman really creates the controversy, without backing it up within the pages. The characters are wooden or annoying, and the 'sacrifice' of Jesus doesn't engage any reactions of sympathy or gratitude. I found the book boring and actually, lacking in purpose. It is no wonder that the book was heavily criticised by Jesuit theologians. If you find the story of Jesus inspiring or interesting, I'm afraid this book won't do much to heighten or lessen that, but if you are interested in reading a slightly alternate take on the baby born in a manger story, you may find something that tickles your fancy.
Profile Image for Kim.
732 reviews11 followers
June 16, 2010
The concept behind this book is that Jesus was actually a twin - that there was one baby named Jesus and one named Christ. It is a 4 star concept, but panned out to be only a three star book. Jesus is the twin who goes out and preaches and tries to help people and Christ is the one who is more interested in establishing a religion/church. I thought the author did a nice job using familiar bible stories and retelling them in a different way -- showing how Jesus saw things versus how his brother Christ saw things. I couldn't really identify my problem with this book until I read the review in "The Week" which said that it wasn't "playful" enough. I thought that was a perfect description of what was missing. Still, it was an easy read, had some really interesting takes on Jesus' life and good insight into how "history" is really just another form of storytelling, always influenced by the author's own bias.

Finally here is one of my favorite quotes in the book, from Jesus' agony in the garden: "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 and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast..."
August 5, 2011
The Goodman Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a work of utterly dark, disturbing and moving beauty and not as controversial as its provocative title might have you believe. The biblical world that Philip Pullman populates with his all too human characters is rich in its simplicity and heart breaking in its ability to portray one man who has influenced history and religion; in such a very human light.
The basic premise that Pullman works from is this – Jesus had a twin brother called Christ. Jesus, calm, strong and confident, goes on to become the carpenter and future religious leader; while Christ, the weak, sickly, mothers pet, settles for being the historian who records the doings of his brother.
This is a novel about the all surpassing power of the written word and its ability to influence history for years to come. Pullman retells the New Testament with a deft hand, mirroring the simple, language of the Bible itself while he edits and rewrites the stories from a less miraculous and a more human point of view. The Satanic questions posed to Jesus in the desert are by the more practical and ambitious person of Christ, his twin brother. Already nurturing the future reality of organized religion in his mind Christ tempts Jesus with the need for Miracles to strengthen the faith of the common man, and underlines the essential weakness of the human condition.
A theme that is visited time and again in this book. People need to believe that there is a higher force that is watching over them; people need to believe in miracles, purity the possibility that there can be a life without sin and the need to strive towards it. Hope is a powerful thing, faith is a powerful thing and when both of them are twisted by the church the roots of organized religion are formed.
This is not an inside look at the greatness of Jesus. It does not make him an ordinary human being, but it does make him a human being, in love with this world, despairing of the corruption he sees in it, attempting to singlehandedly change the course of mankind. He preaches of the coming of a Kingdom of God in the hope that people better themselves in expectation of it. The Jesus of this retelling lives a practical life and the Miracles happen but not as we expect them to. When Jesus tells his followers at a large gathering that there shall be enough food for all, one person finds some left over raisins, another some olives and from these scraps the entire gathering finds sustenance. Something believable that might have actually happened. Something that has transmogrified into the Miracle we know like a game of Chinese Whispers.
And in the background lurks the wretched figure of Christ. Ambitious and with an unspoken hunger to share in the limelight of his capable brother he obsesses over him, his following, his capacity to rouse the common man and maintains a delicate record of all that Jesus has achieved. Christ is a shrewd albeit flawed human being. He has several crises of faith as seen in his encounter with the prostitute and the beautifully written chapter about his meeting the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. He has little faith in the human condition and all these incident s prove to him the need for a church that would uplift it.
Another interesting character in this novel is the Stranger. Is he an angel, or is he Satan? Is he merely a representative of the Jewish priests manipulating Christ and his recordings for the purpose of personal gain? The truth is never entirely clear and that is as it should be. The stranger walks the thin line between reality and fantasy and adds to the skillfully layered narrative in the book.
The stranger tells Christ of the need to let “truth from beyond time illuminate the pages of history”. As the narrative progresses, he poses theological questions to Christ to counter any doubts that he might have and holds him firmly in his grip. Is he a sly reference to the snake in the Garden of Eden? Is he a man or more than a man? Whatever he may be, he works through manipulation and firmly believes that there are two truths. The actual truth and the perception of the truth. Of these, he believes the latter to be more effective and hold more power.
We all know what happens next…and we all know how this tale ends. But the differences are significant – It is Christ who betrays Jesus with the kiss, it is Christ who impersonates Jesus as proof of the resurrection and it is Christ who single handedly writes the New Testament to contain the angels, the guiding star, Jesus’ premonition of his own death and the wounds that give proof of his resurrection. All with a view to form the Church.
For me the most moving and poignant chapter in the book is the monologue of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Every sentence resonates with love for the world that he will shortly be leaving; every word resonates with respect for God’s creation. In the end he refutes God, says that a loving and benevolent father would respond to him out of the silence. He has a crisis of faith, an all too human reaction to his trials. Even today, I find myself re reading these words and even now they move me. Jesus predicts the anger, corruption and injustices that the Church will commit. The pedophilia, the inquisition, the wars and the innumerable people sacrificed at the altar of organized religion. He says that if a church is ever made in God’s name it should be – “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 and make no laws. That it should not condemn, only forgive. “
The essential tragedy underlining this work is the ultimate use of the Living legend to fuel the fires of organized religion. Christ finds himself despondent but filled with a sense of power at being able to write the annals of history and succumbs to this eventual need.
Compelling and controversial, The Goodman Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ asks more questions than it answers and sheds light on some hard truths of the human condition. This is not a book for everybody and devout Christians may find the content of this book hard to accept, but with an open mind and great respect for the man who inspired generations to acts of selfless service to humanity, this is a book about stories and how stories become stories.
Profile Image for Lakis Fourouklas.
Author 13 books34 followers
October 12, 2011
Ok, here it goes! I really looked forward to reading this book and when I finally did I felt nothing more than disappointed; almost cheated. I don’t know; maybe I got carried away by the title and expected too much, but in whatever way you put it I didn’t expect so little. There’s one thing that I know for sure: this is the worst work by the author that I’ve ever read. That’s maybe because it was an order-to-write kind of book, or perhaps because he didn’t bother to work too hard for it, or just maybe because it’s a bit too mild for my taste.
When I’ve first read the title and some of the reviews in the British press I thought: this sounds fun. It really did, and it kind of is, but there’s nothing more to it. If someone picks up this book thinking that he or she’s about to read a heretical version of the Bible, he or she will be disappointed. Pullman just picks bits and pieces of the scriptures and rewrites them in his own way; making them somewhat more easy to understand for the reader. It starts with a bang (This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ), but there’s nothing much to follow that grand opening. The author writes briefly about the birth and the early years of the twins and points out that Christ, the intellectual, used to get Jesus out of trouble every now and then, simply by quoting the Old Testament. He also says that Jesus was the prodigal son of the story, before taking a short dive into his miraculous but controversial life. As it looks the guy wasn’t so popular in Nazareth because he had the nerve to go and perform miracles… elsewhere, while his relation with the priests was not exactly the best as he tended to liken them with the fool in the psalms. By the way, just in case you were wondering, it was Christ and not Jesus who met Mary Magdalene, so maybe her soul is condemned to rot in hell after all. With this and that, time just flies by, it really does, and soon enough Jesus is arrested, put to trial, condemned, crucified and comes back to life again. And that’s about it.
I don’t know whether the good author had a word count limit, as the book belongs to a re-imagined myths series, but I can’t shake the feeling that this work is far from complete; or to say it boldly, it gives me the impression of a one-night-stand. If any of you would like to read some really subversive or even provocative versions of the Gospels you should look elsewhere; at the work of the great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, of the recently deceased Jose Saramago (read the splendid Cain), and Robert Graves. There you can find all the knowledge and the philosophy behind the popcorn literature of the likes of Dan Brown and much more.
It’s such a pity that a writer of Pullman’s caliber couldn’t make things work in this one but, thank Caiaphas and no matter what, we can just keep enjoying his fabulous forays into the worlds of fantasy.
Profile Image for Dee.
184 reviews42 followers
January 16, 2023
This is the re-telling/imagining of jesus and the events leading up to the crucifixion with views on what remains or achieved afterwards.
This is a book that no matter what your belief is it is not written offensively. It has been written very cleverly and can leave a lot to think regarding this afterwards.
A subject for great controversial debate.
I found this to be well written and enjoyed it thoroughly as i have a very open mind without taking any form of offense.
I find readings regarding any religion or belief very fascinating and a great deal can be leared from everything.
Always as humans , the core values of being the best we can be and treating others as we would be treated ourselves is a belief that will never be fully lost the whole world over.
Profile Image for TheBookWarren.
402 reviews88 followers
May 27, 2021
5.0 Stars — A tale of Jesus and his ‘nemesis’ takes centre stage in this short out strikingly powerful novella, tackling a very unique and powerful and — of course — a most dangerously impervious subject, and doing it not only in style, but with a genuine amount of vitriolic flavourings and an undeniable quality of prose that enables Pullman to be hubristic without being arrogant. This — the more I ponder it — intrepidity is a hallmark of an author at the top of their game and the result is a small piece of literature that makes a notable, poignant and not-so-small footprint in the historical fiction genre.

This is a stunningly confronting and moorish narrative, filled with theological concepts that has to be read to be appreciated in any meaningful way. What Pullman has achieved here, equated to a product of such quality it is scarily good. Without giving away a thing, Pullman has shared a perspective that very few have ever even pontificated em at least externally, in any documented sense. In fact, it may be that nye-on-no-one ever really existed. At very least, no one ever really knew could possibly exist in anything but a preposterous context.

The upside doesn’t end with the narrative either. The style and approach that the author has chosen to make use of their prose is an excellent pace and flow enabled. This combined with an excellently crafted, nuanced and congruent narrative makes each paragraph so very readable and more importantly it lends itself to then be also very reread-able at the same time. thanks to its layout and brilliant subheading style chapters that are on point in managing expectations without appearing condescending or acting as a circuit breaker — something known to happen with this technique used on the wrong context — which helps ensure not a single syllable is wasted here, every passage is poignant & direct. Something I am very much appreciative of in most novels I come across it.

This is one if the best novellas I’ve ever read, whilst it may be hard to categorise, it achieves a solid footing in the historical fiction genre in my book & maybe even the theological doctrine of published works.

A triumph, an author of diabolical skill, intellect and innovative methodology and conceptualised art.

Bravo 👏🏻
Profile Image for Nnedi.
Author 144 books14.9k followers
January 25, 2011
Well that was the most fun I've ever had reading about "The Good Man Jesus". :-). Quite an interesting take. I especially loved when Pullman went on a veiled rant near the end. That had me rather riveted, lol. A good read and discussion/argument catalyst for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Profile Image for Allen Roberts.
53 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2023
This is a short and metaphorical version of the Jesus story, with the premise that the Virgin Mary gave birth to twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus represents the historical Jesus (if there even was one) and his brother Christ represents the authors of the Gospels and Paul. A far more interesting take on the Jesus story can be found in Ki Longfellow’s The Secret Magdalene, a superb book that I highly recommend. Still, this isn’t a bad read. I give Pullman 4 stars for effort.
Profile Image for RB.
184 reviews150 followers
July 26, 2011
Initially I wanted to give this little novel 2 stars, for I wasn’t overly impressed by it. I have to be fair though. My expectations were definitely far off target and outside the author’s intention.

I expected to read an ironic and sarcastic retelling of the New Testament, which of course, after reading it, I realized was not the case. Because of my unfulfilled expectations I liked this book (probably) less than I would have otherwise. Still, I have chosen to give this book 3 stars, because I really liked the whole pretense of “what if Mary had twins when Jesus was born”, but mostly because of the author’s powerful afterword; powerful to me at least.

The afterword is powerful to me because of how much Pullman’s atheistic journey mirror’s my own: I too remember being shaped by Christianity while growing up in what is (probably) the most Catholic country in Europe (Italy). I remember believing in God, Jesus and all the other words and tales to be found in the Bible and that God was unquestionably GOOD. But as I grew, I began to notice the real world around me. I had seen and learned so much about reality, that when I reached the age of the First Communion believing in any God, or religion, became completely impossible for me, and this conviction has been unwavering and unchanging until this day – if anything, it has only grown stronger.
Profile Image for J..
1,396 reviews
June 11, 2012
I heard this book described a bunch of times as "subversive," but it was a major letdown on that count. About 60% of it is quoted verbatim from the gospels, which I've read. The remaining changes are mostly of the bizarre, rather than insightful, kind, like having Jesus rebuke Martha instead of Mary--what's the significance? The major plot twist, of course, is that Jesus is a pair of twins, Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the human, passionate, provocative, spiritual half while Christ is the intelligent, planning half. But this is just weird! Is this a metaphor for the dual nature of Christ? I don't think it is--I'm under the impression Pullman is particularly irreligious. But what am I, as a Christian, to do with this? It's just weird, not subversive.

And there are some other things, like the book goes over and over and over the difference between the church and real religion and the difference between truth-as-historical-fact and truth-as-spiritual-significance. But only a very shallow Christian hasn't already thought about these things a million times, and this book certainly doesn't bring in anything new. There's a weird change in Jesus' prayer in the garden and the absence of God, but how am I to fit it into the narrative? (More generally, Pullman changes "Jesus healed the guy" into "Jesus prayed for him and he felt a little better" and he changes the feeding of 5000 into the old Stone Soup fairytale from my childhood, but he doesn't ever seem to be able to really get rid of the miraculous.)

I'm a Christian, and the only thing really subversive (as opposed to just weird) in the story is the theft of Jesus' body. But that story has been told 1000 times over. There's just nothing in here that is both interesting and simultaneously unique. All the changes are either pointless or standard. I expected something much more challenging and interesting.
Profile Image for Beth Anne.
905 reviews19 followers
May 2, 2011

i was actually quite disappointed in this book. i expect more from pullman, and i feel like this was written to try to insight anger and controversy...but with really no payoff.

i'm not sure what i wanted out of this...but i can tell you what i didn't want, but got:

1. basically the entire story of the gospels paraphrased into a 145 page book, with some minor bullshit changes that really didn't cause me to think or question or even mildly ponder anything about religion.
2. a story of twin boys (Jesus and Christ) that bring to life some of the parables and stories of the gospel..but with no reason or meaning.
3. a poorly written, poorly conceived, poorly executed excuse for a satire.

i want to know why pullman has been so condemned by the catholic church. because reading this crappy book surely couldn't have done it? could it? or is that the joke that pullman is playing on us after all. putting out a poor excuse for a satire on the life of Jesus and showing how stupid the religious zealots and fundamentalists really are for getting angry about it?

believe me, i'm not offended by this book. in fact, i wanted to be offended...or at least see why someone would be offended. instead i got a shoddy retelling of shit i've been reading my whole life, with nothing challenging or engaging or critiquing. bleh.
Profile Image for Kevin Tole.
506 reviews23 followers
June 20, 2019
Phillip Pullman’s views on organised religion have become well known through the trilogy of His Dark Materials and his views represented therein have brought a heap of criticism down on his head, particularly from Catholic spokespeople and publications. That trilogy of books represented a step change in the quality of writing for younger readers and went far far beyond the jolly hockey sticks public school bollix epitomised in the extremely successful The Harry Potter trilogy and series of J.K. Rowling. That Pullman received all that condemnation from various Churches and was prepared to engage in debate whilst JKR is the dahling of the meejya and kinder alike says a lot about the quality of writing and the depth of the subject matter that Pullman espouses. He has also been quoted as stating that the trilogy in a sense was a rebuttal of C. S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia which he saw as religious propaganda.

Pullman wrote The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as part of the Canongate series on myths and was published in 2010. There has been much lively debate on both the book and Pullman’s position on religion and this is all available online.

Pullman posits the birth to Mary of twins, the strong Jesus and the weakly mother’s favourite of Christ. Their conception can be read in both ways – as an act of utter gullibility or as the annunciation and Holy conception. Where you stand will depend how you read it. Jesus grows up to be sturdy and strong and often in scrapes whilst his brother Christ is weaker, more homely and bookish and ready to help his brother out of the scrapes with a timely and pertinent excuse.

To write a review of this book draws one into the theological debate addressed by a number of eminent commentators or, alternatively, leads one merely into a description of the plotline episode by episode. One approach is beyond the compass of this site and the other leaves the reader hardly having to bother opening the book. A combination of both, a kind of LRB Lite might work.

Pullman writes the gospel of Christ and his teachings and events as a myth but leaves it to the reader to decide if this is truth or merely mythical fiction. The life of Jesus is played out through his positing of the twins Jesus and Christ, the first representing the preacher or messiah depending where you come from, and the latter as the chronicler of the acts and deeds. Christ is portrayed in different guises throughout the book – as the Devil tempting Jesus in the Wilderness, as Judas later in the book, as the PR man for the innovator, and essentially and definitely as the promoter for the Christian Church that must succeed the death of Jesus to promote the teachings. Jesus does things out of reason whilst Christ does things out of calculation. Christ is influenced and encouraged in his chronicling by the Stranger / Angel. His identity is kept shrouded and is a constant worry to Christ himself. Is he an Angel or is he the Devil? Are the scrolls of the chronicle meant as foundational documents in the story of Jesus’ mission or as tracts to condemn Jesus? Christ cannot tell, cannot decide. But the Stranger convinces Christ of the need for the chronicles to establish a future Church which will be an authority for guidance over all men and direct the teaching of the acts and the Ministry of Jesus. There is a very important division here between the work and the thoughts of Jesus and the work and the thoughts of Christ, even though Christ is devoted to his brother Jesus and the Kingdom of God to come, his belief is really just in Jesus alone and the step to believe in the imminent Kingdom of God is too much for Christ. Christ is mortal and imperfect whilst Jesus is played to be immortal and perfect.

A stark contrast is set up between an absolutist Jesus who believes absolutely in the delivery of the Kingdom of God on Earth, and the pragmatic Christ who sees the Kingdom as so perfect that it has no place on an imperfect Earth and that the nearest it can come into being is through and of the Church, which is in itself an image of the perfection of the Kingdom whilst retaining the earthly toils of potential imperfection. Jesus of course utterly and completely rejects the ideas of the Church. Jesus is seen as asking too much of an imperfect humanity. The Stranger encourages Christ with...
The Church will not and cannot be the Kingdom because the Kingdom is not of this world, but it will be a foreshadowing of the Kingdom – the one sure way to reach it.

For the reason of establishment of the Church Jesus has to be seen as super-human, not mortal and has to be resurrected to become God-like. And for this he must die. Without Death there cannot be any Resurrection. Christ chooses to believe that, like the saving of Isaac from the knife of Abraham, a ram will appear to spare the death of Jesus. He is duly arraigned and identified by the kiss of Christ-as-Judas and crucified by Pilate after trial by Caiphas and the Jewish ‘church’. There is no ram outlet. The Resurrection is achieved by the substitution of Christ for Jesus and at Emmaus, the transformation is complete with the descent of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and the disappearance of Christ to another life in absentia before the book rushes headlong for the exit and The End.

What Pullman sets us up with is a dualism of Jesus as the founding ethic of Christianity, for which there is a broad flavour of morally ‘in favour’ of, against Christ as the necessity of Church and the propagation of Christianity as a mode of conduct for humanity and the establishment of tenets for a way of life, a law and regulation which receives a degree of antagonism. One the one hand, FOR, and on the other, AGAINST. It is the Church that manipulates the events to see Jesus as God and therefore as the Messiah come to redeem humanity. This is what makes the Church, and for that to happen there MUST be a Resurrection, a movement beyond the mundane and sin, into the pure and the Kingdom of Heaven. And for that to happen then there must be Death. Without Death there can be no Resurrection and without Resurrection there can be no Kingdom of Heaven. So the Church legitimates the kingdom of Heaven through Death and the Resurrection. These are themes touched on by José Saramago in Death with Interruptions and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In fact the whole Jesus myth is grist to the mill for many authors. J.M. Coetzee plies his take in three books – The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and Death of Jesus. Even Mikhail Bulgakov uses the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as a metaphor in The Master and Margarita.

Pullman’s work is quite different from these authors and works. This is like a polemic against the hegemony of the Church. Here Jesus is NOT identified with the Church, whilst Christ IS the foundation, to a degree against his will, of the Church. What emerges on reflection after reading the book is Pullman’s longing for the essential tenets of the teachings of Jesus, a longing for a better, more just world, a world where love is the fundamental, rather than the power and riches and law of the Church. There are sections which are deeply illuminating of Pullman’s moral stance here and which both question and illuminate his alleged atheism. In the scene in Gethsemane there is a whole dialogue as Jesus prays and which in the end leads to Jesus questioning the existence of God.
’You’re not listening’, he whispered. ‘I’ve been speaking to you all my life and all I’ve heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you out there among the stars? Is that it? Busy making another world, perhaps, because you’re sick of this one? You’ve gone away, haven’t you, you’ve abandoned us.’......
‘The psalm says, “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” Well I understand that fool.

This whole section is deeply illuminating of Pullman’s personal belief as are long sections of dialogue between the Stranger / Angel and a wavering and unsettled Christ who does not want to see the death of Love and Beauty personified in Jesus as the price for the Establishment of the Church.
’Be calm, dear Christ. All shall be well. Jesus wanted a state of things that no human being could have borne for long. People are capable of great things, but only when great circumstances call on them. They can’t live at that pitch all the time, and most circumstances are not great. In daily life people are tempted by comfort and peace; they are a little lazy, a little greedy, a little cowardly, a little lustful, a little vain, a little irritable, a little envious. They are not good for much, but we have to deal with them as they are. Among other things, they are credulous; so they like mysteries, and they adore miracles. But you know this well; you said this to Jesus some time ago. As usual, you were right, and as usual, he didn’t listen.’

Above all beyond atheism, Pullman is a humanist. He believes in Man, he believes in beauty and love, but at the same time he rejects the marshalling and the contemptibility of a Church which regiments and provides dogma.

This is a far better book than you might imagine it to be as you read it. It appears on the surface just to be a rewrite from another perspective of passages of the New Testament. But it is only on reflection that the quality of not only Pullman’s superb storytelling is apparent, but also his message and his beliefs. This is a bold book by a bold author not afraid to challenge.
Profile Image for Anton.
261 reviews84 followers
December 30, 2022
Great read! The narration by the author is also excellent. The Audible version is very recommended.

This book is deceptively deep despite its playful title and short length—a clever re-telling of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. The critique of formal church/faith is biting. So if you are a churchgoer, consider yourself warned.

Some of the core themes for me personally resonated with "Jesus Christ Superstar" https://open.spotify.com/album/0JzstR... as well as chapters from The Master and Margarita set in Palestine.

I have encountered this plot device of a famous hero actually being a twin in the Герой должен быть один by Ukrainian authors writing under a penname of Henry Lion Oldie. In their case, they have chosen Hercules. Philip Pullman is pulling no punches going after Jesus Christ himself.

A short book that is very worth your time.

The next stop for me is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
727 reviews174 followers
November 21, 2015
Credit should be given to Canongate and its Myth Series for having the spine to include Christian mythology in a series which also includes such twits as Karen Armstrong. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a retelling of the Jesus myth, with the twist that Jesus Christ was actually two people: Jesus and his twin brother who is nicknamed Christ. This sounds pretty lame, and to be honest, it sort of is. It's still Pullman, though, so it's alright. And if you disagree, at least it's short.

It's by no means an anti-Christian work, though it will undoubtedly inspire many of them to the letter-writing and flame-posting for which they are notorious. It doesn't gloss over those bits of the New Testament that most modern preachers like to pretend don't exist (the bits about hating your immediate family, not abolishing Mosaic law, not bringing peace but a sword, and the dog gentile story, in particular; though it does skip the highly entertaining cursing of the fig tree), but the over-all message is still that Jesus is fundamentally an awesome person. This being Pullman, a lot of the supernatural aspects are removed or made ambiguous (including the big one), but there's still plenty left.
It's not even necessarily anti-organised religion. There's a bit in the final chapter where Christ believes the Church will be a force of terrible evil as well as a force of inconceivable good, but the emphasis is mostly on the "as well as" even there.

Ultimately, it seems as if Pullman wanted to make the point that you don't have to make a point about the myth you're retelling. The other books in this series (I've only read Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad) certainly aren't written to make points about Greek mythology or Norse mythology or Japanese mythology; why should this one just because it's about a myth some people still take as fact?
And to be honest, that's a fair enough point to make.
Profile Image for Kim.
1,234 reviews21 followers
July 1, 2010
A couple of things:
1. This is a novel. It should not been seen as anything but.
2. If you think you might be offended by this book, don't read it.
3. Philip Pullman doesn't like organized religion (specifically Christian/Catholic), so if you're a big fan of organized religion and are offended by any criticism of Christianity (which, lets face it, has had a lot of really bad stuff done in it's name), please don't read this book. It would only serve to upset you &, really, what is the point of that?
That said, Pullman definitely knows his Christianity. He's also brilliant and well-read. The His Dark Material's trilogy is pure genius. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, however, isn't. It didn't really needed to be written. Sure, it offers a unique twist on the bible story, but overall, I find it an unnecessary story. The only real redeeming part of the story is when Jesus questions the existence of God. Pullman's love of the world we live in really shines through and many of the passages are quote-worthy. This is not enough to really carry the book though.
In conclusion, let me say that I agree with Pullman in many respects when it comes to religion. I am very anti-organized religion because I also believe it creates excuses for people to persecute others (trust me, I've been through much persecution in my own life by "good" Christians). But, I still didn't see much of a point in reading this book. It didn't really offer anything very new or interesting and that was very disappointing.
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