Jesus' Twin: Philip Pullman Takes On The Gospel

The devil tempts Jesus in the desert. i i
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The devil tempts Jesus in the desert.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is a much loved work of literature — but not universally loved. The author Philip Pullman is one of its best-known detractors. An atheist, Pullman despised the messages embedded in Lewis' Christian allegory, so he wrote his own trilogy in response, titled His Dark Materials after a line from Milton's Paradise Lost.

The His Dark Materials trilogy made Pullman famous — the first book was made into the special-effects-heavy film The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman — and was widely recognized as an attack on religion, so Pullman's inspiration for his new book came from an unlikely source: the archbishop of Canterbury. It happened one evening when the two were appearing together to discuss His Dark Materials.

"He pointed out that although I dealt with organized religion in that novel, His Dark Materials, I hadn't actually mentioned Jesus," Pullman says. Instead, the archbishop asked Pullman, "Now where did he fit into my ... alternative world?"

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Pullman resolved at that moment that he would write a book about Jesus. Some years later, the result is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

In Pullman's version of the story, Jesus has a twin brother named Christ.

"I was intrigued, you see, by the difference between the two parts of the name Jesus Christ that we commonly use interchangeably," Pullman says. "So I thought, 'Well, maybe there is a difference. Maybe there are two beings here, not one.' "

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
By Philip Pullman
Hardcover, 256 pages
Canongate U.S.
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt

Christ, his mother's favorite, is weaker than Jesus both physically and emotionally. Jesus takes up his father's trade, but early in his life he asserts his independence from his family: He becomes an itinerant preacher, attracting big crowds with his charismatic personality. Christ follows his brother, watching from the sidelines and writing down what he does, and then embellishing the truth, even reporting miracles when there were none. Pullman says his Jesus tracks closely with the Jesus described in the New Testament, but Christ is his own invention.

"Christ is this complicated character, and I call him a 'scoundrel' in the title but we soon come to see he not so much of a scoundrel as a confused man. Christ is like a figure in a novel," Pullman says. "He's the only figure in the story who is like a figure in a novel, because he is the only one who is made up."

Another fictional character lurks on the pages of Pullman's book, known only as "the stranger." He appears to Christ from time to time, encouraging him to continue writing down his version of what Jesus does and says, giving the impression that Jesus is more than just an ordinary man. It is important, the stranger tells Christ, to interpret what Jesus means for his future followers. For a long time, Christ thinks the stranger is an angel, but Pullman keeps his identity a mystery.

"I wanted the reader to wonder about it. And I hope people will talk about it and wonder who this could be," the author says. "If I had to name the stranger — which I try not to do throughout the book and whenever Christ seeks to know his name, the stranger asks him a question or evades it in some way — but if I was pinned to the spot and forced to say what he was, I would say he was the spirit of the church, really."

Eventually Christ betrays Jesus and stages his resurrection. As Christ begins to realize that what he is doing will lead to the creation of a church based on untruths, the stranger argues that the deception is worth it:

"Think of a sick man wracked with pain and fear. Think of a dying woman terrified by the coming darkness. there will be hands reaching out to comfort them and feed them and warm them."

Philip Pullman i i

hide captionPhilip Pullman has characterized his His Dark Materials trilogy as a theological inversion of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series.

K.T. Bruce
Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman has characterized his His Dark Materials trilogy as a theological inversion of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series.

K.T. Bruce

Pullman says that the Jesus who emerges from this story is a real person, a man the author admires for his strength and conviction, not to mention his gift for storytelling. But this Jesus is no god; if anything, he is all too human.

"He's abrupt, he's scornful of his brother's arguments, and yet he's genuinely capable of tenderness and care," Pullman says. "In the only passage where he speaks at length, towards the end of the book in the garden of Gethsemane, he really gives voice to what I feel and think about these big questions."

As Pullman imagines Jesus in the hours before his crucifixion, there is no reprieve from despair, only anger at a God who does not hear his prayers:

"You're making a liar out of me, you realize that. I don't want to tell lies. I want to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all and you're not. You're blind as well as deaf as far as I can tell."

Pullman knows that his interpretation of the life of Jesus could draw the ire of some Christians; at one early public appearance extra security was added in case of protests. But Pullman says he doesn't really expect to encounter angry mobs. And he says he doesn't care if people don't like the book, as long as they really read it and remember one thing.

"This is a story among other stories, it doesn't make any claims to be the truth about anything," he says.

Pullman says he hopes his book will send readers back to one of the other versions of this story: the Bible. He believes they might be surprised by some of the inconsistencies they find there.

Excerpt: 'The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ'

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
By Philip Pullman
Hardcover, 256 pages
Canongate U.S.
List price: $24

Mary and Joseph

This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died. The death of the other is not part of the story.

As the world knows, their mother was called Mary. She was the daughter of Joachim and Anna, a rich, pious and elderly couple who had never had a child, much as they prayed for one. It was considered shameful that Joachim had never fathered any offspring, and he felt the shame keenly. Anna was just as unhappy. One day she saw a nest of sparrows in a laurel tree, and wept that even the birds and the beasts could produce young, when she could not.

Finally, however, possibly because of their fervent prayers, Anna conceived a child, and in due course she gave birth to a girl. Joachim and Anna vowed to dedicate her to the Lord God, so they took her to the temple and offered her to the high priest Zacharias, who kissed her and blessed her and took her into his care.

Zacharias nurtured the child like a dove, and she danced for the Lord, and everyone loved her for her grace and simplicity.

But she grew as every other girl did, and when she was twelve years old the priests of the temple realised that before long she would begin to bleed every month. That, of course, would pollute the holy place. What could they do? They had taken charge of her; they couldn't simply throw her out.

So Zacharias prayed, and an angel told him what to do. They should find a husband for Mary, but he should be a good deal older, a steady and experienced man. A widower would be ideal. The angel gave precise instructions, and promised a miracle to confirm the choice of the right man.

Accordingly, Zacharias called together as many widowers as he could find. Each one was to bring with him a wooden rod. A dozen or more men came in answer, some young, some middle-aged, some old. Among them was a carpenter called Joseph.

Consulting his instructions, Zacharias gathered all the rods together and prayed over them before giving them back. The last to receive his rod was Joseph, and as soon as it came into his hand it burst into flower.

'You're the one!' said Zacharias. 'The Lord has commanded that you should marry the girl Mary.'

'But I'm an old man!' said Joseph. 'And I have sons older than the girl. I shall be a laughing-stock.'

'Do as you are commanded,' said Zacharias, 'or face the anger of the Lord. Remember what happened to Korah.'

Korah was a Levite who had challenged the authority of Moses. As a punishment the earth opened under him and swallowed him up, together with all his household.

Joseph was afraid, and reluctantly agreed to take the girl in marriage. He took her back to his house.

'You must stay here while I go about my work,' he told her. 'I'll come back to you in good time. The Lord will watch over you.'

In Joseph's household Mary worked so hard and behaved so modestly that no one had a word of criticism for her. She spun wool, she made bread, she drew water from the well, and as she grew and became a young woman there were many who wondered at this strange marriage, and at Joseph's absence. There were others, too, young men in particular, who would try to speak to her and smile engagingly, but she said little in reply and kept her eyes on the ground. It was easy to see how simple and good she was.

And time went past.


The Birth of John

Now Zacharias the high priest was old like Joseph, and his wife Elizabeth was elderly too. Like Joachim and Anna, they had never had a child, much as they desired one.

One day Zacharias saw an angel, who told him 'Your wife will bear a child, and you must call him John.'

Zacharias was astounded, and said 'How can that possibly be? I am an old man, and my wife is barren.'

'It will happen,' said the angel. 'And until it does, you shall be mute, since you did not believe me.'

And so it was. Zacharias could no longer speak. But shortly after that Elizabeth conceived a child, and was overjoyed, because her barrenness had been a disgrace and hard to endure.

When the time came, she bore a son. As they were going to circumcise him they asked what he should be called, and Zacharias took a tablet and wrote 'John'.

His relatives were surprised, because none of the family had that name; but as soon as he had written it, Zacharias became able to speak again, and this miracle confirmed the choice. The boy was named John.


The Conception of Jesus

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.

One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.

'Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips ...'

She was confused, and said 'Who are you?'

'I am an angel,' said the voice. 'Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.'

She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.

'What is the secret?' she said.

'You are going to conceive a child,' said the angel.

Mary was bewildered.

'But my husband is away,' she said.

'Ah, the Lord wants this to happen at once. I have come from him especially to bring it about. Mary, you are blessed among women, that this should come to you! You must give thanks to the Lord.'

And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.

When Joseph came home from the work that had taken him away, he was dismayed beyond measure to find his wife expecting a child. He hid his head in his cloak, he threw himself to the ground, he wept bitterly, he covered himself with ashes.

'Lord,' he cried, 'forgive me! Forgive me! What sort of care is this? I took this child as a virgin from the temple, and look at her now! I should have kept her safe, but I left her alone just as Adam left Eve, and look, the serpent has come to her in the same way!'

He called her to him and said 'Mary, my poor child, what have you done? You that were so pure and good, to have betrayed your innocence! Who is the man that did this?'

She wept bitterly, and said 'I've done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!'

Joseph was troubled. If this was really God's will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.

From The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. Copyright 2010 by Philip Pullman. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic Inc.

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