The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ


Christ is indeed that saddest figure in the Gospels, the conscientious, quiet-living brother of the Prodigal Son, who is forgotten and thrust aside in the excitement when the bedraggled young man comes back to a festive welcome from his doting father. In Pullman’s apocrypha, this Gospel parable becomes the reality of family life for Joseph and Mary. Christ takes to following Jesus secretly, listening to his words, writing them down and tidying them up when their message is troubling or a challenge to common sense: yet he cannot bring himself wholly to supersede the message he hears, and traces remain of the wildness of the original. Christ’s record of Jesus’s teaching becomes a strange mixture with a new agenda: as the angel-stranger says to Christ, Jesus ‘is the history, and you are the truth’. It is Christ who invents the Church, an invention that is far from Jesus’s intentions (his ultimate goal is not nearly so clear). Humiliated by his own failure to love a repulsive beggar unconditionally, Christ decides that the only way that the world’s ills can be healed is for his brother to suffer publicly for the people. Whether Christ is capable of seeing that a crucifixion will be the outcome of his betrayal is irrelevant to the treachery. I will not spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the story is intended to point to Christianity as it exists today, in all its beauty, poetry, and artistic creativity, as well as the side of Christian history that is disfigured by intolerance, arrogance, stupidity and cruelty.

more from Diarmaid MacCulloch at Literary Review here.