Pullman is well-known for his novels for children, particularly The Northern Lights trilogy and his series of Victorian-set novels featuring Sally Lockhart, amongst others, and he’s also attracted a good deal of interest and criticism for outspoken anti-religion and atheist views. While I’ve never managed to get through even one of the Northern Lights books, I have enjoyed the Sally Lockhart books and so when I first heard of this book, which is very clearly fiction, I was intrigued.
Pullman’s premise in this very short book is that Mary gave birth to twins, the elder and stronger of whom she and Joseph called Jesus, and the second, because of the prophecy made by the astrologers who visited them in Bethlehem when the twins were born, Christ – or Messiah. Over the first few chapters, it seems that (were it not for the title) Christ is the one destined for great things: performer of miracles, quoter of scripture; a remarkable child. He’s not much like Jesus, who’s a robust, mischievous boy.
Jesus, however, is inspired by John the Baptist’s preaching to preach himself, and the story unfolds in the traditional way, except that some of the stories he tells or the deeds he does are different from the ones presented in the Bible we know – similar, but different. Christ takes it upon himself to write down Jesus’ sayings, but instead of leaving the words spoken or the healing performed to speak for themselves, Christ is trying to create a religion based around Jesus, whereas Jesus is not concerned with that, and in fact rejects the idea of the kind of church which Christ considers necessary:
“Is that all you’ve learned from the scriptures? To put on a sensational show for the credulous? You’d do better to forget about that and attend to the real meaning of things. Remember what the scripture says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
In fact Christ plays the traditional role of Satan in this passage, tempting Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness, but certain that if Jesus performed miracles and did great deeds, that the people would follow Jesus to the ends of the earth.
Christ is encouraged in his endeavour by a nameless stranger whom he thinks may be a teacher, or a member of the Sanhedrin, or an angel, or merely a prosperous dealer in carpets: this stranger is portrayed ambiguously by Pullman, and one is left to draw one’s own conclusions as to who he is.
While Jesus, through his teaching, is sure of himself and his message, Christ is full of self-doubt, and is – he thinks – manipulated by the stranger into betrayal and lies. But even Jesus suffers doubt, at last: in the Garden of Gethsemane (where the gospels show him praying that his foreseen death, and eventual resurrection, would not come to pass) Pullman has him confronting the idea that God does not exist, or has gone away, and has no care for his people. It’s a very moving passage.
This book shows us how truth can be manipulated into history, and how Pullman’s very abrasive but loving Jesus is turned into a different figure by the changing of significant details: for example, when John baptises Jesus, Christ sees a dove flying over his brother’s head, but he imagines words being said; later, he doesn’t even remember how the dove’s flight was transformed into the story which everyone knows, and remembers God’s voice speaking.
It’s a thought-provoking book, well-written and in a simple style. Pullman treats his Jesus with respect and love, but reserves all his scorn for Christ’s false truth and desire for religion – a hierarchical organisation, terrifying its believers, and withholding its scriptures from the faithful – and has Jesus foresee the wrongs done in the name of Christianity in an imagined future.
I don’t know whether a committed Christian would enjoy this book, and in fact it’s rather a brutal story which Pullman tells, but I think that his Jesus is very believable, set in the context of his time and locality, and his words are reported in a very direct, accessible style. Pullman’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example, doesn’t stray from the account in the gospels, but the language used is direct and vivid.
Just one word of warning, the cover price of this book is pretty expensive for what is a slight paperback.