DISCARDING THE DIVINITY OF JESUS ; THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRIST by Philip Pullman (Canongate, Pounds 14.99) CONCEIVING GOD; THE COGNITIVE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF RELIGION by David Lewis Williams (Thames and Hudson, Pounds 18.95)

Article excerpt

REMEMBER, anyone, the Private Eye Christmas cover that features a traditional Nativity scene, with Mary, angels and the rest? The caption, from Joseph, goes: "It's a girl!" Another variant is: "It's twins!" That last one is the gist of this book by Philip Pullman on the subject of Jesus Christ, or, as he puts it, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ. On the back of the book, he explains: "This is a story." And the story goes that Mary bore not one boy, but two.

One was a disagreeable child, called Christ. The other was a sturdy, charismatic boy called Jesus, who is inspired by John the Baptist to become an itinerant preacher after his baptism. He preaches the coming of the Kingdom, spends time with sinners and prostitutes and is crucified by the Romans. So much, so familiar.

But it's the unpleasant Christ who invents the figure we know as Jesus Christ. He's the swot, envious of his brother's charisma, who hangs around in the crowds to make notes of what Jesus says and does. Except he doesn't just take notes. He elaborates what he hears, corrects any sayings he disapproves of, and generally has an eye on posterity.

In this he is encouraged by a curious stranger who is, he thinks, an angel, who appears out of nowhere and causes him to rework his brother's image in a way that will be compatible with an institution founded in his name. This sinister conspiracy to establish something called a church is finally completed when the stranger persuades Christ to betray Jesus to the Romans, then masquerade as the Lord to his gullible followers after the Crucifixion.

The risen Christ is actually the scoundrel Christ; Jesus's body had been taken away by shadowy men after it was placed in the tomb. Well, you can see why Pullman put in that bit on the back about it being a story.

But it's worth unpicking the thinking behind this engagingly written blasphemy.

Pullman's grandfather was an Anglican clergyman; he knows his scripture; he's a better class of atheist than most of the current polemicists. Jesus Christ is, for such a man, a challenge.

There's the beauty and power of his words and gestures, the transformative effect of his life. …