The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

By Conrad, JoAnn | Marvels & Tales, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ


Conrad, JoAnn, Marvels & Tales


The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. By Philip Pullman. New York: Canongate, 2010. 256 pp.

Pullman retells the story of Jesus Christ as that of two twins, but, rather than cast as opposites, or, as the title suggests, as good and evil twins, both Jesus and his brother, Christ, are complicated, interdependent, and ambiguous. More importantly, Pullman uses this split as a device to interrogate the process of narrativization, the role of storytelling: Jesus is a charismatic iconoclast whose teachings and life are retold by Christ to accommodate the needs of a budding religious institution. At the encouragement of a mysterious stranger, Christ begins to record and interpret Jesus's life. As the force behind the story, "knot [ting] the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences" (244), Christ embodies the ideological work of mythologization - the process by which events become the story.

To a modern readership, for whom the standardized story of Jesus Christ has been naturalized, Pullman's rendering is a "subversive retelling" that "challeng[es] the events of the gospels" (front cover flap). However, almost all of what Pullman develops in a modern, psychological manner is derived from gospel or apocryphal tradition. The very core premise of the two twins is not only widespread in mythological tradition, but it is also specifically anticipated in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, written in the third century, in which Didymos Judas Thomas is Jesus's twin and scribe. Pullman does subvert the content of these gospels, however: The Gospel of Thomas consists of the sayings of Jesus, with no narratives, and is therefore thought by some to be a more historical representative of the man than subsequent narratives of his life. In Pullman's version, however, Christ records the events in Jesus's life from instand secondhand observation, embellishing and editing to make the story more like Truth. Additionally, the purpose of this narrativization in Pullman's version is the establishment of an institutional canon for the worldly Church. In contrast, the Gospel of Thomas, emphasizing the mystical tradition of seeking the "inner light," was marginalized in mainstream Catholicism. Pullman playfully weaves Thomas into the very story line as well.

Pullman's story of the twins Jesus and Christ roughly falls into two parts: the events leading up to their births and early lives, derived from the apocryphal stories in circulation; and the stories of the life and death of Jesus the preacher and the foundation of the Church, deriving from the four gospels. Modern readers of classical mythology as well as those raised in Christianity will be accustomed to the unexplained childhood of the hero, and yet, for Christians of the Middle Ages, these stories circulated as popular tales, and the iconography of the lives of Mary, St. Ann, John the Baptist, and Jesus in churches not only informed the faithful but also are the sediments of that knowledge into the present day. Pullman merely taps into that reservoir: the miraculous conceptions of Mary and John the Baptist, both to old, barren parents; the selection of the aged Joseph as Mary's husband by virtue of the sign of the flowering rod; the miracles of the child Jesus, making clay birds fly, sorting out the dyed yarn, and so on (see The Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas). These may seem new and novel to contemporary readers, but Pullman has adapted them into his story of the twin brothers - Jesus gets into trouble by virtue of his miraculous child's pranks, and Christ, the favorite of Mary, sorts things out. These short vignettes disrupt the conventional good-bad twin scenario, rendering the Holy Family average, ambiguous, and ordinary. …

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