Improving the Story

Frank Kermode

  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
    Canongate, 245 pp, £14.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 1 84767 825 6

This book describes itself on its jacket as ‘a retelling of the life of Jesus’ and also as a book about ‘how stories become stories’; which might lead one to expect some sort of refined Jamesian experiment, for it was James who thought a novel, if thoroughly ‘done’, was as much about itself as about its ostensible topic. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, however, is a game of an older kind. Philip Pullman is a writer admirable for his control of tone and genre. Open his trilogy, His Dark Materials, almost anywhere and you may find bears boasting their readiness for ritual combat in language vaguely reminiscent of Beowulf, and onlookers who enjoy the company and protection of friendly daemons, all of it plausible and smooth. But this new book has nothing to do with that sort of thing, being a reworking in plain language of the familiar story of the birth, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Obviously most of the material is drawn from the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke, with Mark behind them and John ignoring them. They offer accounts of the infancy of Jesus that are often quite wildly at odds with one another, but anyone wanting to retell the tale can pick and choose, ignoring conflicts of testimony and adding more if desired. It does not bother many people that Matthew and Luke supply contradictory accounts of the holy family’s straitened accommodation in Bethlehem, or of the Annunciation, or of later events in the life of the boy Jesus, like his teaching in the Temple. There is more fanciful material in various uncanonical writings – anecdotes of the childhood of Jesus, for example the one about him making clay sparrows and ordering them to fly away – now perhaps remembered only by aged fans of Hilaire Belloc, mere fairy stories, presumably always recognised as offering a different kind of truth from that proposed by the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, truth of the sort defined, by a sinister character in this latest treatment, as being independent of history.

The reason such conflicts are not a serious problem to retellers of the tale is that, taken as a whole, the story has a clear outline, and elements that conflict with it may be omitted or ignored. It may be slightly puzzling, but in the end it doesn’t do much harm that Mark represents Jesus as not being on very good terms with his mother, or as referring to Gentiles as dogs. The author of The Good Man Jesus can draw on three versions (Mark, Matthew, Luke) of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and he uses most of that material but significantly changes the identity of the tempter. On the other hand, there are passages not really essential to the main story but of strong appeal to a storyteller. It was necessary to report Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, but the dance of Salome could, perhaps, have been left out.

Parables, a specialised form of biblical narrative, can be inserted into the new version of the story, regardless of their original position, wherever there seems to be a rough fit. (The story as told here actually contains two adapted versions of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which occurs in its original form only once, in Luke.) The shepherds, the Wise Men, the star, can all be freely admitted as part of the story of which the main issue is the betrayal of Jesus by an agent who takes shape as Judas Iscariot. Judas has nothing directly to do with the earlier parts of the story of Jesus (apart from stealing the group’s funds) until, near the end of it, he betrays his leader. But because he does that Judas becomes a person in whose life we are strongly encouraged to take an interest. We could make up more stories about his actions and his character, and we still can: there seems no end to our doing so. And because that desire to do so is perennial the author can involve us in other crises, like the dilemma of Joseph when he discovers that his virgin wife is pregnant, or the reaction of Zacharias to the discovery that his entirely unexpected child falls under Herod’s order for the massacre of two-year-old boys. (In this new version Zacharias himself is killed by Herod; a fragment of dialogue is added to the biblical text in a manner quite consistent with the usual practices of biblical storytelling.)

So the basic story could easily bear additions or interpretations, anticipations of modern realism as well as fairy stories. It was traditional Jewish practice to adorn or adapt existing Old Testament stories to changed contemporary circumstances, and the Jews who produced what was to become the New Testament followed suit. Apocryphal gospels are quite rich in additional stories about Pilate, Doubting Thomas and Judas.

Judas Iscariot is in some ways an odd presence both in the Bible story and the Apocrypha. The earliest New Testament reference to the betrayal of Christ was the work of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, a letter written a generation or so before Mark and Matthew (‘On the same night in which he was betrayed took bread …’). Paul deals rather abstractly with ‘betrayal’, naming no names. The gospel references to Judas at the scene of the Last Supper and the arrest make him seem rather like a character, new to the reader, brought in specially to do the one necessary thing – to identify Jesus and point him out. Mark and Matthew both announce him as ‘Judas, one of the Twelve’. John is more definite: ‘Judas, the one betraying him’. At the time of the arrest the action is rapid: a detachment of soldiers is moving up from the city, looking for the man they want to arrest. Judas’ kiss of recognition is a narrative as well as a symbolic act. After he has decided to commit it much more will inescapably happen and Judas will be compelled into further action and suffering. Much more will then be said to have happened to him, whether it did or not.

Mark describes Judas’ visit to the chief priests, and Matthew records the dialogue that followed: ‘What will you give me if I show him to you?’ The answer is 30 pieces of silver. After the arrest Judas, struck down by guilt, throws his silver into the forecourt of the temple. It is to be used as the price of buying the land for a strangers’ cemetery. But Judas is now a character in his own right; almost any account that can be given of him is credible. His crime is greed, or suicide; he is remorseful, or perhaps he is possessed by the devil. He begins an extraordinary new career: the greatest villain in Dante’s universe, a saint of the Ethiopian and some other churches. It has even been suggested that he was Jesus’ Beloved Disciple, that it was to him Jesus offered the dipped morsel of bread at supper.

Pullman’s version is new, if not absolutely so. The existence of a twin brother of Jesus is mentioned from time to time in early texts. He was named Thomas Didymus – the first an Aramaic, the second a Greek word for ‘twin’. Pullman names the elder twin Jesus and the younger Christ. Their relationship as described in infancy and childhood is not close. Christ is sickly, a secret favourite of his mother, credibly odious. Jesus is a healthy, simple, good character who gets into scrapes from which Christ acquires merit by trying to rescue him. Embarked on his mission, Jesus preaches simple goodness and charity, deploring dependence on miracles, confident that his and not his brother’s (for Christ thinks of miracles as stunts to impress the crowd) is the right way to prepare for the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ, who unavailingly plays the part of the devil in Jesus’ wilderness temptation, believes that the people must be prepared for the arrival of the Kingdom by demonstrations of power – of ‘mighty works’, as the gospels express it – and by the exercise of what would later be recognised as ecclesiastical authority. He keeps a sharp eye on, and a written record of, his brother’s mission, noting especially what might be repeated to his discredit.

Christ is under the influence of a nameless Stranger. This man predicts that a time of trouble must precede the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. He converts Christ to a corrupt view of the relation of truth to history. Truth, he believes, belongs to what is beyond time. ‘In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.’ And now history becomes, for Christ, ‘the handmaid of posterity and not its governor’. The truth from beyond time is the truth as understood by the powerful, the ecclesiastical, and they regard that notion of truth as necessary to the control of the earthly kingdom. It is noteworthy that the Stranger is a Gentile, and he calls the earthly kingdom ‘a church’. That earthly happiness, oppressed by such authority, will never really exist is a secret imparted to Christ as the story ends. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas/Christ began in the cradle and ends in Gethsemane, where Jesus has a long colloquy with a silent God, in the course of which he remarks that the devil will love the idea of the church:

As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power, whether it’s in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn’t long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other.

This is the beginning of an impressive harangue, the political centre of this interesting novel. A true, charismatic Christianity is set against a highly institutionalised church. The inferior twin allows Peter’s authority in that institution, but it is Christ who wields the greater power, finally claiming to be himself the Logos, the Word which existed before time, as well as the man who rose from the dead.

At the end Christ, having regained possession of the record of Jesus’ ministry, wonders no longer about truth but rather how he could improve the whole story – perhaps rehandling the Nativity sequence to include more childish miracles, celebrating a baby who was God incarnate, and whose death should if possible be more moving than the one he has written down. He had been responsible for the death of his brother, forcing him to accept crucifixion, but now finds that fact of less concern than the interesting possibilities of his story.

These complexities of motive and performance, of occult connections newly noticed as the artist works at his story, are full of interest. It emerges that the party of Christ and the church has a fascistic colouring. There is a strong anti-Catholic theme. But on his side Jesus was guilty of millennialist optimism, expecting the Kingdom of Heaven too soon, or not at all, and dismissing ‘mighty works’ as totally undesirable, in spite of their working so well for Christ’s church. In his purity Jesus was ‘asking too much of people’. The church, an angel advises Christ, will not be the Kingdom unless ‘at the centre of it is the ever-living presence of a man who is both a man and more than a man, a man who is also God and the word of God.’ The story is of a man who dies and is brought back to life. Without that story the church will wither away; a mere image of itself, a vain foreshadowing of the Kingdom. And without that story there can be no church.

The charm of this book lies in its seriousness about the story it tells, and about its being a story. Christ, the survivor, the writer, gets excited about the possibilities he sees in the record of Jesus’ life – he wants ‘to play with it … to give it a better shape … to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences’ – and of course the book at present in our hands is the result of agile manoeuvres and devious inspirations of exactly that kind.