The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christby Philip Pullman
In this spellbinding and fiercely subversive retelling of the life of Jesus, a best-selling, award-winning writer reimagines the most influential story ever told.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is the remarkable new piece of fiction from best-selling and famously atheistic author Philip Pullman. By challenging the events of the gospels, Pullman puts forward his own compelling and plausible version of the life of Jesus, and in so doing, does what all great books do: makes the reader ask questions.
In Pullman’s own words, “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”
Written with unstinting authority, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a pithy, erudite, subtle, and powerful book by a controversial and beloved author. It is a text to be read and reread, studied and unpacked, much like the Good Book itself.
“[Philip Pullman is] one of the finest British writers of his generation. . . . The attention-grabbing title alone—The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—has been enough to rouse his enemies, and reinforce his image as a church-baiting atheist who’s beyond redemption. . . . Yet this isn’t the indiscriminate anger of a proselytizing atheist. Pullman is too fair-minded. . . . Love his answers or not, Pullman’s honesty is hard to hate.” —William Underhill, Newsweek
“[With] His Dark Materials, his masterpiece trilogy . . . Pullman has written the most thrilling and imaginative novels in a generation. . . . The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a masterfully timed book, arriving just as the Catholic Church—Pullman’s enemy No. 1—convulses over priestly child abuse and papal cover-ups. . . .Give Pullman high marks for moxie: How many writers would dare to try to rewrite—no, to repair—the most famous, most sacred story ever written?” —David Plotz, Slate
“The erudite fantasy author Philip Pullman makes explicit his complaint against Christian dogma with [this] challenging deconstruction of the Gospels.” —Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
“Beautifully written, human, memorable, and resonant.” —Philip Hensher, The Australian
“Pullman has an extraordinary imagination . . . [and] there are moments of heart-rending personal drama.” —Nicholas Tucker, Independent on Sunday
“Turns a gaze on the Jewish prophet from Nazareth that is both satirical and serious, blending canonical gospel, ancient Apocrypha, modern critical commentary, and the wit and subtle invention of a great storyteller.” —Diarmaid MacCulloch, Literary Review (UK)
“[The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is] Pullman at his very best, limpid and economical . . . A very bold and deliberately outrageous fable . . . introducing something quite different, a voice of genuine spiritual authority. Because that is what Pullman’s Jesus undoubtedly is.” —Rowan Williams, The Guardian (UK)
“Provocative . . . Many Christian readers will recoil in horror at Mr. Pullman’s plunge into heresy. But he is wrestling with the same question they are: how divinity and humanity could co-exist in the founder of their religion.” —The Economist
“Inspiring . . . Again and again, [Pullman] displays a marvelous sense of the elemental power of Jesus’s instructions and parables. Even when he transforms the canonical stories to match his atheist perspective, he emphasizes the basic Christian theme of universal love. . . . The action moves toward a conclusion that’s inevitable but still startling and moving. Yes, some Christians will be offended by this book . . . but any honest reader will find here a brisk and bracing story of profound implications. And it’s bound to send some readers back to the Bible, looking more closely at Jesus’s words and especially at all those other words crowded around Him.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Imaginative and thought-provoking . . . A compelling portrait of Jesus . . . [Pullman] is asking readers to move beyond theology and religion. As a literary work, Pullman’s story examines perspective and how it influences storytelling. [He] provides a superb example of how history relies on narrative and narrative relies on point of view. . . . This is, at its core, a book about the power of storytelling and storytellers. . . . The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ asks us to read and then to think—really think—about what we have read, and that is precisely what we all should do.” —Catherine Mallette, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Thought-provoking . . . Add to [Pullman’s] passion his considerable gifts as a storyteller, and you have the ingredients for a powerful treatment of a familiar story. . . . There is no lack of . . . inventiveness . . . but it is always framed by Pullman’s keen awareness of the gospel narratives. He knows just how much of a revered story needs to remain intact in order to make its metamorphosis compelling. . . . Pullman gives us an affecting portrait of faith in extremis, of a man continuing to pray even as he doubts there is any auditor to his prayers.” —Garret Keizer, Barnes & Noble Reviews
“Compelling and challenging . . . The writing is crisp-lyrical . . . precise . . . Successful in showing how all the contradictions of a life can become distorted, so that the most important lessons disappear into history.” —Jacob Schraer, Portland Mercury
“[Pullman’s] Jesus and Christ are surprisingly nuanced characters. Jesus is strong, charismatic, principled. Christ is smart, doubt-ridden, self-aware; in essence, more modern. . . . If it’s controversy you’re looking for, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ doesn’t disappoint.” —Susan Mansfield, The Scotsman
“In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, we have what is both a perfect and perverse pairing: Philip Pullman and the ‘myth’ of Jesus Christ.” —André Alexis, The Globe and Mail
“Though he wears his scholarship lightly as befits a master storyteller, there is no doubt in my mind that Pullman has a complete grasp of the intricacies of the quest for the historical Jesus. A fierce and beautiful book, which, like the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, will move even those who disagree with it.” —Richard Holloway, The Observer (UK)
“Provokingly bold . . . Striking and suggestive . . . Sets a rhetorical feast before critics of ecclesiastical pomp and pride . . . Pullman’s rebel scripture belongs in a strong tradition of its own.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (UK)
“Pullman is a supreme storyteller who . . . has done the story [of the Gospels] a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb.” —Salley Vickers, The Telegraph (UK)
“Incendiary . . . A small gem or, given its explosive story and exquisite artistry, a hand grenade made by Fabergé. Pullman is a craftsman of the highest order.” —Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times (UK)
“A wonderfully fresh reworking of the Gospel stories [concerned with] extricating what is ethically beautiful and of permanent value in Jesus’s teachings from the religious institutions that fallibly mediate and self-servingly distort them.. . . . Pullman’s imaginative and highly thought-provoking innovation . . . is told with a self-effacing, yet incisive limpidity. . . . [The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is] a work of genuine discretion—deeply involved and involving, but with a great instinct for what to leave tacit.” —The Independent (UK)
“A simple, powerful, knowing little book . . . Like a small grenade, it will ricochet uncomfortably around the mind of any Christian believer for some time to come.” —Amanda Mitchison, Financial Times
“Told in simple, unadorned prose that is nonetheless beautifully effective, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ traces the familiar journey toward the cross and makes it fresh. . . . Pullman’s retelling of the central story in western civilization provides a brilliant new interpretation that is also a thought-provoking reflection on the process of how stories come into existence and accrue their meanings.” —Nick Rennison, Sunday Times (UK)
“Short but ambitious, exhilarating . . . [The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ] mixes Christian mythology with speculative fiction. . . . Pullman approaches his biblical source material with respect.” —Jonathan Ball, Winnipeg Free Press
“The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a compassionate meditation on the nature of faith.” —CBC News (Canada)
“Imaginative and thought-provoking . . . A compelling portrait of Jesus . . . [Pullman] is asking readers to move beyond theology and religion. As a literary work, Pullman’s story examines perspective and how it influences storytelling. [He] provides a superb example of how history relies on narrative and narrative relies on point of view. . . . This is, at its core, a book about the power of storytelling and storytellers. . . . The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ asks us to read and then to think—really think—about what we have read, and that is precisely what we all should do.” —Catherine Mallette, Star-Telegram
“A fast-paced little parable that puts a common sense tweak to a number of the miracles, while reminding us how much of the Gospels is devoted to social justice and compassion.” —Kel Munger, Sacramento News & Review
“Arresting . . . Told with masterly economy and verve and with disturbing ambiguity—the life-blood of fiction. . . . The force of Jesus’s ethical teachings remains undiminished in what may come to be known as the Gospel of Philip.” —Andrew Riemer, Sunday Morning Herald
“Fierce and beautiful.” —Richard Holloway, The Guardian (UK)
“Beautifully written, in spare, resonant prose entirely the equal of the best modern English versions of the Gospels. . . . An intelligent engagement with questions that any honest reader of the New Testament has to consider. . . . A plausible and pleasingly non-strident account of the birth of a religion, lifted into something far more by Pullman’s development of Jesus and Christ as characters. Pullman has not just found the right vehicle for his views on Christianity with this book. He has written something profound, mysterious, and beautiful.” —David Larsen, New Zealand Herald
“Playful, fable-like . . . for those with good knowledge of the gospel stories and serious questions about the distance between the present day church and its origins in the life and teaching of Jesus.” —Gillian Collins, Magnet Magazine (UK)
“Pullman retells the New Testament in a catchy, idiosyncratic way that is both thought-provoking and, at times, humorous. . . . [The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is not an attack on Christianity, nor is it a sendup of religion. In parts it is profoundly moving and never less than engrossing.” —Good Book Guide (UK)
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice (2010)
Shortlisted for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction
Mary and Joseph
This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died. The death of the other is not part of the story.
As the world knows, their mother was called Mary. She was the daughter of Joachim and Anna, a rich, pious and elderly couple who had never had a child, much as they prayed for one. It was considered shameful that Joachim had never fathered any offspring, and he felt the shame keenly. Anna was just as unhappy. One day she saw a nest of sparrows in a laurel tree, and wept that even the birds and the beasts could produce young, when she could not.
Finally, however, possibly because of their fervent prayers, Anna conceived a child, and in due course she gave birth to a girl.
Joachim and Anna vowed to dedicate her to the Lord God, so they took her to the temple and offered her to the high priest Zacharias, who kissed her and blessed her and took her into his care.
Zacharias nurtured the child like a dove, and she danced for the Lord, and everyone loved her for her grace and simplicity.
But she grew as every other girl did, and when she was twelve years old the priests of the temple realised that before long she would begin to bleed every month. That, of course, would pollute the holy place. What could they do? They had taken charge of her; they couldn’t simply throw her out.
So Zacharias prayed, and an angel told him what to do. They should find a husband for Mary, but he should be a good deal older, a steady and experienced man. A widower would be ideal. The angel gave precise instructions, and promised a miracle to confirm the choice of the right man.
Accordingly, Zacharias called together as many widowers as he could find. Each one was to bring with him a wooden rod. A dozen or more men came in answer, some young, some middle-aged, some old. Among them was a carpenter called Joseph.
Consulting his instructions, Zacharias gathered all the rods together and prayed over them before giving them back. The last to receive his rod was Joseph, and as soon as it came into his hand it burst into flower.
“You’re the one!” said Zacharias. “The Lord has commanded that you should marry the girl Mary.”
“But I’m an old man!” said Joseph. “And I have sons older than the girl. I shall be a laughing-stock.”
“Do as you are commanded,” said Zacharias, “or face the anger of the Lord. Remember what happened to Korah.”
Korah was a Levite who had challenged the authority of Moses. As a punishment the earth opened under him and swallowed him up, together with all his household.
Joseph was afraid, and reluctantly agreed to take the girl in marriage. He took her back to his house.
“You must stay here while I go about my work,” he told her. “I’ll come back to you in good time. The Lord will watch over you.”
In Joseph’s household Mary worked so hard and behaved so modestly that no one had a word of criticism for her. She spun wool, she made bread, she drew water from the well, and as she grew and became a young woman there were many who wondered at this strange marriage, and at Joseph’s absence. There were others, too, young men in particular, who would try to speak to her and smile engagingly, but she said little in reply and kept her eyes on the ground. It was easy to see how simple and good she was.
And time went past.
The Birth of John
Now Zacharias the high priest was old like Joseph, and his wife Elizabeth was elderly too. Like Joachim and Anna, they had never had a child, much as they desired one.
One day Zacharias saw an angel, who told him “Your wife will bear a child, and you must call him John.”
Zacharias was astounded, and said “How can that possibly be? I am an old man, and my wife is barren.”
“It will happen,” said the angel. “And until it does, you shall be mute, since you did not believe me.”
And so it was. Zacharias could no longer speak. But shortly after that Elizabeth conceived a child, and was overjoyed, because her barrenness had been a disgrace and hard to endure.
When the time came, she bore a son. As they were going to circumcise him they asked what he should be called, and Zacharias took a tablet and wrote “John”.
His relatives were surprised, because none of the family had that name; but as soon as he had written it, Zacharias became able to speak again, and this miracle confirmed the choice. The boy was named John.
The Conception of Jesus
At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel.
Mary was bewildered.
“But my husband is away,” she said.
“Ah, the Lord wants this to happen at once. I have come from him especially to bring it about. Mary, you are blessed among women, that this should come to you! You must give thanks to the Lord.”
And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.
When Joseph came home from the work that had taken him away, he was dismayed beyond measure to find his wife expecting a child. He hid his head in his cloak, he threw himself to the ground, he wept bitterly, he covered himself with ashes.
“Lord,” he cried, “forgive me! Forgive me! What sort of care is this? I took this child as a virgin from the temple, and look at her now! I should have kept her safe, but I left her alone just as Adam left Eve, and look, the serpent has come to her in the same way!”
He called her to him and said “Mary, my poor child, what have you done? You that were so pure and good, to have betrayed your innocence! Who is the man that did this?”
She wept bitterly, and said “I’ve done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!”
Joseph was troubled. If this was really God’s will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.
The Birth of Jesus, and the Coming of the Shepherds
Not long afterwards there came a decree from the Roman emperor, saying that everyone should go to their ancestral town in order to be counted in a great census. Joseph lived in Nazareth in Galilee, but his family had come from Bethlehem in Judea, some days’ journey to the south. He thought to himself: How shall I have them record Mary’s name? I can list my sons, but what shall I do with her? Shall I call her my wife? I’d be ashamed. Should I call her my daughter? But people know that she’s not my daughter, and besides, it’s obvious that she’s expecting a child. What can I do?
In the end he set off, with Mary riding a donkey behind him. The child was due to be born any day, and still Joseph did not know what he was going to say about his wife. When they had nearly reached Bethlehem, he turned around to see how she was, and saw her looking sad. Perhaps she’s in pain, he thought. A little later he turned around again, and this time saw her laughing.
“What is it?” he said. “A moment ago you were looking sad, and now you’re laughing.”
“I saw two men,” she said, “and one of them was weeping and crying, and the other was laughing and rejoicing.”
There was no one in sight. He thought: How can this be?
But he said no more, and soon they came to the town. Every inn was full, and Mary was crying and trembling, for the child was about to be born.
“There’s no room,” said the last innkeeper they asked. “But you can sleep in the stable—the beasts will keep you warm.”
Joseph spread their bedding on the straw and made Mary comfortable, and ran to find a midwife. When he came back the child was already born, but the midwife said “There’s another to come. She is having twins.”
And sure enough, a second child was born soon afterwards. They were both boys, and the first was strong and healthy, but the second was small, weak, and sickly. Mary wrapped the strong boy in cloth and laid him in the feeding trough, and suckled the other first, because she felt sorry for him.
That night there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside the town. An angel appeared to them glowing with light, and the shepherds were terrified until the angel said, “Don’t be afraid. Tonight a child has been born in the town, and he will be the Messiah. You will know him by this sign: you will find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
The shepherds were pious Jews, and they knew what the Messiah meant. The prophets had foretold that the Messiah, the Anointed One, would come to rescue the Israelites from their oppression. The Jews had had many oppressors over the centuries; the latest were the Romans, who had occupied Palestine for some years now. Many people expected the Messiah to lead the Jewish people in battle and free them from the power of Rome.
So they set off to the town to find him. Hearing the sound of a baby’s cry, they made their way to the stable beside the inn, where they found an elderly man watching over a young woman who was nursing a new-born baby. Beside them in the feeding trough lay another baby wrapped in bands of cloth, and this was the one that was crying. And it was the second child, the sickly one, because Mary had nursed him first and set him to lie down while she nursed the other.
“We have come to see the Messiah,” said the shepherds, and explained about the angel and how he had told them where to find the baby.
“This one?” said Joseph.
“That is what we were told. That is how we knew him. Who would have thought to look for a child in a feeding trough? It must be him. He must be the one sent from God.”
Mary heard this without surprise. Hadn’t she been told something similar by the angel who came to her bedroom? However, she was proud and happy that her little helpless son was receiving such tribute and praise. The other didn’t need it; he was strong and quiet and calm, like Joseph. One for Joseph, and one for me, thought Mary, and kept this idea in her heart, and said nothing of it.
Reader’s Guide by Susan Avery
1. What are the attributes of a “good man?” How do they guide the characters and events of this novel?
2. In the opening chapter Wesley Case, a constable in the Royal Mounted Police, is beginning a journal. “Both parents demanding I produce an account of my life. One, so I might find myself. The other, so I might find fame” (p. 17). How does this set the viewpoint for all that follows?
3. “When I was fourteen, I drew up two columns, entitled Greatest Weaknesses, Greatest Strengths. Under Greatest Weaknesses, I wrote, ‘I want too much.’ Under Greatest Strengths, I wrote ‘I want too much’” (p. 6). What do you learn about his mother from this statement and from the rest of the journal entry regarding her? What do you infer from what Wesley chooses to recall?
4. There are letters from Wesley’s father, Mr. Edwin Case, a prosperous lumber baron quoted here. What kind of man does he seem to be? What is the quality of their relationship? What do you begin to guess about Wesley’s nature?
5. The first chapter also briefly introduces Michael Dunne, one of the pivotal characters in the story. How does this meeting between Case and Dunne develop? What is your initial impression of Dunne? What are the ways that he is already entangled in the sequence of events? Wesley asks Dunne, “Do you pretend to know me?” (p. 16). Does he?
6. Each of the main characters’ stories are brought to light. This helps to understand them and their actions in the story. Would you describe this as a psychological novel? Real historical events are depicted on a grand scale. Is it an epic novel? It is full of adventure and action. Is it a Western?
7. The author not only uses the reference of the Battle of Little Big Horn to set the historical moment, but he sprinkles the narrative liberally with archaic language Give some examples of some of these words and phrases. How is language used to create setting? How does it enrich the narrative?
8. “What precisely are you asking me to be? A buffer? An intermediary? Or a spy?” (p. 35). Why does Major Walsh enlist Case’s help? Michael Dunne also wishes to work for Major Walsh. What does he propose and what is his motivation?
9. “They all got their first look at Joe McMullen, a weather-ravaged face, crow’s feet flaring at the corners of deep-set black eyes, a crooked mouth, an iron-grey moustache drooping two long wispy tails below his jaws, a tall, lanky composition of sinew, bone, and stringy muscle” (p. 44). Talk about the relationship of Case and Mcmullan. How do these two men complement each other? What does Joe need from Wesley and vice versa? What kind of a man is Joe?
10. Michael Dunne is hired by Randolph Tarr, the lawyer in Fort Benton. He wants protection from Gobbler Johnson. Why? Discuss their history and how their relationship will affect everything that comes to pass. Think about the irony of Michael Dunne teaching Ada Tarr how to use her derringer.
11. What impression of Ada Tarr does Wesley Case carry away from the “disastrous” concert where he first sees her? How did her family history impact her values? “He hears her say, ‘My mother used to claim that one can learn more about a person by scanning their books than could be learned by years of acquaintance. Do you think that true, Mr. Case?’” (p. 109). What is set in motion at their meeting the day after the performance?
12. One night Wesley Case has a nightmare that involves his old friend, Pudge Wilson. It has to do with what in his youth he calls “aimless dilettantism.” Who were the Lilies of the Field? What happened between them and the Dixie Boys? Who was the “Lugubrious Helmsman” and what did he arrange?
13. Dunne “has compiled a long list of such people who had treated him as though he didn’t own a thought of his own, beginning with his father, who had thought him no better than a dumb beast of burden” and “dragged him out of school at the age of eleven” (p. 133). But young Michael does show a particular talent. What is it? How would this be described in contemporary terms? How do his perceived “treatment” and his particular gift affect his behavior? Is he the antithesis of a good man?
14. There are various threads of historical conflict woven into the fabric of the novel. One is the struggle of the Fenians and another is the struggle of the Indians, particularly the Sioux. Both are directly connected to the relationship between the U.S. and Canada at that time? How are Wesley Case, Michael Dunne, and Ada Tarr swept up into this history?
15. After the death of Randolph Tarr, John Harding, the mining magnate, hires Dunne to get rid of Gobbler Johnson, who has now turned his way to seek revenge. When Dunne catches up with Gobbler and chillingly disposes of him, more is revealed about Dunne. Explain the meaning of his statement that his “profession is anticipating.”
16. “The entire prairie sparkles white except for one dark spot twenty-five yards in front of her house—Dunne in his black frock coat and derby” (p. 321). In this passage the author uses the landscape to express feeling and mood. There are many other uses of this trope in the novel? Name some. Does this give it a cinematic effect?
17. Why does Case finally reveal his long kept secret about the events of the Battle of Ridgeway that “will always be a shadow at my side” (p. 367) to Ada before he departs for the talks between General Terry and Sitting Bull brokered by Major Walsh?
18. “‘Why would he have made this long journey except for friendship and trust?’ Walsh demands. ‘And if it wasn’t for that, then what do these things count for in the end?’” (p. 376). This assertion is made on the subject of Sitting Bull agreeing to come to Fort Walsh. How does Wesley Case behave and whose trust is he betraying? Is this a foreshadowing of the final tragedy of Sitting Bull and his people?
19. When Case returns to Fort Benton he and Ada resolve to marry in Helena. This sets in motion Michael Dunne’s final plot. What pieces of the story are now brought together to carry it out? What parts in Dunne’s undoing are played by Joe and Ada? What effect does this finally have on their bond?
20. Four years later after Sitting Bull surrenders and returns to the U.S., he and Wesley Case meet once again in Bismarck at the behest of Major Walsh. What makes Case recall something that his friend Pudge had told him long before, “Courage in the face of certain defeat—that’s what tragedy is” (p. 463).
Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier; True North by Jim Harrison; In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent; Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry