The Good Man Jesus…

In a recent G2 article, a slightly miserable looking Philip Pullman (who confesses that he has “that sort of face that doesn’t come out well in photographs”; I’m inclined to agree but at least it’s a trait we share) talks around the book he has just released, entitled “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”. It sounds like an interesting read; a contrasting of the earnest and compassionate Jesus and his ambitious brother Christ, who is willing to compromise and distort Jesus’ ideals in order to create a lasting institution.

I haven’t read it and won’t comment on the book at all, other than to say I commend Philip Pullman for his slightly frustrated statement apparently gracing the back cover: “THIS IS A STORY.” Far too many people have cashed in the religious controversy card by being deliberately vague about their works of fiction. However, I would like to pick up on a couple of the small points he makes in his interview.

Firstly, his assertion of widespread Biblical ignorance amongst Christian groups:

We have, he adds, only “a vague impression” of the Bible. “If we have a Christian upbringing, we’re told that Jesus was born at Christmas… And then a couple of months go by, and he’s betrayed and flogged and crucified and then he rose on the third day… And the rest of the time he went around telling stories and curing people. So that’s all we know about him. And we think that the New Testament says that. Well actually, Mark says this and Matthew says that, and Luke says something else and John says something quite different. And we don’t know this, because we don’t actually read the damned thing.” Philip Pullman, G2, 19/04/2010

I don’t know which churches Philip has been attending recently – few, I suspect – but if he did pay a visit, I suspect he’d soon find this assumption challenged. It may have been the case years ago that priests and vicars tried to keep people’s noses out of the grittier parts of the Bible and keep them distracted with niceties, but it certainly isn’t the prevailing attitude at any of the five churches I have attended regularly over my life so far.

On the contrary, a great many sermons I have heard frequently conclude that if we are to live more effectively as Christians, it is imperative to be serious about reading the Bible; it is absolutely vital! And, unlike a well known cult, despite being churches of differing denomination, none of them have insisted, suggested or even mentioned that a commentary from one writer has more authority than another. Free enquiry is postively encouraged, questions and “difficult bits” be discussed. If you have ever attended a meeting with the topic at hand being “Biblical inconsistency”, “the problem of suffering”, “violence in the Old Testament” and so on, chances are it has been organised by Christians.

Unfortunately, many debates about the issues Pullman raised above fall at the hurdles of poor logic or Catch-22 situations. For instance, people will point to inconsistencies between the gospel accounts as some sort of proof that they cannot be trusted. Yet, as with crime scene witnesses, if they were to precisely match each other, suspicions of post-event collusion between observers would instantly be raised. I also recently heard the argument that if gospel accounts of the resurrection were to be considered historical, they would have to have been recorded by a fair spread of Jewish, atheist and pagan historians of the time. However, it seems a little unlikely to me that if someone actually came face to face with someone they recognised to be the resurrected Christ, they’d continue to disbelieve.

Moving on, Pullman shares with us his insight on the Biblical differences between “Jesus” and “Christ”:

The idea of twin brothers sprung from Paul’s Epistles. “Paul refers to Christ rather than Jesus; the Gospels call him Jesus rather than Christ,” Pullman explains. “And I thought that was significant. Because the Gospels want to tell us about his life, and Paul wasn’t interested in his life, he was interested in what its meaning was after he was dead, the meaning of the resurrection…” ~ibid.

 This gives us a pretty clear indication that despite doing a “great deal of reading around the subject before he began” (in three different versions no less!), Pullman doesn’t seem to have actually read the gospels, in the sense of absorbing them and pondering their meaning and purpose. There are many verses describing interactions of Jesus that have no real other purpose than bearing witness to the fact that Jesus claimed to be the Christ and many people believed him. I urge you to investigate this for yourself, but I’ll end with a good one from Matthew, one of the earlier gospels:

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ,the Son of God.”  “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. ~Matthew 26:62-64a

There is a common portrayal of Jesus, especially amongst those who consider themelves “free-thinkers”, that is very similar to Pullman’s description; a radical man, who came purely to spread the love and shake things up. “If Jesus came back today, he would hate Christians!” and other such statements are commonplace. Unfortunately, if we look to the accounts of the gospels, this character is as unrecognisable as the hippy handing out Easter eggs.