by Scott Korb

Whether he intended it or not Philip Pullman has written, most recently, a religious story. And insofar as The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a religious story, as the title suggests it is a Christian one. (Though, it’s true, as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said, the Gospels—especially Mark’s—are better, even on Pullman’s own terms). In some ways, Pullman’s title, which alone suggests the book’s supposed scandal, says it all. Not Jesus Christ, or even Jesus the Christ, but Jesus AND Christ, twin brothers borne of Mary, who was, in yet another supposed scandal to Christians, seduced by a figure calling himself an “an angel,” who “in order not to frighten her … had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like the one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.”

So, enough about Philip Pullman.

By their nature, religious stories self-complicate. Take the Gospels, just for example, which all tell similar stories “according to” someone or another—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, say, names that attached themselves to the early Christian communities who wrote and kept these Gospels in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E. (These names do not account for Gospels named Thomas, most famously, or Peter, or the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospels of the Ebionites, the Nazareans, or the Gospel According to the Hebrews.) Since the nineteenth century, biblical scholars have made careers out of revealing all the ways the inconsistencies among the Gospels make belief impossible. And yet, even within the stories themselves, as Adam Gopnik points out in his New Yorker essay “What Did Jesus Do?,” the course of events often “makes intolerable demands on logic”:

If [Mark’s] Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

Taking as its occasion the publication of ten recent books concerned with the historical study of the New Testament, Gopnik’s essay is a thorough, even theological, examination of what he calls the “intractability” that has always been “part of the intoxication of belief”—Christian belief, with its “super-subtle shadings of dogma,” sine pari. In other words, what these ten books—among them, Pullman’s, Diarmaid MacCollough’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite, etc., etc.—what these books tell us is that the supposed scandal that has attached itself to Pullman’s book is of a piece with the scandal that attached itself to Christianity at the very beginning. Ever since Jesus recommended to his disciples that they “be passersby,” dharma bums, in Gopnik’s interpretation, who, “with so many words over so long a time,” like Pullman perhaps, “can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants.”

Read the full essay here.

Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book is Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr at lifeinyearone.tumblr.com.