An atheist and a Roman Catholic offer a fresh take on an old question – Published on The Economist, from The Economist print edition, March 31, 2010.
- Jesus: A Biography From a Believer, by Paul Johnson, Viking; 242 pages; $24 and £17.99. Amazon;
- The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, Canongate; 245 pages; $24 and £14.99. Amazon.
WAS Jesus of Nazareth divine or human, or did he combine both attributes in a unique, mysterious way? On every page of the Gospels there are passages that have been used as evidence on one side or the other of that 2,000-year-old discussion. Traditional Christian theology offers subtle, mind-bending formulas which aim to settle the matter in so far as it can be settled within the limits of human language. But for many ordinary believers, the question is just a paradox that they are forced perpetually to grapple with without ever quite resolving it … //
… Dedicated to his late mother “who first taught me about Jesus” and with a subtitle that makes his own position crystal-clear, this is a book that some readers—especially non-believers—may find sentimental or cloying. It assumes the Nativity stories are more or less literally true, skirting round the problems posed by differences between the accounts of Luke and Matthew. But there are some good observations about the differences between the Gospels and other contemporary texts; Mr Johnson notes the prominent role played by women and the empathy of Jesus with female dilemmas. He shows how Jesus mixed compassion for children and their parents with insistence that ultimately, obedience to God supersedes family ties.
Philip Pullman addresses the apparent separateness of his subject’s divinity and humanity in a far more provocative way. Brought up by a clerical grandfather, Mr Pullman is a declared adversary of organised Christianity and is best known for his bestselling children’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials”. As he tells the Gospel story, Mary did not have one son but twins—a gifted but pious and humble one called Jesus and his more calculating and sophisticated brother, Christ. Observing his modest sibling, Christ concludes that the story needs to evolve in certain ways if the wandering faith-healer’s work is to become the basis of a world religion. In the end Christ colludes with his brother’s death and helps, directly and indirectly, to construct a new narrative about his resurrection. When the disciples meet their risen master, it is really Christ they are encountering, not his twin, Jesus.
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. Thomas wondered about that, too. (full text).