The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, By Philip Pullman

Mr Pullman invites us to believe whatever we want

Fanatics whose threats have recently occasioned Philip Pullman to require a guard both at home and when he speaks in public should pack up their Bibles and go home. For, on the evidence of this novel, the author says nothing bad about Jesus. Questionable statements that do appear, such as His referring to a Gentile woman as a "little dog" or His self-proclaimed mission to set son against father and daughter against mother, are already there in the Good Book. If Jesus here sometimes sounds like a modern cult leader, advocating that his disciples cut ties with their own families – so what happens to their wives and children? – it's not Pullman's fault.

The only truly inflammatory note in this challenging novel is the word "scoundrel" in the title, given that the two main characters of Jesus and his twin brother Christ both come over as virtually blameless. Jesus is an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, while Christ is his devoted chronicler. This works well until the entrance of a dark, smooth-tongued stranger, identified by Christ as an angel – though whether good or fallen is left for readers to decide for themselves. This angel persuades Christ to preserve and present the sayings of Jesus, but only in such a way that they could one day form the basis of a great religion.

While Jesus himself is a revolutionary who believes that the Kingdom of God will shortly be revealed, the angel asks whether it is better on Earth "to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?" Opting for the latter choice, Christ is encouraged to soften a point here, exaggerate another issue there while creating a series of newly coherent stories attractive to future worshippers.

But on the eve of the Last Supper, Jesus ceases to believe in the existence of God – why otherwise does He never pass on any clear messages? Just in time to preserve the faith, Christ takes on the role of Judas, but then watches horrified as his brother is crucified without any of the miracles previously promised by the angel to save his life. After deputising for Jesus in order to spread the illusion of the resurrection, Christ retreats into obscurity. But he is visited once more by his tormentor, who urges him to complete his task of producing the scrolls detailing the half-real, half-imaginary doings of his famous brother.

Lured by the prospect of establishing a major church and all the positive things that should come in its wake, Christ agrees. But he does not know that Jesus foresaw that such a church could, and often would, also become an instrument for evil and oppression.

Pullman has an extraordinary imagination, but this book sees him cutting down in the special-effects department. With its black cover, short chapters and lapidary style, it looks and sometimes reads like a modern version of the New Testament. So, in a final irony, one of Britain's best-known free-thinkers ends up rewriting chunks of the Bible, albeit with some interesting twists of his own. Jesus himself speaks like a contemporary evangelical ("That won't wash in the Kingdom of God"), and some passages are reminiscent of the contemporary apologetics found in the proselytising works of CS Lewis, an author Pullman is on record as detesting. But there are also moments of heart-rending personal drama, where Christ is racked at having to choose between taking the passionate or the calculating path.

In Pullman's great His Dark Materials trilogy, the young heroine Lyra ends by looking forward to the establishment of the Republic of Heaven. This is a place where everyone respects each other, enjoys life as much as they can and believes whatever they like. This current novel finishes with the angel telling Christ that no such worldly kingdom could ever exist, with the church there merely to foreshadow a type of sustained happiness possible only beyond the grave. Christ finally agrees to soften the absolute message of his brother to make it more acceptable. But he is also in agony over this last act of betrayal, and rather than pulling any authorial strings at this point in the argument, Pullman leaves final judgement to his readers.