To get hold of Philip Pullman's book from its Edinburgh publisher, I had to sign a legal undertaking that made me liable to penalties "under the laws of Scotland" should I dare to breach its terms. Like all of us, Pullman needs and uses the force of traditions and institutions (what he names here as "custom and authority") to protect his dignity and his interests. You might hear from other sources that this re-telling and re-interpretation of the Gospel narratives for Canongate's "Myths" series sets the spontaneous, impulsive goodness of Jesus against the power-mad, repressive apparatus of the "church", which Pullman embodies in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth's sinister twin brother, "Christ". In fact, this story about the meaning of stories is open to quite the opposite interpretation – and Pullman knows it very well.
Without authority and tradition, we could never imagine let alone revere the "history" of Jesus's warm and wild preaching, which in this tale a mysterious angelic figure advises his brother to censor and mould in the service of doctrinal "truth". This is the "tragedy" of a radical visionary who "asked too much of people". Only the letter which he detested can lead us to the spirit that he sought. That paradox makes this book such a striking and suggestive work - far more so than another "protestant" bid to rescue a rule-free "Jesus movement" from the evil hierarchy of "church" would be.
True, Pullman sets a rhetorical feast before critics of ecclesiastical pomp and pride. When this Jesus prays, prior to his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane, he delivers a Dawkins-esque soliloquy. Not only does the anarchic prophet predict a future priesthood of hypocrites and persecutors who will "torture and kill" heretics and infidels. He even spots child-abuse scandals to come: "No one will even think of questioning the rightness of what this holy man does in private; and his little victims will cry to heaven for pity".
Yet this pure Jesus, who incarnates love against power, is a wholly traditional creation. Doctrine, law and culture (both "Catholic" and "Protestant") have made him as surely as they made Ratzinger in his robes into Pope Benedict XVI. Smug secularists who back Pullman, and angry clerics who attack him, might both miss the point.
Pullman's rebel scripture belongs in a strong tradition of its own. Some of the Gnostic Gospels discovered in Egypt in 1945 make much of Jesus's "brother", often known as James the Just. As in Pullman, they credit him with a role in founding the first "Christian" church. Here, Christ is a symbolic twin. "Small, weak and sickly" but "secret favourite" of their mother Mary, he has a "modest and retiring" character. It fits him for the part of silent observer and recorder when his wayward, passionate brother starts to teach.
For the most part, Pullman follows the best-known Gospel episodes, chiefly from Luke – the most novelistic narrative of the canonical quartet - but with key passages from Matthew and John. His sometimes plodding paraphrases sent me back to the 1611 Authorized Version (in Canongate's own handy volume). There could harder be a tougher call than to rewrite yet again the prose that shaped four centuries of English-language talk and literature. But Pullman, too often, falls slightly flat. "Those who are rich will be cursed. They've had all the consolation they're going to get," says this Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, with a petulant whine. "But woe unto you who are rich! Ye have received your consolation," runs Luke 5:24. The Jesus of 1611 has a bracing, bitterly laconic wit that Pullman inevitably struggles to match.
Frequently he simply clarifies and glosses the New Testament Jesus, as mainstream expositors have always done. In Luke, before being chucked out of the synagogue by outraged xenophobes, Jesus refers baldly to Elijah curing foreigners rather than Israelites. Pullman has him spell out this inclusive, stranger-loving message: "You think being what you are is enough? You'd better start considering what you do." A lot of this tale merely reiterates such orthodox Christianity. Bishops and atheists alike, take note.
Not all of it, however. Pullman identifies Christ the church-builder with Satan, the tempter in the wilderness. Christ tells his naïve sibling that "ordinary people" need miracles to fix their faith. So he proceeds to transform everyday incidents into the "signs and wonders" that will underpin an organised religion. The feeding of the five thousand? In fact, Jesus had asked his hearers to scour their pockets for spare scraps ("a couple of apples... some dried fish"). Communal sharing meant that no one went hungry.
Under the influence of his angelic guide, Christ also starts to reverse the meaning of Gospel events. In each case, his distortions will forge a mystical and authoritarian creed out of Jesus's ministry of practical, this-worldly succour and solidarity. When Jesus visits the house of Martha and Mary, he praises active Martha, busy with the cooking, not contemplative Mary, dreaming at his feet. Luke 10:41, of course, tells us precisely the converse.
And when his follower Peter begins to speak of his guide as a sort of divine being, the "Messiah", Jesus replies: "I don't want to hear that sort of talk". No, indeed: he's not the Messiah, but he's a very headstrong boy.
Pullman's main additions to the Gospels come during the final dash towards the cross in Jerusalem. In the garden, his Jesus has that dystopian vision of a cruel church. His Christ hears from the angel that without such an organisation - with all its "compromises and mysteries that look to the innocent eye like betrayal" - the great words and deeds of Jesus will fade "like water poured into sand". After this dialectical stand-off between experience and authority, "history" and "truth", the Crucifixion and Resurrection rattle by as something of an anticlimax.
You can imagine what, given his dualistic theme, Pullman does with the empty tomb, the dawn appearance to Mary Magdalene, and the supper at Emmaus. Christ stands in, rather bathetically, for his executed brother.
Once again, Pullman drove me back (as maybe he intended) to the relevant scripture (John 20:15), and the ultimate "myth" for all who have ever lost a dear one and longed to meet again. "'Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?' She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, 'Sir, if thou hath borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away'. Jesus saith unto her, 'Mary'..."
No, Pullman can't really compete. Who on earth could? But bless him (by whatever lights you choose) for such a provokingly bold attempt.