Continuing today's theme of Jesus the Christ and his interpreters, Adam Gopnik explores the various approaches to understanding Jesus in The New Yorker:
The effort to seal off the inspiration from the intolerance, nice Jesus from nasty Jesus, is very old. Jefferson compiled his own New Testament, with the ethical teachings left in and the miracles and damnations left out—and that familiar, outraged sense of the ugly duplicity of the Christian heritage is at the heart of Philip Pullman’s new plaint against it, “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” (Canongate; $24), in which the two aspects are neatly divided into twins borne by Mary. The wise Jesus is brother to the shrewd Christ. One leads to the nice Jewish boy, the other to Paul’s scary punitive God. Pullman, a writer of great skill and feeling, as he has shown in his magical children’s fantasies, feels the betrayal of Jesus by his brother Christ as a fundamental betrayal of humanity. He wants us to forget Christ and return to Jesus alone, to surrender miracles for morals. Pullman’s book, however, is not narrowly polemical; he also retells the parables and acts with a lucid simplicity that strips away the Pauline barnacles. His real achievement is to translate Jesus’ sayings into a simple, almost childlike English that would seem to have much of the sound we are told is present in the artless original Greek: “Those who make peace between enemies, those who solve bitter disputes—they will be blessed. . . . But beware, and remember what I tell you: there are some who will be cursed, who will never inherit the Kingdom of God. D’you want to know who they are? Here goes: Those who are rich will be cursed.”
If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship, though, it’s that Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism. All faiths have fights, but, as MacCulloch shows at intricate, thousand-page length, few have so many super-subtle shadings of dogma: wine or blood, flesh or wafer, one God in three spirits or three Gods in one; a song of children, stables, psalms, parables, and peacemakers, on the one hand, a threnody of suffering, nails, wild dogs, and damnation and risen God, on the other. The two spin around each other throughout history—the remote Pantocrator of Byzantium giving way to the suffering man of the Renaissance, and on and on.