TGMJATSC is essentially a re-telling of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (there's bit of Luke: no John) i.e. the Jesus story. The miracle of the clay sparrows is also included, showing that Pullman is at least passingly familiar with the apocrypha. The significant point of difference is that Jesus now has a twin brother called `Christ'. The Jesus character is familiar: an itinerant preacher held in suspicion by both the Romans and Jewish elders. Christ is his less-gifted but loving brother who follows Jesus, secretly writing down his teachings so that others may learn about Jesus' ideas. (The lit. theory dorks amongst you might call this an inter-textual narrative: as the story that Christ is writing on his journey is supposedly the exact one you're now reading centuries later).
Poor Christ is soon corrupted by a mysterious stranger (whose identity is never revealed; possible contenders include: the Devil, a Sanhedrin elder, a Roman spy or even an angel) who insists that in order for Jesus' teachings to flourish, Jesus must die. Christ unwittingly fulfils the role of Judas, betraying his brother so that Jesus' word will become immortal. Pullman stringently plays-down the supernatural aspects of the story: and so instead of Jesus rising from the dead, Christ pretends to be his brother risen: creating a doppelganger scenario that explains the resurrection without any supernatural or divine impetus. It's the Jesus story mythologized for a secular audience.
The real controversy lies behind Christ's motivations: the `mysterious stranger' convinces Christ that everyday folk are too stupid to make moral decisions or to be their own masters: only an all-powerful church can be responsible. So, if anything, TGMJATSC is a dig at the precepts of organised religion, rather than the spiritual nature of religion itself. A firm criticism of the church as establishment is about as contentious as this book gets. Aside from a re-imagining of some of Jesus' miracles, Pullman makes no attempt to destroy the foundations of religion with scientific determinism; which is refreshing, coming as this book does from a writer famous for his atheism.
Jesus' message of love and humility remains completely intact, and Pullman's own telling of the Sermon on the Mount is especially striking for its faithfulness to the original. Jesus is sacrosanct, it's the church that Pullman attacks: "Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again".
The prose is charmingly understated; monosyllabic words and single-clause sentences are the name of the game (think: Good News Bible rather than King James). And the majority of the characters perform their roles adequately, if without any real charisma or depth. Doubting Thomas is doubtful because the Bible says he is; similarly John the Baptist baptises and Mary Magdalene is maudlin (that was a little etymology joke for you linguists). In fact, in terms of the Pullman-to-Bible ratio, I'd say about 90% of TGMJATSC is just a straight-faced and unembellished paraphrasing of the gospels. This is a shame, because the book is most interesting when Pullman deviates from his sources.
The changes that he does make to the Bible account for such a tiny percentage of the book that most of the novel feels underdeveloped. The unidentified stranger who corrupts Christ does so with some baffling and unexplored theology, which is so brief and poorly articulated that I didn't really understand what Pullman was getting at, despite taking pains to re-read the passage multiple times: "He is the history and you are the truth, but you will have to be wiser. You will have to step outside time, and see the necessity for things that those within time find distressing."
Equally as frustrating is the fact that Pullman takes great pains to humanise the figure of Jesus; but only at the very end of the novel. On the eve of his execution, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. At this juncture, the writer takes a dramatic schism from his sources, and gives Jesus a ten-page soliloquy in which he questions the nature of God, sacrifice and belief. It's beautifully written and thoughtful, filled with poignant self-doubt and, in context, is deeply moving:
"No answer, naturally. Listen to that silence. Not a breath of wind; little insects in the grasses, a dog barking on some farm beyond the hills, an owl in the valley; and the infinite silence under it all. You're not in the sounds are you? If I thought you were, I could love you with all my heart. But you're in the silence. You say nothing.
If I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, powerless and modest."
It's the best (and longest) scene in the novel; but the only one in which the writing really comes alive and gets to grips with the issues at hand. If the whole text were as probing or as full of ideas as the final act, then TGMJATSC would be something special. But most of this book is nothing more than a paraphrasing of the gospels, injected with the occasional original short scene or comment.
Unfortunately, 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' never manages to transcend the novelty of its premise. The basic idea that Jesus had a twin brother is the most interesting thing about the book: but it isn't developed to its full potential. On the rare occasion that Jesus and his brother interact, the tension rises and my interest piqued. But these scenes are few and far between. The book was also over-hyped to a preposterous degree: and that the media misrepresented the novel as being a religion hating atheists rant didn't help matters either. I don't think I've ever accused a novel of being too short before; but Pullman should have given these ideas room to breathe and develop; when Pullman hits his stride things get really good; I just wish there was...more.