The day before Passover, under the gorgeously painted ceiling of a packed Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the novelist Philip Pullman spoke for an hour about his new book, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ. Despite the fact that this is about one of the most famous Jews of all time, the words "Jew" and "Jewish" were not mentioned once, either by Pullman or anyone in the audience. The omission was both striking and revealing.
I've met many people over the years who have never given a moment's thought to the fact that Jesus was Jewish, and were not entirely thrilled to learn that he was. By coincidence, only a few days before Pullman's lecture, my daughter got into a row at school with a classmate who stubbornly refused to believe Jesus was a Jew.
Pullman is not of this ilk. He stands in an honourable tradition of writers who have tried to retrieve an authentic historical Jesus from generations of Christian accretions. Tolstoy compared much of the Gospels and Church teaching to a "sack of garbage" in which the authentic pearls of Jesus's words lay hidden. Thomas Jefferson wrote of extracting "diamonds from dunghills" when he set out to compose his purified version of the gospels. Norman Mailer, no less, produced a Jesus who, if a little unsure about wine, women and song, was thoroughly versed in Jewish learning.
In Pullman's version, Mary (a Jewish mother, it should be remembered) gives birth not to one child but two: Jesus, an uncompromising religious teacher, and Christ, his conniving, ambitious, twin brother. It is Christ who tempts Jesus in the wilderness, Christ who strikes a deal with the Pharisees, Christ who betrays Jesus to the Romans. By the end of this re-telling, Jesus is, like Pullman himself, an atheist.
But Pullman was raised a Christian. "The Christian tradition", he readily admits, "is in every nerve of my body." And herein lies the problem. Pullman's Jesus is, quite simply, not nearly Jewish enough. True, he is identified as a Jew. He drops into synagogue from time to time. But the suffering of the Jews under the Romans, the context in which Messianic yearnings were revived, the essential Jewishness of Jesus and his community are missing. Pullman pulls Jesus free of his Messianic Christian identity, but fails to root him in his Jewish identity.
Does it matter? Pullman's argument, after all, is with the Christian Church's notion of Jesus, while for Jews, Jesus is little more than a historical curiosity, if not a total irrelevance. The answer, emphatically, is yes.
The separation of Jesus from his Jewishness appears of little consequence until you pause to consider how much violence has been done to Jews as a result. Pullman's book was published on Palm Sunday, a day upon which, throughout history, Jews have been subjected to vicious attacks. Last weekend, many Christians will have sat in church listening to Gospel readings riddled with antisemitic rhetoric.
Historical ignorance and hostility to Jews have always gone hand-in-hand, the one facilitating and justifying the other. In the 1st-century face-offs between Jews and early Christians, the latter became increasingly venomous in their representation of the former, and increasingly silent about the fact that Jesus was a Jew, steeped in Jewish tradition, preaching to fellow Jews, concerned with reforming, not abandoning Judaism. Jews have lived with the consequences of that silence ever since.
Not to set Jesus in his proper cultural context is to condone an ignorance that breeds misunderstanding at best, abuse at worst. The Good Man Jesus will offend and delight Christians in equal measure. What it will not do is bring them any closer to an understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.