IN A PROVOCATIVE MOVE, the editors of the Myths series—which invites writers to "take a modern look at our most enduring myths"—not only chose to classify the Jesus story as a popular myth, but also handed the retelling to Philip Pullman, author of the religiously controversial trilogy His Dark Materials. A vocal critic of the church and religion, Pullman has reimagined the story of Jesus in a compelling and challenging manner—while the devout might be scandalized, fans of Jesus the philosopher will not be disappointed.

Pullman tries hard to present the tale as objectively as possible, portraying Jesus as a man—an incredible, temperamental, brilliant man, bereft of magic, miracles, or mandate from heaven. Instead Jesus has a twin brother, Christ—devout, studious, and cowardly. Where Christ is clever, always helping to get Jesus out of trouble as children, Jesus is impulsive, passionate, and hard working. After an intense encounter with John the Baptist, Jesus experiences a spiritual awakening. He begins to preach, garnering followers almost by accident. Christ approaches Jesus with the idea of organizing a church but Jesus scorns the idea, and so Christ follows Jesus in secret, recording his sayings and deeds as faithfully as possible, though he takes certain narrative liberties along the way.

The book is divided into short chapters, each one illustrating a famous tale or parable from the Bible. The "miracles" are largely glossed over. For instance, Lazarus (who isn't even mentioned by name) is simply a sick man, too weak even to walk, who finds the strength to do so after Jesus comes through town. The miracle of the loaves and the fishes? Everyone shares their food so there's enough to go around. Pullman incorporates stories from all the gospels and creates a complex figure in his Jesus. To contrast this, the writing is crisp–lyrical at times but precise and easy to understand.

But framing the story is the scoundrel Christ, trying desperately to balance his brother's passions with a narrative, a structure. Pullman has said this book is about how stories become stories, and the book is successful in showing how all the contradictions of a life can become distorted, so that the most important lessons disappear into history.