Many other reviews have summarised Philip Pullman's story-structure as a rationalist retelling of the new testament and I will not repeat that here. The book is full of deadpan humour in the early chapters but builds up to a damning critique both of Jesus' own maximalist doctrines (insofar as we can recover them through historical scholarship) and the Pauline-inspired reconstruction of 'Christianity' to the point where it became the propaganda ministry of the Roman Empire after Constantine (a model it has basically stayed with ever since).
Pullman's hatred of hypocrisy shines through as well as his piercing intelligence. Pilate is the hard man you expect - no letting the Romans off lightly for political reasons - and the high priest Caiaphas is only gently mocked for his role as having to please all his constituents including his Roman masters. As diplomats always remind us, it may be a weaselly job but someone does in fact have to do it.
Jesus alone achieves a full clarity of thought but where does that leave him? It's characteristic of the sophistication of Pullman's work that the protagonist and antagonist both indignantly reject ambiguity, but that in the end is all we can ever get.
Review of Philip Pullman's "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" at Amazon.