A review of Killing Jesus: A history by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2013
Books about Jesus tend to reveal more about their authors than about their subject. This is because various groups tend to re-make Jesus in their image. To Marxists He becomes a Marxist; to pacifists He becomes the ultimate pacifist, and so on. The political takes on Jesus’ life are nearly endless. So when Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly co-authors the book Killing Jesus with historian Martin Dugard (one is unsure whether the smaller print on the cover reflects less participation on his part, or less prestige), we shouldn’t be surprised to find a slightly politicized Jesus.
The authors are from Roman Catholic backgrounds, but that only shows in that they give the church tradition a little more deference with regard to what happened to the apostles outside of what the NT records. This is combined with a rather puzzling low view of Scripture. For instance, they say that the Gospels “at times appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’ life” (p. 1). But then, they accept the apostolic authorship of John (p. 22), in a weird amalgam of liberalism and conservatism (which also may be a good description of O’Reilly’s news show). Also interestingly, they portray two Temple cleansings.1
The reader might be forgiven if, after the first chapter about the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16–18), they think the book accidentally includes pages from something which could have been called Killing Julius Caesar. The narrative leaps back about 40 years and hundreds of miles away and relates Jesus to the saga of Julius Caesar and the various political figures after him. We are treated to lines such as (about Octavian), “The son of god thinks himself immortal. He is also fighting a very bad cold” (p. 52). The authors also include graphic descriptions of the violence and sexual immorality surrounding the lives of the Romans—to such an extent that this is reason alone to recommend not reading the book. It is therefore a relief to find oneself finally at the Jordan River Valley in AD 7 at the beginning of Chapter 4.
Jesus occupies the periphery of the story until over 100 pages in. This might be an intentional stylistic decision on the part of the authors; one has a thorough backdrop of the immorality of the Romans and the corruption of the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem by this time. This backdrop is littered with historical errors—there are many other reviews of this book which focus on those, but as our concern is with the book’s portrayal of Jesus and the Jewish world, this review won’t repeat what other reviews have amply covered.
Although the authors attempt to paint a picture of Jesus as opposed to the ruling state government, Jesus only attracted the Roman authorities’ attention the evening before He was crucified, and even then Herod and Pilate found no reason to punish Him under Roman law; they only crucified Him to keep the Jews from rioting. So one would think that by far, the appropriate background would have included the Maccabean revolution, the conquering of Judea by Rome, the rise of the Jewish tradition that came to override Scripture itself, and so on. Jesus’ conflict was with the Jewish religious leaders—the scribes and the Pharisees. It was only decades later that His followers attracted the wrath of Rome.
Who was Jesus?
In their previous books, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, the authors explored the death of two political figures in American history who were tragically cut down, so this naturally still captures the imagination of people who memorialize them in movies and books. But this political focus, combined with the authors’ commitment to not analyzing Jesus’ divine claims, portrays Jesus as yet another ‘good leader’ we have lost.
All that Roman background affects how we see Jesus’ portrayal in the book. For instance, when they describe Jesus’ (first) cleansing of the Temple, they say, “Jesus is about to undertake a bold and outrageous moment of revolution” (p. 121). But ‘revolution’ has unacceptably political connotations here. Jesus’ action was one of religious reformation. There is no indication in the text itself or from historical evidence that the moneychangers and those who were selling the sacrificial animals were extorting people or had unethical business practices; Jesus was furious because they were conducting business in the Temple at all. Formerly, the moneychangers had been set up in the Kidron Valley, but by moving into the Court of the Gentiles, now they were interrupting the ability of Gentiles to worship God.
It is clear that the authors did not consult a biblical scholar, or they would have avoided errors such as making John 3:16–17 words of Jesus (they are most probably John’s comments on the preceding words of Jesus). They also mistakenly say that the Sermon on the Mount is “less than two thousand words long” (p. 143). This completely ignores the fact that when Jesus went someplace, He would have preached all day, at least. Sometimes He would teach for multiple days before the crowds dispersed. What we have in Scripture is a faithful summary of the sorts of things He taught, but the actual sermons would have taken hours.
They also unacceptably embellish the Scriptures’ accounts. In just one example, they write the following:
The men’s intention is to hurl Jesus to his death. And it appears that might happen, for Jesus seems powerless. But at the last minute he turns to face his detractors. Drawing himself up to his full height, Jesus squares his shoulders and holds his ground. He is not a menacing individual, but he has a commanding presence and displays an utter lack of fear. The words he says next will never be written down, nor will the insults these men continue to hurl at him ever be chronicled. In the end, the mob parts and Jesus walks away unscathed.
And he keeps walking (p. 132).
In a note, they helpfully indicate that they were taking their narrative from Luke 4:30. But reading the relevant passage:
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were fill with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away (Luke 4:28–30).
Notice, no commanding presence, no insults, no parting of the crowd. Luke actually implies perhaps a combination of the crowd being so filled with wrath that they lose track of Jesus in their mob, or possibly a supernatural escape (since it wasn’t Jesus’ time to die yet). It is a seemingly small distortion, but these small distortions add up, and when combined with outright omissions the picture we get of Jesus is significantly different from the portrayal in the Gospels.
One of these omissions, which is another example of denying Christ’s divinity, is a persistent skepticism about the miracles Jesus did. But putting this skepticism in the minds of Jesus’ opponents via the narrative is unacceptable. Jesus was doing the sorts of miracles that no one could deny. The blind guy begging at the gate suddenly had 20/20 vision. The lady that was an outcast because of her unclean condition was restored to community life. A guy who had been rotting in a tomb was walking around in perfect health. Describing things like this as “seemingly performing supernatural acts” (p. 155) is ridiculous. The narrative of the Gospels is clear; the Pharisees saw the undeniable miracles and rather than contest the miracles, they said they came from Satan.
The authors also state, “Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy” (p. 176). They also claim, “Jesus has become a victim of his own celebrity” (p. 153), and later, as He makes His way to what will ultimately be His death, “panic is overtaking him” (p. 212). But this is all contrary to how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels. Even as a boy, Jesus has some awareness that He is God’s Son (Luke 2:49). And when His ministry starts, from the outset He is portrayed as ‘a man on a mission’. He predicts His own death before resolutely setting out for Jerusalem. Even as the mob is arresting Him, He tells Peter to put away his sword, because He could call Heaven’s angels to come and fight for Him if He wanted to.
The ultimate miracle of Christianity is the Resurrection. It is the miracle without which Paul says our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). It is the foundation for the hope of our own salvation. But the authors can only muster this to say: “To this day, the body of Jesus of Nazareth has never been found” (p. 259).
A ‘Fox News Jesus’
All in all, the authors embody the Fox News motto: We report, you decide. It’s a virtue today to be seen as impartial, unbiased. The hard-nosed reporters giving all sides of the story. The problem is that this book portrays a view that’s absolutely foreign to the ancient world, and more importantly, antithetical to the Gospels’ witness. The Gospel writers reported what they had seen so that people would repent and believe in Christ.
O’Reilly and Dugard present a Jesus who would fit well on a Fox News panel. He’s a good guy, religious, conservative. He would make for interesting TV. But he also bears little resemblance to the Lord presented in the Gospels.
Killing Jesus makes for an interesting read, but the theological errors and depictions of immorality make it impossible to recommend to a Christian audience, or as a useful introduction to Jesus for anyone.
References and notes
- John puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple early in His ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke put it right before His crucifixion. Some scholars think that the order of events wasn’t important for the disciples, who were rather interested in giving a topical discussion of Jesus’ life and teaching. Other scholars believe that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice. My own view is the latter; the details are sufficiently different that they seem to be two entirely different events, with different significance. Return to text.