“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
Since Bill O’Reilly, commentator and host of the O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, came out with his latest book, Killing Jesus: A History, Christian “Evangelicals” have turned out to opine on the work. Some, like the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas have given the book rave reviews and even encouraged Christians to buy and read the book. Others have not been so kind. Since the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas happens to be my pastor, I thought I would take him up on his recommendation. Having done so, I will now attempt to offer my hopefully “fair and balanced” review of the book.
First of all, I will say that Mr. O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard make an excellent writing team. I first experienced their work in Killing Lincoln, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Killing Jesus is no exception. The text flows very smoothly, and it entices the reader to continue non-stop. Had I the luxury of uninterrupted time to sit with a book, I might have been tempted, but alas, I had to consume it in short bursts. That gave me the advantage of time to ruminate on the content so that I am less likely to give a knee-jerk assessment of the work.
For what it is, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical or biographical genres. It is not a spiritual book or a book that it is written in a way that honors or glorifies Jesus of Nazareth for Who He is – the Creator, Savior, and King of kings and Lord of lords – nor is it blasphemous in any way. It is just matter-of-fact. The authors present Jesus as an actual historical personage who impacted the world in a significant way. “To say that Jesus of Nazareth was the most influential man who ever lived is almost trite. Nearly two thousand years after he was brutally executed by Roman soldiers, more than 2.2 billion human beings attempt to follow his teachings and believe he is God” (p. 1). The authors admit: “We do not address Jesus as the Messiah, only as a man who galvanized a remote area of the Roman Empire and made very powerful enemies while preaching a philosophy of peace and love” (p. 2). This approach should not come as a surprise since O’Reilly has often expressed and asserted his conviction that Scripture is allegorical and not to be taken literally. That brings into question his use of the Gospels as a historical resource. Indeed, he admits, “Of course we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they sometimes appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’s [sic] life” (p. 1) If the Gospels are allegorical, as O’Reilly claims, then this book, as a history, is not worth the paper it is written on. Would a true historian rely on allegory to construct a factual account? To be fair, the authors also rely on extra-biblical sources to compose their story. It seems, however, that the Bible is only used to “fill in” where secular historians are silent. But, let us set that aside for the moment.
Evidently, the Gospel account failed to provide sufficient content to accomplish the purpose of this book, so the authors devoted the first third of the book to early Roman history to help set the stage for the main course and perhaps to add a little spice with the depravity of the Roman emperors. I am not a historian, so I will defer to Mr. O’Reilly on the accuracy of these accounts. My strength is in Scripture, and in that regard I can give an honest assessment.
The authors get the Gospel account right for the most part. I was especially surprised by a footnote that informs us that “The Gospels clearly state that Jesus had four brothers: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. They also mention that he had sisters, but the number is not specified” (p. 79). O’Reilly and Dugard are both practicing Roman Catholics and for that reason the admission is remarkable. The footnote continues: “The Roman Catholic Church believes Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life. This doctrine was first put forth four centuries after Jesus lived by an early leader in the Church named Simon. The Church considers the siblings mentioned by the Gospels to be Jesus’s [sic] cousins” (p. 79).
The authors also get it right when they describe two separate temple cleansings by Jesus, one at the beginning of His ministry and one at the end (pp. 126, 192-193). Many Bible scholars miss this point, but sadly, the authors attribute this to error rather than accept it as fact. “Before being written down, the Gospels were oral histories. This might explain some discrepancies among them. The story of Jesus and the money changers is placed at the beginning of Jesus’s [sic] ministry in John (2:14-22), while [the other Gospel writers] all place it at the end. This has led some to speculate (emphasis added) that Jesus performed this cleansing twice, as specific details of the various Gospels account differ” (p. 126). Had the authors taken the time to seek a resolution to the “discrepancy,” as any good historian should do, they may have discovered that John was with Jesus from the very beginning. Matthew came along after the fact, and Mark and Luke were not a part of the original group of disciples. To these men, the last cleansing was most significant because it occurred in Jesus’ final week. All the Gospel writers had differing objectives in relaying their message, and so they tell the story from their individual perspectives. John’s purpose for his Gospel was to present Jesus as God. For him, the first cleansing establishes Christ’s divinity from the very beginning. You will recall John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There is no discrepancy here, except in the minds of these authors. But they should at least get credit for recording two separate events (pp. 192-193). Since John wrote his Gospel last, surely he had access to those written previously, so his placement of the temple cleansing was not by mistake. John had a point to make as did the other Gospel writers, and all were accurate in their record.
Another point missed by many Bible scholars is in trying to synthesize the different accounts of Jesus’ anointing into one event. O’Reilly and Dugard at least distinguished two different accounts: the anointing at the house of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee before the Transfiguration (Luke 7:36-50, p. 144) and the anointing at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany following Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, p 209). It is easy to see how these two separate events could be confused since both hosts are named Simon, but O’Reilly and Dugard correctly identified the two as separate events. However, they failed to include a third anointing which took place in (supposedly) the house of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. This account is found in John 12:1-7 and precedes the Triumphal Entry. Martha, as usual, is serving and Mary, her sister, performs the anointing. I cannot be too critical of the oversight, since many Bible scholars make a worse mistake by trying to reconcile the three separate events as one.
The authors accurately record the Gospel accounts for the most part, but given O’Reilly’s presuppositional conviction on the allegorical nature of Scripture, several errors creep into this work. Take for example the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (p.103). The Gospel of John 1:29-40 records the baptism, but does not record the interchange between The Baptist and Jesus. As stated earlier, John’s purpose in writing his Gospel was to demonstrate the deity of Christ, and so minor details are unimportant to his account. Instead, John focuses on the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove. The other Gospel writers also record a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). But instead, John focuses on the words of John the Baptist: “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34, emphasis added). In this passage, we learn that John, the writer of this Gospel, was a firsthand witness from the very beginning. “One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (John 1:40). The “one” not mentioned is John who never mentions himself by name throughout his Gospel.
Because of their myopia to the literal accuracy of the Gospel text, the writers of Killing Jesus appear somewhat incredulous that a dove coming out of nowhere should light upon Jesus and remain on him. “Suddenly a dove lands on Jesus’s [sic] shoulder. When Jesus makes no move to shoo it away, the bird is quite content to remain there” (p. 103). Looking at it that way, I believe I would be a little incredulous myself. These kinds of errors are systemic throughout the book.
Another kind of error in this book is that of adding to Scripture. For example, on the account of the baptism of Jesus as He comes out of the water, the writers say, “The believers drop to their knees and press their faces into the earth. Jesus does not react to this sign of worship. He does nothing to discourage it either.” (p. 104). That is nowhere to be found in Scripture, certainly not in any of the Gospels, but the authors cite no references to substantiate that detail. The writers quote John 1:34 (quoted above) and then add, “The crowd remains on its knees as Jesus steps onto the shore and keeps on walking” (p. 105). This must be something the authors learned in catechism, which perhaps explains why no reference is cited, but it has no basis in Scripture.
I understand that the authors are attempting to keep a detached and “objective” perspective, but I found one statement to be rather insulting to our Lord. In telling about the calling of Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-18; Luke 5:4-10) They recount that Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked him to push away from the shore so that He could speak to the crowd that had assembled, “Though he [sic] knows next to nothing about fishing” (p. 136). In the first place, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which is not that far from the Sea of Galilee; I am sure He would have known something about fishing. Furthermore, this is God who created fish and fishermen. That He knows something about fishing is demonstrated in that He gave instructions to lower the nets after the men had fished all night and came up empty, and the catch was more than they could handle. So, I find the assessment that Jesus “knows next to nothing about fishing” a little demeaning. In the same account, the authors claim that Peter was “A fisherman in his early twenties” (p. 137). Most scholars believe that Peter was probably around Jesus’ age or perhaps a little older. Again, the authors cite no references for this claim.
Other errors include the claim that the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a “legend” (p. 199 footnote). They mistake Jesus’ assessment of the Greatest Commandment as a “new” law, but oddly, in the footnote they cite Deuteronomy 6:5 (p. 205). This Greatest Commandment was nothing new; the Deuteronomy reference harkens back to the First and Second Commandments (Exodus 20:3-4). They also confuse Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane as “panic” (p. 212). Jesus knew His mission from the very beginning. Luke records: “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51, emphasis added) indicating that Jesus was determined to go through with His sacrifice. There was no “panic” in Him. Finally, in the “Afterword,” the writers wrongly attribute the description of “a woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This obviously comes from the authors’ Roman Catholic doctrine. More than 1920 years after the time of Christ, “On November 1, 1950 the Roman Catholic Church decreed that [Mary’s] body had been ‘assumed into heaven’” (p. 265). If the authors had bothered to research this in greater depth, they may have learned that the “woman” described in Revelation is Israel, not Mary, and the child she bore is Jesus. The reason nothing more is heard of the woman, is because she, Israel, has not, and will not be destroyed as a nation. However, I would not expect Mr. O’Reilly to accept that explanation.
My final assessment of Killing Jesus: A History is that it is a well written book, easy to read and entertaining. I would not take it seriously as a “history” given that the authors view the Bible as allegory, and allegory is a highly questionable resource when trying to document real history. Admittedly, the authors assert that this is not a spiritual book, and because of that this book has little value from a spiritual perspective. Some supposed Christians claim that the book has strengthened or renewed their faith. That may be true if the “Christian” doubted the historicity of Jesus in the first place. This book might have some value in that regard. I would not recommend this book as a “witnessing” tool as it gives a very poor witness. As I stated at the beginning, the authors are not blasphemous in any way, but at the same time, they do not give Jesus His proper due. He is presented as a mere man on a mission who got on the wrong side of the governing and religious authorities. There is more to Jesus than these authors portray. The book presents Him as a victim ignoring His very words, “I lay down my life for the sheep … No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:15, 18). Jesus is God, whether “some” believe it or not, and the Bible is not allegory. Killing Jesus might have been a better book, if the authors had taken the Gospel account seriously and literally. That said, I would not discourage anyone from reading it, but I would caution against taking it seriously.
 Direct quotes are denoted with the page number on which they are found in the book.