Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have recently produced two best-selling historical books: Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. The third installment of this series is likely to be at least as popular and almost certainly more controversial. In their latest effort, O’Reilly and Dugard attempt to write the history of the most famous person of all time, Jesus Christ.
Based on the following transcript of Norah O’Donnell’s interview of O’Reilly, one would expect this book to be fraught with anti-biblical statements:
O’Donnell: You include two quotes from Jesus on the cross, but not the most famous one: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Why not?
O’Reilly: We don’t put in things that we don’t think happened.
O’Donnell: How do you know?
O’Reilly: Because you couldn’t say something like that, audibly that people would hear. He, you die on a cross from being suffocated. That your lungs can’t take in anymore air. You can hardly breathe. We believe Jesus said that, but we don’t believe he said it on the cross, ‘cause nobody could’ve heard it.
O’Donnell: But, Bill, you know what people are going to say. “The Bible says that Jesus said on the cross, ‘Father forgive them,’ but Bill O’Reilly says that’s not true, so I should believe Bill?”
O’Reilly: Well you believe what you want. If you want to take the Bible literally, then that’s your right to do that.
O’Donnell: But you use as your sources for this book the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But you pick and choose.
O’Reilly: Right, but that’s not our only source. I mean, we use Muslim sources, we use Roman sources, we use Jewish sources.
O’Donnell: So is this the Gospel according to Bill?
O’Reilly: This is best available evidence according to Bill. We believe that the oral history in the Bible is largely accurate but we’re not taking it literally.
Does this interview accurately reflect the book? Did O’Reilly and Dugard truly cut words from the mouth of Jesus? These questions and more will be addressed in the following review.
Let me clearly state that Answers in Genesis does not recommend the book Killing Jesus.1 The handful of positive elements mentioned below cannot outweigh the graphic content, erroneous claims, and the number of truths of Scripture that were overlooked or understated. Before highlighting some of the many problems in the critique section, let’s take a look at the book’s stated goal. This will be followed by a brief overview of the book and the short list of its strengths. The critique section will focus primarily on the book, but a few comments will be made about the aforementioned interview.
In the opening pages of the book, Bill O’Reilly explained their goal in writing Killing Jesus. After citing a journalist who described Jesus as the light in a dark world who offended the men living in darkness, he wrote the following:
And these men succeeded (at least in the short term.) Jesus was executed. But the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has not been fully told. Until now. At least, that is the goal of this book. (4)
According to one of the co-authors, the goal of Killing Jesus is to tell the story of Jesus in light of the culture in which He lived. By better understanding the times in which He lived, O’Reilly hopes a person will have a deeper grasp of who Jesus was. He admitted the authors’ bias up front while also explaining part of their methodology:
Martin Dugard and I are both Roman Catholics who were educated in religious schools. But we are also historical investigators and are interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause. We brought this dedication and discipline to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and in these pages we will do the same with Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, both Lincoln and Kennedy believed Jesus was God. (2–3)
As Roman Catholics, the authors believe Jesus was (and is) God. But they aim for their book to be purely historical. That is, they want to simply inform the reader about what Jesus really did and said, and what truly happened to Him, but this introduces one of the greatest problems with the book. While the authors have the freedom to investigate historical figures and tell the truth about them, it is disingenuous at best to ignore vital information about that individual’s beliefs. For example, in their efforts to make sure this was not a theological book that would be seen as an attempt to convert people “to a spiritual cause,” some of the central teachings of Jesus were left out. Jesus taught that He was the only way to the Father (John 14:6), that those who rejected Him would die in their sins (John 8:24), and be judged by Him (John 5:27–30). Jesus did want to convert people “to a spiritual cause” (to use the authors’ words), so to largely ignore this aspect of Christ’s teachings is a serious oversight.
As for the theological implications of His life, the authors leave the reader to decide for himself. For example, they wrote, “But this is not a religious book. 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” (2). Jesus did far more than preach “a philosophy of peace and love.” He did show us the ultimate example of peace and love, but He also preached the truth, excoriating religious hypocrites like the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23) and calling on people to repent of their sin (Matthew 4:17).
The book opens with a somewhat dramatic retelling of events surrounding the first few weeks after the birth of Jesus. Although the timeline described by the authors may not be accurate, it does follow the traditional order of events, except for the month in which Jesus was born. The authors place His birth in the spring, reasoning that this is when lambs were being born and it would have been an ideal time for shepherds to be out in the fields at night.
Most of the attention is focused on King Herod and his actions. This helps provide the cultural context into which Jesus was born. Herod’s wickedness is highlighted, as are the physical consequences he allegedly suffered due to a life spent indulging in debauchery.
The next two chapters, along with the seventh chapter, provide some more backstory to help the reader understand the ruthlessness of the Roman Empire and the tensions that existed between them and the Jewish people. These fifty-plus pages provide a good deal of information about Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Octavius (Caesar Augustus), and Tiberius Caesar, although many of these details are not suitable for many readers, particularly younger audiences.
Those familiar with O’Reilly’s top-ranked television program probably realize that he doesn’t shy away from discussing and showing risqué topics. After all, especially in modern America, sex sells. These particular chapters are no different. The authors frequently discuss the various affairs of those in power. Several pages are spent describing, in far more detail than necessary, the sexual dalliances of these ancient leaders, including the reported extreme perversity of Tiberius. While the language is not extremely graphic, the content is unnecessary to understand the wickedness of these people.
The remaining chapters are a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological telling of the life of Jesus. The information is drawn primarily from the Gospel accounts with supplemental data about the rulers provided by the records of Josephus and other ancient historians. The retelling is not an exhaustive presentation of His life (nor are the Gospels for that matter), but the authors do recount a fair amount of the life and teachings of Jesus.
The final third of the book revolves around what has traditionally been called the Passion Week. A few details are overlooked, including the statement from the Cross discussed in the interview, but this section is somewhat thorough. Chapters are devoted to the Triumphal Entry, the second temple cleansing, conflict with religious leaders, as well as the betrayal, arrest, illegal trials, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus.
The Afterword explains the scriptural teaching of what happened to the body of Jesus. It was not stolen; instead, the New Testament teaches that He rose from the dead and appeared to many of His followers. The authors then proceed to summarize some of the impact Jesus had on His immediate followers, and ultimately, on the world itself.
Killing Jesus is not your typical “dry” history book—although I happen to enjoy reading history. O’Reilly and Dugard’s narrative style makes this book more readable than many history books, since it reads more like a novel than a listing of facts and dates.
It was refreshing that the authors do not follow the extreme skeptics who doubt or deny the existence of Jesus. Nor do they follow the demythologizing practices of the Jesus Seminar and other liberal theologians.2 They do not reject the miracles Jesus performed, although they do treat them in a curious fashion, as will be explained in the next section.
I enjoyed reading many of the peripheral details provided by the authors. Reading about some of the land’s features (i.e., its topography, roads) and descriptions of various buildings helped to make the places where Jesus walked and talked “come alive.” Learning about the historical details of the Roman Empire and some of the peoples mentioned in the Gospels was also helpful in setting the scene onto which Jesus arrived.
Keeping in mind that the Bible is the best and only infallible source one can use on the life of Jesus, the other sources cited by the authors are largely respected among evangelical scholars rather than relying on some of the demythologized versions of Christ’s life often used at the popular level.
On areas where Catholics and most Protestants typically differ, the authors do not automatically adhere to the Roman Catholic position. For example, on page 79 a balanced footnote explains the various positions regarding those identified as the brothers and sisters of Jesus in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 13:55–56; Mark 3:31–32). However, on page 228, they specifically refer to James as a sibling of Jesus. On the other hand, on a couple of occasions, they tend to favor, or at least mention, the Roman Catholic position. For example, in the Afterword, they identify Peter as “the rock” on which Jesus would build His church (263), and briefly mention the Catholic teaching called the Assumption of Mary—that Mary’s body was assumed into heaven so that it didn’t decay (265).
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is that many of the details are taken right from Scripture. So whether he realizes it or not, the reader is often reading the Bible (or at least a paraphrase of Scripture), although no other writing should be a replacement for reading the Holy Spirit-inspired Gospel accounts.
Many of the major issues with Killing Jesus are not to be found in what is said, but in how some things are said, and what is left out.
As mentioned earlier, the book contains some graphic description of sexual activity. Also, the “story” style of narrative leads to some minor problems. For example, the authors frequently set the scene of a pericope by describing the weather on that particular day. However, unless Scripture revealed such information, there is no way to know whether or not it was sunny or rainy on a given day. The same point can be made about the authors’ tendency to ascribe feelings to individuals when we aren’t given such information. Also, we do not know if the women heading to the tomb on the first Easter morning stared at the empty cross before turning their attention to walking toward the tomb. These types of details are helpful in telling a story, and in some cases they may have happened, but they cannot be demonstrated from any ancient records so they do not help the book’s claim to present authentic history.
There are a number of factual errors in the book. Here is a listing of a handful of these (page number in parentheses):
While there are many more minor problems that could be examined, many of the major issues with Killing Jesus are not to be found in what is said, but in how some things are said, and what is left out.
First, in treating the miracles wrought by Jesus, the book almost always portrays them as secondhand accounts. That is, the authors discuss some of His miracles, but they are nearly always mentioned as though someone heard about a particular miracle, or it was reported that Jesus performed a miracle. They never come right out and say something like, “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.” Instead, they state the following:
Jesus is reported to have left Galilee, destined for parts unknown. Witnesses say he is performing miracles once again. In one startling account out of the town of Bethany, a man named Lazarus came back from the dead. And Lazarus was not recently deceased. He was four days dead and already laid in the tomb when Jesus is said to have healed him before a great crowd. (175–176)4
There are multiple instances where the authors ignore a miracle and mention the other details. Two examples will suffice. First, in highlighting the faith of a Roman centurion, the authors wrote the following: “There, soon after entering the city, a most amazing thing happens: the Roman military officer in charge of Capernaum declares himself to be a follower of Jesus” (143). No mention is made of the fact that Jesus miraculously cured the centurion’s gravely ill servant (Matthew 8:5–13). Second, at the time of Christ’s arrest, Peter cut off the ear of a man named Malchus. This is specifically mentioned (223–224), but no mention is made of Jesus healing the man (Luke 22:51).
So why would the authors refuse to directly acknowledge many of the miracles that were such a large part of the Lord’s ministry? The Bible states, “Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them” (Matthew 4:24). As Roman Catholics, the authors should certainly believe that Jesus performed miracles, so I don’t think unbelief is the reason miracles are only handled in an indirect manner.5
Earlier it was mentioned that the authors claimed not to refer to Jesus as the Messiah in this book. The rationale given is that Killing Jesus is a history book, rather than a religious one. Presumably, one reason to avoid calling Him the Messiah would be that to make such a theological claim would offend Muslims and unbelieving Jews. While I disagree with the approach, the authors may have thought they were acting on good intentions. However, intentions aside, they did not really neglect to identify Him as the Messiah. Much of the book’s buildup to the Lord’s execution is centered on whether or not Jesus will publicly declare Himself as the Christ (“Christ” means the same as “Messiah”), and the authors do not shy away from showing Jesus proclaiming Himself to be God. In the book, Jesus is indirectly called the Christ multiple times in the chapters on the Triumphal Entry and the scheming of Judas to betray Jesus. Here are a handful of examples where He is identified as the Christ:
So it isn’t really accurate to say that the authors avoided calling Jesus the Messiah.
Another significant problem in the book is that Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a victim of circumstances rather than being the one in control of the situation. Once again, it isn’t necessarily that the authors come right out and say that He wasn’t in charge, but the way things are stated or left unstated often gives that impression. For example, in describing the actions and concerns of Jesus while He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to His arrest, the authors wrote:
It would be so much easier if Jesus could just escape. He could keep on climbing the hill and walk straight back to Bethany. In the morning, he might journey home to Galilee, there to grow old quietly and raise a family. His words have accomplished just enough to give the people hope, but he never planned to lead them in rebellion. Jesus does not believe that is his earthly purpose. So he accepts his coming fate and makes no effort to flee. (221–222)
While Jesus clearly was greatly troubled with all that He would go through (Matthew 26:38), He was always in control of the situation. He knew that He had come to give His life, and He repeatedly told the disciples this during His ministry (Matthew 16:21; 20:17–19). Prior to allowing the soldiers to arrest Him, Jesus secured the freedom of His followers (John 18:8) and demonstrated His power over the guards (John 18:6). He informed Pilate that he would have no power over Him unless it was not granted to him from above (John 19:11). Make no mistake; Jesus was not a victim of circumstances. He was on a divine schedule and He kept it perfectly.
Earlier in the book, the authors also stated that Jesus did not make the “smart move,” as if avoiding controversy and trouble were more intelligent than following God’s plan.
The smart move would be for Jesus to avoid controversy, to remain peaceful, and to let the status quo hum along as smoothly as during every other Passover. A jarring public display of temper would be most unwise.
Jesus doesn’t care. Without warning, he flips over a table and sends coins flying. Then another. And another. . . . He is angry but not out of control. His actions are methodical and every movement shows that he fears no soldier or guard. (192)
The authors may simply be trying to emphasize that what Jesus did was “most unwise” from a human perspective. However, what is truly unwise is to give readers the impression that what the Son of God did was not smart.
Let’s revisit the interview cited at the beginning of this review.
O’Donnell: You include two quotes from Jesus on the cross, but not the most famous one: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Why not?
O’Reilly: We don’t put in things that we don’t think happened.
It’s true that O’Reilly and Dugard do not mention these famous words. They do cite His words, “I thirst,” and “It is finished,” but they do not mention the conversation with the two criminals crucified with Jesus, His words to His mother, of His cry about being forsaken. These omissions could have been written off as being due to the abridged nature of the book’s reporting. However, O’Reilly specifically mentioned that he did not think Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”—at least not while on the Cross, since, according to him, one could not say such things loud enough for others to hear.
O’Reilly’s response brings up some interesting points. The two statements that are included in the book are short statements, which according to the authors, “His voice [was] not more than a whisper” when he said “I thirst” (250). So this does seem to truly be O’Reilly’s rationale for leaving the longer statements out of Christ’s final hours.
While it is true that crucifixion victims endured extraordinary pain and often suffocated, such torture would not necessarily prevent people from speaking. If it was common knowledge in the first century that crucifixion victims could not speak loudly enough to be heard or long enough to carry on a brief conversation, many of Christianity’s critics would have jumped all over these statements contained in each of the Gospels. However, to my knowledge, no ancient writer accused the apostles of inventing Christ’s words because people couldn’t speak while being crucified.7 This would have been an easy way to discredit the Gospels, so why didn’t the ancient opponents of Christianity do this? Because people could talk while enduring crucifixion, just as described in the Gospels. O’Reilly is simply wrong on this point.
As it turns out, the interview was more offensive in regards to distorting claims of Scripture than the book was as a whole. To be sure, the book had many problems, but in two short minutes, O’Reilly made several large blunders. He derided those who believe Jesus spoke the famous words on the Cross as those that “read the Bible literally” (read: who are too ignorant to know better). It isn’t about reading the Bible “literally,” but reading the Bible properly. Since the Gospel accounts were written as historical narrative (more specifically, they are like biographies) then they should be understood in a straightforward manner.8
There were plenty of eyewitnesses at the Cross who could have heard anything Jesus had to say, including the Apostle John. The other Gospel writers could have interviewed some of the women who were there, such as Mary (the wife of Clopas), Mary Magdalene, or Mary, the mother of Jesus (John 19:25). Perhaps Roman soldiers could have been interviewed too, particularly the centurion who acknowledged that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54). These people would have a far more accurate view of what happened that day at the Cross than Bill O’Reilly or any other person alive today who refuses to take God’s Word seriously. Since the author took a jab at those who do believe the divinely inspired Gospel writers over a 21st century journalist, it is safe to say that O’Reilly does not treat the text with as much respect as he should.
While there is much more that could be said about his interview performance, this review is supposed to focus on his book. That being said, in response to O’Donnell’s question about why he picks and chooses which parts of the Gospels he believes are accurate and which are not, O’Reilly replied with a strange answer. “Right, but that’s not our only source. I mean, we use Muslim sources, we use Roman sources, we use Jewish sources.”
When writing a book about Jesus and the time in which He lived, I think it is perfectly appropriate to use (in addition to Scripture), Jewish and Roman sources. But what Muslim source is going to shed light on whether Jesus did or did not speak certain words on the Cross? Islam did not exist until nearly six centuries after Jesus died. In other words, there were no Muslims until the time of Muhammad (c. AD 570–632). So what good would Muslim sources be in determining what Jesus said on the Cross, especially when Muslims don’t even believe Jesus was crucified? As far as I can tell, the only statement derived from a Muslim source in Killing Jesus was in the Postscript where the authors describe the impact of the life of Jesus in this world. There, a quote from the Koran about Jesus is given. If this is indeed the only statement from a Muslim source, then it is disingenuous at best for O’Reilly to respond to the question by claiming that they used Muslim sources in the book.
I have a strong suspicion that O’Reilly knew exactly what he was doing in that interview. Perhaps I am being a little too cynical, but my guess is that he wanted to stir up controversy and sound provocative. It’s good for business when one is trying to sell a book.
Overall, the book was not as troublesome as it seemed it would be based on O’Reilly’s interview. There were some strengths and it could serve as a decent introduction to some of the historical and cultural setting in which Jesus lived and died (and rose again). However, there are far too many areas of concern for me to recommend it as suitable reading. The perversity and brutality of the Caesars is described too graphically for younger readers, and I certainly would rather not read something like that again. The other problems mentioned above are not exhaustive, but should give interested readers a good idea of what to be wary of if they decide to read this book.
If someone wants to learn more about the life of Jesus, I would encourage them to read and study the Bible. Yes, there are helpful books out there to help us gain a deeper understanding of certain aspects of the time and culture in which He lived. For example, Alfred Edersheim’s highly respected The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah has been a tremendous resource in this area for more than a century. But no matter how helpful a work like Edersheim’s book is, nothing can compare to God’s inspired and infallible Word, which does not shy away from telling us the whole truth about Jesus. He is the Son of God who gave His life for our sins and rose from the dead three days later, and, according to Him, He is the only way by which we can be saved.