Killing Jesus: A History. By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2013. 293 pages. Hardcover, $28.00.
This book is part of the “killing” series of books written by O’Reilly and Dugard, about the deaths of famous people. Previous titles are: Killing Lincoln; Killing Kennedy; and Killing Patton. They have been extremely popular. In fact, at the time of this review Killing Jesus is being made into a movie. Many of the readers are evangelicals.
Neither O’Reilly nor Dugard are Biblical scholars. O’Reilly is a well-known cable news commentator and Dugard is a New York Times best selling author.
The book is not written as a theological treatise, and the authors make it clear that they are only trying to tell the “truth” about important people and that they are not trying to convert anybody (p. 3). The subtitle of the book supports this conclusion. They simply want to look at the life and death of Jesus from a strictly historical viewpoint.
Both authors identify as Catholic (p. 2). In addition, they do use the Scriptures throughout the book. While they seem to respect the integrity of the Gospel accounts, they would not be classified as those who believe the Scriptures are inspired and without error. For example, they say that the Gospels were first oral histories and that this may account for the discrepancies in them. In the Gospel of John, the cleaning of the Temple is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but in the other Gospels it is at the end. The authors, however, say that this may not be a discrepancy since there may have been two cleansings (p. 126). Another possible discrepancy is that there were two Bethlehems and that some maintain Jesus was born in the one in Galilee and not the one described in the Gospels. But the authors say they favor the traditional site (p. 8).
In the book, the authors never state that the Scriptures are in error. They follow the general outline of the Gospels. However, they are also careful not to explicitly state that miracles take place. The book ends with the death of Jesus. On the Sunday morning after the resurrection, the body of Jesus is not in the tomb and has never been found. O’Reilly and Dugard imply that the disciples did not take the body since they were all afraid and in hiding (p. 259). The reader is left to ponder why the tomb is empty. They also state that there were “rumors” that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born and that the church has maintained that she was as well (p. 79).
Perhaps the closest they come to stating a miracle took place is when they state that Jesus knew He was going to die. Jesus also knew that the Temple was going to be destroyed. In discussing the fact that no bones were broken during the crucifixion, which as Bible readers know was a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, they say that this was “extremely unusual” (p. 250). The authors say that when it comes to the healings done by Jesus, even unbelievers must admit that something extraordinary happened (p. 271).
The Gospel is not given in the book. However, the authors do discuss that Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born from “above.” Being born from above would result in being “judged kindly by God.” Then the book quotes how Jesus said the words of John 3:16, with its promise of eternal life (pp.127-28). This is probably the closest the book comes to the Gospel. The authors, however, never state that Jesus’ death was one of substitutionary atonement or that it was ordained by God for the sins of mankind.
The emphasis in the book seems to be on Jesus’ message of love. If the authors of the book were to give the Gospel of Jesus, it would probably be that. In fact, the book is dedicated to “those who love their neighbors as themselves.”
Those who deny the inspiration of the Scriptures or the claims of Jesus will say that the authors are too conservative. Those who hold to a conservative view of Scriptures will say that they are too liberal. The authors would say that the book should be judged as a historical book.
Perhaps the hardest part in judging the historical value of the book is that there are few footnotes. It is difficult to determine when primary sources are used. It is also difficult to determine when these primary sources are correct. As a result, there are many statements in the book that are hard to verify. For example, it is stated that Jesus was scourged with a different kind of whip to ensure that He did not die (p. 242). In addition, Peter was crucified upside down (p. 263). When Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers it was in response to the widespread belief in the first century that vipers killed their mothers in the act of birth and Jesus was calling the Pharisees parent murderers (p. 206).
The book does refer to a statement by Josephus that Herod Antipas lost his kingdom because God punished him for killing John the Baptist (p. 152). But was this the writings of Josephus or the writings of a later Christian editor? Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, says that the victim of scourging had his inner organs exposed and that Pilate committed suicide (pp. 235, 266), but can we accept these statements as true, or were they traditions present in the days of Eusebius?
The authors give a very detailed account of the medical problems of Herod the Great. He had an inflamed big toe, gout, kidney problems, worms, sexually transmitted diseases, gangrene, and maggots (p. 12). But once again, it is impossible to verify in the book if these things were historically accurate or from where the authors got this information.
However, even if one cannot verify certain details, the historical picture of the book is helpful. The authors describe the world in which Jesus lived. It was a cruel world governed by immoral people, both Jewish and Roman. It was full of political intrigue. From a strictly historical perspective, this contributed to the death of Jesus.
The book places the blame of Jesus’ death on the Jews. While the Romans did not tolerate rebellion, they did not see Jesus as a threat. The Jewish leaders, however, did. They feared Jesus would cause an uproar among the people and the leaders would lose their positions of authority.
These things can also be used to explain why the masses of people were attracted to Jesus. They longed to be released from those who oppressed them. They would have appreciated the fact that Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers because they had been cheated by them for years. O’Reilly and Dugard suggest that Herod Antipas does not want to condemn Jesus because he still remembers what he did to John the Baptist and doesn’t want to condemn another “holy” man. Pilate doesn’t want to execute Jesus because the average Jew might revolt and that would look bad for him back in Rome (pp. 237, 241).
It is clear in these examples that the authors of this book often use the history of the period as they see it to get into the minds of the people in the account of Jesus. The reader will have to determine how valid each example is. However, it appears that the general picture they paint agrees with the New Testament. As a result, it might help in giving possible explanations to certain events and the motives behind certain actions. In addition, many people in evangelical churches are reading it and it is helpful to understand what they are reading.
The book is best classified as a historical novel. It is easy to read and follow. It is a fun book to read as well. For all of these reasons, I recommend the book.
Kenneth W. Yates
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society