It is hard to overstate the impact of the life of Jesus Christ. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about him, his enduring impact has left an indelible effect on the course of human history. Doubtless, more books have been written about the life of this one preacher from ancient Palestine than any other man. It is one such book, Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, that I would like to consider here. I will present its successes followed by what I perceive as its failures.
I found Killing Jesus to be a genuinely interesting book. It is brief, and because of this it reads fairly quickly. One of the greatest strengths of this work was its consistent application of secular history to the Jesus story. Beginning with Herod the Great, encompassing Julius Caesar, and ending in a summary of the lives of those involved in the Jesus story after the resurrection, relevant stories from history are carefully selected in such a way as to make sense of the world in which Jesus lived. I found this particularly insightful. By understanding the attitudes and actions of those historical figures who encountered Jesus, we begin to have a grasp of why they acted, or reacted, in the manner they did. O’Reilly’s accounting of these stories served to place the story of Christ into a broader Roman context. This was the books greatest strength.
Despite such a glowing success for the authors, I found several glaring errors that were frankly the result of unbalanced scholarship. To begin with, O’Reilly opens the book on page 1 by saying, “Of course we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Joh, but they sometimes appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’s life.” The problem with this claim is that it is categorically untrue. In fact, the four gospels are written in the genre of Roman biography. The writers are so careful with their historical details that New Testament scholar F.F Bruce quotes Sir William Ramsey as saying, “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness. Luke is an historian of the first rank…He should be placed along with the very greatest of historians,” (Bruce 1981, 90-91). The accuracy of the gospel writers has led a majority of scholars to place them in the category of biography. As far as the claim of contradictory accounting goes Dr. Norman Geisler explains that, “divergent details actually strengthen the case that these are eyewitness accounts.” (Geisler and Turek 2004, 284). For more information on this, one should consult Dr. Geisler’s work I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. So O’Reilly was wrong. These are trustworthy biographies.
Another shocking historical failure came when the authors asserted the the Philistines were the ones who captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel, when in fact it was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. This is a minor, yet obvious detail that was apparently overlooked in research. In addition to these criticism, I would like to point out that there are isolated instances in the work where it appears that the authors tried to maintain a level of modern political correctness. The instance I have in mind is from an explanatory footnote on page 147. Here the authors state, “Women often played pivotal roles in Jewish society……Women in Jesus’s time were considered equal to men….”. This claim is dubious at best, and directly contradicted by historians of the time. First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says in his work The Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” What Josephus meant to say is that the testimony of women was considered inadmissible in court. Strangely, O’Reilly cites Josephus throughout the work, so I find it very odd that he was willing to make a straightforward claim about the role of women without even so much as a fact check with Josephus. In fact, the lack of citation is a problem throughout the book. There were several moments during my reading that I wished O’Reilly would have at least hinted at a source I could check his claims by. The lack of citation is a admittedly his greatest weakness.
All in all Killing Jesus is a worthwhile read. The authors were fairly accurate, despite some discrepancy. It’s reader friendly style and dramatic tone make the story come alive within its context. My only caution is that the reader take O’Reilly with a grain of salt. Happy reading!
Bruce, F.F. 1981. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downers Grove, Ills.: InterVarsity Press.
Geisler, Norman, and Frank Turek. 2004. I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. Wheaton, Ills.: Crossway.
Josephus, Flavius. 2013. The Antiquities of the Jews: Complete and Unabridged. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.