The quest for the “historical Jesus” – the supposed man beneath the accoutrements of faith – rages unabated today, three centuries after the first of these now countless attempts appeared in book form. Since then, volumes have come and gone, all claiming to have found the “real Jesus,” through each author’s supposedly objective and faith-free interpretation of the epic events that occurred in Palestine two millennia ago. Yet this Jesus has still not been found. Instead, in these volumes, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in his own book about Jesus, we find “photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold.”
Killing Jesus, by cable-news anchorman Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, is the latest such book to land on the best-seller lists. The authors explain that theirs “is not a religious book.” It is rather “an accurate account of not only how Jesus died, but also the way he lived and how his message has affected the world.” But in pushing the “Christ of faith” to the margins along with faith-conscious interpretations of Jesus’ words and deeds, we are left with the Gospel according to Bill O’Reilly – a dramatic political conflict between the leading religious and civic authorities of the first century, which had consequences for the whole world.
The greatest strength of Killing Jesus is its vivid descriptions of the physical and social backdrop to the stories told in the canonical Gospels. The landscapes of Nazareth, Capernaum, Jerusalem and its Temple are colorfully depicted, as are the complex social and political relationships between leading personalities and groups. The practical elements of domestic and ritual lifestyles underlying the Biblical accounts are also explained in detail, including the preparations for Passover in Jerusalem, where Jesus “sees the hundreds of temporary clay ovens that have been constructed in order that each pilgrim will have a place to roast his Passover sacrifice. . . .He hears the bleat of sheep as shepherds and their flocks clog the narrow streets, just down from the hills after lambing season.”
O’Reilly and Dugard thus provide a composition of place for all the major events in Jesus’ life: his baptism in the Jordan, his overturning of the money tables in the Temple, and above all, the intricate details of his Passion, from the type of flagellates with which Jesus was scourged to the “pleural and pericardial fluid. . .mixed with a torrent of blood,” that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side on the cross.
But if the book excels in physical and political descriptions, it’s wanting in historical interpretation. Time and again O’Reilly and Dugard present conjectures as facts and perform psychoanalysis on men whose motives remain unknown. The interpretation of ancient history, even after you’ve looked at the primary sources, requires careful discernment and reconstruction. Yet in Killing Jesus historical circumspection is often sacrificed in favor of a more sensational narrative.
Historical indiscretions appear in two forms. First, there are oversimplifications or even distortions of complicated facts, generally relegated to footnotes, including the dating and naming of Christmas and the timing of Jesus’ final Passover celebration. Second, unknown attitudes and motives are presented as facts without qualification in the narrative. At the last supper, for example, the authors declare that “Jesus is having trouble focusing on his final message to the disciples.” Really?
The greatest overreach, however, comes in the overly long account of the life of Julius Caesar, which outdoes the already garnished account by Plutarch, where Brutus’ stabbing of Caesar is deemed “an act of emasculation” against the dictator who refused to acknowledge Brutus as his progeny.
Fortunately, the account of the deeds and travels of Jesus of Nazareth is more reliable. O’Reilly and Dugard’s narrative closely follows St. John’s chronology of a ministry spanning three years, interspersed with certain events told by the Synoptics. The dialogues recounted between Jesus and his contemporaries are taken directly from the Bible with little embellishment, with the impassioned exchanges between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Jewish Temple authorities featured as the heart of the narrative, which leads ultimately to Jesus’ death.
But here the authors’ disavowal of faith leads them to conclude that money – not claims about God or Judaism – is the real reason the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus killed. In interrupting the money flow by overturning the tables in the Temple, “Jesus has committed a grave offense,” and Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, desires to eliminate Jesus as “a cautionary tale for anyone who considers challenging the authority of the Temple courts.”
In the Gospel according to Bill O’Reilly, then, the trial of Jesus for blasphemy – a religious charge if there ever was one – is ultimately a front for protecting the position of the high priest’s family and the Temple’s money supply from a God-centered rabbi who spent three years preaching the Kingdom of God while insinuating that he was God’s Son.
The historical Jesus remains undiscovered in Killing Jesus, and for good reason. By removing faith from the history, the authors have also removed much of the evidence for a comprehensive understanding of Jesus. O’Reilly notes that “[t]he Pharisees believe in miracles but not in Jesus.” Perhaps someday history will believe in faith and not only in itself.