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December 2013

Killing Jesus: A History

By Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Publisher: Henry Holt & Co

Pages: 304

Price: $28

Review Author: Sean Wright

Killing Jesus, written by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and historian and screenwriter Martin Dugard, received the kind of months-long media build-up that makes for high expectations. Their book for the most part offers a compelling and vigorous portrait of Jesus as a charismatic character who sought to reform the Judaism of His day and who just might be the Son of God. O’Reilly and Dugard, both Catholics, attempt impartiality but paint the life of Jesus with a decidedly Catholic brush, setting that life in stark relief against the political tapestry of the Roman-dominated world.

Perhaps due to the deplorable state of education in the U.S., the authors spend nearly 100 pages describing the careers of Julius Caesar and the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius and their associates, so readers can appreciate the circumstances that led to the death of the Roman republic and the rise of the Roman empire — a super-state supported by taxes collected from lands conquered and held in thrall by highly disciplined legionaries. Intervals of ten pages hardly pass without reference to Rome’s heavy taxation, and such devoted attention comes across as a ham-fisted, tendentious attempt to draw a parallel between the Rome of the Caesars and the United States of Obama. It might not be unfair, but the incessant nagging about taxes becomes annoying. It also obscures the fact that inhabitants of heavily taxed and ruthlessly governed Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee enjoyed prosperity unseen since the days of Solomon. The Pax Romana ended the incessant intertribal and internecine warfare in Israel that had often laid waste to farmland and livestock, curtailed commerce, and prevented the Hebrew state from enduring as a political power in the Middle East. This is the kind of historical conclusion the authors seldom get around to making.

O’Reilly and Dugard add interest by lingering on the emperors’ titillating sexual deviancies, without mentioning that their informant, Suetonius, was a Roman chronicler well known for using gossip and innuendo to spice up his history. Pointing out the authors’ omissions could be seen as mere quibbling, but there are so many errors, questionable conclusions, and fanciful notions presented as fact that it’s hard to accept this book as “a history.” A more appropriate title would have been Killing Jesus: A Commentary, reflecting O’Reilly’s stock-in-trade. The work wants for better research and an editor who actually cared about an accurate narrative. One suspects that Henry Holt & Co. had little regard for its audience: a case of contempt for the reader.

A reference to “St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City” is a typical blunder. The church, of course, is St. Peter’s Basilica; the pope’s cathedral church is St. John Lateran. Another footnote states with conviction that Christmas replaced the “orgiastic pagan holiday known as Saturnalia.” This is a modern assumption. More likely December 25 was chosen — after a flirtation with January 6 — because of a venerable tradition that the Annunciation took place on March 25, nine months earlier.

O’Reilly and Dugard seem to quote Scripture from memory — after not having read it for years. We’re told that Herod Antipas placed “an old military mantle on the prisoner’s shoulders. It was purple, the color of kings.” But Luke 23:11 (NAB) says Antipas clothed Jesus “in resplendent garb”; the NIV favored by the authors calls it a “gorgeous” robe. Luke uses a Greek adjective meaning bright or shining. “Purple” is simply wrong. Antipas ridiculed Jesus’ pretension to majesty by arraying him in one of his regal cloaks before returning Him to Pilate. It was later that morning, when Pilate’s soldiers were crowning Him with thorns, that a purple military mantle was mockingly draped over the shoulders of the scourged Jesus (Mt. 27:28; Mk. 15:17; Jn. 19:2). This mistake is embarrassingly careless and easily corrected by reading the Gospels.

In the end, the authors never make clear who’s responsible for killing Jesus. It might be Annas and Caiaphas, who were anxious about losing a fortune from their share of the Temple commerce. Pilate’s role is left murkier: He was seemingly sympathetic to Jesus but was caught up in a political tangle, terrified that Tiberius might recall him on a charge of malfeasance after other, earlier charges.

One final, gross omission: In 1955 famed Catholic reporter Jim Bishop published his bestselling book The Day Lincoln Was Shot. He followed that up two years later with another blockbuster, The Day Christ Died, and in 1968 with The Day Kennedy Died. O’Reilly and Dugard couldn’t have put out their three titles, Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, and now Killing Jesus, without knowing this. It’s irksome that they have not been gracious enough to acknowledge Jim Bishop for paving the way.

Discerning readers will better appreciate reliable histories of the life and death of Jesus such as Life of Christ by Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti and Jesus Christ: His Life, His Teaching, and His Work by Ferdinand Prat, S.J.

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