Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt and Co., 2013)
As a student of history, I don't know why I thought that reading Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard would be any more satisfying than their previous two publications, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. Having now finished the rapid read, I would put the O'Reilly/Dugard books in a category called “Killing____________ for Dummies.” I even questioned whether it was worth my time (or yours) to review Killing Jesus, but I do have a few points that I'd like to make about the book so here goes.
Last year I reviewed the novel Mary of Magdalene by the magnificent scholar, Margaret George. It was obvious that George had spent years doing research into the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and scoured history for events including Mary of Magdalene. Even though Mary of Magdalene is fiction, it is rich with historical detail that paints the landscape of religion, culture, and politics of the Roman era of domination. It is a riveting and dynamic picture of the time of Jesus and other religious figures, such as John the Baptist as well as those of the ruling class from Herod to Caiphas.
In contrast, O'Reilly states that the intent of Killing Jesus is not to tell everything there is to know about him since there are huge gaps in known facts about Jesus' life. O'Reilly also refrains from engaging in debate about Jesus as God, even though both he and Dugard are Catholics. O'Reilly states, “We are historical investigators and are interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to spiritual cause.” (p.3)
Thus, while there is mention of some of Jesus' miracles, such as raising Lazarus from the dead, and feeding the multitudes with a little bread and fish, the initial part of the book is centered on the history of the Ancient Mediterranean. We learn of the life and death of Julius Caesar and the rise of the Roman Empire through Augustus. There is some discussion on the ambitions of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. However, the dearth of scholarly citation leaves the text empty and unsatisfying.
The second part of the book covers the ministry of Jesus, from his ministry while roaming the countryside to his passion for cleansing the Temple of usury and other unholy practices. The details from this section of Killing Jesus come largely from the Gospel of John.
The third part of the book details the events of the last week of Jesus' life, from his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, to the gruesome flogging and crucifixion. In an effort to “stick with just the facts, Ma'am, just the facts,” there is minor mention of the disappearance of Jesus' body from the tomb when Mary Magdalene returns on the third day after Jesus' death to tend to the corpse. Therefore, what should be the “climax” of the story, the establishment of the theme for the foundation of a new faith, is short changed and undramatic.
I did enjoy the inclusion of many maps and artwork depicting the period. I was entranced by a “portrait” of Cleopatra, historically regarded as one of the world's most beautiful women. Other works of art held my attention more than did the prose, in fact.
Other critics, such as Daniel Hoffman in “Killing Jesus, More Novel than History” (www.equip.org/article/killing-jesus-more-novel-than-history/) point out historical errors in O'Reilly and Dugard's book. Hoffman cites, “saying the northern kingdom fell to the 'Philistines' in 722 (p. 14) when it actually fell to the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:5-6); stating the canonical Jewish Scriptures were compiled 'five hundred years before the birth of Christ (p. 15), when several books such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi were not even written until c.430 BC,” to revel sloppy scholarship in the book.
Certainly since the death of Jesus there have been quadrillions of pages written about him. To use the kernel of knowledge left to us by the people who knew him or the apostles in the 100 years following Jesus' martyrdom on the cross is tantalizing, the story ever gut-wrenching, tragic, and mysterious. For me, though, as I read Killing Jesus, I kept thinking that I would rather put on my CD of Jesus Christ Superstar, the iconic rock musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and reflect on the life and death of Jesus. Listening to the tormented Judas pleading with Jesus, “Your followers are blind/ too much heaven on their minds,” gives far greater satisfaction in the life and death of Jesus than does the book by O'Reilly and Dugard.