Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt and Co., 2013)
Bill O’Reilly is the host of the highest rated cable news show in the United States, “The O’Reilly Factor.” After two successful books on the murders of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, he goes much further back in time with his newest work, Killing Jesus. This book provides O’Reilly’s account of the last few days of Jesus’ life, and while it has been a runaway bestseller, its release justifiably gave evangelicals reason for pause. The question is, “What does a cable news host know about the historicity of Jesus’ death?” While it is impossible to give a complete play by play of O’Reilly’s writing (you will have to read the book for that), let me present to you three things I found missing from Killing Jesus.
Lack of scripture references
O’Reilly does not show his readers where he found most of the quotes he ascribes to Jesus. It is hard to know if this is simply to help the flow of the book or if there are other reasons.
References would be very helpful for readers who are not familiar with the biblical story. Many who have spent time in church will recognize the words of Jesus but we are not told where O’Reilly found them. I am not aware if O’Reilly or his co-author, Martin Dugard, is proficient in the biblical languages or the languages used in any of the primary historical documents. They do claim in the end of the book to have used the NIV Study Bible, but I was unable to find direct citations to it in the body of the book, either from the NIV text itself or the study notes.
Lack of academic references
Killing Jesus contains a section of sources in the back of the book that the authors used in the composition process. Many of these are good resources and very insightful. However, there are few direct references to these sources in the body of the book. It is difficult to ascertain where certain assertions came from. The authors tell the reader that the task of compiling Killing Jesus was hard work. They claim to have “separate[d] fact from myth based upon a variety of sources, some of which had their own agendas” (p. 273). But they do not give the criteria by which those decisions were made. This seems important to a book that claims to give “an accurate account of not only how Jesus died, but also the way he lived and how his message affected the world” (p. 273).
Weak mention of the resurrection
It would be impossible to come away from Killing Jesus without realizing that there is a definite minimization of the supernatural. It is not so much an absence of the supernatural, but there are several places where it could have been stronger. In O’Reilly’s account of the resurrection, he does defer to the Gospels, but he fails to proclaim this to be a definitive part of the “history” that he has claimed his book to be.
Along with his assertion that early Christians were embarrassed by the cross (see 1 Corinthians 1:18), these really disappoint the reader as the book draws to a close. He may have found evidence that early Christians were disappointed by the cross but he fails to tell us where he knows this from.
For its weaknesses there are a couple of areas that will impress evangelical readers, and they may tip the balance of the scales in favor of giving it a read.
O’Reilly and Dugard are excellent storytellers. This book is fast-paced and exciting. They are gifted in bringing to life the characters that comprise the greatest story ever told. The nearly three hundred pages of the book disappear quickly and Killing Jesus is truly hard to put down.
Great Connection between Passover and the slaughter of the Lamb
For me, one of the strongest images in Killing Jesus is the connection between the Passover slaughter and the death of the Lamb of God. Jesus is pictured in the book overlooking the city during His crucifixion as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Here is the Lamb of God who is about to give His life, once for all, looking over the very place where His death has already been symbolized for generations. I do not know if O’Reilly meant this connection as strongly as I saw it, but it may have been my greatest takeaway from the book.
Killing Jesus is an interesting read that paints a vivid picture of the last days of Jesus’ life. There are multiple areas where it simply comes up short. Depictions about the life and death of Christ can be very helpful for us to understand what happened. We must understand, however, that with any work of literature, film or dramatic reenactment, artistic license will most certainly be taken.
O’Reilly notes that the Gospels “were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’ life” (p. 1). This is a gross misunderstanding. The Gospels are theological biographies.* We would do well to find the scriptures as our final authority. In them, God has given us His story. He has given us exactly what we need and He reminds us of that in these parting words: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31, ESV).
*Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. pp. 400-401.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Micheal Pardue is pastor of First Baptist Icard in Connelly Springs.)