A Review of O'Reilly's Killing Jesus

Killing Jesus: A History by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard has both positive and negative aspects. In the end, I do recommend reading it. But don’t give it to non-Christians expecting it to be a dramatic replacement for reading the Gospels themselves. The authors tell an engaging history of Jesus’ life, but they falter seriously on some important parts of that history, which displays their bias.

The strongest part of the book is the Roman history that provides the historical context for the time Jesus lived on earth. It’s an important aspect to understand Jewish life at the time, the role Pontius Pilate played, and the interplay between Pilate and the High Priests. High school history didn’t stick for many of us, so these kinds of novels are appealing ways of learning history. It reads like an exciting novel. 

In the same way, they write about Jesus’ life in a dramatic, engaging way. For Christians who know the Gospels, it’s an enjoyable way of reading familiar events in an entertaining way. The book reminds me of Paul L. Maier’s historical fiction that I have loved reading (though in this case, there’s little fictional embellishment).

The authors state in the foreword that they only report what they can verify as fact, and for the most part I think they follow this rule. There were a few places where there was some historical embellishment that I know can’t have been in any source, but these were minor and didn’t involve anything of great significance or changing events as reported by the historical sources.

The primary problem with the book is the inconsistent way they treat the Gospels as historical sources. In the foreword they say they relay on classical works, and they do for Roman history and to vividly explain details like what it’s like to die of crucifixion. They referred to what Josephus wrote about Jesus and Israel. But contemporary historical sources have little detail about Jesus. They admit as much when they state that Jesus lived an average life in a small backwater of the Roman Empire until the last few years of his life. Even then, no one paid much attention to this part of the world.

The primary sources they use for much of their narrative of Jesus’ life are the four eyewitness records – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So most of the book relies on these four historical sources. Frankly, there wouldn’t be much of a book to write without the details provided by these accounts. They treat them as sound sources in much of what they report, but then dismiss some things as “myth.” This is the weakest part of the book and their methodology.

They treat the testimonies of miraculous events in these same sources differently than they do the other events they treat as history. They include them, but not as historical fact as they do the rest of the events of Jesus’ life. They switch from reporting the events to hedging what these same sources tell them about miracles. They write, “Stories of Jesus turning water into wine….” “Witnesses say he is performing miracles once again.”

They write, “We had to separate fact from myth based upon a variety of sources, some of which had their own agendas” (p. 291). Why treat some as history and other parts of the same source as myth? They have an anti-supernatural bias. And my hunch is that because they want their book to be taken seriously by other historians, they treat these reports differently. If they think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can be relied on in some cases, they don’t justify why they suddenly think these reports are myth.

They do the same thing when they omit some of Jesus’ words on the cross because they have a presupposition they brought to the historical sources. O’Reilly said in an interview that no one could have heard Jesus’ last words because the crowds were kept too far away to overhear, and since crucifixion killed by suffocation, Jesus’ couldn’t have spoken on the cross. Yet they do report two things He said – which He said on the cross while undergoing suffocation and which were overheard. There’s a double-standard that isn’t explained.

The most egregious omission from the sources they rely on for most of their book is the reports of the resurrection. The last chapter ends with Mary discovering the empty tomb. In the postscript, they report the eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus, but that has the effect of treating it like the miracles – suspect. The only reason to do so is to start with an anti-supernatural presupposition and assume that any reports of such are “myth” with an “agenda.”

The authors insert some commentary here and there that is inconsistent with the history that they report. They accurately report that Jesus’ claimed to be God on numerous occasions, and this is what infuriated the Jewish leaders. But in the foreword, they summarize Jesus’ message as peace and love. That’s a poor summary of what they actually write about Jesus’ message. 

They also write that Jesus is a revolutionary with a band of disciples and a growing legion of followers. This is contrary to Jesus’ own message. Though His message was revolutionary theologically, it wasn’t revolutionary politically, which seems to be their implication based on the context. And his followers didn’t grow over the course of His ministry. The biggest crowds Jesus had for His teaching were at the beginning of His ministry. Between the Sermon on the Mount and the cross, the crowds dwindled. These little insertions of commentary are inconsistent with the facts they report.

The most ironic thing about the inconsistent way they treat the historical records of Jesus’ life is that in the sources section, they recommend reading excellent authors. They mention Darrell Bock, J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Craig Keener, and others. Too bad they didn’t learn better how to treat the eyewitness sources more consistently.

So kudos on placing Jesus’ life in the wider historical context of the time and for vividly telling Jesus’ life. Read it and enjoy. But there are major fundamental flaws in the authors’ methodology that undermines a fuller and accurate historical retelling of Jesus’ life.


Stand to Reason Blog

Melinda Penner