When I first announced I would be reviewing the book "Killing Jesus" by Bill O'Reilly, I ran into quite a bit of resistance from lots and lots of folks. Publically and privately, I felt the pull of not doing this review in the way I had announced I would do this review (which was of course a huge "Like" for the first O'Reilly book I have read). And, after listening to my sincerely concerned friends and acquaintances, close and distant…. after listening to them and chewing on their cautionary words for a week or so, I have come to the conclusion that their worries concerning the two major biases Bill O'Writer would have (his day job and his religious affiliation) were indeed valid, as I had the same worries for the presence of bias myself, but that is all they were...worries.
O’Reilly bent over backwards to eliminate bias to the point of penning an incredibly profound accounting; historically accurate (more than any other book I have read), theologically consistent from book to book, as well as capturing the most appealing aspect of J.C.’s earthly ministry, the overcoming power of love while surrounded by terrible pain and abuse. The second most appealing aspect, His dissidence, is portrayed (at times even more so than the love aspect) so incredibly well it is both heartbreaking and rejuvenating at the same exact time. I absolutely loved this book. Let me tell you why I liked it and you can form your own opinions. Here is the "why"...
Having spent several years under the tutelage of the most critically minded theologian/educator I have ever come across, I have been somewhat spoiled when it comes to reading literature that is asserting a claim to be biblically consistent, and yet, has nothing to do whatsoever with Koine Greek (Biblical Greek), Aramaic nor any type of contextual exegesis (contextual criticism). In fact, I usually put the book down when severely biased research and opinions rear their illusory heads, without any basis in one or all of these prerequisites. These things are fundamental when attempting to objectively comprehend the intent of what the various biblical authors were attempting to explain.
There really is an “art” to biblical studies and if those things listed above, especially a working knowledge of Koine Greek and contextual criticism, are missing than all one may be getting is a biased report from the author about what he/she thinks scripture ought to or should say, according to said author’s point of view.
An aside : On the point of Koine Greek, please feel free to peruse my column http://www.examiner.com/article/is-it-all-really-greek-love-and-philadelphia?cid=db_articles for an example of why a working knowledge of Koine Greek is so incredibly valuable in understanding scripture, particularly the example of John 21:15-21.
Not so (on the aspects of biased literature) with Mr. Bill O’Reilly’s book. He employed all three of the tools mentioned above throughout the telling of this story and did so in a way that is uniquely his and his alone.
Bias is something I am always aware of when reading, given how much it was pounded into my head not to assume anything...and to think very VERY critically about what I am choosing to believe ancient texts may be telling me. Am I forming opinions that are based on what the bible says? Or am I forming the bible into what I think it should say based upon my opinions? We are all susceptible to bias, but (usually) it is refreshingly apparent when someone is attempting to limit their bias. It is also (usually) irritatingly obvious when someone is struggling to keep said bias to a minimum…or not trying at all, while maintaining a stance they are bias free.
Why did I start this column with a lecture on bias? Because the real issues most critics have of this book are sourced in said critics opinion of Bill O’Reilly the Fox News Political Analyst, or they are critical of his Catholicism, both of which could conceivably have sourced a huge bias and would have essentially made this massive undertaking of a book unreadable. However, and this is huge, O’Writer succeeded in limiting both sets of biases and in the case of his day job, eliminated it completely. There is no talk, nor even an inference or a miniscule inkling of his present day politics. No pot shots at liberals. No heavy handedness towards conservatives. Nothing. You would not know anything at all about Bill O'Reilly and his day job, if not previously acquainted to his work.
No, Bill O’Reilly the author was entirely focused on the historical figure of Jesus of Galilee and the overall socio-economic climate of that time period, to the point that he has created a valuable piece of theological/historical work, worthy of any top shelf designation. It isn’t exactly a must read, some of the information he provides is completely irrelevant to beginning theology students and very tedious in the detail arena (see O’Reilly’s accounting of how grossly sick and diseased Herod Antipas was p. 11-13), but it is an incredibly valuable companion piece, as far as the historical research is concerned, right next to the well used Concordance you may have sitting on your own proverbial “top shelf.”
What exactly is this book about? “Killing Jesus” is a fitting description for the latter half of the book dealing with the actual torture and crucifixion of the Nazarene, obviously. But, given the politics and the socio-economics of the time, the authors made it clear Jesus of Nazareth was a marked man from birth. So the title “Killing Jesus” is most appropriate for the entire book in the sense that from birth, this man’s life was threatened continuously and at any given point in His life Jesus was a marked man...even as an infant. Even that however, the title, doesn’t exactly capture the work that O’Writer accomplished in this book.
“Killing Jesus,” the actual obsession that some (not all, but some) of the religious leaders as well as the governing rulers had to achieve this man's death, is background, but an integral background. O’Reilly spends an incredible amount of time on the socio-economic canopy of Rome as well as the Sanhedrin (the governing Jewish body at the time) and I often wondered, as I read along, if this much time spent on these details was needed. Therein was my own expectations however, my own bias. I say needed because I was looking for a new read about Jesus of Nazareth, and the book seemed to be more preoccupied with Rome and the Sanhedrin. It was within this backdrop that I needed to fit the story of the footsteps of the Nazarene and His followers, not the other way around. That is the scope of this work.
You see, I myself am guilty of imposing my own expectations on this book as the book isn’t exactly about Jesus as much as it is about killing Jesus, which puts it square in the arena of the goings on of Rome and the Jewish legalists of the time period. What were they thinking…and who by the way, were the ”They” who accomplished said killing? Why were these leaders thinking such a violent end was necessary? And what went into such an incredibly world changing act that still, to this very day, echoes throughout our recording of events in time, utilizing vastly different means from vastly different cultures across the span of real time in the lives of humanity as a whole? These are the types of questions Mr. O’Reilly spent time exploring. Thankfully so, I might add.
That is what the substance of this book is about, the historical and recorded context leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
On the Depth of O’Writer's Thoroughness and his Objectivity
O’Reilly wrote in the introduction that
“…we (the authors) know much and will tell you things that you might not have heard. There are major gaps in the life of Jesus, and at times we can only deduce what happened to him based upon the best available evidence. As often as possible, we relied upon the classical works….we will tell you when we don’t know what happened or if we believe the evidence we are citing is not set in stone.” p. 2
“…might not have heard…” That is a mild understatement. Take for instance this foot note on the subject of the star being followed by three Magi, the three wise men described as “astronomers, diviners, and wise men who also study the world’s great religious texts."
“In 1991, the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (volume 32, pages 389-407) noted that Chinese astronomers had observed a long-tailed, slow moving comet in their skies during March of 5 B.C. This sui-hsing, or star hung in the Capricorn region for more than seventy days. This same comet would have been visible in the skies over Persia, home of the Magi, in the hours just before dawn. Due to the earth’s orbital motion, the comet’s light would have been directly in front of the Magi during their journey - hence they would have truly followed the star.” p. 15
This is an amazing detail and one I would have never thought to search for, in the texts that he discovered this event within. Nor have I previously heard of this recorded comet. O’Reilly and Dugard however, took the time to masterfully search out other historical texts that were seemingly unrelated and developed this detail as it was directly relevant. That is but one example of research that impressed me in this read.
Another impressive aspect to Bill O’Reilly’s style has to do with humility. As a writer, I have discovered it takes a great deal of humility to admit when something is not known, unknowable or cannot be found. It is easy to write, while filling in the blanks, with what we THINK may have happened or more often than not, what we WANT the historical record to say. When there is a grey area the temptation to fill in the blanks with justifiable or unjustifiable conjecture is a big one, especially when there is no record to prove otherwise. It is a temptation every writer goes through and one that should be avoided at all costs in a historical piece of work, unless of course it is within the genre of fiction, which this book is not. O'Reilly and Dugan maintained that humility. Admirably.
Here is one example of said humility taken from p. 265. It truly exemplifies the author’s restraint, given that Bill O’Reilly is Catholic. The authors are describing what happened to all the major family and friends of the Nazarene after His death.
“Mary the mother of Jesus, is mentioned in the book of Acts and alluded to in the book of Revelation as a woman clothed with the sun, but her fate goes unrecorded.”
(As an aside: Far too many biblical students and readers use the plural of Revelation as the title for the last book of the bible. It is not Revelations; it is singular as in the book of Revelation. This is a small detail but it IS a good litmus test for any writer or biblical commentator as to the potential expert’s grasp of basic textual criticism as well as his/her knowledge of Koine Greek).
O’Reilly, whose religious affiliation is Catholic, could have taken this opportunity regarding Mary, to inject, using his authority as the author, his own theological beliefs with regards to the actual historical figure of Mary the mother of Jesus; after all there is very little known historically about this special woman in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He does not however, attempt to fill in any blanks with his personal religious theology. He does go on to include what was later decreed by the Roman Catholic Church as to Mary’s percieved assumption into heaven, but he does so in a way that leaves this up to the reader to decide. He does not force this into a historical context as there is no record of this event biblically. For a Roman Catholic, that took a great deal of restraint I would imagine, knowing (quite closely) a few Roman Catholics myself.
This is but a taste of a wonderfully profound undertaking in "Killing Jesus." I end with where I began. I am thoroughly impressed by Mr. Bill O’Reilly and his attention to this story. He managed, where so many others have “failed,” to capture in an unbiased way the historical context surrounding the death of the most influential figure known to humanity. Whether you believe in O’Reilly or not, whether you believe in Christianity or not, this book can provide a previously elusive understanding of that day, the historical context in the life of the man crucified on that day, within the canopy of the brutal socio-economic policies of that far off time period so heavily spoken of and conjectured about, and rarely captured as well as Bill O'Writer and Martin Dugard have. Kuddos to these authors on such a fine undertaking.