Just the Facts, Ma’am—Is that Enough? A Review of “Killing Jesus”

In the last several decades, many authors have attempted to describe the historical Jesus while trying to denigrate the historical record: mainly the four canonical Gospels. They fruitlessly tried to find the person while maligning the manuscripts. Fortunately, this is not the case with Killing Jesus because this book is frequently faithful to the Gospel details and presents a mostly accurate portrayal of the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus. 

This is the third collaboration between syndicated columnist and anchor of The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly, and historical author Martin Dugard. They previously wrote the best sellers Killing Lincoln (2011) and Killing Kennedy (2012). So, they have moved up from presidents to God. One wonders who might be the next topic for this prolific duo.

Killing Jesus is well written and attention-holding, even for knowledgeable Christians who know how the story unfolds and ends. Even though it is full of historical details, it is written for the popular reader. Thus, it is fast-paced and engaging with few footnotes to slow down the reader. The authors know how to tell a good story—and the topic does not get any better than this one. They have a winning combination: Dugard does the research, O’Reilly writes the story in an engaging television documentary-style of writing, and fact checkers go over every detail.[ref]Kaufman, Leslie, “The O’Reilly Factory,” New York Times online, December 23, 2012, Internet, accessed January 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/books/bill-oreilly-has-top-2-spots-on-hardcover-best-seller-list.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.[/ref]

A Mixed Blessing

Yet, Killing Jesus is a mixed bag. On the positive side, the biblical information is mostly accurate, such as Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist being a submersion (104) and Jesus cleansing the Temple twice (119-25, 192-94). Also, the details from secular history are usually correct, such as crucifixion nails going through the wrist rather than the palm of the hand (248) and the common re-use of the nails (253), although the authors do not critically examine the secular sources. Another strength of this book is the good amount of interesting and enlightening Greco-Roman background material (23-63, 108-18). For instance: how depraved was Tiberius (the Roman emperor during Jesus’ ministry)? Fortunately, the writers do not go into graphic detail, but enough is shared to sufficiently inform and shock the reader (e.g., 109, 115). The book also has plenty of well-written political intrigue, making this book a real page-turner.

On the negative side, there are some elements mixed into the story from pseudepigraphical writings. Thus, the average reader is unaware that these details are not from the Bible, such as:

  1. Jesus stumbling repeatedly on the way to Golgotha (247), although no Gospel mentions this.
  2. Peter being crucified upside down (263), but no New Testament writing describes details of his death.

At least when referring to what happened to the apostles, the authors mention the accounts are legendary since the evidence is post-New Testament and sometimes contradictory (263-65). One should also be aware that there is much abridging of the Gospel story, such as mentioning only two of Jesus’ seven statements from the cross (250).[ref]Unfortunately, O’Reilly told Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes that Jesus said the other statements but not while on the cross, contrary to what the Bible clearly says. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWEf5gheGwg, accessed 1-24-2014.[/ref]

Of course, any time there is a narrative retelling of biblical events one may speculate or fill in details that were not historically recorded. Although this is expected, it is a weakness of the medium because the typical reader does not know when the authors are using Scripture or citing a secular historian, such as Josephus, and when they are speculating unless the book has citations—and this one has very few. For instance, the crowd falling on their knees during Jesus’ baptism (104-05), the many descriptive details of Jesus’ first Temple cleansing (119-20), and certain Sanhedrin conversations (173) are all speculations that elaborate on the historical details. Positively, in a related issue about details that even traditionalists debate, the authors briefly describe the issue and choose a side in their narrative, such as the date Jesus began his ministry (e.g., 8, 21, 79, 126, 129, 190, 218). Occasionally, they do not mention any issue when they should have, such as:

  1. saying a slow-moving comet was the star the magi saw (15), but there is no consensus on the type of light God used.
  2. citing that Judas Iscariot was from Karioth (139, 161), although there are other viable meanings of “Iscariot.”
  3. not addressing if there were one or two rejections of Jesus in Nazareth (129-32).

Some Missteps

Despite containing much accurate biblical information, there are some inaccuracies in the book. Most of them are minor, and the first one listed here is probably a typographical error. Mistakes include:

  1. saying Herod the Great expanded the Temple Mount to 3 acres (73), however, it was actually about 35 acres.
  2. placing when soldiers broke the legs of crucifixion victims too early (85), yet, it brought death, so it was at the end of the process.
  3. considering Mary Magdalene to be a former prostitute (90, 144)—a common error through the years, and the authors mention the debate but still pick the wrong side.
  4. claiming slaves loosed the sandals prior to washing someone’s feet (97), but loosing sandals was so lowly that even a Jewish slave did not do it.[ref]Two ancient sources attesting this practice are the Babylonian Talmud (b. Kethuboth 96a) and the Mekilta (Nezikin 1). A Canaanite slave was expected to loose a person’s sandals, but a Jewish slave was not. John’s the Baptist’s audience in John 1:27 was most likely primarily Jewish.[/ref]
  5. naming Peter as Jesus’ first disciple (139), but the first two were Andrew and likely John (John 1:35-40).
  6. claiming Jesus’ disciples wanted him to go to Jerusalem (171) when it was really Jesus’ unbelieving brothers who wanted him to go there in an attempt to get Him into trouble (John 7:2-3).
  7. moving some events of the Passion Week to Wednesday (208-11), but the Gospels are silent about that day.
  8. saying only two Marys went to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning (250), but Salome (Mark 16:1), Joanna, and “other women” (Luke 24:10) went, too.
  9. describing an ossuary as a stone jar (254) when it is actually a stone box.
  10. egregiously claiming Mary, Jesus’ mother, was sinless and that her body was assumed into heaven (265, and the authors admit these are Roman Catholic doctrines), although the Bible says every human is a sinner (Romans 3:23) and says nothing about the assumption of Mary.

Mostly Accurate, but Inadequate

The purpose of this book is to explain what happened to Jesus, and it does this fairly well, despite not taking the Bible literally[ref]See p. 126. Also, O’Reilly stated on 60 Minutes (see Endnote #3) that they do not take the Bible literally. He does believe in the Gospels “overall historicity and authenticity (22).”[/ref] as well as relegating Jesus’ resurrection to the Afterward (261-70), since believing it is a matter of faith. Yet, the vital missing element is why it happened. They purposefully ignore that fact that Jesus, the Son of God, is the long-awaited Messiah who died an atoning death. Without the why, the what is inadequate. One can know facts about Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection and still not be a Christian (Acts 4:5-22; 6:8-7:60; 26:1-29). However, understanding why Jesus did this—the theological interpretation of events—can lead someone to making a profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Thus, the four Gospels and Acts do not just record what happened. Unlike Killing Jesus, they also give the theological meaning of the events for the purpose of sharing the complete Gospel story. So, an effective message about Jesus must contain both the historical facts and their meaning.

Is this book a good evangelistic tool? No. Although both of the authors are Roman Catholic, they avoid the religious aspect as much as possible, being “interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause” (3). So, they completely miss the heart of the message. Thus, one is better served in evangelism on a popular level using Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ or on an academic level using Darrell Bock’s Jesus According to Scripture or Craig S. Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.[ref]The authors cite the latter two books as well as some other excellent sources (279).[/ref] Better still: use the four Gospels themselves. However, if a nonbeliever reads Killing Jesus, it can be an opportunity of pre-evangelism. One can then steer the person to read the complete Gospel message—the Good News of Jesus Christ—in the four Gospels.