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Politicizing Jesus

A review of Killing Jesus: A history by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2013

reviewed by

Published: 31 October 2013 (GMT+10)

Books about Jesus tend to reveal more about their authors than about their subject. This is because various groups tend to re-make Jesus in their image. To Marxists He becomes a Marxist; to pacifists He becomes the ultimate pacifist, and so on. The political takes on Jesus’ life are nearly endless. So when Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly co-authors the book Killing Jesus with historian Martin Dugard (one is unsure whether the smaller print on the cover reflects less participation on his part, or less prestige), we shouldn’t be surprised to find a slightly politicized Jesus.

The authors are from Roman Catholic backgrounds, but that only shows in that they give the church tradition a little more deference with regard to what happened to the apostles outside of what the NT records. This is combined with a rather puzzling low view of Scripture. For instance, they say that the Gospels “at times appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’ life” (p. 1). But then, they accept the apostolic authorship of John (p. 22), in a weird amalgam of liberalism and conservatism (which also may be a good description of O’Reilly’s news show). Also interestingly, they portray two Temple cleansings.1

The reader might be forgiven if, after the first chapter about the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16–18), they think the book accidentally includes pages from something which could have been called Killing Julius Caesar. The narrative leaps back about 40 years and hundreds of miles away and relates Jesus to the saga of Julius Caesar and the various political figures after him. We are treated to lines such as (about Octavian), “The son of god thinks himself immortal. He is also fighting a very bad cold” (p. 52). The authors also include graphic descriptions of the violence and sexual immorality surrounding the lives of the Romans—to such an extent that this is reason alone to recommend not reading the book. It is therefore a relief to find oneself finally at the Jordan River Valley in AD 7 at the beginning of Chapter 4.

Jesus occupies the periphery of the story until over 100 pages in. This might be an intentional stylistic decision on the part of the authors; one has a thorough backdrop of the immorality of the Romans and the corruption of the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem by this time. This backdrop is littered with historical errors—there are many other reviews of this book which focus on those, but as our concern is with the book’s portrayal of Jesus and the Jewish world, this review won’t repeat what other reviews have amply covered.

Although the authors attempt to paint a picture of Jesus as opposed to the ruling state government, Jesus only attracted the Roman authorities’ attention the evening before He was crucified, and even then Herod and Pilate found no reason to punish Him under Roman law; they only crucified Him to keep the Jews from rioting. So one would think that by far, the appropriate background would have included the Maccabean revolution, the conquering of Judea by Rome, the rise of the Jewish tradition that came to override Scripture itself, and so on. Jesus’ conflict was with the Jewish religious leaders—the scribes and the Pharisees. It was only decades later that His followers attracted the wrath of Rome.

Who was Jesus?

In their previous books, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, the authors explored the death of two political figures in American history who were tragically cut down, so this naturally still captures the imagination of people who memorialize them in movies and books. But this political focus, combined with the authors’ commitment to not analyzing Jesus’ divine claims, portrays Jesus as yet another ‘good leader’ we have lost.

All that Roman background affects how we see Jesus’ portrayal in the book. For instance, when they describe Jesus’ (first) cleansing of the Temple, they say, “Jesus is about to undertake a bold and outrageous moment of revolution” (p. 121). But ‘revolution’ has unacceptably political connotations here. Jesus’ action was one of religious reformation. There is no indication in the text itself or from historical evidence that the moneychangers and those who were selling the sacrificial animals were extorting people or had unethical business practices; Jesus was furious because they were conducting business in the Temple at all. Formerly, the moneychangers had been set up in the Kidron Valley, but by moving into the Court of the Gentiles, now they were interrupting the ability of Gentiles to worship God.

It is clear that the authors did not consult a biblical scholar, or they would have avoided errors such as making John 3:16–17 words of Jesus (they are most probably John’s comments on the preceding words of Jesus). They also mistakenly say that the Sermon on the Mount is “less than two thousand words long” (p. 143). This completely ignores the fact that when Jesus went someplace, He would have preached all day, at least. Sometimes He would teach for multiple days before the crowds dispersed. What we have in Scripture is a faithful summary of the sorts of things He taught, but the actual sermons would have taken hours.

They also unacceptably embellish the Scriptures’ accounts. In just one example, they write the following:

The men’s intention is to hurl Jesus to his death. And it appears that might happen, for Jesus seems powerless. But at the last minute he turns to face his detractors. Drawing himself up to his full height, Jesus squares his shoulders and holds his ground. He is not a menacing individual, but he has a commanding presence and displays an utter lack of fear. The words he says next will never be written down, nor will the insults these men continue to hurl at him ever be chronicled. In the end, the mob parts and Jesus walks away unscathed.
And he keeps walking (p. 132).

In a note, they helpfully indicate that they were taking their narrative from Luke 4:30. But reading the relevant passage:

When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were fill with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away (Luke 4:28–30).

Notice, no commanding presence, no insults, no parting of the crowd. Luke actually implies perhaps a combination of the crowd being so filled with wrath that they lose track of Jesus in their mob, or possibly a supernatural escape (since it wasn’t Jesus’ time to die yet). It is a seemingly small distortion, but these small distortions add up, and when combined with outright omissions the picture we get of Jesus is significantly different from the portrayal in the Gospels.


One of these omissions, which is another example of denying Christ’s divinity, is a persistent skepticism about the miracles Jesus did. But putting this skepticism in the minds of Jesus’ opponents via the narrative is unacceptable. Jesus was doing the sorts of miracles that no one could deny. The blind guy begging at the gate suddenly had 20/20 vision. The lady that was an outcast because of her unclean condition was restored to community life. A guy who had been rotting in a tomb was walking around in perfect health. Describing things like this as “seemingly performing supernatural acts” (p. 155) is ridiculous. The narrative of the Gospels is clear; the Pharisees saw the undeniable miracles and rather than contest the miracles, they said they came from Satan.

The authors also state, “Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy” (p. 176). They also claim, “Jesus has become a victim of his own celebrity” (p. 153), and later, as He makes His way to what will ultimately be His death, “panic is overtaking him” (p. 212). But this is all contrary to how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels. Even as a boy, Jesus has some awareness that He is God’s Son (Luke 2:49). And when His ministry starts, from the outset He is portrayed as ‘a man on a mission’. He predicts His own death before resolutely setting out for Jerusalem. Even as the mob is arresting Him, He tells Peter to put away his sword, because He could call Heaven’s angels to come and fight for Him if He wanted to.

The ultimate miracle of Christianity is the Resurrection. It is the miracle without which Paul says our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). It is the foundation for the hope of our own salvation. But the authors can only muster this to say: “To this day, the body of Jesus of Nazareth has never been found” (p. 259).

A ‘Fox News Jesus’

All in all, the authors embody the Fox News motto: We report, you decide. It’s a virtue today to be seen as impartial, unbiased. The hard-nosed reporters giving all sides of the story. The problem is that this book portrays a view that’s absolutely foreign to the ancient world, and more importantly, antithetical to the Gospels’ witness. The Gospel writers reported what they had seen so that people would repent and believe in Christ.

O’Reilly and Dugard present a Jesus who would fit well on a Fox News panel. He’s a good guy, religious, conservative. He would make for interesting TV. But he also bears little resemblance to the Lord presented in the Gospels.

Killing Jesus makes for an interesting read, but the theological errors and depictions of immorality make it impossible to recommend to a Christian audience, or as a useful introduction to Jesus for anyone.

References and notes

  1. John puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple early in His ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke put it right before His crucifixion. Some scholars think that the order of events wasn’t important for the disciples, who were rather interested in giving a topical discussion of Jesus’ life and teaching. Other scholars believe that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice. My own view is the latter; the details are sufficiently different that they seem to be two entirely different events, with different significance. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Rob K.
I was at first opposed to what you say about John 3:16, 17 Lita but I figured I would start consulting my 39 different English translations to see if any translators agree with you. The NET does. You learn something new everyday.
W. Wade S.
If I may, I would like to amend my earlier remarks. So shocking to me was the suggestion that the words of John 3:16 were not a quotation -- an interpretation that I had not been introduced to before -- that my initial reaction was strongly against it. Upon reflection, I now see that the view that they are John's editorial comment has considerable merit.

And, most importantly -- and as Ms. Cosner has repeatedly pointed out -- whether or not they are a "Dominical Utterance", they are unquestionably the inerrant Word of God.
Jeff M.
Hi Lita

I haven't read nor am I likely to read the book reviewed in your article. My current reading list list will take me to 120 years of age. :-)

Most of my Christian life I have wondered why that "change in tense" in John 3:16-17. I first came across this issue in a book written by Hugh Schonfield [I think] titled "The Authentic New Testament". The type set actually placed these verses as a foot note. So I guess I'm in your camp these days.

On the matter of translation of the scriptures I have found it instructive to read the translators comments at the front of the work and there they discuss how difficult this process is.

So whether "text" or "note", red letter or black letter, we have one of those sublime statements that sum the gospel and, by its use has pointed millions the own Jesus Christ as my personal LORD and Saviour.
Lita Cosner
Yes; as I've noted in the other comments, whether John or Jesus spoke these words, the Holy Spirit inspired their inclusion in Scripture so they are equally true and authoritative.
Cowboy Bob S.
Nope, I don't need another "fictionalized" account of history. (Remember the damage done by "Inherit the Wind"?) Thanks for a good analysis. I prefer historical fiction that has some decent research involved, and this does not. As Lita noted, people see Jesus the way they want to fit him into their political mold.
Bill S.
I too have not read the book but plan to, mainly because no other person commenting has read it. Since I do like O'Reiley a lot, and did think Killing Lincoln was terrific, I will give him the benefit of the doubt until after I have read it. What I suggest for the Book Reviewer is that she let O'Reiley know that she'd like to appear on his show to express her views. Now that would be great.
Lita Cosner
Bill, I think it's great for people to read things for themselves and come to their own conclusions. But I think it is rather unlikely that I would be invited to be on O'Reilly's show; there are far more prominent and high profile Bible scholars who have come out with reviews of Killing Jesus who would be a lot farther up the list.
Samuel B.
This book seems to be representative of an attitude by many Americans who through inaccuracy and relative persuasion are hastening the end of the time of the Gentiles here in America. A cavalier attitude toward scripture distances all from the truth. This book is but another sign that the second covenant is soon to be fulfilled.
rick S.
o'reilly said in an interview i heard that he believes JESUS is the son of GOD because his catholicism demands it.this is spoken like a person who does not hold a deep personal conviction. if the HOLY SPIRIT does not reveal this to you all is in vain
william S.
I am grateful that I came across this review. Instead of reading about a Fox News Roman Catholic Jesus, I think prefer to read my Bible about the non-denomination Jesus.
Marc A.
Hi Lita

I appreciated your review of the Bill O’Reilly book and think you nailed it by labelled it a 'politicized Jesus'. I did though find the following statement a bit jarring and unnecessarily dogmatic - "It is clear that the authors did not consult a biblical scholar, or they would have avoided errors such as making John 3:16–17 words of Jesus (they are most probably John’s comments on the preceding words of Jesus)." I had never heard this before and certainly see no need to believe that they are anything other than the words of Jesus. I just happened to go to a seminar this evening where Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum was speaking. At Q&A afterwards I raised this issue with him. His answer was that whether spoken by Jesus or an exposition by John, it is equally inspired by God. He personally believes that John was directly quoting Jesus words and finds no reason to think otherwise. If it is because of the fact that He addresses Himself as God's Son in the third person, we would then have to include many other examples where He does the same thing, i.e. verse 14, "the Son of man".
Lita Cosner
Marc, you can see my reason for believing that 3:16-17 are the words of John in some of the other responses to the other comments published. Regardless of whether they are Jesus' or John's words, they are equally true, equally inspired, and so on. The black letters are just as much the Word of God as the red ones.
Ewald R.
O'Reilly's belief is because of his denominational upbringing and they elevate man to the point of Deity. They believe the bible is just stories and not literal.
W. Wade S.
I have not read the book, but I have skimmed it – starting with the conclusion, which is suitably inconclusive for a work that presents itself as an “objective”, or “scholarly” account. In further skimming of an acquaintance’s copy, I find no glaring errors (the John 3:16 quote not withstanding; for the record, I believe them to be the words of Our Lord). Ms. Cosner is correct in qualifying the encompassing error as being one of tone: the presentation of Jesus as a Jewish instigator who ran afoul of the authorities, and whose internment is shrouded in mystery, might make for an interesting historical read to those who are not interested in the Truth of who He is. But it ignores the central fact.

“Killing Jesus” has sold a lot of copies. Books that focus on the true reason why Jesus died – to pay the debt of sin that each of us owes, but can never pay of our own accord – rarely do as well (with the exception of the one authored by our Creator, of course). Perhaps the Lord will use O’Reilly’s book to generate, among its readership, interest (which might lead to awareness) in who Jesus Christ really is. Starting with the fact (as has been pointed out by S. H.) that no one killed Jesus. He laid down His life of His own accord; and was sovereign in orchestrating the events surrounding His trial and crucifixion – even issuing orders to the arresting authorities.

To find who really “killed Jesus”, don’t look to the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, or the Romans. Simply look into a mirror.
Mike A.
I've read The Killing of Jesus and agree with everything this reviewer says. It's sort of a respectful comic book version written by someone desperately seeking a market niche and slanting the evidence to fit the marketing.

O'Reilly denigrates the level of evidence we have as to the short time after Jesus' death that the Gospels were written in order to build up the need/value of "tradition" (i.e. pontifical rulings)." Say what you will about him, O'Reilly knows what he wants to do and homes in on it.

Being a life long Christian, I found the book kind of boring. Would guess an interested non-believer might think Jesus a nice guy like Buddha after reading it. NO WHERE does O'Reilly contrast the peaceful martyrdom of Jesus and his disciples for love with the "martyrdom" on the bloody battlefield that Islam so proudly proclaims for it's.

Ah, another lost opportunity to write a biography truly worthy of being a best seller.
Walt W.
Mr. O'Riley comes across as conservative and it is my opinion that he holds people accountable for what they say, himself included. It breaks my heart to know Mr Riley holds Catholicism and its traditions of men with greater weight than the Word of God. It does not surprise me its just human nature. As Christians we now have God's nature living in us (being born again) otherwise we would do the same. Regarding the cleansing of the temple we must read the Bible how it is written it says He cleansed it once in the beginning of his ministry then just before the crucifixion that tells us he cleansed it twice. It wouldn't surprise me that after he cleansed it once, those money changers quickly went back to their same ways, isn't that human nature?
Ernesto C.
Concerning comments on John 3:16-17 -- Folks, the RED letters in your Bible are NOT inspired! They are the result of 20th Century commentators far removed from the original penning of the text. Lita is right on this. The Greek text changes from past tense (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus) to present tense (John commenting on what Jesus said). Regardless of whether Jesus spoke these words verbatim, or whether John commented on what Jesus said is irrelevant. The "true" Author, the Holy Spirit, inspired John to write those words. I'm with Lita on this one.
Pennie S.
What saddens me most is that people who are unfamiliar with Jesus Christ, The Savior, may walk away from this book with only a nice, soft, feel-good view of Jesus, the "nice guy". O'Reilly followers who are not followers of Christ will never know Him through works like this which is what a true believer should desire-pointing others to salvation. Pseudo-Christianity will not save anyone from Hell.
Greg R.
John 3:16-17 are not the words of Jesus? Every red letter Bible says otherwise. Also, the context and flow does not allow for this to be John's comments (for example, the continuation of the theme of condemnation in verses 18-19.)
Although I agree with your overall assessment of the book, I'm not sure why you would pick on this point and claim that the authors made an "error", especially when you say "they are most probably John's comments..."
Lita Cosner
Greg, the red letters and punctuation aren't part of the inspired text, they involve interpretation on the translator's part. You can read my response to the other comments to see why I believe that they are John's words. But again--John was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write, so it is inerrant whether we say Jesus said it or John said it.
Sas E.
This sounds more like a tabloid book than anything else and given the authors history I am not suprised. Everyone can profess to be a Christian but God searches the heart. This is not a book that is written by a follower of Christ
A. H.
Dear Lita
I have a query about your statement that "There is no indication in the text itself or from historical evidence that the moneychangers and those who were selling the sacrificial animals were extorting people or had unethical business practices;"
It is clear that the bazaar in the Court of the Gentiles was a theological abuse of the reason the Court existed.
However the word used for "thieves" in Mk 11:17 is 'lestes' (meaning to steal openly) rather than 'kleptes' (which means to steal by stealth).
Would this not suggest corrupt business practices rather than, say, a metaphorical stealing of theology?
Lita Cosner
Andrew, my comments specifically were about the John account, where Jesus says, "Do not make my Father's house a house of trade." There the emphasis is not on any bad business practices, but a bad business location.

The Synoptic account is the one that has "den of thieves". In fact, this is one of the differences that could cause one to say that there are two cleansings of the Temple in Jesus' ministry (a view I hold).
Matthew B.
A very succinct and timely review. I saw the book advertised on the Amazon website last night, but I had no intention of buying it.
Wayne T.
Lita's response to Bruce K. re John 3:16-17 was a little disingenuous. The text says: “they would have avoided errors such as making John 3:16–17 words of Jesus”, but then Lita (bless her) reduces that to opinion. Dogmatism does not sit well in either camp.
Lita Cosner
Wayne, you're right. I should have defended my view a little more vigorously than that. John 3:16-17 suddenly switches to past tense, describing what in terms of the narrative is still in the future. Also, Jesus very rarely calls God theos in John, and the only other appearance of monogenes is in John 1, also clearly John's words.
S. H.
The biggest error is in the title. Jesus was not killed.

He said "No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded." He only died - voluntarily - when He knew "that all things were now accomplished".
Damien S.
My NIV bible has John 3:16 in red, quite clearly indicating that these are the words of Jesus. Obviously, the producers of the NIV bible also failed to consult a biblical scholar. I wonder how many people are under the mistaken impression that John 3:16 are the words of Jesus? I was. I certainly would not have picked up that so called error. Apart from that, good review.
Lita Cosner
Damien, if you look at John 3:16, it suddenly switches to past tense describing what is in terms of the narrative still in the future. The quote marks, and needless to say the red text, are not inspired features of Scripture, but involve interpretation on the part of the translator.
James L.
Thank you for this review. It is helpful. Also, whether there were one or two cleansings of the temple does not change the fact that Mr. O'Reilly obviously has set himself up as the judge of what is the historical truth about Jesus Christ. He accepts what he wants to about Jesus as written in the Gospels, and rejects what he feels is not historically accurate. Pretty similar to those who "demythologize" the Bible.
Bruce K.
You said that the authors made an error saying that John3:16-17 were the words of Jesus. I thought they were and every pastor I know attributes those words to Jesus.
Lita Cosner
The Greek text does not have quote marks or other ways of differentiating John's comments from Jesus' words. And of course, the text is authoritative and inspired either way we read it. But in my analysis, it makes more sense to see 3:16-17 as a comment by John on what Jesus has just said. Some responsible conservative commentators agree with me, and some disagree. People are welcome to draw their own conclusions.
Jared R.
I watch Bill O'Reilly when I have time and I have read his other books on Lincoln and Kennedy. I'm not a historian so I can't comment on how accurate the portrayal of Lincoln or Kennedy was, though I found them to be entertaining. However, I do know from watching some of his past shows with Pastors or other religious guests, that when it comes to Genesis, O'Reilly does not take it to be literal. For a guy who claims to do a lot of research to give both sides, he has fallen way short on this subject. For that reason I will save my self the aggravation of reading this particular book. Thank you for the review.
Thomas B.
This may be a nit-picky thing, but the context John 2 suggests that the temple cleansing scene he describes took place after Jesus had gone to Capernaum for a few days, just after the wedding at Cana. This, of course, is early in his ministry, as opposed to the temple cleansing during Passion Week. Regardless of his motives, this would suggest that either John wrote horribly out of sequence or there were, in fact, two temple cleansings. I do appreciate all of your commentaries, including this review.
Lita Cosner
As the relevant footnote points out, I agree that there were two Temple cleansings.
R. D.
Bill O'Reilly is not a historian or a writer. He is a "talking head" who opines nightly on his show. His books are more profitic than prophetic, especially when it comes to his latest...but what good Catholic in his position would not write about the death of Jesus? His books are more about his opinions than adding anything new to the facts of history.
Myles H.
EXCELLENT review ... just one note re. "There is no indication in the text itself or from historical evidence that the moneychangers and those who were selling the sacrificial animals were extorting people or had unethical business practices;" Jesus DID call them a "den of thieves."
Charles S.
Excellent review in light of the true nature of God, The Son. Thanks Lita, now I will not waste my time reading Bill's spin on our God and Savior.
Ernesto C.
I just started reading the book, so I reserve comment except for this: I am a careful student of the Bible and I must disagree with the critic concerning the cleansing of the temple. I haven't arrived at that part in O'Reily's book, however, according to the note cited in this critique, O'Reily is right on this - there are two separate cleansings of the Temple. Leveling such an unfounded charge brings into question the writer's bias. And just for the record, I am not Catholic. Judging by this false charge alone, I question the fairness of this critique.
Lita Cosner
I agree that there were two cleansings of the Temple--as the note makes clear. My critique is my own view (as is customary when it comes to book reviews); people who want to read the book to come to their own conclusions are welcome to do so.
Chuck J.
God bless you and thank you so much. I watch his show but suspected much of what you wrote based on his comments on that show. Therefore, I did not want to pay anything to enable someone to lead others astray. Any book that tries to separate Jesus' divinity from Him is worthless. Thank you and God bless you and your work.
james p H.
i haven't read the book, of course....but....it's possible that the depictions of Roman immorality may well be Fox News taking a back-hand swipe at one of their favourite targets..."liberals"....or "lefties" as they are called in the UK and Australia; since sexaul immorality is a characteristic behaviour pattern of liberals/lefties; so, they are presenting Jesus as "a social programme" to enhance conservatism; how-ever, as C S Lewis noted, "anyone who thinks that they can use the Gospel for the social uplift of mankind might as well think that they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short-cut to the local chemist!".....the Gospel(s) is not about improving the lot of man on this Earth....Jesus Himself warned us explicitly that this would *not* happen and to expect all sorts of trouble and attacks from the Devil......the Gospel is about saving souls from the horrendous wrath of Almighty God and saving souls from Hellfire and damnation....the condition of the human life on this Earth is of very little eternal consequence....only your personal relationship with Jesus Christ and what you have done for Him will count on the fearful Day of Judgement....will He say to you those blessed words....."well done, my good and faithful servant!"....or will you hear, instead, the dread injunction, "depart from me, ye worker of iniquity, for I never knew you!" ?
pat C.
Thank you for this review. I wasn't going to read this book anyway but I am glad to read a christian review I can trust. Enjoy your website very much . God bless you all.
lalcha K.
Not surprising that the book portrays Jesus differently from how the Gospels did, and we know that there are many who will claim this book as gospel.
But for true believers we have been warn of persons,events such as this.
The Lord's returned is nearer and our faith stronger.
Lets put on the full armours of God and fight a good fight for Jesus, not with might nor power but by love.
Thank you.
Patrick D.
Sad, isn't it, when the seeds of apostacy are sown in such a way. May the Church (the people, not the institution) hold the focus on the Author and Finisher of our faith and continue to bear His testimony in the face of growing opposition.

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