Killing Jesus: a History
The Gospel account relived with some embellishment by authors Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.
This is the second book about the “historical” Jesus that I have had the pleasure of reading this month, and this one is more faith-friendly than Reza Aslan’s skeptical work. Bill O’Reilly has said on his cable news show that Killing Jesus: A History is not a book about faith, but history. What O’Reilly is trying to uncover here is the world and life of the real, flesh-and-blood Jesus.
Honestly though, Killing Jesus: A History is a work of history as viewed through the bias of faith. As a Christian, I am not going to criticize a book for treating the Scriptures as authoritative, but others will realize pretty early on that O’Reilly and Martin Dugard also do not criticize the Biblical narrative. They treat it as, well, gospel. They even defend their position by saying that the disciplines of archaeology and history are showing more and more how true the Bible is. That is faith and confirmation bias talking. There are plenty of skeptic historians and archaeologists, so it is a mistake to think that these fields are turning up wave after wave of evidence proving the Bible’s historicity with each passing day. In this way, O’Reilly Dugard’s book never gives the impression of an academic work.
What Killing Jesus offers instead of an intellectual work, is the story of the Gospel with some historical embellishment. Reading it is like watching a movie about Jesus where the plot is mostly solid, but the director has added his or her own touches here and there. There are scenes where the authors reveal what certain historical figures where thinking in relation to specific events, but there’s no way they could really know that kind of information. It’s not a bad account of the events leading up to Jesus’ death, it’s just told with a little more dramatic flair than the Scriptures themselves. Scenes unfold a little differently than you might have pictured them in your mind when you read that story in the Bible. Did the crowd really react that way when Jesus was baptized? When Jesus called Peter to follow him, was the scene really as mystical as it is described in this book? Scripture doesn’t say, but Killing Jesus does. Those scenes and others come off more like dramatizations of Bible stories than careful examinations of a historical text.
There are a few insightful historical interpretations scattered throughout, such as the motivation of Judas’ betrayal. I say “possible” because it is in no way certain, though the way O’Reilly and Dugard tell it, it reads like it was a fact beyond any doubt. The book also offers a bit more depth to certain historical figures by shedding the light of history on their role in the unfolding of Jesus’ life, though some of their historical sources, such as Josephus, are treated as authoritative as the Gospel itself, when they shouldn’t be. High priest Caiaphas and Herod the Great are good examples of people who have brief moments in Scripture, and some extra information is insightful. Also, the shadow of Caesar, so far away in the Gospel accounts, looms over Pontius Pilate and the priests here in a way that demonstrates what sort of man they had to be careful to please in their dealings with Israel and the one who claimed to be its rightful King.
So is it worth reading? I’d recommend Killing Jesus to the believer who has read the Gospel accounts and wants just a bit more historical information to better understand the events that unfolded. It is not a skeptical work of history in the least, so it is not seeking to damage your faith, but encourage it. As long as you don’t treat this particular book with the same weight as the Scriptures, it can be a useful tool to add to your study of the Bible.
If you happen to be reading this review and you’ve never read the Gospels for yourself and you have little knowledge of Jesus’ world, I’d recommend first reading those four books of the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—before reading this book or one like it. Killing Jesus promises in its prologue that “the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has not been fully told. Until now.” That’s… a rather high view of what the book actually offers, which is a decent dramatization of the story of Jesus, especially the events leading up to his death on the cross. Killing Jesus also offers some insight into the world and times in which he lived, and their influence on his story. The book leans heavily on the Scriptures, but tries to flesh out the story. For anyone that has studied the history of the age in which Jesus lived, this book won’t offer too much in the way of new information, but if your only knowledge of Jesus’ life and times comes from reading the Bible, this is a good place to get your feet wet and start building up some knowledge of Jesus’ world, and the things that led to his death. It won’t try to undermine your faith or get you to dismiss what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ story.
Killing Jesus never strays from the shallow end of the history pool, and it is a work far more informed by faith than the authors claim. It’s true that it will not challenge your faith, unlike some accounts of the history of Jesus, but it also won’t do very much to excite or deepen it. If you are interested is in aplogetics, this book will not prepare you to defend your faith at all. It does not try to answer any of the skeptics’ challenges to the historicity of the Biblical account. One could close the final page of the book and not realize that there was any debate at all. This does the maturing Christian reader no favors. I was left wanting more.
+ Aims to encourage faith
+ Treats the Gospel story as authoritative
+ Good place for readers that are new to studying the Bible as history to start
- Incredibly biased for a work of "history" rather than faith
- Actual historicity of some parts suspect
- Not particularly deep or useful to the Christian that has studied the world of Jesus before