Killing Jesus is the third installment in a series authored by newsman Bill O’Reilly and historian Martin Dugard. The first two books, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, dramatize the stories surrounding the deaths of famous Presidents. In a similar vein, Killing Jesus follows the format of dramatized historical account, beginning with the world Jesus’ inhabited and climaxing in his death on the cross.
I enjoyed the first book in this series (on Lincoln), but felt like the second was a bit of a step down. They have a clear style and format that they write these historical dramas in, and the book on Kennedy felt like they simply copied the Lincoln pattern while inserting different facts. When O’Reilly and Dugard decided to tackle the death of Jesus, I was somewhat curious on how they would approach it. Both men are confessing Roman Catholics, but they tried to stay objective in their writing, claiming the book to be a historical piece, rather than a theological one. I picked the book up on a discount rack at a local retailer recently, and since it’s been on the NY Times best-seller list for about 10 weeks, I figured now was as good a time as any to read and review it. If it is on your Christmas list, hopefully this review will be helpful.
The book is basically organized in three sections:
1) The World of Jesus: spanning 44 BC to 7 AD
This initial section lays out the historical and cultural background leading up to the birth of Jesus. I think this was the most informative and interesting part of the book for me. They delve deeply into the political history of Rome, spending a lot of time on the stories of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. They also detail the political and cultural situations in Israel, from Herod the Great through his sons, who were in power during the life and death of Jesus and the birth of the church. These initial chapters offer some cool historical background, though they may be inaccurate in a few spots. I would certainly consult the original sources they utilized when teaching on the history of this period, rather than take their word for it. One particularly egregious error was in a footnote in the opening chapter when they attributed the destruction of Israel in 722 BC to the “Philistines” rather than the Assyrians. That’s like Old Testament 101, and kind of a surprising error in a book claiming to be an accurate historical dramatization.
2) Behold the Man: the early life and ministry of Jesus
Once the historical picture is in clear view, the story shifts to the life and ministry of Jesus. It is clear the authors are attempting to maintain historical objectivity, but the characterization of Jesus is a little odd at points. Having just spent 56 weeks preaching through Mark’s gospel, I was a little frustrated at the creative license they employed at times. They paraphrased words, added superfluous details, and dramatized events in such a way that theological statements were made, whether they attempted to make them or not. They also drew instances from Gospel accounts, even harmonizing them inaccurately at times, in ways that can easily lead the uniformed reader to assume things about Jesus that aren’t wholly true. At one point they note the “discrepancies” in the Gospel accounts, perpetuating a popular myth that is based on lack of research and understanding of authorial intent. Another place, when talking about the Baptism of Jesus, they dramatize John’s words as “I baptize you with water for repentance” as he is lowering Jesus into the water. This is probably the best example of how their “historical dramatization” steps over a major line in terms of accuracy, making a theological statement about the sinless state of Jesus that they apparently didn’t take into account. I found myself continually making marks in the margins and becoming somewhat frustrated at a number of instances like this, throughout this second section of the book.
3) If You Are the Son of God, Take Yourself off This Cross: The passion week and death of Jesus
The final segment of the book chronicles the last 6 days of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion, and the events that followed it. These chapters were pretty good. They did a fair deal of detailed research on the priesthood, Pilate, and the details of Roman crucifixion. There is some very solid data presented, both in the body of the text as well as the footnotes. Having read the first two books in this series, I was concerned about who they would vilify as the perpetuator of Jesus’ death. Lincoln had John Wilkes Booth and Kennedy had Lee Harvey Oswald, but the death of Jesus is a lot more complicated than those stories, both historically and especially theologically. I was pleasantly surprised by this final section. They did a faithful job showing the role of Judas, the Romans, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, and the political and religious power structures that created the perfect storm surrounding the event. They also showed that Jesus could have easily escaped the cross, but that he willingly embraced it as an act of sacrifice for others. They don’t go so far as to explain what the sacrifice of Jesus meant and means, but they report the facts well.
Overall, it was a decent read. I cringed about 4 pages in when O’Reilly concluded his introductory thoughts for the reader with this gem:
“Jesus was executed. But the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has not been fully told. Until now. At least, that is the goal of this book. Thank you for reading it.”
This is a big statement. With the amount of ink that has been spilled over the last 2 millennium concerning Jesus, those remarks seem a bit pompous, to say the least. Additionally, I don’t think this book really chronicles the full struggle between good and evil, since it intentionally stays out of the theological realities surrounding the life and death of Jesus Christ. Satan was not a character in this story, but if you read the New Testament, he and his forces certainly make more than a cameo appearance.
I think from the outset this sentence put me into a mode where I was approaching the text from a critical analysis standpoint, rather than just reading it as a dramatized historical account. But with Jesus as the main character, and my views on the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, I don’t know that I could have read it from a different point of view.
Do I recommend it? Perhaps. I think it depends on the context. If you are going to read it non-critically as a dramatized account, it’s not a bad read. If you are seeking to use it as an accurate historical narrative that can inform you on the period and events surrounding the death of Jesus, you will want to utilize the Bible as well as sources like Josephus to check what parts of this text are truly accurate and what parts are dramatic paraphrases. Finally, if you are trying to introduce someone you know to Jesus, I would stick with giving them a copy of the New Testament, rather than Killing Jesus, this Christmas.