In Killing Jesus: A History, Bill O’Reilly and writing partner Martin Dugard bring us their long-awaited “accurate account of not only how Jesus died, but also the way he lived.” This should settle two millennia of Christian debate. Although it lacks suspense (SPOILER ALERT: he dies), it’s a pretty good read and it’s fleshed out with tidbits about the ancient world.
But it should have been called The Gospel of Bill O’Reilly.
Here are some of the reasons why.
The methodology of this book is impossible to divine. O’Reilly says he wants “to separate fact from myth” but then never tells us how he does this. The rationale seems to be: include everything until you can’t, then plump for the good bits.
Sometimes O’Reilly includes two versions of the same story so that Jesus repeats the same action or says the same thing twice. In this book, Jesus overturned the moneychanger tables twice, for example. He really doesn’t like bureaucrats. On other occasions O’Reilly picks one particular Gospel (usually the longest version, rather than the earliest) and we never find out why.
To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with O’Reilly. In 1906 Albert Schweitzer observed that when people write lives of Jesus they inevitably end up describing themselves. It’s the key reason that some Biblical scholars think this whole project is bankrupt.
But without a method, Killing Jesus has all the critical rigor of your local church’s Nativity play.
The basic argument of the book is that Jesus died because he interfered with the taxation-heavy Roman revenue stream. The reason the Jews eagerly anticipated the Messiah, writes O’Reilly, is, “When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.”
It’s true that the people did long for the Messiah, that the majority of them were poor and oppressed, and that very few benefited from Roman occupation. But even if the Romans had been overthrown the people would have still been paying tithes to Jewish authorities to sustain the Temple, as Biblical and Jewish laws demand.
O’Reilly argues that Temple taxes and profits from the moneychangers were back-channeled to Rome. Thus when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers he “interrupted the flow of funds from the Temple to Rome.”
He’s right: the Temple incident led to Jesus’s arrest and execution and the Romans were responsible for killing Jesus. But there is no evidence that the Romans benefited from the financial affairs of the Temple during Jesus’ lifetime. Pilate didn’t get dibs on the lamb shanks some used to pay the priests. Jesus died because he was a rabble-rouser who disturbed the peace and challenged the authorities. Jesus didn’t die for our W2s.
Even if Jesus’s actions had been all about taxes, he died protesting a skeletal taxation system that privileged the rich. Wealthy citizens were exempt from most taxes altogether, non-citizens paid a flat-rate poll tax regardless of income, the property tax was 1 percent, and the money from taxes was used to build roads and fund the military. It's not like the Romans did anything obscene like tend to the poor.
As for Jesus himself, O Reilly thinks that one of the main reasons Jesus was appealing and successful was because he was an independent, powerful, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy. According to O’Reilly, “[He] had no infrastructure. He had no government behind him. He had no corporation.”
True, but this fact alone doesn’t make Jesus special.
None of the charismatic prophets or would-be messiahs had corporate sponsorship. They had patrons: wealthier, more powerful individuals (like Mary Magdalene) who supported them financially. O’Reilly calls this charity, but it wasn’t; it was a network of social debt and responsibility.
For a book so concerned with economics, O’Reilly should be more concerned about the impact of Jesus’s own ministry. A divine man who floods the market with miraculously generated free food? Think of all the honest, hardworking bakers and fishermen put out of work by the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus’s followers are mishandled, too. In the afterword, we hear the Sunday-school story that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to die like Christ. Nope: that’s a fifth-century interpretation. And we learn that “it is a fact that the disciples of Jesus traveled as far as India, Britain, and even into Africa.” Even Africa? Tunisia is a great deal closer to Jerusalem than Britain. More important, these aren’t facts, they’re legends.
Women do less well in O’Reilly’s Biblical world. Following Sunday-school tradition, Mary Magdalene is identified as the prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with oil. That’s not in the Bible. This is a much later error that was formalized by Pope Gregory the Great.
Unfortunate, especially considering that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s patron. Imagine opening your home and checkbook to support a fledging religious group only to have history remember you as a prostitute. Slut shaming: it’s not just a modern phenomenon.
Oddly, O’Reilly thinks woman had it pretty good. He notes that they “were treated better in the time of Jesus than they are in a great many places in the world.” Unless you were a slave, in which case you could be beaten, raped, and killed as a nonperson. A commendable instinct to champion women’s rights, I’m sure, but hardly correct.
The most striking part of O’Reilly’s biography is what is left out.
When O’Reilly tells Luke’s story of John the Baptist, he includes the Baptist’s insistence that tax collectors stop overcharging and that soldiers stop extorting the poor, but casually omits the instruction to everyone (the crowds) that “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
There’s no mention of the free health care offered by Jesus and his followers or the insistence that the wealthy give away their possessions.
The single most consistent social teaching in the New Testament is that Christians must support the poor, widows, and orphans, but this hardly gets a mention in Killing Jesus.
According to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, “the first rule of media bias is selection.” Perhaps O’Reilly was squeezed for space.