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Book Review

Killing Jesus
Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
This is not a well-written book. It is a superbly written book. I wish I could write as well as O’Reilly evidently can, assuming that it was he who actually did most of the writing. Every sentence, every paragraph, segues smoothly into the next one. The organization and crafting of the text is quite excellent. In short, the book is a very good read. In my opinion, it is the best read in O’Reilly’s “Killing” series, with Killing Patton coming in as a close second.

That said, we must deal with the subtitle: “A History.” A history is one thing that this book is not, at least in regard to its primary character. In a sort of preface titled “A note to readers,” O’Reilly calls this a “fact-based book.” That is stretching truth to the breaking point. The portions on Roman, Herodian, and Jewish history are factual and make fascinating reading. The story of Jesus is, however, not based on facts to any appreciable extent. Indeed, it could not have been; the real facts are sadly unavailable.

A careful reading of the material on Jesus should be enough to convince anyone who is familiar with the four Gospels of the New Testament Bible that it is based at least ninety percent on those texts. And this is true even though O’Reilly admits that the Gospels “sometimes appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’s life.”

Quite right. Bluntly put, the Gospels are propaganda intended to influence people to become Christians. They were never intended to be historical accounts. Yet despite this, O’Reilly and Dugard follow the Gospel reports of the things that Jesus said and did, as well as what happened to him and those around him. In a footnote at the end of the first chapter, O’Reilly writes: “The most insightful facts, quotes, and stories about Jesus that we know come from the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many today challenge these writings, but thanks to scholarship and archeology, there is growing acceptance of their overall historicity and authenticity.” The word “overall” is misused here. The acceptance O’Reilly writes of is mostly for the things Jesus said and some of the facts about his crucifixion, not for many of the other things that O’Reilly writes about in this book.

He starts out by describing the “slaughter of the innocents” in the first chapter. This is a story so horrific that, had it actually happened, would have been told and retold countless times and doubtless would have become part of the historical record. But no such report has ever been found. He tells the story of the Magi, who allegedly told Herod, “We see his star in the east and have come to worship him.” But these Magi were from Persia, which today comprises the nation of Iran. Persia was east of Israel, not west of it. If they were following a star in the east they were going in the wrong direction. This being so, how could it be true, as O’Reilly writes, that “the comet’s light would have been directly in front of the Magi during their journey—hence, they would have truly followed the star.”?

Sadly, this book is replete with non-historical “facts” like these. In addition, biblical scholars today believe that Jesus was most likely born after Herod died, so he could not have been two years old when Herod was still living.

Here is yet another example of such “facts.” Concerning the birthplace of Jesus, O’Reilly admits that it is possible that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem of Galilee, which is only eleven kilometers (about 7 miles—O’Reilly mistakenly says 4 miles) west of Nazareth. But he tries to settle the point by writing: “Supporters of the traditional site point to the biblical prophecy that [the Messiah] would be born in the City of David, which is the Judean Bethlehem.” Of course! The Church Fathers took pains to alter scriptural material to make it appear so in order to “fulfill prophecy” and make the case for the divinity of Jesus. O’Reilly adds: “The fact that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem eight days after his birth, and then again on the fortieth day, would seem to tip the scales in favor of the traditional site.” Facts? These are no more than mythology. There is no evidence to support these alleged “facts,” and facts must be based on evidence. The Gospels are not historical evidence.

There are, however, some indications to the contrary even in the Gospels themselves. In the Gospel of John (the person who wrote this Gospel was not the original “favorite disciple” of Jesus) we find the following about the location of Jesus’s birth:

Hearing [Jesus’s] words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is a prophet.” Others said, “He is the Messiah.” And yet others said, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does scripture not say the Messiah will come from the family of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” Therefore the people were divided because of Jesus. [Jn 7:40-43].

John does not rebut this argument by writing, e.g., “But he did come from Bethlehem—he was born there.” Instead he reinforces the counter argument by writing this:

[Nicodemus] asked [the Pharisees], “Does our law condemn a man without hearing him first?” They replied, “Are you also from Galilee? Study this matter, and you will see that no prophet is to come out of Galilee.” [Jn 7:51-52]

Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, says there is evidence that the other Bethlehem in the West Bank, or what Israelis call Judea, was not even inhabited in the first century. Slaughter of what “innocents”?

O’Reilly conveniently ignores these implications that Jesus was really born in Bethlehem of Galilee.

He also ignores the many biblical inconsistencies and anachronisms. For example, the census of Quirinius under which each of the Jews was supposed to register in his ancestral home town (only men counted in those male chauvinistic times)—mentioned in Luke 2:2—took place long after Jesus was born, and no census that required people to register in their ancestral home towns has ever been discovered.

That Jesus taught in the temple at the age of twelve has also been dismissed as mythical by almost all biblical scholars, yet O’Reilly treats it as a fact, writing: “Meanwhile, the Son of God, as Jesus will refer to himself for the first time on this very day, . . .” He did no such thing. He called God his Father, but that is not the same thing as proclaiming himself to be “the Son of God.” In several of his sayings that are considered historical by scholars, Jesus calls God “your Father in heaven” or “our Father,” most notably in what is now called “the Lord’s Prayer.”

And he didn’t do that at the age of twelve. In fact, virtually nothing is known about Jesus prior to his baptism by John the Baptist. Something extraordinary happened then; exactly what nobody knows. But redactions to the biblical texts make it seem as though John knew Jesus was Christ before the baptism, which is more than just a little bit unlikely.

O’Reilly makes much of the appearance of a dove that was seen to alight on Jesus after his baptism, omitting entirely the most amazing part of the story. These are words that most biblical scholars agree could have come only from Jesus himself. Jesus said that as he came up out of the water the “heavens parted and I heard a voice proclaim, ‘You are my beloved son; today I have begotten you.’ ” (See Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5 as well as variant readings of Luke 3:22; other versions reflect redactions probably made to support the divine birth Christology and omit the second phrase, substituting “with you I am well pleased.”)

O’Reilly’s dating of the Gospels is wildly at variance with accepted chronologies. He dates Mark to the “early 50s” for example. But Mark knew of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70., so his text could not have been written as early as O’Reilly states.

As a sort of crowning blow, O’Reilly makes the same mistake as have countless others. He writes: “Jewish tradition dictates that all bodies be examined three days after apparent death. Thus the tomb will be reopened and Jesus will be observed on Sunday.” Wrong! Sunday was the third day, but that’s counting the Friday when he was crucified as the first day, Saturday as the second day, and Sunday as the third day. That is an interval of only two days, not three. And the women who came to the tomb on Sunday did so to complete the preparation of Jesus’s body for burial, which had been only hastily and incompletely done after the crucifixion. They found the tomb empty.

If you want to find out some real facts about the life of Jesus, read Bruce Chilton’s book, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, [Random House], 2002). For example, Chilton reveals that the scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and people lining the way with palm fronds almost certainly belongs to Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), not Passover. So that happened in the fall, not in the spring when Passover is celebrated. The two are not connected. O’Reilly and Dugard did not snap to this and kept this scene as part of the ascension into Jerusalem that preceded the crucifixion. Palm Sunday is yet another Christian Church myth.

You can also find a more factual treatment of Jesus in The Mind of Christ: The Truth About Jesus, a book written by me and my late wife, Retta, who was a certified Bethel Teacher and a diplomate of the Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies. It is available on Amazon.com in both trade paperback and Kindle editions.

The hard truth is that there is no mention of Jesus in any extant historical texts, with the exception of one passage in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, ca A.D. 93–94, Book 18, Chapter 3) called the Testimonium Flavianum, which is widely believed to be mostly a later Christian redaction; another passage in Josephus (ibid., Book 20, Chapter 9) about “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” and was sentenced to be stoned; and one passage from the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals, ca A.D. 116, Book 15, Chapter 44): “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (who was not, however, a procurator, but a prefect). That’s it. Other than those three possible mentions, history knows nothing about Jesus of Nazareth. Some other historical records discuss Christians, but they do not mention Jesus or Christ.

I could go on with this sort of thing ad infinitum, but to do so would mean writing a review nearly as long as the book itself. Suffice it to say that for Jesus, the genre of Killing Jesus is historical fiction, not history.

But it is beautifully written.


O’Reilly, Bill, and Martin Dugard. Killing Jesus: A History. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8050-9854-9 (hardback); ASIN B00BIOG1ZU (Kindle).

Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York: Image Books, Doubleday (Random House), 2002. ISBN 978-0-385-49792-3; ASIN B000FC1K4I (Kindle).

Thayer, David and Retta. The Mind of Christ: The Truth About Jesus. Sarasota, FL: Rapidsoft Press ®, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9663909-6-4 (trade paperback); ASIN B00KES5E18 (Kindle).
About David Thayer

Desktop Publishing for the Twenty-First Century

G. David Thayer