Killing History: A Book Review of “Killing Jesus” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Forget what you think you know about Bill O’Reilly. Forget about his right-leaning politics, his top-rated television show, and the millions of dollars he makes annually in books sales and entrepreneurial endeavors. And forget about his claim that God inspired him to write a book about Jesus. These are all rabbit trails, peripheral issues that will lead you away from the central issue regarding O’Reilly’s newest book, Killing Jesus.KillingJesus

I must admit, I had mixed reactions when I heard Bill O’Reilly was publishing a new book in his “killing” series. On the one hand, his previous books such as Killing Lincoln were readable, engaging, and renewed peoples’ exploration into important American historical events, which are all worthy reasons to read and write a book. I was hopeful that Killing Jesus might do the same for people interested in exploring the historical evidence for Jesus’ physical death and resurrection. And after reading it I still think that is true on many levels. Over all, it’s interesting, fast-paced, and could be beneficial for the discerning reader.

But on the other hand, I was and remain skeptical. How would a history teacher turned political pundit handle the historical analysis of Jesus of Nazareth? Having finished the book I find that my skepticism was not entirely put to rest, but rather was alarmed on several occasions. I continue to contemplate the following questions: Is this the kind of book I could hand to a skeptic asking questions about the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels? Would Christians find this book helpful in declaring and defending the Gospel? And did O’Reilly write the book he initially set out to write?

All of these questions revolve around the central issue of O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus. So, what exactly is the epicenter of this book? Thankfully, O’Reilly tells us in his own words.

This is not a religious book…Martin Dugard and I are both Roman Catholics who were educated in religious schools. But we are historical investigators and are interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause.[1]

And on CBS’s 60 Minutes O’Reilly insisted, “There’s no religion in the book, nothing. It’s all about history.”[2]

That is the main issue with the book: historical content and verification of evidence. The primary question I hope to answer is this: Did O’Reilly, in fact, write a reliable historical account of Jesus of Nazareth? In order to answer that question, I’ve organized my thoughts in a few broad categories.

Historical Methodology

When I first listened to the audio book of Killing Lincoln (I also examined its contents at a local book store), I noticed that the usual footnotes and citations which are commonplace in well-researched history books were noticeably lacking. Sadly, this writing style also pervades Killing Jesus. There are no footnotes at the bottom of the page or in a bibliography in the back of the book. In the opening pages the reader is greeted with the assertion that this is a well researched historical book. Outside of a list of books consulted, the authors provide no substantial means of verifying their research.

Granted, there are various footnotes spread throughout the book. But these are mostly explanations about dates, religious customs, biblical citations, and the like. The only semblance of a bibliography comes at the end in the section titled Sources which does little more than name many of the books that were influential in their research. Among those works are some notable and respected names in Christian apologetics such as, Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, and Craig Evans. These men have all written outstanding books in defense of the Christian faith. Aside from this brief source section, there are no citations as to where and how these sources (or any others) were used throughout the book. Quite simply, there is no evidence, no citation, and no documentation.

This is a remarkable failure for a book that claims to be historical. One of the fundamental principles in historiography is leaving a paper trail, and when you do research, documenting that paper trail for others to follow. It’s like my high school algebra teacher always told me, “Show your work.” O’Reilly and Dugard may have done lots of research. Exactly how much they did during the eight months it took to write is unknown. Therein lays the problem. There is no way for the reader (scholarly or leisurely) to check out the facts for themselves.

Of course, I understand why citation is not popular in books in our culture. They are tedious to read and write. It takes time for editors and consumers alike to wade through them. Mainly, it takes up pages and adds to the final cost of the book. All of this makes sense if we consider that this book was written for entertainment value and meant to be a popular level book, which O’Reilly virtually admitted in the following exchange on 60 Minutes:

Bill O’Reilly: I just want to write about important things in a very entertaining way. That’s the formula.

Norah O’Donnell: The title “Killing,” using killing, a bit sensationalist?

Bill O’Reilly: Of course. Of course it’s sensationalist. That’s who I am. I’m a sensationalist. I’m a big mouth. I get attention. In this world you have to–if you want a mass-market presentation, you have to get attention.[3]

Sensationalism sells. Unfortunately, sensationalism masquerades as scholarship. Most publishers and book stores have placed this book in the history section. And I’ve debated as to what category it should be placed in. It’s not fiction but, then again, it’s not entirely historical either, at least not in its current format. Perhaps the best category would be that of historical paraphrase.

Now, there are many things O’Reilly’s book does well. For example it includes maps, helpful historical sidebars in the bottom margins, and the broad historical context of the Roman Empire leading up to and during Jesus’ life and ministry. But there are also glaring deficiencies. I’ve already mentioned the lack of historical documentation.

However, beyond the specific issue of citation there is a broader concept lacking in O’Reilly’s book, namely, an overall explanation of his historical methodology. To his credit, he mentions a number of sources in the back of the book. And in his introduction he gives the reader a brief glimpse into some of the works consulted.

…researching Killing Jesus required a plunge into classical works such as the four Gospels and the Jewish historian Josephus…the historical record may not have been as immediately accessible as that of more recent times, but men who wrote the history of that period were very much concerned with getting their facts straight and telling the story as completely as possible.[4]

Yet, something is missing. There is no clear explanation of how he arrives at the historical conclusions he makes. That is what I mean when I use the phrase, historical methodology. For example, if I were to assert that the Allied forces crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944 how would someone determine whether or not this event actually occurred in history? Historical methods are important in establishing the probability that any given event took place, and that the retelling of the event is likewise a reliable report that later readers should trust. This is similar to the process used in court rooms when examining the evidence for a crime and rendering a verdict. As a side bar, in apologetics I have often argued that whatever historical methods we use and apply to other events in history, such as D-Day or the assassination of Julius Caesar, should likewise be used and applied to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sadly, O’Reilly does not give the reader any criteria by which he judges sources to be historically reliable or unreliable. Furthermore, he claims that, “We had to separate fact from myth based on a variety of sources, some of which had their own agendas.”[5] But he never cites any of those varieties of sources, nor the alleged myths and facts contained therein.

One of the great strengths of the book, at least in my estimation, was the first third of the book where he addressed the socio-political climate of the Roman Empire and Judean leadership surrounding the lifetime of Jesus. However, he does not apply that same tenacity to the primary source documents of Jesus’ life, namely, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The irony here is that the historical evidence for the reliability of Jesus’ life and ministry as recorded in these four Gospels outweighs all other historical documents from the ancient world. There are better manuscript and transmission records for the New Testament than for the entire corpus of ancient writings, including sources that historians readily accept as trustworthy witnesses, such as Seutonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger.[6]

One of the greatest examples of historical methodology is found in the work of apologist John Warwick Montgomery. In his apologetic tome, History, Law, and Christianity Montgomery utilizes secular historical methods and applies them to the four Gospels. In this methodology there are three basic tests used to determine the historicity of the text in question and the events they record. The three tests are briefly described as follows. There is 1)the bibliographical test, which demonstrates how reliable the transmission of the documents has been over time; 2) the internal evidence test, which explores what the texts say concerning themselves and whether or not they have internal consistency and reliability; and 3) the external evidence test, which examines reliable secondary sources that either support or contradict the text in question.

The genius of this method is that its origin is in the field of military history. So, there can be no skeptics’ cry of bias or padding the stats.

The challenge, however, is that Montgomery’s books, such as his Tractatus Logico Theologicus, are rather weighty in their content. For one who might be new to reading Christian apologetics, a good place to begin would be with Montgomery’s History, Law, and Christianity, or with a sort of dumbed-down version of Montgomery’s Tractatus by the trial lawyer, Craig Parton, entitled, Religion on Trial.

Now, back to O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus. Had O’Reilly lived up to his own famously ruthless standards of evidence and critical thinking in his book that he demands of his guests on his television show, the book would’ve been far better for it in the end.

And the question remains, does O’Reilly’s book stand up to his own scrutiny and demand for historical evidence? Does he back up this assertion about writing an historical book with equally reliable historical verification? In other words…

Where’s the Evidence? 

In the chapter recounting Jesus’ early life O’Reilly claims Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were eyewitnesses to the Passover rioting of 4 B.C. in Jerusalem along with the ensuing punishment exacted by Archaelaus,

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus saw the bloodbath firsthand and were lucky to escape the temple with their lives. They were also eyewitnesses to the crucifixion of more than two thousand Jewish rebels outside Jerusalem’s city walls when Roman soldiers moved in to quell further revolts. [7]

Now, this makes for an interesting parallel in Jesus’ life if it is true. But, where’s the evidence? No citation is provided and his claim is not substantiated.

Later in the book, when discussing the ministry of John the Baptizer, O’Reilly also claims that the Jewish tax collectors were diverting money to Rome and that John himself may have been guilty of tax evasion, at least in the eyes of the Jewish religious authorities.[8]

It’s no secret that the tax collectors were ill-received guests at any party. Their greed and corruption is also well known and documented. And yet, O’Reilly cites no evidence in support of his claim that these tax collectors – thieves though they were – were also guilty of funneling money to Rome. The over-emphasis on taxes and economics in this book is overtly anachronistic. Again, the reader is left wondering, where’s the evidence?

But the most grievous example of missing evidence is in O’Reilly’s introduction where he states,

Much has been written about Jesus, the son of a humble carpenter. But little is actually known about him. Of course we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they sometimes appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’ life. [9]

These are not original claims. Skeptics have been accusing the four Gospels of alleged contradictions for centuries. Writers have also made the argument that the Gospels are written from a religious or theological point of view and not an historical one. Again, where’s the evidence? O’Reilly doesn’t cite or seek to explain any of the alleged contradictions in the four Gospels. He simply echoes a familiar assertion.

Many authors (such as O’Reilly) have avoided calling the Gospels historical accounts because they contain miraculous reports and events. However, this is disingenuous to the text. If a miracle occurred it is an historical event, no matter how unpopular or contradictory that may be to one’s worldview. Simply calling the Gospels “religious writings,” and separating them from history is problematic. If we remove Christianity from historical assertions, events, and investigation, we have removed it from reality. Faith is founded on fact, not fantasy. To say that a book about Jesus of Nazareth is purely historical and not religious is erroneous and betrays the historical foundations of the Christian
faith. Simply put, in Christianity you can’t separate the two.

Moreover, there is no justification for placing the Gospels in this unknowable and arbitrary category. The question that Christian apologetics seeks to answer is this: is there reliable historical evidence that a miracle (e.g. the physical resurrection of Jesus) actually occurred? Thankfully, a great deal of work has already been done in this area. C.S Lewis handily dealt with David Hume and the skeptics’ argument that miracles are not historical and that we can dismiss them simply on principle (a priori) because there is uniform experience against them. Writing history the way O’Reilly has done in Killing Jesus has the negative effect of causing readers to overlook important and credible criteria in investigating the information available that testifies to the fact that the miracles recorded in the Gospels are reliable history and the eyewitness accounts in them are likewise trustworthy. In other words, O’Reilly is echoing the unsupported assumptions of Hume, which taints his entire investigation of the Gospels’ claims.

This fundamental problem is seen at the beginning of Killing Jesus, where O’Reilly claims that the Gospel writers were not engaged in writing history, but rather a spiritual account. Anyone who has read the New Testament, however, should
recognize that this directly contradicts the words of the Gospel writers themselves. Consider Luke’s opening lines in particular.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

What this amounts to is O’Reilly committing the cardinal sin of removing the primary source documents from the realm of historical investigation and into a spiritual nebula outside of time. Three main problems with this are

1) The Gospel writers and the disciples clearly claimed that they were writing history.

2) They were eyewitnesses or close associates of eyewitnesses. Concerning this latter point, it should be noted well that the Gospels were written by people who either saw firsthand many of the events they record, – or talked with people who did. And the fact that their independent testimony agrees gives weight and veracity to their claims. As a side note, the value of eyewitness testimony should not be overlooked. The best sources we have on Jesus come from people who either knew him directly, or interviewed those who did (like Luke). “We were eyewitness of these things,” the disciples claim repeatedly. As reliable eyewitness accounts, the Gospels should be treated with historical credibility. This has recently been meticulously demonstrated by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham in his vital work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The Gospel writers, in their different ways, present their Gospels based on and incorporating the testimony of the eyewitnesses. The literary and theological strategies of these writers are not directed to superseding the testimony of eyewitnesses but to giving it a permanent literary vehicle…

…Testimony, we will argue, is both the historically appropriate category for understanding what kind of history the Gospels are and the theologically appropriate category for understanding what kind of access Christian readers of the Gospels thereby have to Jesus and his history. It is the category that enables us to surmount the dichotomy between the so-called historical Jesus and the so-called Christ of faith. It enables us to see that the Gospels are not some kind of obstacle to knowledge of the real Jesus and his history but precisely the kind of means of access to the real Jesus and his history that, as historians and as believers, we need. [10]

3)  Jesus of Nazareth didn’t enter into spiritual history or a mythological religious world, but as a real man in real time and real history in order to do real things. Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus. And he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

Remove Christianity from history and you have to go all the way and say Jesus never existed. But no credible historians say that these days. Because no matter what one believes personally, the fact remains that these things did not happen in never never land. Who Jesus was and what he did can and should be investigated historically. Simply put, the Christian faith is founded on facts.

So while claiming to write a history of Jesus, O’Reilly sabotages his own project right from the beginning, cutting off the historical branch upon which he claims to sit with an arbitrary saw that separates history and theology into watertight compartments. Had O’Reilly spent additional time establishing the case that the four Gospels are reliable primary source documents for the life and ministry of Jesus, Killing Jesus could be labeled history rather than a historical paraphrase.

Why was Jesus Killed?

One of the other glaring problems I encountered with this book actually came from O’Reilly’s interview on 60 Minutes. When asked why Jesus was killed – which is the entire premise of Killing Jesus – O’Reilly responded with perhaps the most outlandish claim of the book. Read the exchange carefully.

Bill O’Reilly: Well, when he went into the temple and overturned those moneychangers he was absolutely livid. He was personally insulted that the temple was being used as a place of commerce. And not only that, but they were stealing from the folks.

Norah O’Donnell: He was upset with people of his own faith.

Bill O’Reilly: Absolutely. He was, he was upset that the Jews were taxing, overtaxing, and extorting the folks.

Norah O’Donnell: And that story is important to tell because it explains why so many people wanted him dead?

Bill O’Reilly: That’s the crux of the “Killing Jesus” theme, is that there was a reason he was executed. Not that he was saying he was God. Droves of people said they were God. But now when you interrupt a money flow — now you’re into territory where they gotta get rid of him. [11]

Once again the anachronism of our modern political landscape – taxes, class warfare, and all – entered into the analysis of the motivation for Jesus’ death on the cross. More to the point, however, is O’Reilly’s blatant misunderstanding of why the Jewish religious authorities wanted Jesus dead. Killing Jesus wasn’t about financial grievances (though they may have had those), economic hardships, or over taxation of the middle and lower class Israelites. If these were, in fact, the religious authorities’ motivation there is no evidence for it in the primary source documents.

Killing Jesus was primarily about his claim to be God Almighty in human flesh who had come to die for the sins of the world on the cross and rise again. In the minds of the religious authorities, both his utter disregard for their man-made attempts to save themselves (and others) and his clear proclamations of blasphemy (e.g. claiming to be God in himself) were the reasons Jesus had to be put to death.

Contrary to O’Reilly, the primary sources on Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) say he was crucified precisely for claiming to be God in the flesh. For example, read the Holy Week accounts in the Gospels or even just this snippet from John:

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (John 10:31-33

Again, O’Reilly makes a remarkable assertion about the true nature of the central event in the New Testament without substantiating a single claim.

Conclusion: The Apologetic Import

As I mentioned in the introduction, I had mixed reactions both prior to and after reading O’Reilly’s latest book, Killing Jesus. Even after writing this review, I am still conflicted.

I had hoped this would be a book I could use with skeptics, a good work of history by a popular level writer. However, I think any skeptic would ask the same questions I have posed of this book and its content. Where’s the evidence? How does O’Reilly corroborate his claims, especially when some of them directly contradict the primary source documents? Does O’Reilly really think he’s a better historian (2000 years later) than multiple eyewitnesses to the same events 2000 years ago?

The real crux of the problem revealed in this book (and in subsequent interviews) is that O’Reilly fails to grasp both the central event of the Gospels – the death and resurrection of Jesus – and the methodology used by scholars and historians to establish the veracity of historical events as well as the reliability of the four Gospels as primary source documents.

The one thing that O’Reilly does well, and that I appreciate about this book, was the narrative, storytelling-style he and his co-author wrote it in. I simply wish he would’ve combined the compelling forms of historical narrative that he does so well with the compelling substance of historical facts. Simply because an author tells a story doesn’t mean it is unhistorical. In fact, the most exciting stories are those that are based on the facts and yet sound too good to be true. The Gospels are that kind of story. Jesus’ death and resurrection is that kind of story, one that sounds too good to be true and yet takes place in real human history.

In the end, I won’t be handing this book to a skeptic who might be asking tough historical questions about the Christian faith because O’Reilly doesn’t take the time to build a positive case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels and the physical death and resurrection of Jesus. And I’m not blaming O’Reilly for that. That simply wasn’t the kind of book he set out to write. I do, however, think that is exactly the kind of book that is needed.


Endnotes —

[1] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Jesus: A History. New York: Henry Holy and Company, 2013. P. 2-3.

[2] The Gospel according to Bill O’Reilly? CBS NEWS: 60 Minutes Interview – The following script is from “Killing Jesus” which aired on Sept. 29, 2013. The correspondent is Norah O’Donnell. Producer Robert G. Anderson.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Jesus: A History. New York: Henry Holy and Company, 2013. p. 275-276.

[5] Ibid, p. 273.

[6] For example, the earliest copy of Seutonius’s Life of Caesar dates to 950 A.D. and the earliest copy of Pliny the Younger’s Letters date to 850 A.D. In both accounts there is over an 800 year time span between the earliest known copy of the manuscript and the date it was written. Both are considered by classical scholars to be reliable documents and a valuable part of our knowledge of ancient history. When comparing these Roman historical manuscripts to those of the four Gospels, the difference is monumental. The time span between the dates when the Gospels were written (60-90 A.D.) verses our earliest known manuscript copy is between 140-265 years. Moreover, the sheer volume of manuscript evidence available for the four Gospels far outweighs that of anything else in antiquity (in excess of 15,000 copies to be precise).  Craig Parton. Religion on Trial. Eugene: Wipf and Stock. 2008, p. 47-48.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Jesus: A History. New York: Henry Holy and Company, 2013. p. 66.

[8] Ibid, p. 96, 102.

[9] Ibid, p. 1.

[10] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006. p. 472-473.

[11] The Gospel according to Bill O’Reilly? CBS NEWS: 60 Minutes Interview – The following script is from “Killing Jesus” which aired on Sept. 29, 2013. The correspondent is Norah O’Donnell. Producer Robert G. Anderson.


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