Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus: A History — Not What It Purports to Be — a Review

© 2013 Peter Free


29 December 2013



Very badly done history — but good story-telling


Killing Jesus is an entertaining popular rendition of Christ’s life.  It is well written, but lacks both historical precision and the slightest elements of critical thinking.  Think of it as the Fox News version of the past.


On favorable display is Bill O’Reilly and (presumably) Martin Dugard’s genius for appealing to folks who are not predominantly given to fact-checking or thoughtfulness.


The simplicity of the authors’ uninsightful treatment of Jesus’ life reflects Christianity’s primary virtue.  The religion is philosophically streamlined, emotionally appealing, and (as frequently presented) requires virtually no spiritual work on the part of Jesus’ followers.  Christianity’s appeal strikes through the emotive heart, rather than via the analytical brain — which makes it ideally suited to comforting the majority of humanity.


Although Killing Jesus is execrably done history, it is admirably effective religious story-telling.



Intellectual integrity is not one of this book’s virtues


Properly done history (historiography) requires a combination of:


(i) fact finding,


(ii) fact weighing,


(iii) contextual integration,




(iv) critical thinking — regarding evaluation of the previous three.


Authors O’Reilly and Dugard do none of this, despite their claim that “this [is a] fact-based book.”


The authors continue:



Martin Dugard and I are both Roman Catholics who were educated in religious schools.  But we are also historical investigators and are interested in primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause.  We brought this dedication and discipline to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and in these pages we do the same with Jesus of Nazareth.  By the way, both Lincoln and Kennedy believed that Jesus was God.


© 2013, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus: A History (Henry Holt and Company, 2013) (at pages 2-3)


If the authorial team is not interested in converting anyone, why do they try to bolster the religious case by bringing in the confirming opinions of two beloved American presidents?


And why write a book whose tone uninterruptedly and uncritically worships its supposedly historiographically investigated subject?



Silliness regarding the claimed accuracy of the Gospels


Most of the volume’s alleged facts come from the Gospels, which the authors (historically naively) describe in the following fashion:



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 archaeology, there is growing acceptance of their overall historicity and authenticity.


© 2013, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus: A History (Henry Holt and Company, 2013) (at footnote at the bottom of page 22)


No one even slightly familiar with modern Christian historiography would make such a blanket claim.  It is also clear from Killing Jesus’s:


virtually complete lack of attributed sources for its alleged facts,


its superficially presented “Sources” appendix,




its many made-up conversations —


that this is not a historically conscientious work.


The book’s abysmal investigative quality, lackadaisical factual attributions, and lack of skepticism are so extreme they would embarrass even an amateur historian.


Regarding memory and memory’s relationship to the Gospels


Rather than delving into piles of more carefully researched Christian history, engage in a mind experiment — how much credence would you put in your own or your neighbors’ memories, regarding something that:


(a) had happened 20 to 70 years before anyone bothered to set pen to paper




(b) only after a good deal of philosophical battling over — and public acceptance  of — the ostensibly early acts that allegedly had occurred?


If you know much about memory and how the mind works (neuroscience) — as well as religious politics — you know that decades-old recollections are apt to be overwhelmingly inaccurate, severely edited, and incomplete.


Therefore, most Christians resort to the “God-inspired defense” to justify the truth of Gospel-delivered recall.  A defense which, from a scientific and historiographic perspective, is intellectually illegitimate.  And which is internally defeated by the number of contradictions and oversights between and among the Gospels and other New Testament and period writings.



“So, Pete, why does Killing Jesus work for so many people?”


Killing Jesus works because it is conventional, dumbed down Christianity.  The book is essentially an unending tale of suffering and gore, with special emphasis on the Roman legions’ expertise in dispensing the same.


The authors delight in describing the myriad ways in which people, including Jesus — who ran afoul of Roman and Jewish authorities — were brutalized.  At the book’s end, we are provided the customary and extended retelling of Christ’s physical suffering, just before and during the crucifixion.


It is here that I think popular Christianity’s strength and intellectual weakness both lie.  Presumably Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself to unspeakable tortures on behalf of humankind’s salvation is the introductory hook that gains the religion its followers.  Imagining oneself in Christ’s position can open hearts to the magnificence of his Being.



But Christ’s suffering is not a persuasive argument for either his divinity or his magnificence


There is an intellectual and spiritual flaw in the crucifixion-related “hook of suffering” that so often accompanies Christian proselytizing.  And this is where the spiritual weakness of dumbed down Christianity and Killing Jesus enters.  Christ’s physical pain was no greater, and arguably less in some cases, than that experienced by probably tens of thousands of other people during the same era.  Including on the day he was crucified.


O’Reilly and Dugan tacitly admit that Christ’s pre-crucifixion flogging was intentionally less intense than his fellow victims that day — if one can even quantify the degrees of excruciatingness involved in those tortures.  The Roman executioners were, according to the book, told to use a less slicing instrument to flagellate him.  The idea was that he might die too quickly, if he lost too much blood.


The authors then go on a rant about the torture the crown of thorns brought him.  The passages are written as if the branches’ spikes brutalized Jesus even more than everything else he had undergone to that point — which, from a medical perspective, is absurd.


The foolishness of this implied claim, however, makes clear the authors’ intent.  Make Jesus’ suffering so overwhelming that readers open their hearts to him.


According to Killing Jesus, the requirement that Jesus die before Jewish Sabbath required the Roman execution team to remove the cross’s seat and toe-brace, which ordinarily long extended the torment of conventionally crucified prisoners.  Therefore, Jesus arguably did not suffer as long as other crucified prisoners of the era.


My point here is that one cannot use the magnitude of physical suffering as an index of Christ’s holiness, which is unfortunately what many Christians, including the authors, seem to do.


And I would add that there are probably at least a million people on the planet today, who would willingly be similarly treated, were they assured (in modern contractual form) that humankind would have an avenue to salvation thereby.


For Christians, Christ’s greatness should lie in being the Son of God, not in his earthly suffering.  Which brings us to another of Killing Jesus’ flaws — the near nitwitted way that the book treats Christ’s spirit-related utterances.



Inane treatment of Christ’s statements and teachings


Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard indicate early on that they are not theologians.  Presumably they rely on this stance to excuse their almost vacuous non-analysis of everything that they quote from Jesus.


For example, there are a number of exchanges in the book between Jesus and Jewish religious authorities, who are ostensibly trying to get him to commit blasphemy, so that they can kill him.  Unfortunately, neither Dugan nor O’Reilly are clued in enough to explicate the nuances of what is said on both sides.


Instead, like awed children, the authors make claims like the following one, without presenting a situational context and submerging the claims in paragraphs of only remotely related ideas:



The Pharisees and Sadducees are frustrated at every turn, for Jesus is a spiritual and intellectual rival unlike any they have ever faced . . . .


Jesus shows himself to be an adroit intellectual foil by using logic and words of Holy Scripture to upend their arguments.  “There is nothing unlawful,” he reminds the Temple squad, “about doing good.”  Making matters more difficult for the holy men is Jesus’ ability to amaze the peasants of Galilee by seemingly performing supernatural acts.


© 2013, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus: A History (Henry Holt and Company, 2013) (at page 155)



Recommended to some, but not to others


Killing Jesus provides readers with a sense of Christ’s times that is valuable, provided they are not scrupulous fact-seekers.


The book is superbly suited to people interested in a conventional and comparatively undocumented portrayal of Christ’s life.  The story hangs anecdotally together better than the more disjointed Bible does.  And it is much easier to understand what is going on, given the authors’ excellent way with words.


On the other hand, Killing Jesus is:


(a) egregiously badly researched and documented history




(b) represents not even a smidgeon of the skeptical distance that all good intellectual inquiry requires.


The book also falls curiously short in conveying the intellectual context and theological spirit of Christ’s statements and teachings.


Overall, Martin Dugard and Bill O’Reilly succeeded brilliantly in accomplishing what they apparently set out to do — which was (inferentially) to present an unnuanced, Fox News-like version of Christ’s life.