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

More fiction than fact. Poorly researched and certainly not history.

Killing Jesus: A History? Not according to most modern biblical scholars. The authors of this book clearly read the New Testament too literally and rely on it as their basis for much of this book. They do not include footnotes so that the reader can differentiate from what is their opinion and what is the opinion of the few qualified scholars they cite in the appendix to the book. In a footnote (page 22) it says, “thanks to scholarship and archaeology, there is growing acceptance of their overall historicity [the Gospels] and authenticity.” Just the opposite is true. Modern religious historians now view the four Gospels included in the New Testament as only a subset of the knowledge base about the historical Jesus. Indeed with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (Gnostic gospels) in Egypt in 1945, we now know there were differing views about the life of Jesus among his followers during the first century and that the Canonical Gospels do not always agree about what is the true story of Jesus. In fact, the Gospels are often inconsistent with one another. Following are some of the errors and misrepresentations in this book. It seems O’Reilly and Dugard did not do their homework or wrote this book with an evangelical bias. (See end of review)

On page 7, the authors describe the killing of less than two-year old Jewish male babies by King Herod. This event is known as the Massacre of the Innocents, which the authors failed to mention. According to the Gospel of Matthew [2:16-18], Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. Whether a massacre actually occurred is dubious. The massacre is not attested outside of the New Testament, making its historicity most suspect.

In the footnote on the bottom of page 8, the authors write, “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…,” is misleading. These are stories in the gospels of the New Testament, which biblical scholars generally view as having little verifiable truth. They are not “facts,” as the authors suggest.

In a footnote (page 14), the authors write, “The northern portion of this kingdom (Israel) fell in 722 B.C. to the Philistines.” In fact, the northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. The Philistines were never a major power nor did they ever control an empire in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) during biblical times. In the same footnote they write, “[the term] Israel was once again put into use when the independent Jewish state was founded on May 14, 1948 long – almost 4,000 years after the first Jews crossed into the promised land.” There were no Jews 4,000 years ago. Judaism did not arise until sometime after 1500 B.C.E. This means Judaism is no more than 3,500 years old. The first non-biblical reference to Israel resides in the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, erected circa 1200 BCE.

On page 14, the authors write, “The baby will be born in Bethlehem, the small town where the great King David was born a thousand years before. The third prophesy is that the child must also be a direct descendent of David.” On page 176, “His [Jesus’s] lineage is that of David.” It is generally accepted that Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, is a descendent of David. However according to Christian theology, the Virgin Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Thus it makes no difference whether Joseph descended from David. Jesus is not biologically related to Joseph. Jesus is therefore not biologically connected to David. The authors ignore this huge elephant in the room. So much for the belief that Jesus is the Messiah descended from David. The authors do not even address this obvious paradox.

On page 17 the authors write, “The [First] Temple was first built by Solomon in the tenth century B.C.” There is no historical evidence for King Solomon. However there is evidence of both Solomon’s predecessor, King David, and Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam. So Solomon was almost certainly a historical figure. There is also no hard evidence for the existence of the First Temple built by Solomon. Professor Israel Finkelstein, at Tel Aviv University, strongly argues that there was no United Monarchy during the reign of Kings David and Solomon and that Solomon and David reigned over a small kingdom, not one rich enough to construct temples and other monuments. Finkelstein refutes the existence of the First Temple and its construction under Solomon.

On page 58-59, the authors write, “The lineage of Jacob and their devotion to a one true God has not changed since Abraham walked the earth 2000 years ago.” I presume they meant 4,000 years ago or 2,000 years before Jesus, since rabbinical dating puts the life of Abraham at circa 2000 B.C.E. On page 85 they write, “Galilee is the northernmost properties in what was once called Canaan by the patriarch Abraham. One of Abraham’s grandsons was a man named Jacob, who also went by the name Israel and fathered the people would come to be known as the Israelites.” I am not aware of any modern biblical scholar who believes that the story of Abraham and his offspring, Isaac and Jacob, is historical. An even if these three figures from the Old Testament actually are historical, all scholars agree they were not father, son, and grandson. The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was written over many centuries during the first millennium B.C.E. The authors of the Old Testament had no way of knowing who lived more than a thousand years prior, other than through the oral traditions which no modern scholar takes literally. To sum up, there is not a shred of evidence that there was a historical Abraham. Most scholars believe the story of Abraham was written sometime during the middle of the Iron Age (1150-600 B.C.E.) describing life during the Iron Age. For instance, Abraham is described as employing camels as domestic beasts of burden. It says in The Bible Unearthed, co-written by Israel Finkelstein, “We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE.”

In the postscript, the authors write, “The legalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire, in A.D. 313, soon led to his expansion to every part of the Western world.” Christianity was never the official state religion of the empire in the way Islam is today in Iran. Christianity became the quasi-state religion of the empire in 325 C.E. after the First Council of Nicaea. On page 266 they write, “Christianity was officially legalized throughout the Roman Empire in 313, with the edict of Milan.” That edict only required that Christians throughout the Empire be treated benevolently, rather than being persecuted. Whether or not there was a formal “Edict of Milan” document is not known.

On page 80, the authors write, “These men remember the shame attached to the early days of that relationship between Mary and Joseph, when it was announced that she was pregnant out of wedlock. They recall Joseph’s stubborn loyalty and his refusal to shun her.” They did not do their homework and read the Bible (NIV). Joseph was not stubbornly loyal to Mary but planned to divorce her, according to Matthew. In Matthew [1:18-20], it says, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

On page 81 the authors say, “He [Jesus] labor six days a week as a carpenter alongside his father.” On page 90, “because Joseph is a skilled carpenter he is able to pay his taxes.” In the original Gospels composed in Greek, Jesus is described as the son of a τέκτονος (Greek for craftsman). He might have been a stone mason, and not a carpenter, or perhaps both. Describing Jesus as a carpenter or carpenter’s son is not fact, just tradition.

On page 90, the authors write, “She [Mary Magdalene] will grow up to be a prostitute, doing what she must do to survive, though she longs for something better in this world.” On page 144, “Rarely does a woman of ill repute enter the home of a Pharisee. Nevertheless, Mary of Magdala–or Mary Magdalene, as she will go down in history long–now stands behind Jesus…It is well known how Mary makes her living.” The view that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute can be traced to a sermon of Pope Gregory I (“Gregory the Great”) circa 591 C.E. This depiction of Mary has no historical basis. How can the authors claim this is a fact-based book, as they state in the beginning (on page 2) of the book? In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church amended its erroneous view of Mary and no longer claims that she was a prostitute. It appears that the authors, who are both Roman Catholic, are not even aware of the teachings of their own church.

On page 147 in a footnote, the authors write, “Miriam worked with her brothers, Moses and Araon, to lead the exodus from Egypt. And of course the prostitute Rahab helped bring about the Israelite victory over Jericho.” More nonsense! There is no evidence for the Exodus as described in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Jericho was destroyed centuries before Israel ever existed. The author’s didn’t even bother to research modern archeological findings.

In the footnote at the bottom of page 22, it says, “The fact that John not only was there at every pivotal moment in Jesus’s ministry, and thus able to describe many scenes with vivid first-person imagery”…In the footnote at the bottom of page 222, it says, “Although none other gospel writers was present during Jesus’s prayer, it is believed that he shared his words and emotions with those present in the garden that night.” In the footnote at the bottom of page 224, it says, “That scene was witnessed by John, who made a focal point of his gospel;” footnote, page 231, “Based on his vivid depiction of that night’s events, is widely believed that John was this individual.” Believed by who? Certainly not modern biblical scholars. Scholars can’t even agree about which historical John the Gospel of John is based. On page 264, they write, “John…[was] exiled to the Greek island of Patmos. There he wrote his gospel.” The reason we refer to the gospels as the Gospel according to Mathew, according to Luke, etc. is because no one knows who wrote the Gospels. By using the phrase “according to,” it gives them an aura of credibility. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called synoptic in that they are all similar to each other. The Gospel of John is not similar. Synoptic means presenting or taking the same or common view. The term synoptic comes from the Greek syn, meaning “together,” and optic, meaning “seen.” Because these three Gospels are so similar, it is hypothesized that they came from a common source known as Q, from the German Quelle, meaning source, although no Q source material has thus far been discovered. The authors conflict with current biblical scholarship by asserting that the Gospels were actually written by eyewitnesses, to wit Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There is no evidence to support that view and this book is the first I have read which makes that assertion, other than books written by zealous evangelicals.

On pages 236-240, the authors describe the conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate when Jesus was presented to Pilate for judgment. Here again the authors use the New Testament as a reference. Modern scholars are not certain that their conversation was more than a few exchanges, lasting perhaps 10 or 15 minutes for the trial, judgment and sentence. At that point, it is possible that the extremely anti-Jewish Pilate decided it was simply expedient to crucify Jesus, a Jew, and a troublemaker who was making a problem during the Passover. He might incite a rebellion by the large numbers of Jews in town for the Passover celebration. Indeed a rebellion occurred nearly three decades later in the First Jewish-Roman war (66-73 C.E.).

On page 240 the authors write, “It is customary for the Roman prefect to release a prisoner at the time of Passover.” Not true. The authors cite all four Gospels as their source of this “fact.” Actually, there is little to no evidence for any such custom by Roman prefects (governors). “Pilate finds a simple solution to ease out of this politically volatile situation: he will give the crowd a choice between releasing the peaceful Jesus or the horrific Barabbas…Give us Barabbas,” the Jews in the crowd shout. Shame on you O’Reilly! Not only is this story not historically true, as any biblical historian will tell you, but it is the basis of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism ultimately, indirectly leading to the Holocaust. Even the Catholic Church rejects this idea. Nostra Aetate, issued by the Second Vatican Council, and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, states that the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty, thus repudiating an indiscriminate charge of Jewish deicide.

On page 241, the authors write, “the Roman governor does not believe that executing such a popular figure as Jesus is a wise decision… I have examined him in your presence and found no basis for your charges against him…Therefore, I will punish him and release him.” This account of Pilate “washing his hands” has also been rejected by the academic community. Pilate couldn’t give a fig about whether Jesus lived or died. Killing Jesus only meant to Pilate that there was one less Jew around who could cause a revolt. This is why some scholars believe Jesus never met Pilate nor was he judged by Pilate. On page 246 the authors describe Pilate “washing his hands” of Jesus’s blood. Washing of the hands was a Hebrew custom and not a Roman one. It is not likely the anti-Jewish Pilate would engage in a Jewish custom to placate the Jews he so despised. Even the authors acknowledge that Pilate was anti-Jew.

On page 263 the authors write, “There is good evidence that Peter is buried beneath St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City.” Where did they dig up this drivel? The Vatican has been quite explicit is stating it is only possible that some of Peter’s bone fragments are buried in the tombs under St. Peter’s. And leading Vatican Jesuits and other archaeologists strongly dispute the bones are those of St. Peter. Why would anyone preserve the bones of a man who was crucified upside down? If anything, they would more likely distance themselves from Peter to avoid the appearance that they endorsed his views.

On page 4 the authors write, “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.” The authors failed to tell the full story and what they told is essentially the story told in the New Testament. A reader really interested in the life of the historical Jesus would do far better reading any one of the numerous volumes written by Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Elaine Pagels (Princeton University) or Paula Fredriksen (Boston University). These academics are true experts in the historical Jesus and the New Testament.

Note: Many of the views articulated in this review were previously expressed in my book, The Origin and Rise, Decline and Fall of the God Known as Yahweh (Amazon Digital Services, 2012).

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