Interviewed on TV’s “60 Minutes” Bill O’Reilly, popular Fox News commentator, claimed that the Holy Spirit inspired him to write about the death of Jesus Christ. However…In 1955 crack reporter Jim Bishop saw his suspenseful, hour-by-hour account of a president’s death, “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” zoom to the top of bestseller lists. Perhaps because Lincoln was assas¬¨sinated on Good Friday, Bishop, a Roman Catholic, followed up in 1957 with another gripping thriller, “The Day Christ Died.” Bishop enjoyed continued success with “The Day Kennedy Was Shot” in 1968, three years after being the first to note the startling coincidences between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassina¬¨tions for a magazine article. Providence notwithstanding, Bill O’Reilly and partner Martin Dugard, author and screenwriter, have followed in Bishop’s footsteps. Their tremendously successful earlier works, “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” may yet be on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Their much-ballyhooed “Killing Jesus: A History” (Henry Holt and Co., 2013) has at last appeared. Now, authors with a single title reflecting one in Bishop’s earlier sequence is a similarity. Two ti¬¨tles could be a coincidence. Three titles indicate policy. Far be it from me to question Mr. O’Reilly’s rela¬¨tionship with the Spirit of Truth — but it would have been gracious for him and Mr. Dugard to acknowledge their indebtedness to Jim Bishop’s earlier, groundbreaking popular histories.Writing about the death of Jesus necessitates a description of His life, setting the stage so readers can comprehend the culture in which Jesus lived. O’Reilly, a former teacher, and Dugard, a historian, cre¬¨ate a toboggan-ride through ancient Rome and Judea delineating the men who left their mark on the age. This is a Good Thing for readers afflicted by substandard public and religious education sys¬¨tems that have been too often denied the enjoyment of discovering fascinating incidents of antiquity and the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the most influential man who ever lived. “Killing Jesus” is subtitled “A History,” and an appealing, human portrait of Jesus emerges, vibrant and warmhearted, a well-bal¬¨anced Jewish preacher who knows God loves humanity and wants humanity to love Him. Jesus is shown to be disciplined, powerful and charismatic, occasionally abrasive, even rude. As He awaits arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus is terrified, dreading the fate awaiting Him, perhaps dreading the commission of those sins. The authors carefully note that His bloody sweat is not miraculous but a known medical phenomenon called hematidrosis. O’Reilly and Dugard, both Roman Catholics, found room to mention the Virgin Mary’s Assump¬¨tion and even Papal Infallibility. Yet the Last Supper serves the narrative solely as background for Judas’ betrayal. All reference to the Holy Eucharist is eliminated. This is peculiar since so many of Jesus’ ac¬¨tions and parables allude to It. Having brought up this lapse, other shortcomings must be mentioned. For instance, the authors casually state that the apostles were illiterate. Impossible. Education, then as now, was central to Jewish life. Rabbis, even at village synagogues, taught both boys and girls to read, write and compute. Scripture has to be read. More mundanely, Gal¬¨ilean fishing was a thriving business demanding decent recordkeeping. True, in Acts 4:11, the Sanhedrin contemptuously dismissed the apostles as “illiterate” but this meant that they were yokels, not educated by the elite Temple teachers.There are more than 60 blunders in “Killing Jesus” consisting of questionable conclusions, mis¬¨statements of fact, and easily-correctable mistakes. The number of errors would be inexcusable in a well-researched novel, let alone a history.Episodes from the Gospels are undigested, seemingly set down from memory. Herod Antipas is described as placing “an old military mantle on the prisoner’s shoulders. It was purple, the color of kings” (page 237). Yet the solitary reference to this incident appears in Luke 23:11, which actually says that Antipas clothed Jesus “in resplendent garb” (NAB). Luke uses a Greek adjective meaning “bright” or “shining,” not purple. Antipas obviously arrayed Jesus in a real royal cloak mocking His pretension to majesty before returning Him to Pilate. Later that morning a purple military mantle was draped over the shoulders of the scourged Jesus by Pilate’s soldiers when crowning Him with thorns (Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17; John 19:2). I’m not going to accuse the authors of having a political agenda. Still, be prepared to be slapped in the face every few pages with a reference to the heavy taxation in Judea. Unhappily, these comments are not balanced by any indication of the historical fact that Jews living under the heel of Rome had never been as prosperous since the days of Solomon, 1,000 years earlier. The reason is because Rome brought order into the Levant. Internecine wars ceased disrupting trade, commerce and travel.A description of the actual passion and death of Jesus takes up only 30 pages in “Killing Jesus.” Regarding the Crucifixion, despite detailing how Jesus processed through the city to Golgotha to hang for over three hours in agony, readers are told, “The news of his execution has not traveled far, much to the delight of Pilate and Caiaphas who still fear the possibility of Jesus’s supporters starting a riot …” (page 250). This assertion is preposterous. Crucifixion, as Plato noted, was meant to be a public exhibition, “a spectacle and a warning.” If the authorities wanted Jesus offed on the QT they would have dispatched Him with a sword-stroke and tossed His body into a lime pit.Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world descended on Jerusalem for Passover, swelling the population of 50,000 so greatly that impromptu booths made of branches, tents and lean-tos dotted the hills surrounding the city. It defies logic to describe Romans going to the trouble of crucifying Jesus outside the city gates on a rise alongside a heavily-trafficked thoroughfare and expect the execution will be kept secret. Thousands of passersby heading to the Temple to sacrifice their lambs, then returning to roast them at fire pits for the Passover feast, saw Jesus and read Pilate’s inscription on the titulus, the charge posted over His head. Pilate’s purpose in baldly identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews” was to alert anyone else harboring such notions to the fate awaiting him. The main thesis of the book, explaining why Jesus died, remains unclear. Was He a revolution¬¨ary? An antiestablishment libertarian? A dangerous heretic? A seditionist? The authors rely on C. S. Lewis’ description which, quite logically, points out that Jesus was a liar, a madman or the Son of God. He can be nothing else.To the faults listed above, duplicate descriptions of incidents echo throughout the narrative where both writers parallel each other in a less than seamless manner. The inattentive, even sloppy, editing hardly befits a major release from a foremost publisher. “Killing Jesus” has some good points, but I’d hoped to like it a lot better. It will be read by many people who seldom pick up a Bible and care little about ancient history. If this book inspires them to seek out the Gospels to read for themselves, along with more accurate historical accounts of the era by, say, Edersheim, Daniel-Rops and the Durants — perhaps even Jim Bishop — then God will bring good out of mediocrity. Sean M. Wright conducts workshops and enrichment courses at par¬¨ishes on biblical and papal history, Catholic symbolic art and other topics. He replies to com¬¨ments sent him at [email protected].
Sean M. Wright is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita. He conducts workshops and enrichment courses at schools and parishes in the archdiocese on the Holy Eucharist, Catholic symbolic art and other Catholic topics.