Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review - Killing Jesus

A few years back, I was watching a video clip of a discussion between atheist Bill Maher and TV host Bill O’Reilly.  Maher was busy rehashing the same old arguments atheists have used for years to attack faith.  O’Reilly, a Catholic, was trying to counter Maher, but after a few minutes it was obvious that O’Reilly did not know enough about the Bible or have enough faith in what the Bible said to mount any kind of response.  Frankly, it was all kind of embarrassing.  I came to the conclusion that O’Reilly might do well enough asking the tough political questions, but when it came to theology, he should punt the ball to someone else.

After reading Bill O’Reilly’s latest effort in his “Killing” series (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy), Killing Jesus, my opinion of Mr. O’Reilly’s ability to handle issues of faith has not changed.  I read both his Lincoln and his Kennedy books last year and enjoyed them for what they are – light historical reads that get a lot of things right and are able to draw the reader in with a good, compelling story. 

Killing Jesus is similar.  O’Reilly and is co-author Martin Dugard, do a fairly good job presenting Jesus’ story, together with the history behind it.  They understand Roman times and many aspects of both Roman and Jewish culture.  They give the reader a picture of the decadence of the Roman Emperors, although with a bit too much detail in some places.  I don’t really need images of Roman depravity floating around in my mind.  In my opinion, the book’s major failing falls in the area of how the authors view the Bible.

Although both Dugard and O’Reilly are Roman Catholic, it is obvious they do not have as high a view of Scripture as I do.  In some cases their handling of the biblical record is sloppy, in other cases is it just wrong.  Let me give you just a few examples.  Early in the book, when discussing the gospels in a footnote, the authors explain the John, an eyewitness, wrote the final and definitive work on Jesus’ life (pg. 22).  In John 11, the apostle John records the story of the raising of Lazarus.  O’Reilly and Dugard handle the story of Lazarus as a hearsay story about Jesus.  At one point in a footnote, they call the story a legend. (pg. 199)  It seems they themselves are skeptical about the story.  At a couple places in the book, they say they seek to separate truth from myth and have seemed to conclude the Lazarus story is myth.  Yet they accept without question the content of a conversation that happens immediately after the raising of Lazarus in John 11.  Why is one part of the chapter “legend” and the other historical fact?  Why is one part of John reliable and another part not reliable?

On page 192, the authors tell the story of the cursing of the fig tree. (Matt. 21, Mark 11)  The way they write the story is sloppy.  They make Jesus sound like a spoiled little kid caught in a fit of pique, yet they do not even try to explain why Jesus cursed the tree.  (The fig tree gave every outward appearance of being a fruitful tree, but it was not.)  Why give a strong impression of Jesus – that he was wrongfully annoyed, perhaps sinful in that – without explaining the real background of the story?

My last example is found on page 212.  It is the day of Jesus’ arrest.  The authors suggest that Jesus was feeling the stress of going to the cross, which was true. (see Luke 22:39-44)  But they suggest that Jesus was having trouble focusing on his final message to the disciples and that the looming cross was causing him to panic.  In trying to “humanize” Jesus, I think they go too far.  Does Luke 22:47-53 give us a picture of a man who is panicking?  Rather, this is a man who is resolute in his willingness to do the Father’s will.  When you read John 14-16, do you get the impression that Jesus is struggling to formulate his last message to his disciples?  I don’t.  It is obvious Jesus seeks to comfort his followers and give them powerful instructions for the future.

All of these things are minor issues really, but there are a lot of them.  I did not notice any major errors in the book, but it seems as me as if the authors have stumbled in their efforts to divide the myths of Jesus from the truth of Jesus.  At times they handle the Scripture inconsistently, sloppily and even downright wrong.

Killing Jesus is not a bad book.  O’Reilly and Dugard present a compelling story in a readable way.  They get a lot of things right.  They present the history and culture of Jesus day in a way that is accessible and interesting.  But please read it with your critical thinking caps on.  It is not a gospel presentation – for example they give the resurrection very little attention.  Rather it is an attempt by two authors, whose view of Scripture may be different than yours, to present the story of Jesus Christ.  It is worth the read, but a better read would be the gospels themselves.  

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