[I am re-posting this blog to coincide with the airing of the movie Killing Jesus. I hope you will find it worth reading or even re-reading – and that you will attend your local church for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter worship services. If you don’t have a home church, you are hereby invited to mine.]
I’m not one to jump on bandwagons. So even though I had read and enjoyed Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Lincoln, I passed on Killing Kennedy, and did not intend to read Killing Jesus. After all, I thought, I kinda know that story ….
Then I heard a couple of people, one pastor and one priest, both highly educated, say they had read it and enjoyed it. Not only that, they learned a lot from reading it. So I took the chance and bought a copy.
I’ve heard O’Reilly say in interviews that it’s a history book, not a religious book. He says he and Dugard are not trying to interpret Scripture, just report as accurately as possible the events that led up to the death of Jesus of Nazareth, who they call “the most famous human being the world has ever known.”
Here are my thoughts on the book. (I’m not providing page numbers; if you want them, I suggest you read it.) Keep in mind I am a pastor, not a trained historian. Here goes:
As an historical narrative this book works well, much as Killing Lincoln did. It’s well written, and moves like a novel. You don’t have to be a trained historian or theologian to enjoy it.
Some of the most fascinating insights (for me) are as follows:
• Julius Caesar tries to keep his approval ratings high by providing lots of popular entertainment, e.g.
the gladiatorial contests. That way the people are distracted from real issues – including oppressive taxes.
Who ever heard of such a thing?
• As a youth, Caesar is rumored to have had a homosexual relationship with King Nicomedes IV
of Bithynia, and is scorned for this all his life. He is called the “Queen of Bithynia” – behind his back.
• In spite of this, Julius is known as quite the womanizer. His men boast of his sexual prowess and, when he
is older, sing songs about “our bald whoremonger.”
• It is a brutal age. In 71 BC Julius Caesar puts down a slave rebellion led by one Spartacus, crucifying 7000
men in a 240-mile-long line of crosses. Can you even imagine the horror of that?
• Even so, he (Julius) is very positive toward the Jews in Judea and their way of life, but mainly
because that works to his political advantage.
• Cleopatra speaks as many as nine languages. She and Julius speak to one another in Greek.
• Marc Antony is “hard-drinking” and a “pedophile.”
• So is Tiberius Caesar, an utter moral degenerate, and he prefers boys.
• Like all the Caesars, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (better known at the time simply as Octavian)
considers himself “the son of god.” He is better known to us as Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) – the one who
orders the census Luke tells us about in chapter two of his Gospel – that sends a carpenter named Yosef
and his pregnant fiancée Miriam from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where their son Jesus will be
born in a stable.
• At the time Jesus is growing up there, Nazareth is a village of fewer than 400.
• No one is more despised by the Jews than the tax collectors. … I’ll let you fill in your own commentary
• After becoming Roman Governor of Judea, one of Pontius Pilate’s first official acts is to order standards
(statues atop raised poles) adorned with busts of Tiberius Caesar placed around Jerusalem – a direct
violation of the 2nd Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). When the Jewish inhabitants protest, Pilate sends his
soldiers out, swords drawn, to restore order … and the Jews refuse to back down, instead baring their
necks to show they’d rather die than bow down to an idol. Pilate backs down instead. The standards are
• Worth noting: barely 300 years later, it is Jesus’ image that is displayed throughout the Roman Empire.
• Annas, the high priest at the time of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus, is a descendant of Zadok, high
priest under King David. (That I knew.) Jesus is a descendant of David. (This I also knew.) But it never
occurred to me that David’s high priest would have a descendant who would condemn to death a Son of
David, and in such a heartless, callous, cruel manner. Moreover, one of Annas’ sons, Ananus, will, as high
priest, years later condemn and execute a Christ-follower named James … the half-brother of Jesus.
• The arrest, trial, scourging and crucifixion of Jesus are described in brutal, unflinching detail. This is not
light reading for the faint of heart. It does, or at least should, cause anyone who reads this – believer or
skeptic – to have greater respect for the raw courage and willing sacrifice of Jesus.
• According to legend, the Roman soldier who thrust the spear into Jesus’ side was named Longinus. He is
supposed to have converted to Christianity and is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic and Easter
Orthodox Churches. The spear became known as the “Holy Lance,” and through the centuries it was
coveted by powerful men because of its alleged supernatural powers – men like Adolph Hitler and
George S. Patton. Hitler was supposed to have possessed it during WWII, and Patton is alleged to have
rescued it after the war and returned it to the Hofburg Palace in Vienna where it remains to this day. Who
• The reason O’Reilly wanted to write this book (according to him): “Jesus of Nazareth has no army. He has
no wealth. He has no sword. He has no headquarters and none of the infrastructure needed to support a
movement.” And yet, as noted, he becomes “the most famous human being the world has ever known.”
• The last line of the book (excluding the Afterword, Postscript, etc.) was, to me, a terrific way for a book of
this sort – claiming to be historical, not theological – to end: “To this day, the body of Jesus of Nazareth
has never been found.” Of course, that doesn’t stop the Dan Browns, Simcha Jacobovicis and James
Camerons of the world from trying, usually every year around Easter.
The authors say this isn’t a “religious” book, that they’re not trying to interpret Scripture … but I don’t know how else to understand the following (all Scripture references provided by me):
• They describe the young Jesus as “a bright and charismatic child who always gets along well with others.”
I know it’s written in a novel-esque fashion, and that may well have been true, but … the Bible nowhere
says that or even alludes to it. Nor does any other reliable contemporary historical account of which I am
aware. (In my mind, I can imagine his younger siblings – we know of at least four, brothers named James,
Joses, Judas and Simon – may well have gotten pretty tired of hearing from their parents, “Why can’t you
be more like your brother Jesus …?”)
• They frequently describe Jesus’ emotional and mental state:
o as a boy visiting the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), he enjoys the rhythm of the routine;
o while he astounds the elders with his knowledge of Jewish law and tradition (Luke 2:41-51 again),
he has never demonstrated that at home;
o he’s “astonished” at the Roman centurion’s faith (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10);
o the pressure of debating the Jewish leaders “[weighs] on him enormously;”
o the night of the betrayal, he’s having trouble focusing his mind for his final message;
o he’s panicked at what awaits him;
o he is surprised when struck before the high priest (see Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22); etc.
The Bible says none of those things, and I am not aware of any credible contemporary extra-biblical
historical documents that provide those details, either. Again, I allow for the fact that this is written in
novel-esque fashion, but this is either interpreting Scripture, paraphrasing it or outright inventing
commentary on it.
• They say John’s reference to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7,
21:20) is “yet another example of the disciples grappling for prestige and power in the eyes of their
leader.” In my years of study I have never read nor heard John’s self-characterization described that
way. Furthermore – Jesus was long since dead, resurrected and ascended by the time those words
• The authors also assert:
o That “crucifixion was certainly within the Jewish tradition” (see John 14:28-32);
o That Jesus “finds steady employment in [the nearby town of Sepphoris];”
o That Mary Magdalene was a prostitute;
o That at Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit lands on him as a literal, physical dove (see Matthew 3:16;
Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; and John 1:32).
o That John the Baptist proclaims, “I baptize you with water for repentance (see Matthew 3:13-17;
Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:31-34);”
o That being “born from above” is “the predominant theology of his teaching,” and that ”He has been
telling all who will listen that a person must be spiritually reborn if he is to be judged kindly be
God.” (Jesus does utter those words – on one occasion, his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus
[John 3:1-21]. He is not known to say them to anyone else or on any other occasion – hardly “the
predominant theology of his teaching”);
o That at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is the high priest who determines which goat will be
sacrificed and which one sent away (see Leviticus 16:8ff);
o Minor quibble: That just before Jesus begins his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9;
Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-19) the Sunday before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion,
he suddenly begins to weep. This takes place after he is greeted with the tributes of palm branches,
coats and shouts of “Hosanna!” (Luke 19:41);
o That Jesus “is not a prince like Moses or a warrior like David. He is an intellectual. He deals in
logic.” I think this is probably meant as a compliment, and there is no doubt Jesus was and is by far
the smartest person to ever walk the earth. Still, I don’t know how anyone can read the Sermon on
the Mount or any of the great parables, e.g. the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37), or the “Prodigal
Son” (Luke 15:11-32), or read the fiery denunciations of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-34) and
relegate Jesus to the ranks of the intellectuals or those who deal only or even primarily in logic. He
touches people’s hearts as well as their minds, and usually in that order, and has been for over 2000
years. That’s why he is still compelling enough to be the subject of the best-selling non-fiction book
in the world today (as of this writing).
All of this is either conjecture – “reading between the lines” – or outright invention on the part of the authors. They’re entitled to their opinions, of course. I just would’ve appreciated it if they were more up-front about those things they are conjecturing, surmising or inventing.
OK, I’ll take off my Bible scholar / seminary geek hat now and say that I did enjoy the book. My biblical and theological criticisms aside, it is interesting, well written, and has undoubtedly caused millions of people to think, either for the first time or perhaps more deeply than ever before, about not just the most famous, but the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.