Monday, February 17, 2014

Killing Jesus: Book Review


I know that I am a little late to the party when it comes to reviewing Bill O'Reilly's latest New York Times bestseller, Killing Jesus, but I have only just begun to read for pleasure again.  It has been a while--but I hope to be back in the "one-book-a-week" or more routine very soon.

At any rate, Killing Jesus spent several weeks on the top of the bestseller's list, and I am sure with the release of the new movie The Son of God, O'Reilly and company will find a way to cross market and draw more attention to the book, so a review at this juncture might be timely.

Bill O'Reilly is the highest rated, but often polarizing cable TV talk show host on the FOX News network, and has several NY Times bestsellers on his resume, including two other books written with Martin Dugard, a historian and bestselling author in his own right.

To begin, I have to confess that I haven't read O'Reilly's historical treatments of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Like Killing Jesus, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy were written by O'Reilly and Dugard.  If the first two books in their "Killing" series are anything like Killing Jesus, I would feel inclined to read them both.  I'll explain.

Killing Jesus is engaging, easy to read, and hard to put down.  If you like works of history, you'll enjoy this book--regardless of your religious bent.  O'Reilly and Dugard offer up a vivid portrait of the culture, politics and religious atmosphere of the years leading up to the life of Jesus, and a gripping account of the intrigue that surrounded him during his three years of ministry.  They also include detailed descriptions of what happened to Jesus during the week leading up to and including his Passion.  Finally, they conclude with a retelling of the Biblical account of Jesus' resurrection, and the implications that it had on his followers.

O'Reilly and Dugard begin and end Killing Jesus by emphasizing that their work was focused on the historicity of Jesus life and times, and was not an attempt to proselytize the reader.  I've noticed that some very conservative Christians have been less than charitable to this approach in their criticism of the book--even going so far as to claim that O'Reilly was trying to disabuse people of their faith in Jesus.

However, I found Killing Jesus to be (pardon the phrase) a very "fair and balanced" work.  In fact--and this may surprise more "progressive" theology-types--a quick look at the sources employed by O'Reilly and Dugard reveals a sort of "who's-who" in the left-leaning scholarship of the historical Jesus: John Dominic Crossan, Paula Fredricksen, Raymond Brown, J.P. Moreland, to name a few.  On the other hand, O'Reilly and Dugard also cite C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright as sources on the implications of Jesus teachings, crucifixion and resurrection.

I hate to trouble those on the religious right who are encouraging Christians not to pick up the book, but I think Killing Jesus is definitely worth a read. Honestly, Killing Jesus is far more sympathetic to Jesus the Christ than it is to Jesus the historical figure. Compared to most of the entries into the conversation about the historical Jesus from former members of the "Jesus Seminar" like Crossan, Marcus Borg, Fredricksen and the like, Killing Jesus is decidedly not "fair and balanced."

Killing Jesus relies almost exclusively on the Gospel of John as it's Biblical source, which can be confusing to readers who are familiar with the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).  John's Gospel has it's own chronology that doesn't always line up neatly with the others.  Additionally, O'Reilly and Dugard tend to adopt John's treatment of the Pharisees and present them rather one-dimensionally.  Considering the depth of the historical sources they cite on the topic, I felt like this was an editorial decision that they could have done without.

Overall, I found the book to be highly entertaining and accessible.  If you are looking for a good overview of the history surrounding Jesus life, death and resurrection Killing Jesus is a good starting point.
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