On amazon.com, there is an amazing statistic: 9,089 people reviewed or commented on Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Jesus. The vast majority of these reviews are quite favorable. The audible version of the book has 2,129 reviews or comments. There are around 700 reviews of the book on Barnes and Noble’s website. Just to put this into some perspective, only 321 customers commented on Benedict XVI’s trilogy about Jesus of Nazareth, and 545 Amazon customers wrote in to offer comment on James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage. For the other two Jesus books that the Catholic Book Club has selected this year, Jill-Amy Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus and James Carroll’s Christ Actually, a combined 136 reviewers wrote in. To take this comparison out of the realm of Jesus books, Catcher in the Rye has only 4,083 reviews to O’Reilly’s 9,089. Clearly people are drawn to purchase O’Reilly’s book and, having read it, are motivated to comment on it. Wondering why this was the case, I read O’Reilly’s book and listened to it on Audible.
Hearing the book in O’Reilly’s voice affects the listener in a significant way. Americans have heard O’Reilly’s voice for several years. It is a familiar, confident, conservative voice that discusses and argues the news. Some cringe at the sound of the voice. Others feel that the voice resonates with their experience or their political views. In any case, to hear O’Reilly narrate the events of Jesus’ life is a striking experience because it brings Jesus’ life and times a sense of matter-of-fact-ness. O’Reilly and his coauthor, Martin Dugard, have written two previous works: Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. The authors apply the same confident, brisk historical style to the story of Jesus’ life and death. They write: “[T]his is not at religious book. We do not address Jesus as the Messiah, only as a man who galvanized a remote area of the Roman Empire and mad powerful enemies while preaching a philosophy of peace and love” (2). O’Reilly then writes at the end of his introduction, “But the incredible story behind the lethal struggle of good and evil has not been fully told. Until now. At least, this is the goal of this book.”
Essentially, the work is a diatessaron—a synthesis or a harmonization of the four gospels—which privileges the gospel of John’s portrait of Jesus and follows John’s chronology. Now, if there are 9,089 reviews of O’Reilly’s book, then I would wager that there are have been at least 9,089 scholarly books published about Jesus and the New Testament in the last 20 years. Jesus’ life, its meaning, its historical context, and the accounts that offer us insight into his life are highly controversial—that is, they are open to discussion, argument, and critique. Though O’Reilly consults some modern scripture scholars and several ancient sources like Plutarch, Philo, and Suetonius, his work basically articulates Jesus’ birth, life, and death in a vivid, dramatic, historical present. O’Reilly’s portrait reminds me of Ignatius’ directives to those contemplating scenes from Jesus’ life as they make the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius urges his retreatants to contemplate gospel stories using all five senses. For instance, here is a passage describing John the Baptist’s jail cell before his execution by Herod Antipas:
There are no windows in his cell; the only light comes through small slits in the thick wooden door. The rectangular doorjamb is framed by haphazardly chiseled stones stacked atop one another and sealed with mortar. It is a place of solitude and silence, damp and chill, where hope is hard to maintain through month after month of sleeping on the ground and where one’s skin grows pale from never feeling the warmth of sunlight. Now and again it is possible to smell the aromatic bushes that Antipas planted between the castle and the lower city, but the scent is just as quickly swept away on the desert wind, taking with it the brief sensation of beauty (147).
O’Reilly also offers vivid descriptions of the physical features of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Tiberius and others. He is quite thorough in depicting graphic violence and the decadence of the Roman elites. When it comes to Jesus’ life, his portrait is equally detailed, though his sources are reduced to the gospel narratives. O’Reilly depicts Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary this way:
This week, Martha and Mary are serving two meals a day. Dinner consists of fresh bread, olive oil, soup, and sometimes beef or salted fish washed down with homemade wine. Breakfast features bread and fruit – though dried instead of fresh because melons and pomegranates are out of season…The fact that Jesus travels with a dozen grown men, each with a man-size appetite and requiring a place to sleep, is a small price to pay for the Nazarene’s company (199).
When was the last time that you thought about what Jesus had for breakfast? Indeed, O’Reilly’s book is a tale more than an academic history. It takes many controversial aspects of Jesus’ life for granted, and it presents Jesus as a stoic intellectual who refuses to bow before religious elites or the unparalleled power and ferocity of Rome. Its footnotes are far too brief to explain such controversial aspects of the gospels or even how these gospels came to be composed.
However, I think that O’Reilly’s book is powerful because it presents a story of good verses evil. We, the reader, want good to triumph. When we hear the story of Jesus’ triumph told again, we, Christians, are consoled. We hear this same story at Easter. The gospels are presented without academic commentary, and we are moved.
Along with tens of thousands of other readers who have chosen to read Killing Jesus, the Catholic Book Club selects O’Reilly and Duggard’s portrait of Jesus to renew consideration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to inspire imaginative contemplation of Jesus’ life.
Questions for discussion:
Have you read this work or know someone who has?
What do you think of O’Reilly’s portrait of Jesus? Did it teach you anything new about Jesus’ life?
Have you ever encountered a diatessaron—a harmony of the four gospels? Where? In what type of presentation of Jesus? How did it affect you?