“You are about to enter the no-spin zone.” So states Bill O’Reilly at the start of the O’Reilly Factor airing each evening on the Fox News Channel. Following the success of his previous books Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, he and his co-author Martin Dugard decide to apply their no-spin, fact based take on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth in Killing Jesus. They state in the introduction that “…we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they sometimes appear contradictory and were written from a spiritual point of view rather than as a historical chronicling of Jesus’ life.” They claim to be interested in telling the truth and that this is a fact based book, not a religious book. They want us to understand what was going on in the world around Jesus. Rome dominated the world, tolerated no dissent and “human life was worth little.”
When I first picked the book, I immediately turned to the back to see if the authors cited their sources. And what to my wondering eyes did appear? Recent works by scholars whose names will be very familiar to students of apologetics and the historic Jesus. The recommended readings from the Sources for the Historical Jesus section included:
· Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland
· Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, by Darrell L. Bock
· Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, edited by Paul Copan
· The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, by Craig S Keener
· The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael R. Licona
· “A more theological take on Jesus can be found in C. S. Lewis’s insightful and dense Mere Christianity”
The book is divided into three sections: Book 1, The World of Jesus, Book 2, Behold the Man and Book 3, If You Are the Son of God, Take Yourself Off This Cross. Readers who may be squeamish need to be aware that there are some graphic descriptions of the brutal atrocities and depravity of the cultures at the time. Chapter one describes Herod’s murderous record and physical ailments as the facts begin with the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.
The next two chapters chronicle the rise, warfare, affairs and assassination of Julius Caesar, who is posthumously deified as Divus Julius, god Julius, and the Roman civil war that follows which results in the victory and rise to power of Caesar Augustus. Following Divus Julius, Augustus affects the title Divi Filius, son of god. This is an important point to keep in mind as the the context is set for Jesus' own claims.
The remainder of Book 1 completes the picture, detailing the rule of Herod Antipas’ and the difficulty of life in Galilee setting the scene for Jesus and the message he is about to bring.
Book 2, Behold the Man, is a harmonization of the historical accounts of Jesus’ teachings and ministry from his entry into the public realm to his preparation to enter Jerusalem. The authors are quite clear about who Jesus claims himself to be. When he goes back to Nazareth and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, he boldly declares that what he has read refers to himself. He “has issued three pronouncements about his identity: one to the public in Jerusalem, one to Nicodemus the Pharisee, and the third in the intimate setting of his own town synagogue…he has declared himself to be the Son of God”, Divi Filius.
While the majority of the narrative is consistent with the facts of which we are familiar, there are several moments in the book where I found myself scratching my head asking, “Where did they get that fact come from?” Such moments include the following:
· The message of John the Baptizer is described as, “Wade into the water and be cleansed of your sins, or this newly anointed ruler – this ’Christ’ – will punish you in the most horrible manner possible.”
· When Jesus comes to John the Baptist, it is stated that a dove suddenly lands on his shoulder. The authors exclaim, “the dove changes everything.” Furthermore, the people who are present and witness this suddenly “drop to their knees and press their faces into the earth. Jesus does not react to this sign of worship. He does nothing to discourage it, either.” John then declares when he baptizes Jesus that “this is the Son of God.”
· It is reported that Jesus calls Simon (Peter) a second time. “He knows Jesus from their previous meeting during the summer, as he and some others were fishing… At the time, Jesus had called upon Simon and his brother Andrew to join him as he preached his message throughout Galilee and to save souls by becoming ‘fishers of men.’ While Simon had initially accepted that call to evangelism, he also has a wife and mother-in-law to care for. The task of being one of Jesus’s disciples and spreading the word about his message is difficult to balance with his need to make a living. His commitment to Jesus has flagged. But now Jesus is back…”
· The authors claim that, “Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy…if Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem at Passover astride a donkey, he will be sending a powerful message…Jesus is clever enough to act out any prophecy…But Jesus would be a fool to ride a donkey into Jerusalem. That would be a death sentence.”
· When Jesus is convicted by the Sanhedrin, “the verdict is passed by simple consensus. The only voices of dissent come from Nicodemus and a wealthy Sadducee named Joseph of Arimathea.”
However, there were also a few moments when I found the authors presenting context and detail that caused me to consider, “That’s an interesting thought”.
· When the authors discuss the Sermon on the Mount, which they say “may be the most important speech in history,” they also raise an interesting consideration about the context for the Lord’s Prayer: “It’s all there. Everything that a peasant in Galilee can relate to as a part of life under Roman rule: the need to rely on God, the worry about daily nourishment, the constant struggle to stay out of debt, and, finally, a reminder that in the midst of this cruel life, succumbing to the temptations to lie, cheat, steal, or sleep with another man’s wife is a false act that will only lead people farther and farther from God.”
· When Jesus is addressing the crowd about John the Baptist, he asks the crowd, “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the winds? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.” Why did Jesus mention a reed? A footnote points out that Herod Antipas’ personal emblem of rule was a reed. This makes sense in the context of the questions.
· As an apologist, I couldn’t help but smile when I read, “Jesus is not a prince like Moses or a warrior like David. He is an intellectual. He deals in logic.”
· The authors also give a tip-of-the-hat to C. S. Lewis when they state that “to claim he is the Son of God would make Jesus one of three things: a lunatic, a liar, or a divinity who fulfills Scripture. Few in the crowd believe that Jesus is deranged or a charlatan. But will they make that incredible leap to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh?”
· When Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers, a footnote points out, “It was a widespread belief at the time that vipers were hatched inside their mother, then ate their way through her skin to get out.” From this, it is inferred that Jesus is essentially calling the religious authorities murderers of their own parents, a loathsome distinction in Jewish society.
· When Jesus is buried by Nicodemus and Joseph, the book states that “a criminal’s presence in a tomb desecrates it…for a member of the Sanhedrin to touch a dead body on Passover makes him unclean and disqualifies him from eating the Seder. By law, Joseph and Nicodemus will be declared impure and must undergo a seven-day cleansing ritual.”
As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem at the close of Book 2, it is clear that the disciples think he will one day rule the land, but he tells them he will be killed and raised on the third day. They have no idea what this means.
Book 3, If You Are the Son of God, Take Yourself off This Cross, gives the account of the events of Passover week that end ultimately in his crucifixion. “He has been very specific with the disciples that he is more than just an earthly Christ. They don’t understand. He has told them again and again that he is a divine being, the Son of God. They cannot comprehend that concept. Jesus has made it clear that he is the Christ but that his kingdom is not of this world. They don’t understand what he’s talking about. Three times, Jesus has told his disciples that he will die this week. But his followers refuse even to contemplate that.”
Then, Judas makes his deal with the high priests. The authors seem to believe that Judas thinks that “Jesus will be arrested and then declare himself to be the Christ. If the Nazarene truly is the Messiah, then he will have no problem saving himself from Caiaphas and the high priests. However, if Jesus is not the Christ, he will die.”
Finally, he is executed and “…Jesus is clearly dead. The spear rupturing the pericardial sac around his heart left no doubt.”
So what do we make of this “fact” based account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth? It is well-researched, but it is by no means a scholarly product. The absence of citations within the text will be frustrating for those readers interested in digging deeper and verifying certain “facts”.
However, the author’s purpose was to write a novelized account to a popular level audience. It seeks to harmonize the historical evidence of the four gospel accounts while using broad brush strokes to paint a picture of the ragged and often brutal life in first century Palestine under Roman rule. In this respect, I think the authors are successful, describing Jesus’ life and teachings in the context of the world at that time. I found it an enjoyable read with the narrative progressing at a quick pace. Though the authors expressed that it was not their intention for the book to be a religious treatise, I found some of what I read causing me to think a little deeper about my understanding of Jesus life and teachings.
Apologetically, the authors are clear about why Jesus didn’t make his proclamations openly and publicly that he is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God. To do so would have resulted in immediate execution by either the Jews for blasphemy or the Romans for treason. The authors are also clear that Jesus did make such claims both implicitly and explicitly. He clearly understood that his mission was not to establish a new kingdom for Israel, free from the oppression of Rome and its puppet potentates. His purpose was to teach the truth about God in a world crushed by brutal and debauched men of power. To this the religious leaders were blinded by their self-righteous pride. He rode into Jerusalem, in complete control of his faculties and allowed himself to be humiliated and killed.
In conclusion, Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Son of God in a culture in which it was blasphemy, in an empire in which it was treason. For this he was executed and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But Mary Magdalene and some of the other women found the tomb empty and “[to] this day, the body of Jesus of Nazareth has never been found.” These are the facts. This is the evidence. Presented to the reader “fair and balanced.” “We report, you decide.” Let the conversations begin.
That you may know,
Roger (Col 3:23)