Salacious gossip and gory details replace historical fact in this story of the Tea Party Christ
Everyone creates God in their own image, so it’s not surprising that Fox television’s aggressively conservative down-home-let’s-hear-it-for-the-ordinary-guy talk show host should have created a Tea Party son of God. Jesus, the little guy, is an enemy of the big corrupt tax-oppressing Roman empire, which is itself just a version of Washington, only even more venal and sexually depraved. This Jesus is a tax-liberating rebel who incurs the wrath of the Jewish and Roman powers by threatening their joint fleecing of the people. As a member of the populist right, he is not, of course, in favour of redistribution: Bill O’Reilly‘s Jesus does not tell the rich to give away their money to the poor.
To give them their due, O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard, who one presumes did most of the research, are right that the taxation imposed by the Romans was indeed a major cause of resentment and rebellion across the empire. But the Jews had a uniquely tense relationship with Rome – not because of taxation but because of their monotheistic religion.
The authors acknowledge that Jesus was not put to death by the Romans because of his economic protests (though they do make him overturn the moneylenders’ tables at the temple not once but twice). But they underplay the real reason: Jesus’s name had become fatally associated with that of the Messiah, the Christ, a longed-for figure who had become increasingly politicised: he would be not just the anointed king but the ruler who would liberate the Jews from the Romans before ushering in God’s rule. As far as the Romans were concerned, Jesus, one of many would-be Messiahs at the time, was therefore a seditious rebel whose crime was punishable by death.
It’s easy to be snooty about this kind of bodice-ripping treatment of history, where a preoccupied Herod sighs and looks anxiously out of the window, where Mary and Joseph “gasp in shock” to see their young son holding his own among the temple elders, the son whose “destiny must be fulfilled, even if his worried parents have no idea how horrific that destiny might be” (actually, as the authors themselves make clear, crucifixion was the usual fate of traitors and criminals across the Roman empire). I stopped counting the number of chapters ending with the cliffhanger “the child with [xx] years to live is being hunted/is missing … Jesus of Nazareth has one year to live” – or perhaps my favourite: “For now he is a free man.” New line: “For now” – the two words left dangling ominously on the page.
As a revved-up journalese version of the gospels, plumped up with historical detail – which though not always accurate gives the reader a good sense of what life was like at the end of the first century BC; how soldiers were trained, how taxation worked, what the temple looked like and, of course, how soldiers crucified a man – Killing Jesus is fine. Indeed the authors used the same stylistic formula for their two previous books Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln. Both were bestsellers, and Killing Jesus is already number three on the New York Times bestsellers list. Why? Because they are fabulously easy to read: because there are good guys and bad guys, with very little in between; because there is lots of journalistically juicy, salacious gossip; and because, as with some historical fiction, you learn quite a bit about a particular era without having to think too much.
But historical detail does not in itself make a history – that requires analysis. Despite the subtitle, Killing Jesus is not “A History”. It is a breathy retelling of the gospel stories by two conservative Catholics, one of whom, O’Reilly, believes that he was inspired to write the book by the Holy Ghost. It might be unfair to expect too much in the way of nuance or new material from Killing Jesus, but since it calls itself a history, one does expect accuracy. So when the authors claim that “the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has never been told” – cue drumroll – “until now”, the reader is entitled to feel a little misled.
Although the authors proclaim in their introduction that they have manfully succeeded in separating fact from legend and will alert the reader if the evidence is not set in stone, they signally fail to do so. Killing Jesus relies almost exclusively on the gospels, discounting two centuries of ongoing scholarly scepticism about their historical accuracy with a breezy footnote that there is “growing acceptance of their overall historicity”.
Who are the goodies and baddies? The Romans are bad, corrupt and “unrelentingly cruel” – especially in their imposition of taxes, which in the eyes of our authors is a particularly nasty vice. The Jewish elite is bad, because it is hand in glove with the Romans in brutalising and fleecing the “good people of Galilee”. Ordinary Jews are good. But the Pharisees are very bad. They are arrogant, self-righteous, self-interested and power-hungry.
O’Reilly and Dugard have swallowed hook, line and sinker the gospel writers’ antipathy to the Pharisees. They seem unaware that in Jesus’s time the Pharisees were in fact a newish, radicalising group, trying to wrest control of the Jewish religion from the stranglehold of the Sadducees, the aristocratic priestly caste who O’Reilly and Dugard unaccountably characterise as liberals. It was the Pharisees who stirred up revolt against Herod and Roman rule; thanks to the Pharisees, many Jews felt themselves forced to make a choice between being a good religious Jew or a good Roman citizen – a choice that ended for many in the Jewish revolt of 66-73/4 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple.
Jesus’s attempt to get round the problem of how to be a good Jew and a good Roman by saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” was unhelpful. The problem for the Jews was precisely that they could not divide Caesar from God. Uniquely at the time they had a monotheistic god and monotheistic gods brook no rivals, such as a divine emperor. Uniquely also, their god demanded obedience to his law and that law covered the whole of life – from sex, eating and how you acted in business to loving your neighbour and worshipping the one and only god.
Herod tried but failed to be a loyal client king to Rome and a good religious Jew in the eyes of his people. And it was this tension between two identities that I believe propelled Paul, the Roman citizen and erstwhile fervent Pharisee, to refashion the small Jewish cult of Jesus into a religion open to Gentiles as well as Jews, where it would be possible to be “neither Jew nor Greek”. Paul, however, is given no credit for the foundation and spread of Christianity: all the credit goes to Jesus, whose body, the authors tell us in their sonorous finale, “has never been found”.
• Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus is out from Atlantic.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/34f28194/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A130Cdec0C180Ckilling0Ejesus0Ebill0Eoreilly0Ereview/story01.htm