By JAMES LIKOUDIS
Killing Jesus: A History, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Henry Holt and Company (New York: 2013); 304 pages.
The authors of this bestseller are the well-known TV pundit of The Factor on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, and screenwriter Martin Dugard who have collaborated on the bestsellers Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. In Killing Jesus, they confess themselves Catholics who were educated in religious schools and say they are “historical investigators” who have written a “fact-based book” on Jesus of Nazareth, having sought, moreover, to “separate fact from myth” (p. 273) in the life of “the most influential man who ever lived” (p. 1).
They declare: “We have the narrative of the Gospels. But this is not a religious book. We do not address Jesus as the Messiah, only as a man who galvanized a remote area of the Roman Empire and made very powerful enemies while preaching a gospel of peace and love” (p. 2).
O’Reilly and Dugard state: “Much has been written about Jesus, the son of a humble carpenter. But little is actually known about him. Of course, we have the Gospels of Mathew, 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” (p. 1). They confess to be “interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause.”
The book contains some startling material describing, in stark and gripping terms the historical context where emperors and other important people ruled a decadent and cruel Roman Empire, were disdainful of human life, and were celebrities awash in debauchery and brutality. The corrupt political and religious leaders of occupied Israel who would come into sharp conflict with Jesus and sought His life are not spared.
There are various errors and inaccuracies in the book. Peter was not “Jesus’ first disciple” (p. 13); his brother Andrew was “the first-called.” Contrary to what is stated on page 263, the Basilica of St. Peter is not the Cathedral of Rome. The authors strangely comment that “Somewhere in the twelfth century, these supernatural happenings (the ‘signs and wonders’ recounted in the Gospels) will come to be known as miracles” (p. 156). Actually, the word “miracle” was used in the fourth century for such supernatural happenings in the famous Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible by St. Jerome.
The reader will find disconcerting the authors’ sometimes imposing their own imaginative fancies into Gospel texts. For example, one reads: “Why are you trying to trap me? Jesus seethes” (p. 204). The reader may wonder how the authors knew that “Judas carries a walking stick to fend off the wild dogs of Galilee, just like the rest of the disciples” (p. 161). But there are other matters which are far more serious and where Catholic teaching is at stake.
On page 80 the authors repeat the ignorant canard so often refuted of a “pregnant and unwed Mary.” Good historians of Jewish law and tradition would have known that Mary’s betrothal to Joseph already signified legal marriage. She was a married woman when she became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Pope John Paul II noted in his apostolic exhortation Guardian of the Redeemer: “Before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her husband. Mary, however, preserved her deep desire to give herself exclusively to God” (n. 18).
If the accusation of the Blessed Virgin Mary being an “unwed pregnant” mother were not blasphemous enough for readers to swallow, our authors appear to question the perpetual virginity of Mary as a truth with a biblical foundation in New Testament texts and believed as a doctrine “handed down” after the death of the last apostle (John).
The Catholic Church has always believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary was “Ever-Virgin”: a virgin before giving birth to Christ, a virgin in giving birth to Christ, and a virgin perpetually after giving birth. Our authors, however, write: “The doctrine [of Mary’s perpetual virginity] was first put forth 4 centuries after Jesus lived, by an early leader in the Church named Simon” (p. 80). Who that mysterious “Simon” might be will baffle patristic scholars.
The truth is that Mary as “Ever-Virgin” was explicitly taught as early as the second century by such distinguished teachers as Clement of Alexandria (+215) and Origen (+253), and upheld in the popular devotion of the faithful. By the fourth century the great theologians of the Catholic Church had met whatever hesitations and doubts circulated by heretics and skeptics. St. Basil, the great fourth-century Greek Father of the Church, gave voice to the Church’s belief when he declared, “The friends of Christ do not tolerate that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin” (Homily on the Birth of Christ, n. 5).
The value of the book lies in its reinforcement of the historical truth recounted in the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth was a real human individual who lived, suffered at the hands of His enemies, and died being crucified on a cross (this last, by the way, denied in the Muslim Koran). He really lived and was killed. Those naysayers who think Jesus was a mythical figure have to come to grips with the fact that one cannot be killed who never lived.
Our authors admit that in the Gospel accounts “Jesus is once again claiming that he is who John publicly proclaimed him to be: the Messiah.” They note that there are miracles reported and believed by Jesus’ earliest followers. Moreover, they admit that Jesus made “personal claims of divinity and acts of divinity” (p. 76). They report that Jesus’ followers soon believed He had been raised from the dead.
What is disturbing is that the authors do not pronounce on the authenticity of the supernatural miracles mentioned in the Gospels or in the truth of the Resurrection affirmed by the same Gospel writers. Did such events actually occur? Our Catholic “historical investigators” are selective in the Gospel accounts they accept. They have no trouble in accepting the historical validity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt.
Other events which highlight the supernatural in the life of Christ such as the Temptation in the desert by the Devil and the Transfiguration are studiously avoided. Doubt is cast on the credibility of the Gospel writers with regard to events they record, as the Gospels are treated as only partly reliable witness accounts. The key question is not resolved: Is the Gospel writers’ affirmation that Jesus is both Messiah and God true?
The fatal flaw in O’Reilly-Dugard’s presentation of the historical Christ is their “de facto” reduction of Christ to the actions of a mere “human being.” They write that Jesus is “the most famous human being” in history, but Christ is not a “human being” or “human person.”
One sees that Christ’s divinity has, in fact, been effectively detached from His human mature. The two natures in Christ are severed, the human from the divine. Like modernists and liberal Protestants they have engaged in the “Reductive Christology” denounced by the Church’s Magisterium. Catering to American society’s popular belief in a “fully human Jesus” stripped of the mystery of His Divine Personality, one views again in a best-seller the splitting of Jesus into the “Jesus of History” and the “Jesus of Faith.”
Our authors’ historical methodology can only give us a “Jesus of History” that falls short of the real God-Man portrayed in the Gospels, that is, the Word made Flesh. Our authors have presented us with two Christs, One of History and One of Faith. They do not dispute such dogmatic teachings as that Christ is God, or the Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, and heavenly Assumption of Mary, but for them as “historical investigators,” such dogmas do not have Gospel support and are rather embellishments of the Church giving us a “Jesus of Faith.”
Lastly, not only is there a radical undermining of the solid grounding of the Gospel narratives in history, but a separation of their excessively humanized Christ from the Church He actually established and which alone can give us the Whole Christ.
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(James Likoudis is president emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith [CUF].)