Review: Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Killing Jesus’

‘Killing Jesus’ is a popularized view of Jesus with questionable historical facts and interpretations

O’Reilly’s biggest problem is that he does not appear to understand what Jesus’s purpose on earth really was or what he actually accomplished. The book jacket tells us that “Killing Jesus…recounts the seismic, political and historical events that made Jesus’s death inevitable.” And in their book, the authors do tell us the facts about how Jesus died; they tell us what was going on in the world around him when he died; and they tell us why others wanted him dead. But they don’t tell us the truth about why he died.


Killing Jesus, by popular FoxNews TV host Bill O’Reilly, is a part of a series of books on famous people who were killed, including Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. In Killing Jesus reaches farther back into history to discuss Jesus as a pivotal person on the world stage.

O’Reilly states the purpose of the book early on. He says, “But the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has not been fully told. Until now. At least, that is the goal of this book” [4].  However, a couple of pages before he stated: “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 philosophy of peace and love” [2]. In other words, Bill O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard are going to explain the struggle between good and evil from a strictly historical perspective. What they fail to realize is that without considering the God of the universe, there can be no concept of good and evil. There can be no standard for what should and should not be done.

So their book is destined to fail in its stated goal simply because they have attempted the impossible—to explain spiritual, moral ideas through empirical, quantifiable methods. But that is not the only issue; there is also the question of how O’Reilly actually views Jesus.

Although Bill O’Reilly says that he is a Christian, and I will take him at his word on this, there are areas of the Christian faith and teaching with which he seems to have difficulty. The first of these areas is the authority of the Bible itself. We know from his interview with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett about their film The Bible that he believes that “a lot of the Bible is allegorical.” He also is not sure of the historical accuracy of the Bible; he says in Killing Jesus, “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 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’s life” [1].

In discussing his sources for the book he says, “But putting together Killing Jesus was exceedingly difficult. We had to separate fact from myth based upon a variety of sources, some of which had their own agendas” [273].

So what does he consider fact and what is considered myth? Apparently, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a myth. “The legend of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead became so widespread that it was a main component in the Temple priests’ plotting against him” [199].

But the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, although not supported directly in Scripture, is fact. “A vibrant young girl named Mary walks the streets of Magdala…She will grow up to be a prostitute, doing what she must do to survive” [90]. In discussing the roots of this belief, the story of the prostitute who anointed Jesus with perfume, he says, “Though Mary Magdalene is not mentioned by name in this story, it has long been the tradition of Christian teaching that it was she” [144]. So a story clearly told in the Gospels is a legend, but a story based on tradition is the truth. No wonder O’Reilly found it difficult to sort out fact from fiction.

O’Reilly also has no problem with changing the story of Jesus if the mood strikes him. In an interview with Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes, Sept. 29, 2013, “O’Reilly admits that some of his facts directly contradict the Bible and he stands by them.”

In discussing the story of the Magi, O’ Reilly says, “Herod sends the Magi on their way. His parting royal decree is that they locate the infant, then return to Jerusalem and tell Herod the child’s precise location so that he can venture forth to worship this new king himself. The Magi see through this deceit. They never come back.” In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 2, verse 12, we are told, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Yes, the Magi saw through Herod’s deceit—because of a warning sent from God [16].

When speaking of the town of Nazareth O’Reilly says, “But Jesus is not long for this small town. The holiness and magnificence of Jerusalem call to him.” Jesus’s visits to Jerusalem are described in the Gospels, and never do we read of him being in awe of the magnificence of the place. While in Jerusalem, Jesus worshipped, he taught, he healed, he cleansed the temple, he was received as a conquering hero, and he was condemned to die. He was not awestruck. Jesus did not need to be inspired by the holiness and magnificence of Jerusalem; he was and is the very personification of holiness and magnificence in and of Himself [81].

But wait, there’s more. O’Reilly tells us, “Four of the apostles are fisherman. Jesus has specifically singled out men from this calling because their job requires them to be conversant in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and a little Latin, which will allow them to speak with a wider group of potential followers.” Yet Scripture portrays these men as uneducated. In Acts chapter 2, on the day of Pentecost, the people in Jerusalem are quoted as saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” The fact that they were Galilean fishermen was an argument against their being able to speak other languages, not in favor of it  [139].

O’Reilly also seems to be confused about who Jesus really was. In some sections of the book, he appears to believe that Jesus truly was and is the Son of God. “This reading is a pivotal moment. The passage that Jesus reads refers to an anointed deliverer, a man both prophetic and messianic. He will set them free. Jesus is saying that it refers to him, right now…In essence, Jesus tells these men he has long known not only that he is the Son of God but that their rejection of this claim will cause God to turn his back on them” [131]. Again, “Three times he has declared himself to be the Son of God, a blasphemous statement that could get him killed” [132]. Further on, “‘But what about you?’ Jesus inquires. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter speaks up. ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God.’ Jesus agrees. ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my heavenly father’” [163]. These statements, along with others, seem to indicate that O’Reilly does view Jesus as the Son of God. Interestingly, in all of these statements he is using as his source the Gospels, which he had previously declared to be contradictory and not “a historical chronicling of Jesus’s life.”

In other sections, O’Reilly seems not to be quite so sure about Jesus’s divinity.  He suggests, “Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy…It could be argued that as he grew and learned Scripture, he intentionally began contriving his actions and words to mimic the prophets’ predictions” [163]. And, “At the age of thirty-six, 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. For while the prophets have been very specific about the way the king of the Jews would be born and live his life, they are just as clear about how he will die” [177].  O’Reilly seems to indicate that Jesus’s entire life has been one long political or social campaign: “He has long strategized about the words he will say at Passover and the effect they will have on his followers, both old and new. He knows that his claims of being a king will lead to his crucifixion. He will be sacrificed, just as surely as those countless Passover lambs. It is just a matter of when” [188].

What O’Reilly fails to appreciate is that Jesus knew exactly when. And that it was all part of the plan of redemption for mankind. Jesus knew how and when he would die. He created the men who would mock and crucify him and the tree that provided the wood for the cross. He came to earth for that express purpose. He did not need to “strategize;” he was and is God and can see the hearts and minds of all people. He knew then and he knows now how each person will respond to him.

O’Reilly’s biggest problem is that he does not appear to understand what Jesus’s purpose on earth really was or what he actually accomplished. The book jacket tells us that “Killing Jesus…recounts the seismic, political and historical events that made Jesus’s death inevitable.” And in their book, the authors do tell us the facts about how Jesus died; they tell us what was going on in the world around him when he died; and they tell us why others wanted him dead. But they don’t tell us the truth about why he died. Their arguments are that the world and its forces held control over Jesus the Nazarene and that those forces eventually led to his death.

Gordon Reed’s argument in Killing Jesus of Nazareth: According to a Trustworthy, High View of Holy Scripture is that Jesus, God the Son, holds control over all of the world and its forces. Jesus died according to His own plan, not as a victim of world events. O’Reilly says that in order to understand “what Jesus accomplished and how he paid with his life, we have to understand what was happening around him.” No, Mr. O’Reilly, we don’t. What we have to understand is that we are all sinful creatures who, for some unexplainable reason, God wants in heaven. In order to satisfy divine justice, that would require a perfect sacrifice—Christ Jesus, God the Son. So because of his infinite, unfathomable love, Jesus gave up the glory of heaven, came to earth as a man, and died an excruciating death on the cross to become our substitutionary sacrifice. And then he rose from the tomb, conquering death and evil once and for all.

That, Mr. O’Reilly, explains the struggle between good and evil. And that is why Jesus died.

Paula Rodriguez is member of the Presbyterian Church in America, an author, and Chair of the Communications Dept. at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss.