Word of God

Bill O'Reilly and Jesus

There is a new book in the O’Reilly-centric world, “Killing Jesus: A History.”

As the title suggests, Bill O’Reilly would have us believe that he is a legitimate historian who has put his unequaled intellect to work explaining the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Within the covers of the book itself, there are factual, dare I say historical, errors. Some are glaring, others are subtle—as if they were written to mislead and compel agreement from his readers, rather than enlighten minds or open dialogue. But there is a deeper problem.

Had O’Reilly titled his work “Killing Jesus: A Meditation”, or something else that suggests a spiritual reflection on the Crucifixion, his only problem would be the factual errors. As it is, O’Reilly’s title is self-defeating. It is not possible to write a history of Jesus in any true sense of the word. The writing of history depends upon verifiable factual evidence. The interpretation of that evidence often varies among historians. But the evidence, itself, is irrefutable.

However, we do not have such evidence when it comes to Jesus. The Jewish historian, Josephus, does make mention of him. However, the scant references that occur in non-biblical writings serve to prove only that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was executed. The gospels present a profound collection of stories about Jesus, but they do not provide a sound basis for history.

Like most of the Bible, the four canonical Gospels are books of faith. They are important and instructive for someone who already believes, and perhaps someone who is seeking faith. But they are not history. Sometimes the gospels agree with each other. Sometimes they do not. The writers were quite comfortable making up stories, or changing passages from the Old Testament to suit their purposes. That should not create consternation for anyone. These men were trying to explain their faith and give others a reason to believe in Jesus. As one scholar has said, “The Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men who wrote it.” The words used to convey THE Word are utilitarian, meeting the needs of the author.

A good suggestion concerning the gospels, is to compare the evangelists to painters. If four artists each paint the exact same scene, the resultant works will all be quite different, because the scene is perceived through four different sets of eyes. So it is with the gospels. Each writer is telling the same story. But because they see Jesus through different eyes, their “pictures” of him are not the same. Ironically, the Crucifixion scene, or “killing of Jesus”, is a classic example. The image of Jesus in the first three gospels is of a man rejected and defeated. It is in his resurrection that he is vindicated. John’s gospel is quite different. While many elements are similar, the image John creates is not of a defeated man. Rather, Jesus is depicted as a king who ascends the cross of his own power and exercises authority from that cross.

Like the people of their time, the gospel writers were not concerned with facts. They were concerned with the meaning of events. In order to convey that meaning in all its depths, some events had to be created or altered. I am not suggesting that the bible is false. Rather, it is necessary for us to make the following distinction:

The opposite of fact is fiction; the opposite of truth is falsehood.

Both fiction and fact can convey truth. And in the bible we find many fictional stories that tell of God’s love, that challenge us to love one another and build a better world. These stories speak deep truth, but they are not factual and do not lend themselves to writing a history.

In the past, there have been attempts to write the story of Jesus, usually under such titles as “The Life of Christ”. Some of these books were moving testimonies of faith, but none were history.

I admire O’Reilly’s faith. Like him, I believe in Jesus. Let’s just not pretend to suggest that our faith is history.