'Killing Jesus': the syncretism factor

Bill O'Reilly remixes and mashes all the Gospels to provide an entertaining of garbled take on the death of Jesus

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Bill O'Reilly's reading of the Gospels in "Killing Jesus" reminds me of a Christmas manger scene. A strange comparison, I know, but hear me out.

Besides Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child, manger scenes today have added shepherds and lambs, choirs of angels, kings and camels, all at the same time and place. This is an amalgamation of the two accounts by Luke and Matthew of Jesus' birth. The shepherds and the choirs of angels come only from Luke's Gospel.

By Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt & Co. ($28).

The kings (actually wise men from the east) are only in Matthew's Gospel. In short, Matthew and Luke were telling very different stories. Our modern Christmas mangers put Luke and Matthew together to create a unified story line that, quite simply, does not exist in the Gospels.

This is how Mr. O'Reilly, the host of Fox News' top-rated program "The O'Reilly Factor" and his co-author and researcher, Martin Dugard, use Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in "Killing Jesus." They put them all together, without seeming to notice that sometimes the evangelists' stories do not jibe.

Biblical scholarship has long since dealt with these seeming contradictions by realizing that the Gospels are theological documents first, and that the evangelists were making more religious than historical statements.

So, in "Killing Jesus," Mr. O'Reilly says that Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem of the money changers not once but twice. Why? Because John's Gospel has Jesus start his public ministry by cleansing the temple, while Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus cleanse the temple right after Palm Sunday, at the end of his ministry. Ergo, he must have done it twice, right?

Most Scripture scholars would say that John, for theological reasons, simply transposed an event which the other Gospels say came at the end of Jesus' life. The idea that, because John has it early and the others late in Jesus' public ministry, Jesus must have done it twice is like saying both wise men and shepherds were there together at Jesus' birth.

It combines contradictory accounts. Mr. O'Reilly knows of these discrepancies and writes them off to the fact that "the Gospels were oral histories." Well, the evangelists certainly may have based some of what they wrote on oral histories (there were written sources as well), but the Gospels were also conscious choices by the four evangelists to put some things in and leave other things out.

We have four Gospels, each different from the others, because the four evangelists looked at Jesus of Nazareth and they all saw him in slightly different ways. The discrepancies in the Gospels are much more due to the evangelists' choices than to the fact that the first histories of Jesus were oral. Mr. O'Reilly seems not to know this basic fact of Scripture scholarship.

When he is not trying to synthesize the evangelists' accounts, Mr. O'Reilly is maddeningly inconsistent, contradicting himself, sometimes on the same page. He says that Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment is, "does not choose from one of the established laws. Instead he articulates a new one: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.' "

Then a note at the bottom of the page says that this new commandment is from the Book of Deuteronomy. Some new commandment! Deuteronomy was written seven centuries before Christ. Mr. O'Reilly says that "the Gospels were written as many as 70 years after Jesus' death (Mark in the early 50s, Luke between 59 and 63, Matthew in the 70s, and John between 50 and 85)." But, he says, Jesus was killed in 30 A.D. You do the math.

None of his suggested dates for the Gospels is more than 55 years later. OK, maybe that's nitpicking. But he also thinks that first-century Jews used the name "Jehovah" in their prayers. Yikes! A devout first-century Jew would never pronounce God's name aloud. If anything, they would have said "Adonai" -- or "Lord," a permissible alternative, and that's not nitpicking. Uttering the divine name was simply not done.

He also falls into some old canards, like Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. This he claims is an old Christian tradition; yes, it is a debunked old Christian tradition. The Gospels don't say that, and no serious Scripture scholar believes that.

For all of this, I cannot say that the book is not an interesting read. It is. Mr. O'Reilly has a way with words. Despite the fact that we know the ending, he does manage to make the story very interesting along the way. There are lots of ways to get to know Jesus of Nazareth, and, reading "Killing Jesus" is far from the worst.

So if you want to give someone a religious gift for Christmas, I would consider this one. As I said, Mr. O'Reilly takes a very Christmas-like approach to the Gospels.




Nicholas P. Cafardi is professor of law and dean emeritus of Duquesne University School of Law (cafardi@duq.edu).

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