Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus vs. Zealot, by Reza Aslan


Prior to the killing of Jesus, there was a much more monumental (at the time) killing of a leader named Julius Caesar. This assassination of Julius Caesar led, in a circuitous fashion, to the assassination of Jesus of Nazareth. The resultant, and relative, degree of chaos that occurred in Rome, as a result of Caesar’s assassination, spawned chaos in the many Roman territories, including: (what is now called) Israel, Jerusalem, and Galilee. Much of this chaos, and the subsequent insecurity of the rulers, and leaders of this era, led to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the theme of Bill O’Reilly, and Martin Dugard’s book Killing Jesus. Reza Aslan’s book Zealot has a theme that “Jesus of Nazareth was a ‘politically conscious Jewish revolutionary’ whose kingdom is decidedly of this world,” and that much of what you’ve been told about Jesus is wrong.

Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

If your goal is to believe that much of what “you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon” is false, and you want to have those preconceived notions backed up, then you will probably love Aslan’s telling of the tale of Jesus of Nazareth in his book Zealot. If it’s your goal to uncover a truth about a violent, angry, and revolutionary Jesus of Nazareth, the theme of Reza Aslan’s Zealot will probably support that bias. This theme, as described in reviews in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Nation, and the Jewish Review of Books, is pervasive throughout the Biblical passages and quotations that Reza Aslan chooses to illustrate the point that Jesus of Nazareth was a Zealot.

The point these reviews make, in varying ways, is that Aslan cherry picks Biblical passages and quotes to bolster his point, while ignoring, or being highly skeptical of, those that don’t. As Michael Robbins points out in his Chicago Tribune piece:

“It’s fashionable to claim that (Saul) Paul of Tarsus (the man that spread the word of Jesus, after Jesus’ death) watered down Jesus’ original revolutionary message, but the truth is that we just don’t know.”

This line: “We just don’t know..” the total historical truth of the actions of the man named Jesus, is the theme of so many of the reviews of Aslan’s book, that it borders on a total dismissal of the book. Jesus may have been an angry and violent revolutionary, or He may have been the passive figure that other authors choose to depict Him as, but in the end we just don’t know.

As Aslan, himself, wrote in his notes on Zealot, “(T)here is some truth in both views.” This line calls to mind the: “Both sides are to blame” line that talking heads issue, on political television shows, when they can’t properly defend the comments, or positions, of their favorite political leaders.

Michael Robbins uses Aslan’s line to conclude that: “Aslan is sometimes more confident in his pronouncements than is warranted.” If Aslan used this line in his text, it probably wouldn’t have led to Aslan achieving a best-seller, and it probably wouldn’t have made for a very good read, but it probably would’ve silenced all the criticism that followed.

Michael Robbins goes on to claim that it was wrong for a Fox News interviewer to ask, of Reza Aslan: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”  (Editor’s note: I’m sure Aslan loved it, as that very question, when wrapped around the world via Youtube, propelled Zealot to the best-seller list, and it gave all of Zealot’s sympathetic reviewers a qualifier before dismissing the book.) Robbins also claims that all of the one-star reviews on the book, on Amazon.com, are unfair, as is the fact that far too many have condemned Aslan for writing a book that goes against scripture, but Robbins concludes all this condemnation with: “I just wish I didn’t have to report that the book itself is, well, not very good.”

In his second piece on the book ZealotThe New York Times writer Russ Douthat, attempts to defend Aslan by writing that the totality of Aslan’s research is not great, but it’s better than some of the ridiculous notions put forth by other, supposedly more credentialed, theological writers.  He then provides a list of examples of these ridiculous notions, before writing:

“To be clear, these examples are not intended to absolve (Reza) Aslan of the sin of writing a bad book; they do not suffice to make the argument in “Zealot”  convincing; and they don’t justify its self-regarding author in his claims to extraordinary expertise. I agree with his recent critics on those counts and many others. All I’m saying is that by the standards of both the larger genre and Aslan’s specific academic influences, the book could have been a whole lot worse.”{2}

Washington Post writer Stephen Prothero, suggests that the theme of Aslan’s Zealot is built on two scenes: Jesus’s thrashing, and overturning, of the tax collecting tables in the public courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, and Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem.

“The rest of the book,” writes Prothero, “is devoted to fleshing out this portrait.”

Aslan describes the scene of Jesus entering Jerusalem as:

“The moment that “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant.” This scene has been described as an illiterate peasant entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, as riotous crowds shout “Hosanna!” But Jesus of Nazareth is not demonstrating his humility, as you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon.  He is demonstrating his kingship. “The long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — has come to free Israel from its bondage” to Rome.

“In Aslan’s telling, these two scenes introduce a “revolutionary zealot who walked across the Galilee gathering an army of disciples” to rain “God’s wrath . . . down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.”{3}

The key line, of this particular portion of the text is: “As you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon.” This line basically suggests that one of Aslan’s goals is to tweak those that ascribe to religious doctrine and entice those that don’t. One would think that if Aslan’s goal was to simply factually refute everything we might have heard, he would not have been so theatrical with his verbiage. As evidenced by this particular line, however, Aslan knew who his audience would be, and he definitely appealed to them… Thanks, in part, to Fox News.

There have been so many books written on the life of Jesus that we can look at them, collectively, and say that the approach that any author takes on approaching the sometimes loose information we have says more about the author than it does about Jesus the man, or His story.

Aslan is skeptical of any Biblical quotes that depict Jesus as a peaceful revolutionary, while fleshing out the quotes and passages that make him appear violent. Aslan’s focus, in other words, are all those passages and quotations that support his theme. He is no more objective than those on the other side of the argument, that are routinely castigated as lacking in objectivity. Aslan’s objective is simply different.

The negative reviews of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus suggest that O’Reilly’s approach involved selections of Dugard’s research that focused too much on Jesus’s plight against taxation, and the moves He made to interrupt the money flow. The negative reviews suggest that O’Reilly cherry picked information that would’ve otherwise illuminated in the idea that Jesus’s plight was more against the rich in general.

Bill O'Reilly

Bill O’Reilly

Candida Moss, in an article titled Five Things Bill O’Reilly flubs in ‘Killing Jesus’ for CNN, also suggests that O’Reilly and Dugard were in error when writing that (Saul) Paul of Tarsus was a Christian, “(Paul) was a Jew who moved from one branch of Judaism to another”; “that (the disciple) Peter chose to be hung upside down, because he didn’t believe himself worthy of being executed in the same manner as Jesus” (that was a 5th century interpretation); that O’Reilly sought questionable Roman records in his depiction of the pre-Jesus era Rome, that Mary Magdalene didn’t wash Jesus’s feet in oil, and that women weren’t treated better in Jesus’s time, if those women were slaves.”{4} Some of these criticisms have been deemed arguable, and others have claimed them to be outright false. Many critics have also condemned the style that O’Reilly uses to convey Martin Dugard’s research in “the Killing” series, but O’Reilly had expressed, before the first of the series, Killing Lincoln, was on the shelves, that it was his goal was to make history interesting, by writing these books in the fast-paced style of a John Grisham book.

Those that have read Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and H.W. Brands, among others, know the niche that Dugard and O’Reilly has carved out. These top historians all write excellent books, but they also do most of their own research. The reason the latter half of this point is germane is that these authors feel compelled to show the readers the research, and the work that they’ve done. One has to sympathize with them, to some degree, for if a researcher has done five years of research, and they begin to realize that, say, six months of that research can be whittled down to a single sentence, the researcher in them cannot help but feel that those six months were otherwise wasted … if they don’t expand on the point a little. On the flipside of the coin, when that same researcher belabors a point that could’ve been whittled down to a single sentence, it leaves the reader feeling exhausted by detail. Therefore, when O’Reilly hires a researcher, and thereby avoids the conceit of displaying the researcher’s effort, it can lead to a much more interesting read, and a renewed interested in the subject of History for many.

Anytime an historical tome is written, it should be 100% accurate, and when it isn’t a Candida Moss, and anyone else, that offers these corrections (and others) should be applauded for their fact-checking. Having said that, none of the corrections that I’ve read from Ms. Moss, and others, have taken away from the overall effort put forth in Killing Jesus … in my humble opinion. Aslan’s Zealot, on the other hand, has been so summarily dismissed, by even seemingly sympathetic critics, that an objective observer can’t help but think that it has to be judged a failed effort.

Overall, these reviews suggest that O’Reilly chose information, gleaned from Martin Dugard’s research, that included some hyperbole from Popes, and other arguable interpretations, that led to what some critics have defined as factual errors, but the theme of O’Reilly and Dugard’s book has not been as thoroughly dismissed as Aslans. The errors that Aslan made, write these critics, were made to support his theme. He was skeptical of any quotes that made Jesus appear peaceful, but his theme was heavily influenced by those quotes and passages that made Jesus appear to be a violent revolutionary, and Aslan expounded upon them with interpretation.

{1}http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/books/ct-prj-0825-zealot-reza-aslan-20130823,0,3364171.story

{2} http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/14/in-defense-of-reza-aslan/?_r=0

{3}http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-02/opinions/40991405_1_palm-sunday-scholar-jesus-s

{4}http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/04/five-things-bill-oreilly-gets-wrong-in-killing-jesus/

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