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, 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 who ascribe to religious doctrine and entice those who 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 in 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, who 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 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 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 who have read Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and H.W. Brands, among others, know the niche that Dugard and O’Reilly 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 flip side 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, who 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, take 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.





Turning the Other Cheek

“If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek,” is one of the most powerful, most ubiquitous quotes from Jesus of Nazareth.  It has been quoted, paraphrased, interpreted, and misinterpreted throughout my life, and for hundreds of years prior to that.   To say that the quote has been misinterpreted may be a misnomer, for as with all brilliant philosophical quotes of this nature, it can be open to subjective interpretation that is relative to the person and the place in life where they use it.

“But what does it mean?” a young child once asked a teacher not realizing that the greater question he should’ve asked was: “What does it mean to me, to my current life, and my current travails?”  This child did not have the capacity to understand that the greater import of that message involved a person learning such a lesson for themselves, in their own time, and in their own experiences.  The teacher would provide an answer that was based upon her experiences in life, and it was aligned with the interpretations of the day’s pacifist’s ideals.  The child did enjoy that interpretation.  He wanted peace.  He wanted peace throughout the world, and he especially wanted peace to be pervasive on his playground.  He would’ve loved to have the role of messenger for this interpretation to spread the word, but he knew his bullies.  He knew that they were irrationally prone to violence in ways that a peacenik, like his teacher, either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand.  He knew that, as would later be crystallized in the movie The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to see things burn.”  Asking bullies for peace, in such a manner, was simply unrealistic in the child’s world.

CheekThe young child didn’t call this teacher out for this.  He assumed the teacher knew more than he did, and he didn’t want to be disrespectful.  He was also frustrated that he didn’t think he could apply that teacher’s answer to his life, and he wanted to.  He thought she was smarter than him, and if she were in a similar situation she would find a way to make it apply, but he couldn’t.  He also knew that providing her more detail of his situation, and the urgency he had for greater meaning, would result in a “If that continues, you come talk to me,” reply from the teacher.  He didn’t want to hear that, because he knew that that would only result in more abuse at the hands of the bully, possible scorn, and possible ruination of his reputation.

To add to this child’s frustration, he would see his teacher’s interpretation of the quote work on TV, and in the movies.  He would read it in fairy tales and other books, but he would know that their solutions were all theoretical before he even knew what theoretical meant.  Their theory was based on the fact that all kids were truly good kids, and that every bully was just waiting to be reasoned with.

The young child took this to his mother, and his mother felt sorry for him.  She offered him female solutions, but as every boy knew most female solutions don’t work on the playground.  She asked the father for advice, and the father said: “You have to walk up to him and punch him in the mouth!”  The mother was aghast.  She said, “He’s little.  That kid’s probably way bigger than him.”  The dad then muttered something about the rules of the jungle and said, “If you want to end it, you have to end it.  If you don’t want to do that, don’t ask me.  Stay away from the kid … I don’t know.”

Here, the young child stood at a crossroads in life.  He was all alone in the defining moment, and he knew it.  He favored the turn the other cheek philosophy for one reason: It would be less painful and less confrontational.  Plus, in some ways, it appealed to the manner in which he thought the world should work.  The world should be one where rejecting the invitation to violence made one superior.  That’s the way the world worked on TV, in movies, and in all the fairy tales he had read throughout his life.  It’s the way the world worked for Jesus and Gandhi, but it did not work this way in this boy’s world, this jungle, as his dad put it, that was the kid’s playground.

This boy knew how his bullies acted, and he knew how they would’ve reacted to theoretical talk regarding peace and non-confrontational diplomacy.  His only recourse was violence, or diplomacy through strength.  He didn’t punch the kid in the mouth, as much as he tried to redress it later, but he did fight back.  He did resort to violent reaction.  He did punch the bully, and there was a part of him that thought that that punch would have such an exclamation point behind it that the violence would end there.  He heard the idea that most bullies don’t want to fight, they just want to bully, and the minute you stand up to them they’ll back down.  The might even respect you more.  They might pump an eyebrow at him and say, “Nice punch kid!” and walk away.  That’s the way it worked in the ABC After School Specials, but that wasn’t the way it worked in his confrontation.

The young child was called upon to engage in a protracted tussle that extended far beyond the single, exclamatory punch.  It turned out to be this kid’s personal Karate Kid/Tom Cruise moment, except for the fact that he did lose the fight.  It turned out that that didn’t matter, however, as the bully decided not to pick on him anymore.  Whether this was due to a new found respect, or the desire to find a different antelope limping at the back of the pack is impossible to know, but suffice it to say the abuse ended.  The kid did learn one important rule of the jungle that day, however, you have to teach people how to treat you.

This moment may have been a Karate Kid/Tom Cruise moment, but it was not a Karate Kid/Tom Cruise movie.  The child would learn other rules of the jungle including: confrontation is a constant, confrontation is relative, and confrontation is ever-changing.  The kid had this notion that that one punch would be the punch heard ‘round his world.  He thought every other kid would get word of his exploits and realize you don’t mess around with him.  He had this notion that once he faced down this, his greatest confrontation, he would be forever capable of handling future confrontations.  It wasn’t true of course.  Bolstered with confidence, he would face down some confrontations, but he would walk away from others.  He would learn to regret those latter moments, for none of these confrontations ever ended until he dealt with them properly.  All of the lessons learned from successes, and failures, would eventually culminate into an adult that could handle confrontations, but there were never any lessons learned from turning the other cheek.

The crucial point that to be made here is that this child’s actions, and the lessons learned, are not a direct refutation of Jesus of Nazareth’s quote, but the interpretations and paraphrasing that teachers and intellectuals have spread in the centuries that followed.  Another interpretation of this quote, that would’ve been quite helpful to this young man, is the following:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” – Matthew 5:38-42

“At the time of Jesus’ teachings, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.  If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the discipliner was faced with a dilemma.  The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.  The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality.  Thus, they argue, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality.”{1}