If there is one man alive who I associate with the Prince of Peace, it is Bill O’Reilly. But I associate him as more the anti-Christ. I don’t say that because he is such a bad guy, even though he is. It is just that he is the most prominent rageaholic in America. At the same time, I know he considers himself a good Catholic. So I was very interested to hear that he was writing a book on the life of Jesus. What would his take on the subject be?
For those who do not spend much time thinking about Christianity, a book on the life of Jesus probably sounds strange. After all, isn’t that what the Bible is all about? Well, not really. First, there are only four books of the Bible that specifically talk about Jesus’ life—the four Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. And they aren’t exactly what you would call histories. To begin with, they build on each other. First came Mark, then Matthew rewrote Mark. Increasingly, it looks like the theoretical Q document that Matthew and Luke supposedly used in combination with Mark didn’t exist after all. Instead, it looks like Luke is just a rewrite of Matthew. John, is mostly independent of those Gospels and comes out of the ongoing fight of the early Christian church to separate itself from the Jewish church. It is also the antisemitic Gospel, much beloved by Mel Gibson.
What’s also true is that like most of the rest of the Bible, the Gospels contradict each other. For example, in one, Jesus was crucified next to two thieves. In another, it was one thief. In the other two, it was none of them. What’s more, almost all of the stories in the Gospels are clearly didactic. They are little narrative designed to teach a lesson. This is why, for example, the apostles are such idiots. They never learn from one story to the next. As a result of this, there really is a need to have one story of the life of Jesus. The problem is, as Albert Schweitzer noted, pretty much everyone comes up with a “historical Jesus” that just so happens to be the Jesus they want.
So what would a truly awful person like Bill O’Reilly come up with in his new book, Killing Jesus: a History? I have no intention of reading the book, of course. I actually like these kinds of books. For example, The Historical Jesus: Five Views is an exceptional book, which presents views from the most liberal to the most conservative. But O’Reilly is no scholar and his book never would have been published if he weren’t a famous guy with a lot of fans who will buy any nonsense he sells. Still, I wanted to know, even if I suspected that I had a good take on what he would have to say. O’Reilly wasn’t going to present a hippy “love thy neighbor” Jesus; that was for sure.
Luckily, New Testament scholar Candida Moss, in an act similar to that of Jesus, suffered for the good of all of us: she read the book. Her review can be summed up in one sentence, “The single most consistent social teaching in the New Testament is that Christians must support the poor, widows, and orphans, but this hardly gets a mention in Killing Jesus.” But the truth is even more amusing. O’Reilly thinks that Jesus’ mission was to save the people from the evils of high taxes:
The basic argument of the book is that Jesus died because he interfered with the taxation-heavy Roman revenue stream. The reason the Jews eagerly anticipated the Messiah, writes O’Reilly, is, “When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.” …
O’Reilly argues that Temple taxes and profits from the moneychangers were back-channeled to Rome. Thus when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers he “interrupted the flow of funds from the Temple to Rome.” …
Even if Jesus’ actions had been all about taxes, he died protesting a skeletal taxation system that privileged the rich. Wealthy citizens were exempt from most taxes altogether, non-citizens paid a flat-rate poll tax regardless of income, the property tax was 1 percent, and the money from taxes was used to build roads and fund the military. It’s not like the Romans did anything obscene like tend to the poor.
Moss discusses other things that O’Reilly gets wrong. She notes how he uses very late Christian traditions where it suits him. I recommend reading the whole article. But this bit about Mary Magdalene is particularly great:
Women do less well in O’Reilly’s Biblical world. Following Sunday-school tradition, Mary Magdalene is identified as the prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with oil. That’s not in the Bible. This is a fifth-century error that originates with Gregory the Great.
Unfortunate, especially considering that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ patron. Imagine opening your home and checkbook to support a fledging religious group only to have history remember you as a prostitute. Slut shaming: it’s not just a modern phenomenon.
O’Reilly has done the world a great favor with this book. A lot of liberals I know don’t understand how it is that supposed Christians can be conservative when Jesus was all about helping the poor. The answer is in this book. Any text can be read in countless ways. So people like O’Reilly just minimize anything that goes against what they want to hear. And then they focus on what they do want to hear. In O’Reilly’s case, he not only focuses on the moneychangers; he creates a back story out of whole cloth to turn the Prince of Peace into “Grover Norquist: Tax Reformer.”