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Jesus as a First-Century Tea-Partier

I have decided not to provide a full and detailed review of O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.  It doesn’t really deserve it, and much more of what I have indicated before – on which see my previous posts.  I will say that the book is extremely well written and easy on the eyes.   It is entertaining.  A lot of human-interest material, which is both its strength and its very great weakness, as almost all of this, as I’ve mentioned before, is simply MADE UP, even though it is presented as if were historical fact.   There is page after page after page of that kind of thing.   This is not a research book written by a scholar and his writing buddy — with, for example, footnotes indicating where they got their information from.  It can’t be that, since almost all of the details didn’t come from ancient sources but from their own fertile imaginations   And since that is the main source for the Gospel according to Bill, and since most of us know what Bill’s imagination spends its time thinking about you may not be surprised to find out what he understands Jesus’ principle interests to be (on which see below).

Albert Schweitzer wrote arguably the most famous book about the historical Jesus, and he claimed – and demonstrated – that each generation of biblical scholars managed to paint Jesus in its own image.   We have continued to see that since Schweitzer’s times, and it applies not only to biblical scholars who should, but apparently do not, know better, but to popular writers about Jesus who don’t know better and so do, in fact, even worse.

And so biblical scholars who embrace good liberal values of social justice (often) portray Jesus as a proponent of good liberal values of social justice; those who do not believe in miracles (often) portray Jesus as a great teacher who did not (because he could not) do miracles; those who are children of the 60s (often) portray Jesus as a counter-cultural opponent of the status quo; those who are fundamentalists (often) portray Jesus as an early proponent of the Nicene Creed; and so on and so on.  It is often enlightening to read how an author portrays Jesus and then to look at the biography of the author.  It can often tell you a lot.

So what about Bill O’Reilly?  What’s his Jesus like?  I won’t lay out all the details here, but give a couple of examples and more important give you a link to the book review by my friend Candida Moss, who, on the basis of this review, was asked onto O’Reilly’s show, presumably so he could grill her.   She argues in this review that what Jesus was most concerned about – in fact, this was ultimately his mission on earth – in O’Reilly’s presentation was … get ready for it … TAXES!!!   They were TOO HIGH.  Jesus was opposed to HIGH TAXES, and, the corollary, (Roman) government involvement with the Jewish people, forcing itself up on them at every turn.

Here’s the link to read the review.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/27/the-gospel-according-to-bill-o-reilly-s-new-book-killing-jesus.html

In case you don’t want to read the review, here’s the kind of thing O’Reilly tells us, in his own passionate words.

Joseph and Mary, as do most other Jews, live in fear of Herod Antipas [the ruler of Galilee in Jesus’ day]…a callow man who has never known want and who always expected to e given a kingdom….He pays homage to Caesar Augustus not only by taxing the Jews blind but also by ordering a Roman-style form of execution for any who would dare defy him…. Galilean outrage against Rome has been building for decades.  The people have been levied with tax after tax after tax.   Antipas is nothing if not a “lover of luxury,”…and the more luxury he needs, the higher the taxes climb….  Actual money is scarce…  No men are more despised than the tax collectors, who do not only extort funds from people with very little but also publicly abuse and even torture those who fall behind on their payments.  There is no leeway.  Those who can’t pay must borrow grain or oil from the storage silos manned by Antipas’s men.  The interest rates are exorbitant  — 100% on oil and 25% on grain.  And falling behind on these debts means ruin.  Peasants are often forced to sell their children to creditors as debt slaves or to sell their home and work the land as sharecroppers…..

And so it goes, on and on.   The problem was HIGH TAXES.  (I can’t read this without thinking of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:  “What have the Romans ever done for *us*????”  🙂 )

If there were something other than a historical novel (a work of fiction) – that is, if it was anything like a book on Jesus written by someone with historical interest – the authors would provide *evidence* for their claims, at least in footnotes.  They would indicate that this is what our sources indicate about taxes on Jews in Galilee.  This is how they compare with taxes elsewhere.  This is the percentage of income that went into taxes as a rule.  Here are some examples of public protests against them, as documented in this source or that source.  Here is some actual *evidence* that Joseph and Mary were concerned about taxes.  Or that Jesus was.  Or that this concern had anything to do with his message.  That it had anything to do with his death.

But no, there is no evidence cited here.  So how Is a person supposed to evaluate these claims that the big problem Jesus had to deal with was – like our republican House of Representatives – TAXES THAT WERE TOO HIGH?  Well, there’s no way to evaluate the claim unless you happen to be an expert in the period and know the sources yourself.

If you want to read a portrayal of Jesus as a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, this is the book for you.

If, on the other hand, you want a serious historical treatment of Jesus – and of Palestine in his time – I would suggest you read the books about Jesus by scholars who actually know what they’re talking about, including such figures as Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, Dale Allison, and Paula Fredriksen – for starters.   Some modern scholars have indeed managed to paint Jesus in some image other than their own.  These scholars are among those who have: their views of Jesus are not all the same, but they are at least *argued* and *documented* and are not simply the result of a person’s fertile imagination that truly wishes that the Son of God shared his own personal beliefs and prejudices.  These are not scholars who have written a book to advance their own political agendas or to make millions of dollars.  They are serious.   This book by Bill-and-Buddy is not.


Colbert on his Hero O’Reilly
Riled by O’Reilly

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 6, 2013

    Good decision not to write a review. Those who would read your review are probably those who would choose not to read his book anyway.

    You did mention one thing above that I think would be good to expand on: What are good books to read about the life of Jesus (and related issues) based on scholarship but intended to the general, but intelligent, reader.

    I would like you to consider someday to publish here a list of solid books (from various points of view), other than what you have written since most of us are likely familiar with your work, about the life of Jesus, the growth of Christianity, solid theology from various perspectives, the history and description of first century life in the Roman world and other issues that are written based on valid historical and textual research that are intended for readers like me…well educated but not a scholar.

    That would be very useful to me.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 8, 2013

      Good idea!

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  October 9, 2013

        I’ve wanted such as a list as well. Please do this when you have time!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2013

          Sorry — I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Which list?

          • gmatthews
            gmatthews  October 10, 2013

            The list of books that was referenced in the comment that you answered. I replied to your answer that I would like to see said list of books as well:

            “I would like you to consider someday to publish here a list of solid books (from various points of view), other than what you have written since most of us are likely familiar with your work, about the life of Jesus, the growth of Christianity, solid theology from various perspectives, the history and description of first century life in the Roman world and other issues that are written based on valid historical and textual research that are intended for readers like me…well educated but not a scholar.”

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2013

            Ah! Yes, OK, I may do that!

  2. Avatar
    dswolfe35  October 7, 2013

    I enjoy reading your posts on a frequent basis. Lately though, you need to spend some time proof reading them before you actually post them!

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 7, 2013

    Schweitzer’s book and conclusions have had a huge impact on me. Jesus as a card-carrying member of the tea party is a clever summary. I love it….

  4. Avatar
    dswolfe35  October 7, 2013

    Thank you very much! I almost wasted my good money on three bad books. I had been trying to decide whether to buy O’Reilly’s books. After reading your opinion of his latest work of fiction, my decision is made. I’ll save up my money to buy more of your books. I already own at least a dozen of them and have a long list yet to purchase. I have enjoyed learning about Jesus and the world he lived in.

  5. Avatar
    DMiller5842  October 7, 2013

    Thing is — he needs to be called on his nonsense – loud enough and publicly enough to that his followers DO know he is way wrong.

  6. Avatar
    Rosekeister  October 7, 2013

    “Albert Schweitzer wrote arguably the most famous book about the historical Jesus, and he claimed – and demonstrated – that each generation of biblical scholars managed to paint Jesus in its own image. ”

    I’ve seen conservative scholars argue that this invalidates the search for the historical Jesus thinking this proves Jesus really was the miracle working Son of God who rose from the grave but apparently without realizing the same argument Schweitzer makes about the scholar’s search for the historical Jesus applies to the gospels.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 8, 2013

      Yes, they too are writing Jesus in their own image. He was JUST what they believe!

  7. Avatar
    pnelson  October 7, 2013

    Bart, This is hilarious. Thanks, Patrice

  8. Avatar
    Mikail78  October 7, 2013

    Well said, Bart. You know, even though I’m no longer an evangelical Christian (I’m not any kind of Christian, actually), I suspect that on political, economic, and social issues, I’m significantly to the right of you and most of my fellow blog members here. I can’t stand both major parties in this country, but if someone had to label me, they would probably put me in the paleoconservative (thanks to professor Emeritus Paul Gottfried for coming up with this term)/libertarian camp.

    I say all this to say this: I absolutely HATE it when “conservatives”, or at least those who self-identify as conservatives/being on the right try to portray Jesus as some dude who promoted free-market capitalism and who detested socialism. Hey, I’m for capitalism and the free market as much as anyone, but don’t try to promote this idea as coming from the lips of jesus….because it doesn’t. Even though I believe the scholarly consensus view of Jesus as mistaken apocalyptic prophet makes the most sense, I think the Jesus of the Bible (the Jesus that “conservatives” claim to believe in) had more sayings that lean towards socialism than capitalism. I just hate it when “conservatives” take this method of argumentation because it’s so obvious they’re twisting the facts. I happen to identify with classic paleoconservative/libertarian principles, but I would never try to say that these principles are what Jesus promoted.

    In fairness, as you said, those on the left have been known to use similar methods, so there’s a lot of guilty parties in all this.

    On a kind of an unrelated note, i remember during my last year as a fundy Christian, a friend of mine invited to a labor day tea party rally. I remember my friend telling me that some dude will be there who will have a Bible in one hand and an American flag in the other hand. Even though I was still a believer at the time, I still had enough sense to realize something was very wrong here. I remember thinking to myself, WTF does the America and it’s flag have to do with the Bible?!?!?!?!?! By the way, Bart, I agree with you that nationalism is pretty dangerous and can be VERY destructive.

  9. Avatar
    duncc44  October 7, 2013

    Historicized fiction can certainly be fun, and if done thoughtfully can create both mood and insight which the actual, factual sometimes misses.
    “Jesus? “ he murmured- “Jesus -of Nazareth ?- I cannot call him to mind”.
    – Anatole France, “The Procurator of Judea”
    I don’t know how accurate France was in his portrayal of Jesus as an “in situ” insignificant man, but in the face of Jesus’ evolved historical track record, this allusion from France does fictionally sets the stage for the world’s greatest detective story, the actual factual search for the historical man.

  10. Avatar
    Adam0685  October 7, 2013

    You should also be invited on his show

  11. Avatar
    donmax  October 7, 2013

    You have hit the mark about Bill O’Reilly’s book, both for what it is and for why it is so popular. As you say, his spin has “A lot of human-interest material, which is both its strength and its very great weakness, as almost all of this, as I’ve mentioned before, is simply MADE UP, even though it is presented as if were historical fact.” No truer words were ever written, I think, and they also fit the Four Gospels perfectly well. What we get are SMALL AMOUNTS OF HISTORY mixed with HEAVY DOSES OF EDITORIAL FABRICATION.

    Gospels of times

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 7, 2013

    Do you agree with Professor Moss that “it’s true that the people did long for the Messiah”? I’ve believed that was true only of a small minority – that even among Jews who were seriously unhappy with the status quo (themselves probably a minority), not many were thinking about a “Messiah.”

    The issue of taxes made me think of this. I remember a TV discussion a few years ago, in which some scholar said Jesus and his father’s having been regarded as *tektons* -rather than, say, farmers – meant the famiy was rather low-status, economically. Not as well-off as others in Nazareth. They might possibly have had land at some time, and lost it. The scholar wasn’t making any claims about Jesus’s ministry being related to economics, just stating an opinion about the family’s status. Do you agree that *tektons* were lower-status than farmers?

    Also…do you believe some people are instinctively more willing to believe Jesus had an economic or political agenda because it’s something they can relate to – something they can conceive of an intelligent man caring about? Whereas apocalypticism strikes many of us today as downright stupid? (Some of us, of course, try to understand that it *didn’t* seem so stupid two thousand years ago.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 8, 2013

      Well, *some* people were longing for thye messiah. But I’m not sure most Jews really thought about it much. I wish we knew!

  13. Avatar
    proveit  October 8, 2013

    I wish Bill and his buddy had illustrated this book, I would like to see how Jesus looked in an expensive suit. I bet he *really* looked a lot like Bill.

  14. Avatar
    dennis  October 9, 2013

    Glad to hear this will be the last post on Killing Jesus ; I was concerned that you were going to ” stroke out ” over this , and I think the citing of Schweitzer is very apt indeed . This creation of a persona that matches the needs and desires of today’s passionate advocates of any given cause in contrast to what a given historical person actually was is by no means restricted to Jesus . The Abraham Lincoln of history would find the Lincoln of our ” national narrative ” a stranger . Any historical person whose life has had a direct or indirect impact on history is subject to the same reshaping ; its simply a human trait . I was a bit bothered by seeing you begin your blistering commentary BEFORE having actually read the book . Consider your wrist slapped .

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