Here I continue my rather, uh, aggressive critique of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.
OK, I know I promised to read and review Killing Jesus. But I’m not sure I can do it. It’s just so aggravating. Pointing out its flaws is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ll make one general comment in this post and in the next one mention one of the leading themes of the book to show why its so problematic and then, unless I have a complete change of heart or people ask me pointed questions, I think I’ll just let it go. For now, a general comment.
I was one of the 4893 people who wrote a book *about* the Da Vinci Code (Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine, 2004). The other 4892 people, so far as I know, were religious – usually religious scholars – who were afraid that Dan Brown might lead the faithful astray by his wild claims, and for religious reasons wanted to set the record straight. As an agnostic, that was nowhere near my concern. My concern was that of a historian.
Brown begins his book with a statement about how – even though it is a work of fiction – the fundamental historical claims of the book are factual. And so, on p. 1, before the Prologue, Brown states: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” I didn’t deal with most of this in my book, just the documents. But that was enough, as Brown mangled just about every document (including the New Testament, other writings of early Christianity, accounts of the council of Nicea, and so on) he came within 200 feet of. And so that’s what my book was about. I was concerned as a historian that people not have a false notion about what happened in the past. Why should I care if people have a false idea about what happened in the life of Jesus, the life of Mary Magdalene, the life of Constantine? I don’t know, I’m a historian and I care about these things, and I think if we get history wrong, it tends to come back to bite us on the backside.
But in any event, Brown claimed to be writing a novel. The difference with Killing Jesus is that Bill-and-Buddy who wrote it do not claim to be writing a novel, with some historically accurate background thrown in. They claim to be writing a historical account. Fact based. Telling it like it really was. So what does one make of a passage such as the following (while the troops are going out to Bethlehem to kill all the young boys, to rid the kingdom of its future king Jesus):
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, King Herod gazes out a palace window toward Bethlehem, anxiously awaiting confirmation of the slaughter…. Herod sighs. Back in his youth, he would never have stood in a window and worried about the future. A great king and warrior such as he would have ordered that a bridle be thrown over his favorite white charger so that he might gallop to Bethlehem and murder the child himself. But Herod is now a man of sixty-nine. His massive girth and incessant medical problems make it physically impossible for him to leave his palace, let alone mount a horse. His bloated face is wreathed in a beard that extends from the bottom of his chin to just below his Adam’s apple. On this day, he wears a royal purple Roman-style mantle over a short-sleeved white silk tunic. Normally Herod prefers soft leather leggings that have been stained purple. But today even the gentlest bristle of fabric against his inflamed big toe is enough to make him cry out in pain. So it is that Herod, the most powerful man in Judea, hobbles through the palace barefoot. But gout is the least of Herod’s ailments. The king of the Jews…is also suffering from lung disease, kidney problems, worms, a heart condition, sexually transmitted diseases, and a horrible version of gangrene that has caused his genitals to rot, turn black, and become infested with maggots – thus the inability to sit astride, let alone ride, a horse….
Is O’Reilly serious? Does he REALLY think that readers who know the least thing about our sources is going to think this is historical writing instead of fiction? That they won’t realize that it is virtually all made up?? But, alas, the frightening, or saddening, or aggravating, or upsetting thing is that most of his readers – the ones who watch his show on FOX –in fact will not know. They’ll think this is based on O’Reilly’s presumably intense eight months of research.
If I didn’t know better, if I had never heard of O’Reilly, if I just picked up this book out of the blue, I quite honestly would think that it was a schlocky “historical” novel, a work of fiction, kind-a like the Da Vinci Code.
Or that it was a spoof. If someone told me a TV personality wrote it, I would have put money on Stephen Colbert, written in character.