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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“The following few hints on the selection of voices may be useful: (1) Reject all boys who speak roughly, or sing coarsely; (2) Choose bright, intelligent-looking boys, provided they have a good ear; they will much more readily respond to the choirmaster’s efforts than boys who possess a voice and nothing more; therefore, (3) Reject dull, sulky, or scatter-brained boys, since it is hard to say which of the three has the most demoralizing effect on his more willing companions.”
— Sir Richard Runciman Terry (1912)

Book Review: Killing Jesus
published 20 April 2014 by Fr. David Friel

DMITTEDLY, I am a little late to throw my hat in the ring. Nevertheless, I would like to share my thoughts about one of the best-selling books of the last year, since one of my Lenten projects was to read it. Co-authored by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Jesus: A History is an exploration of the Person of Jesus and a view into the experience of life in ancient times.

[DISCLAIMER: I don’t like television; I seldom watch television; I don’t even own a television. As such, my reasons for reading this book and blogging about it have nothing to do with Bill O’Reilly, his politics (about which I know little), or his news show (which I understand draws sharply divided responses from the general populace). My interest is Jesus and what this book has to say about Him.]

With its concise subtitle, this book claims to be “A History.” What is meant by that would be difficult to intuit without reading the book. Categorizing this text in the history genre, to me, seems at once accurate and inaccurate. If the purpose of the subtitle is to dissuade potential readers from expecting a devotional work, then the term “history” works well. The book includes more than a few imaginative sections, however, wherein historical events are told in narrative format, and at these times the term “history” appears misapplied. A librarian could have real difficulty assigning a Dewey Decimal System number to this volume, but arguments could be made for the 200’s, the 900’s, or even the 92 biography section.

What I enjoyed most about this book was its presentation of major characters in the life and times of Jesus. These characters include Herod & Pompey the Great, John the Baptist & Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas & Pontius Pilate. So often, these can become mere names confined to the pages of history texts, rather than dynamic persons who shaped history. In developing these characters and others, the authors obviously utilized extra-Biblical sources. The book also describes in great detail for readers several important locations, such as Sepphoris, Jerusalem, and the Kidron Valley. In general, the sketches of both characters and places were helpful in establishing the wider context of Biblical life & times.

Another aspect of the work that I enjoyed is the authors’ decision not to divide the supposed “historical Jesus” from the “Christian God.” Since the advent of the historical critical method, it has become vogue to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith,” but O’Reilly and Dugard seem content to address matters factually and leave it to the reader to determine whether Jesus constitutes a divide or a unity.

Many reviewers have criticized the authors’ tendency to take the Gospels at face value, rather than treating them with the trenchant skepticism that is more acceptable in modern academia. For my own part, as a believing Christian who accepts wholeheartedly the canon of Sacred Scripture, I do not question the historicity of the Gospels. Actually, I rather appreciate the matter-of-fact acceptance of what the Evangelists have written. What other sources exist that are more worthy of trust?

Most of the “inaccuracies” highlighted by other reviewers are not so much true historical inaccuracies as points of squabble among the authors’ adversaries. For instance, was Paul a “former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity,” as the authors describe him? Presuming that by “Christian,” one means a follower of Christ, this seems like a perfectly true statement.

I possess no faculties to grant an imprimatur, but for those who are concerned about issues of orthodoxy or scandal, I found nothing questionable in Killing Jesus. What I found was an eminently readable portrait of Jesus of Nazareth that has helped me to see His life in fuller context and to recognize some of the many factors that precipitated His death.

Is this book the definitive account of Jesus’ life? No, we still have the four Gospels for that. But is it a worthwhile companion that might spark new ideas, perspectives, and questions in the heart and mind of a believer? I believe so.