Bill O’Reilly is #killingjesus Scholarship–A Short Review

This week the next big book in Jesus scholarship hit the stores. Well, I guess it’s big in the sense that it is attached to a well-known name, Fox News’ host/anchor/pundit Bill O’Reilly. Earlier I had heard about his book, Killing Jesuswhich was a bit easy to make fun with since the artwork for the cover suggested who the murder was, and his previous major book with a similar title, Killing Lincoln, was considered so riddled with factual errors that Lincoln-connected museums were not willing to sell it.

But now the book is out, written with Martin Dugard (who was also responsible for O’Reilly’s other Killing books). I don’t have the book itself (I’m cheap), but Google allows for searching the volume and previewing, so I could look at the materials related to the early years of JC, or so as Bill believed them to be. I had expected the authors to not be very critical of the historicity of what the Gospels say, but there were some surprises. I’m also just going to focus on the Nativity story as related by Bill. In other words, it’s only September and I am beginning the War on Christmas!

First thing to note is that there is not a lot of reference to modern scholarship on the points of the natal accounts. While Raymond Brown’s 2-volume work The Death of the Messiah receives an honorary mention, his even more famous Birth of the Messiah is not mentioned. Odd considering that O’Reilly and Dugard are both Catholics, as was Brown. The notes for the first chapter contain almost no scholarly records, save one related to the Star of Bethlehem (more on that below). So it seems the authors have not engaged in the sorts of works that would have been need to understand a 2000 year old book. I’m not going to read Homer without some help understanding its cultural background, so why do the Gospels get a pass?

The background info that the authors establish is also not great. For example, they claim that the Magi “stud[ied] the world’s great religious texts”. How do they know this to be true in the time of Jesus? Besides, why would Zoroastrian priests care so much about Jewish scripture? Seems that because there is a story of Magi coming to a Jewish king/messiah means that they must have had such an interest; without evidence, all I see is circularity. Bill also says that the Magi had stopped by to see Herod and pay their respects to him before finding Jesus. Well, I don’t know where he gets that. It’s not in my Bible, and I can’t think of an apocryphal tradition that suggests this either.

The authors also claim that there are five prophecies that the messiah’s birth was attached to: a great star, born in Bethlehem, a descendant of David, men from afar would come to worship him, his mama’s a virgin. Again, how does Bill know these are the prophecies that people expected? For example, there were messiahs believed to come about that weren’t Davidic (i.e. the Messiah Ben Joseph). And the virgin birth prophecy has been such a headache for scholars, and there isn’t any clear indications that it was expected of a Jewish hero. That the messiah was expected to be from Bethlehem is also thin on evidence from 2nd Temple Judaism. Instead, it looks like Bill read ahead in the Gospel of Matthew and retrojected its claims into “expected prophecies to be fulfilled”. The authors of this book also seem to allow imagination to become history when they describe how Herod looked from the window of his palace (Billo calls it a castle, which is anachronistic) at the Temple and frets over baby Jesus. The way it is written seems like a novel, especially with the use of the present tense, so I suspect that the authors aren’t up on genre theory and practice. You are supposed to keep the fiction and history separate. What are you guys writing, a gospel? 😈

But the bit of meat in this chapter that got my attention was how the Star of Bethlehem and its relation to the Magi were described.

The wealthy foreigners travel almost a thousand miles over rugged desert, following an extraordinary light that shines in the sky each morning before dawn.

In a note, O’Reilly & Dugard refer to a 1991 paper by Colin Humphreys in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (here) which argues that the Star was a comet in March of 5 BCE.

Due to the earth’s orbital motion, the comet’s light would have been directly in front of the Magi during their journey–hence they would have truly followed the star.

First off, these guys aren’t reading their Bibles. There is the popular notion that the Star led the Magi all the way from Persia to Jerusalem, but the Gospel of Matthew only describes the Star doing this from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Looks like Bill based his knowledge of the Bible on the song We Three Kings. Now, the Humphreys paper doesn’t make this mistake, so I don’t know if they even read it. Also, the orbital movements of the Earth are not the cause of the “leading” of the Star; the comet moves from east to west because of the rotation of the planet, not its revolution about the Sun. This basic point of astronomy is off.

Moreover, how can the comet lead the Magi to Jerusalem? As the authors themselves say, it appeared each morning before dawn in the east. How could they then follow it west towards Jerusalem from Persia? Eventually in the night or day it would be in the west, but this means that the now rather confused Magi are making all sorts of weird paths as demonstrated by xkcd. Again, basic astronomy is simply not understood here. I wish to highlight that Humphreys did not make this mistake; it’s all on Bill and Martin.

But a comet doesn’t explain the motions and other aspects of the Star of Bethlehem. It cannot lead anyone, including for the journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (as Matt 2:9 actually describes), nor can a comet stop over a particular locale. Moreover, comets were considered the most evil of celestial omens to the Romans and Persians. Had O’Reilly read Brown’s Birth of the Messiah, he probably wouldn’t have made these mistakes.

9780956694867- Font CoverTo get the complete take-down of the comet hypothesis and all naturalistic explanations of the Star as well as its historicity, you will want to check out my upcoming book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. I sent it to the printers today, so it should be available online in the near future. So if you already bought Bill’s book, I’m sorry. But you can at least get a companion volume to make yourself and others feel better, not to mention learn some correct astronomy and history.

Now, I have hardly scratched the surface of the historical problems this book has. I could mention how Bill says that Herod was a secular man (he was Jewish; he rebuilt the Temple, after all; cf. Josephus, BJ 2.13), the Magi on their own decided not to return to Herod (Matthew says an angel told them not to go back, hardly a sign of the wise men’s initiative), how Judea was a part of the province of Syria (it was a client kingdom in the days of Herod), and so much more. Joel Watts has given the book a read-through and has seen a horde of issues, great and small (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and I won’t be surprised to find other critical scholars finding problems with this volume. In the end, it’s Billo killing Jesus scholarship, and in part to forward his political and theological ideology.

13 thoughts on “Bill O’Reilly is #killingjesus Scholarship–A Short Review

  1. Pingback: Bill O’Reilly and killing science #killingjesus | Unsettled Christianity

  2. You said: Bill also says that the Magi had stopped by to see Herod and pay their respects to him before finding Jesus. Well, I don’t know where he gets that. It’s not in my Bible, and I can’t think of an apocryphal tradition that suggests this either.

    Here’s the answer: Matthew 2:1-11 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
    3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
    6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
    for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
    7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
    9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.

    [Also notice that the Rabbi’s were already aware of the prophecy about the Messiah coming from Bethlehem.]

    • Two points: the text says nothing about the Magi coming to pay Herod homage. They are brought to Herod by Herod.

      Second, there is no 2nd Temple Judaism sources that show the expectation that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The only weak support comes centuries later in Talmudic literature, and at best it is ambiguous. So you are being circular as was Billo: Matthew says this was an expected prophecy by everyone, so this is what everyone was expecting.

      Also of note: the term ‘rabbi’ doesn’t really have coinage until well after the time of Herod. It was also used by those that were called Pharisees, and these chief scribes would have been the Sanhedrin.

      • The point is this: You were trying to make it sound like they didn’t visit Herod before finding Jesus. They DID see Herod first, and they most certainly would not have shown disrespect. It’s extremely reasonable to assume that they would have followed royal protocol.

      • Bill says they came to Herod in order to pay homage. That wasn’t their plan; the Gospel only says they were looking for the newborn king, not the living, old one. They visited Herod (I never denied that), but apparently because they were called in by Herod, not because they wanted to ingratiate him.

      • Bill knows they didn’t come for the primary purpose of honoring Herod. The book is called Killing JESUS. Obviously, this is all part of the story of Jesus.

      • And you are not using common sense. The discussion about the star proves they weren’t really focused on Herod. They were on a journey to find the “one who was born king of the Jews,” not primarily to see Herod. They don’t know exactly where to go so they stop at Jerusalem in an effort to find the baby Jesus. Herod discovers this, and calls them to himself to find out the details…common sense dictates that they would have shown the proper respects for a ruling King when they met him. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. At worse, Bill could have used better wording, but everyone knows they were looking for Jesus, not Herod. Again, that’s why the book is called Killing Jesus, not Honoring Herod.

      • I never said Bill said the Magi had the primary purpose of honoring Herod. My point was that there is nothing in the Bible that says they first came to Herod in order to pay homage to him. If they did come to Herod, they would likely have not spat in his face, but this isn’t what Bill or the Bible claims. You are again not reading me, the Bible, or Bill carefully. As for making mountains out of molehills, aren’t you the one that started this point of argument, and I have said this is a trivial point compared to Bill not getting basic astronomy right?

  3. Pingback: Bill O’Reilly is #killingjesus Scholarship–A Short Review | A Tippling Philosopher

  4. Pingback: The Roman Jesus Propaganda of Joseph Atwill | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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