Just ninety years ago Bruce Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows, an effort to make Jesus Christ known as a historical figure, relevant to the Roaring Twenties. The book was still popular 35 years later when I first read it. Barton overdid the historical aspect, making Jesus "too human", to the point of downplaying his divinity nearly to extinction. A new book repeats the error: Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. This book follows their somewhat fictionalized historical accounts Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy. I haven't read them, but I expect they are very well done, based on solid scholarship and research.
Their research and scholarship are quite evident in this new book. They not only trace the outlines of the Gospel story, filling in historical context, they trace the history of principal players and their ancestors, such as the Herods and of course the Jews as pertains to the ancestry of the priests and the family of Jesus. There is, however, too great a tendency to overuse Latin and Hebrew terms, to a distracting point. For example, I don't care what a Roman legionnaire called his lunch in his own language.
By the middle of the book, plenty of context has been laid for the last few months of Jesus' life. Here it becomes more evident that the authors, though professed Roman Catholics, are taking a strictly historical approach, and obscuring or denying "supernatural" elements. They go to some length at one point to show off the three Hebrew words for powers, signs, and wonders, and their Greek equivalents, then mention in a note that the word "miracle" was applied to all of these sometime after the 1100s. So what? This totally misses the point. The Gospel authors were careful with their words, and meant something different when they used a different word. They make it clear that these happenings were not legends but that each had a place in the ministry of Jesus.
One item in particular is stated thus in Killing Jesus:
…a most amazing thing happens: the Roman military officer in charge of Capernaum declares himself to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus is astonished. (p. 143)
Here is the Bible record, from Matthew 8:5-10 (NIV)
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”I have emphasized the key words in bold. The centurion recognized that Jesus is under authority, even as he was (a better translation has it "I also am a man under authority"). As such, he will be satisfied if Jesus simply issues an order for the servant's healing, and trusts that it will be carried out. Jesus does issue the command, and the man returns to find his servant healthy. His faith was great because it saw Jesus not just as a wonder-worker, but as one under God's authority to carry out God's work.
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
As long as I am on a tear, let us continue. On page 167 we find, regarding the Feast of Tabernacles, "The Jews commemorate forty years of wandering in the desert…", but this in a footnote: "Sukkot, as the festival is known in Hebrew, commemorates the years of nomadic dwelling while Moses searched for the Promised Land." The Torah, from late in Exodus until Deuteronomy, makes it clear that the people were kept in the wilderness from year 3 through year 40 because of unfaithfulness after they had already been on the border of Canaan, but were afraid to enter. They knew where it was the whole time, but would not be allowed to enter until all that generation had died with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who were the only ones not afraid to enter.
On page 176 a section begins, "Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Jesus has led a life that is a continual fulfillment of Jewish prophecy." Is there no end to special pleading? Jesus knew what he was doing, beginning at or before he was 12 years old. One might ask, "If he knew it then, why wait another 18 years?" Because of a strict principle in Leviticus that service to God is not welcome prior to the age of 30.
On page 198, relating the scene in Bethany prior to Passion Week, there is the puzzling sentence about Mary of Bethany: "She sits at his feet and sometimes shows her respect by anointing them with perfumed oil." She anointed him once, from the head down, on that occasion only, and Jesus declared to the disciples that it was to anoint him for his burial. She, and she alone, understood his statements that the Christ was destined to die as part of God's plan. She anointed him with a pound of costly oil. After his death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had to use 100 pounds of oils and spices to prepare his body for the tomb. It is better to be early!
That is quite enough. There is a lot that the authors did get right, when it comes to downright history. The book's chapters are all dated as accurately as they can ascertain, beginning with the Slaughter of the Innocents, as Catholics call it, in Bethlehem in 5 B.C. This was indeed a few months to a year prior to the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. Jesus was two years of age when the Magi came and informed Herod they had seen his star; when they found him it was "in the house". So the ubiquitous Nativity scenes, with the Magi and shepherds together in the stable with Jesus and his parents, cannot have happened.
They appear to have used a Catholic chronology of the Passion Week, placing it in the spring of 30 A.D. Sir John Robertson showed definitively in The Coming Prince that it was two years later, based on accurate use of the way new moon was determined by the Jews.
It cannot be emphasized enough that Jesus lived in an occupied country, where suspicion of treason was rampant and punished by incredibly brutal death. The authors bring this out admirably, that the title "Son of God" had been appropriated by the Caesars, and to so identify yourself was a terrible risk. Also, the religious leaders of Israel are quick to accuse "Blasphemy!" to anyone claiming divinity. Curiously, it is never mentioned that whenever Jesus confronted a demoniac, the demon would say something like, "I know who you are, Son of God!", a move calculated to get Jesus into trouble.
I'd call the last couple of chapters a verbal parallel to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" in its incessant drumbeat of brutality. Glad I didn't try to read them at mealtime.
While the book is very well written, and well researched, the authors seem to have done little to understand the Gospel authors. John, in particular, wrote that his record was to show that Jesus is the Son of God. For this reason he used the word "sign" twice as much as Matthew or Luke. You can pair up each Gospel with a one-word theme, and with one of the faces of the Cherubim:
- Matthew - King - Lion
- Mark - Slave - Calf or Ox
- Luke - Man - Man
- John - God - Eagle
It is useful to dig out historical context for the life and times of Jesus and his apostles. However, it does a disservice to discount the divine nature that Jesus was careful to conceal from the prying eyes of enemies, but revealed to his disciples and to the twelve apostles in particular.