Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone
- By Robert M. Price
- Prometheus Books
- 276 pp.
- Reviewed by Richard Carrier
- October 22, 2014
A well-researched rebuttal to Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling Killing Jesus makes its case via facts, not fabrications.
If you have a friend, coworker, or relative who loves Bill O’Reilly, and you don’t mind ruffling a few feathers, Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone is the book to give. Even more so if you are worried your loved one has a soft spot for O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, the TV host’s take on the history of Jesus’ life and death.
But the special delight of Killing History is that Price himself is an arch-conservative and a big fan of O’Reilly (whom he even declares too liberal on some issues). Price litters his book with anti-liberal bon mots that will resonate with the average O’Reilly fan, while liberal readers like myself can easily look past them.
But political thrills aside, the primary merit of this book is its thorough treatment of the actual history and literary content of the Bible. Price takes issue with O’Reilly’s historical claims and, in turn, shows what scholars both know and guess at.
The book will educate anyone who is not an expert familiar with commonly known facts and debates in the study of Jesus. It will surprise most. Those familiar with Price’s defense of the Christ Myth theory should also know that he does not defend that position here. He focuses, instead, on different theories of an historical “Christ” figure, and generally assumes Jesus existed, as a heuristic for approaching O’Reilly’s text.
Price argues that Killing Jesus is not a reliable source of information or conclusions about Jesus because it ignores sound historical methods, mainstream scholarship, and known facts. On top of this, he asserts O’Reilly’s book contains numerous mistakes and spins implausible tales that suit only the dreams and desires of its authors.
Price supports these claims extensively. Readers of Killing Jesus will never hear, for example, that experts have found irreparable historical problems with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial. Furthermore, O’Reilly thinks all the original disciples had a conversation with Jesus when, in fact, the Gospels only say Jesus chatted with his unbelieving brothers. Price provides a thorough fact-check and finds lots of these gaffes.
As an historian on the origins of Christianity, I don’t agree with every claim and argument Price deploys in Killing History on the matter of the Bible and Christian history. And some of his statements could be disputed more readily than he indicates.
For example, that “there weren’t any synagogues in Galilee” in the time of Jesus (p. 85) depends on how one defines “synagogue.” But even where we disagree, what he presents is still a valid alternative way to think about the evidence and will challenge anyone used to only hearing one party line. And, in any case, most of what he says is correct.
In the end, Price achieves the central goal of his book: to demonstrate that Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (who co-wrote Killing Jesus) have gone off the rails of honest and sound history writing to produce essentially a literary fiction of their own imagining, one that often contradicts the biblical record, or goes wildly beyond it. O’Reilly’s standard insistence on a “No-Spin Zone” is toppled here, as Price shows O’Reilly’s book about Jesus is almost all spin.
Killing History is also the only book I know that deconstructs O’Reilly’s book, and Price does so chapter by chapter. It thus becomes an essential companion volume to Killing Jesus for anyone who believes in hearing both sides of a case before casting judgment. And it’s all done with Price’s characteristic charm and wit, well-known to fans of his Bible Geek podcast. (We also encounter his tremendous erudition when he cites the essays of such diverse luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Tom Todorov.)
Price’s verdict is that “Killing Jesus counts as the world’s number one source of misinformation about Jesus,” because “there is no sign whatsoever that the authors of Killing Jesus have even begun to do their homework.” Instead, Price demonstrates, they rely almost entirely on biblical “spin-doctors” for their authorities, rather than looking across mainstream scholarship.
But Price has done his homework, as his copious endnotes in Killing History show. He also happens to have two doctorates in the subject himself. With all of these tools, not only does Price call out O’Reilly and Dugard’s numerous errors and distortions, he also shows how often they omit damning or problematic facts, to which he then introduces his readers. Killing History is a welcome corrective to some serious sins against historical scholarship and understanding.
Richard Carrier has a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University. He is a philosopher and historian specializing in contemporary philosophy of naturalism and Greco-Roman philosophy, science, and religion, and the origins of Christianity. He is the author of many books, including Sense and Goodness without God, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Proving History.