Baker Academic

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jesus, Death, and Taxes - Le Donne

I published my review of Papa Bear's Killing Jesus for LARB in November. I figured I'd let a few months pass before I republished it here.
Spoiler alert: I thought this book was a historiographical goat rodeo... but only if one imagines that said goats in said rodeo were the kind that keel over and snooze at the slightest sign of excitement. Here is the full review:


HOW DO WE EXPLAIN Jesus’s death? The answer according to Bill O’Reilly is simple: big-government Jews and Roman taxes. O’Reilly and Martin Dugard title their book Killing Jesus: A History. But there are more references to taxation in this book than there are to crucifixion. Indeed, the authors seem so preoccupied with taxes that the symbolic importance of the cross — a form of execution reserved for political sedition — is neglected. According to O’Reilly, Jesus’s story is a “lethal struggle between good and evil.” From this simplistic perspective — the whole book more a Tea Party fantasy than a “fact-based” history — the “evil” powers are represented by puppet politicians in Judea who enable the Roman tax chokehold on working people.

The authors clumsily attempt to harmonize the four canonical Gospels while inserting psychological profiles of politicians who “tax the Jews blind.” The working class is “levied with tax after tax after tax.” Jesus is a simple carpenter who has memorized Scripture and “pays his taxes.” Peter is tired after a long day of work. “He needs a drink of water and a meal. He needs a soft bed. But most of all, he needs to pay his taxes.” Dugard and O’Reilly would have us believe that Peter’s concerns about taxation outweigh his needs for basic nourishment! Mary Magdalene is driven into prostitution due to poverty in this government-dominated society. The authors acknowledge that this detail about Mary as a prostitute is not supported by any source material, but they appeal to long held assumptions in order to propel the cliché. More importantly, they tell us that “prostitution is legal and even taxed.”

The climate that leads to Jesus’s rise and eventual death is clear:

Whether or not they believe Jesus is the Christ, Jews everywhere long for the coming of a messiah. When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.

We are to believe that all Jews everywhere (except for the big-government Jews, presumably) are longing to be saved from “taxation and want.” Before “the Jews” — a category without nuance in this book — reject Jesus, Dugard and O’Reilly argue that they support him because of their hatred for big government. “Anger about the injustice of arresting such a peaceful man as Jesus would blend with the people’s simmering rage about heavy taxation.”

This narrative is not entirely bankrupt. It is true that Rome taxed many provinces excessively and that many leaders in Jerusalem were corrupt. But the authors mislead the reader time and again by overstating their concerns for taxation while completely ignoring the much deeper concerns for temple purity. Many first-century Jews believed that pure worship was impossible with foreign interference. Moreover, Jesus probably had strong opinions about Roman interference in temple affairs. Ironically, this book suggests that while almost everyone else in the story cared deeply about taxes, Jesus refused to entangle himself in the debate. In the authors’ view, Jesus was killed because everyone else in the culture was playing politics. We learn nothing of Jesus’s message of theocracy. We learn nothing of his apocalyptic worldview. We are led to believe that Jesus simply preached peace, love, and hope in a world of Jewish legalism. In this way, the authors unwittingly contribute to the long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism.

Professional historians are in the business of debating and defining the ways that Jesus’s message was political. But there can be no doubt: Jesus’s proclamation “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” is decidedly political. However one defines “kingdom” in this context, this is a political statement. (Mark 1:15 contains a slogan indicative of Jesus’s general message.) To state what should be obvious: Jesus preached politics and was executed in a political demonstration. It stands to reason that these two historical facts are linked in some way. But this connection is almost completely lost on Dugard and O’Reilly. They do concede at one point that sometimes Jesus’s words “contain a subtle political message,” but this is a textbook illustration of misleading by understating.

Even more perplexing is the space devoted to contextualizing the title “Christ,” a political title. Dugard and O’Reilly draw political connections between Jesus and the historic kings of Israel, but the authors fail to contextualize Jesus within first-century politics. The authors are convinced that Jesus spent his life fulfilling the prophecies of Israel, and they define “Christ” as a political title only in awkward attempts to further this assumption.

They list the Old Testament passages that explicitly detail how the Christ will live, suffer, and die. According to O’Reilly and Dugard, just riding atop a donkey into Jerusalem would be a death sentence. Why? Because the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 was so well known to the Jews that this political gesture would bring political retribution down on Jesus’s head. All Jews everywhere (according to the authors) longed for a liberator and knew what the signs of his coming were, but, repeatedly, the authors paint Jesus’s Jewish disciples as ignorant of these “prophecies” about the Christ’s execution. If these “prophecies” were so well known, why are Jesus’s Jewish disciples so ignorant of them? The authors of Killing Jesus seem unaware that these Jewish Scriptures might have had meaning before their Christological appropriations. Worse, they fail to acknowledge the diversity of interpretations among different Jewish groups during Jesus’s time.

This betrays an even larger problem with the book. The authors are ignorant of the important differences between Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and scribes — “The Jews” is an ideological monolith in Killing Jesus. In their telling, the “all powerful Pharisees” have essentially the same role as the Sadducees and temple priests. On the contrary, the Pharisees were largely representative of common folk, and did not enjoy the political influence over Jerusalem’s leaders that the Sadducees did during Jesus’s time. Indeed, the consensus among professional historians is that the Pharisees had much more in common with Jesus than they did with the Sadducees. Had the authors known this seemingly small historical distinction their plotline might have been dramatically different.

The Sadducees were known for their severe and overly literal interpretation of Jewish law. In many ways, the Sadducees were more “conservative” than the Pharisees. Yet the authors call them “liberal” twice. Again, we see the authors’ myopic ideology at work. The Sadducees, as religio-political advisors to the temple priesthood, supported greater taxation via the temple. This might make them “liberal” by O’Reilly’s standards, but not by first-century sensibilities. Perhaps the Sadducees seem to fit this anachronistic category because they’re part of a “big government” paradigm, but this assumes that there might have been a contingent of free-market capitalists in the first century for whom the label “liberal” had fiscal meaning. On the contrary, a more “conservative” interpretation of temple ideology envisioned the Jerusalem temple as the fiscal center of the nation. The temple treasuries functioned to support the nation’s leaders and contribute to the collective wellbeing of the people. The authors vaguely refer to these politicians as “liberal” but fail to explain why this designation is warranted. They do not because they cannot. Simply put, there were no representatives of free-market capitalism in first-century Judea.

This brings me to the worst of the many fatal flaws of this book. Without education, diligence, and sophistication in historiographical method, it is impossible to develop a historical imagination. For lack of all three, these authors suffer from a shallow imagination, which renders this book dull. It feels like an attempt at historical fiction. For example, consider the following turns of phrase:
The Nazarene is not normally prone to anger, and certainly not rage. In fact, Jesus usually exudes a powerful serenity. So when he boldly storms toward the money changers’ tables, those who know him become alarmed. There is a power to Jesus’s gait and a steely determination to his gaze. 
Jesus is such a force that not even the strongest man dares step in his path. Men, women, and children scatter before Jesus and his whip. 
The men’s intention is to hurl Jesus to his death. And it appears that might happen, for Jesus seems powerless. But at the last minute he turns to face his detractors. Drawing himself up to his full height, Jesus squares his shoulders and holds his ground. He is not a menacing individual, but he has a commanding presence and displays an utter lack of fear.
In their best attempts to provide texture, O’Reilly and Dugard portray Jesus as a holier-than-thou Gandalf crusading for piety in a world of big-government corruption. Unfortunately, their best is unintelligent and boring. “In fact, Jesus usually exudes a powerful serenity,” they write. This is neither “fact” nor creative or compelling writing.

Set against this Sallmanesque portrait of Jesus, almost every person associated with Rome is painted with a black hat. Caesar Tiberius has created a depraved society from the top down. The “moral depravity of Tiberius cannot help but seep into the fiber of even the most far-flung province, causing an erosion of discipline and justice.” Thus the authors apply a large dose of pop psychology to Tiberius and set Jesus in a country choked by evil. Tiberius’s wife is equally trite: “Julia was a great beauty, which made it easier for her to indulge her base instincts.” Aside from the misogyny implicit in this statement, it fits far too neatly into their telling of a “lethal struggle between good and evil.” Or consider this description of Herod Antipas: “With a dark beard covering the tip of his chin and a thin mustache wreathing his mouth, Antipas resembles a true villain.” The world fictionalized by O’Reilly and Dugard is a world of simplistic black-and-white categories. Almost personified, the monolithic evil set against Jesus is given the most demonic name they can imagine: big-government taxation.

But, of course, you knew that this would be a key talking point before you picked up the book. Killing Jesus is as predictable as a poorly written political thriller, without the thrills.

Anthony Le Donne is the author of The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals.


  1. Thanks for reading this so that I don't have to. Ugh.

  2. @Jon Weatherly - Anthony Le Donne takes up our pain and bears our suffering.

  3. The reader must recognize that both O'Reilly and Dugard are Roman Catholics and bring their background to the book. In spite of professed objectivity their acceptance of Catholic tradition can be seen throughout. O'Reilly, in his attempt to be "neutral" in political matters is not and he and Dugard commit a historical fallacy of reading their contemporary views back into the first century. In spite of the assertion that the authors did thorough research before writing it is apparent they relied only on a few resources. One indication of their lack of research was the failure to recognize the difference between a Roman Prefect and a Roman Procurator. Their overuse of Josephus indicates their unwillingness to recognize how this ancient Jewish historian often twisted facts to please his Roman masters. Still, in spite of typical historical interpretive issues, I enjoyed the book for its description of the first century Roman context.

  4. The book title should have been: The Gospel According to Bill!