Killing Jesus - the adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s book premiering on 29 March - is not history. This might seem like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating, given how the three-hour “television event” is being pitched to viewers: as a restrained Biblical history, suitable for believers and non-believers alike.
We rarely think and talk about “Bible movies” as products of artistic interpretation - instead, we often treat them as “historical” or “religious” films. But Exodus is a Ridley Scott movie; Noah is a Darren Aronofsky movie. If we’re to go by the same guidelines here, let’s call Killing Jesus not some generic “history,” but a “Bill O’Reilly movie.”
O’Reilly, the American pundit with a long-running show on conservative Fox TV, is virtually synonymous with “opinionated.” He makes his living using those opinions to bully anyone who disagrees with him, including guests on his show. Recently, O’Reilly’s disregard of facts has been especially well-documented.
A Catholic self-described “traditionalist,” O’Reilly can’t be trusted notto confuse religious interpretation with historical fact. Thus, if we see Killing Jesus as a Bill O’Reilly film, that should remind us that it can’t be an impartial, historical film at the same time.
Much is being made of the show casting a young Muslim actor of Middle Eastern descent as Jesus, possibly in hopes of avoiding charges of Christian bias, or as a way of emphasizing the human qualities of Jesus. (Islam considers Jesus human, and prophetic, but not divine.) Promotional videos tout the “real authenticity” gained by filming in the Moroccan desert. The show’s credibility is buoyed by its association with the National Geographic Channel, which also produced other O’Reilly TV movies, such as Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy.
At least Lincoln and Kennedy are within the scope of recorded modern history. Jesus is not. As the devout Catholic author James Carroll writes in Christ Actually: “the empirically identifiable Jesus, focus of historians’ quest, and the interpreted Jesus of the Gospels, focus of theologians’ contemplation, are not the same Jesus”.
Even the critics are confusing the issue. Bryan Lowry writes of Killing Jesus in Variety: “Along the way there are discreet miracles, but this represents a more historical approach to the material”. More historical than what? Miracles, by definition, no matter how discreet, cannot be counted as fact.
O’Reilly’s telling takes as fact a number of time-worn myths that have been repeatedly disavowed by scholars. Characterizing the apostle Paul as a Christian is an anachronism: Christianity didn’t begin until a century after the crucifixion; Jesus and all his apostles died Jews. Scholars have noted with irony that in depicting the Pharisees as legalistic, hypocritical evildoers, O’Reilly, ironically, picks up on a caricature originally created by Reformation-era Protestants to ridicule Catholics. Even the show’s air date belies its historical, universalist veneer. If Killing Jesus is supposed to be history suitable for Christians and non-Christians, why on earth does it premiere on Palm Sunday, the start of the Holy Week leading up to Easter?
It may be true that Ridley Scott, whose company helped produce the film, learned from the critical response to Exodus that Bible movies should make greater efforts at Middle Eastern atmospherics. Scott was accused of racism and inaccuracy for casting, for example, John Turturro as the Egyptian Pharoah. But I’d prefer a Bible movie with more greasepaint and special effects that billed itself as the blockbuster entertainment it was over a Middle Eastern-looking Bible movie that thinly masks Gospel theology.