One of the themes I’ve discussed frequently is the way pseudo-historians and pop culture hucksters use the past to promote a modern agenda. We’ve seen it in Ancient Aliens’ promotion of religious revival, and in America Unearthed’s strange fixation on the politics of racial demographic change in America. That’s why I think it’s worth highlighting a similar theme in Bill O’Reilly’s latest work of historical pornography, Killing Jesus, which promiscuously uses and abuses facts in pursuit of a political agenda that just happens to coincide with O’Reilly’s own brand of conservative politics.
Earlier this week Aaron Adair and Joel L. Watts—who both know more than I ever will about early Christianity—delivered devastating critiques of the way O’Reilly and his coauthor, Martin Dugard, have diverged wildly from contemporary mainstream scholarship on a plethora of issues historical, scientific, and theological. They accept, for example, the untenable idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet from 5 BCE, but apparently misunderstand their own source. They routinely ignore or minimize mainstream interpretations of the Gospels—including going so far as to say that mainstream scholars increasingly support the historicity of the Gospels—and here is where Watts begins to outline the political agenda at work.
According to Watts, O’Reilly and Dugard have a preoccupation with emphasizing Roman tax policy by way of complaining about the unfair burden taxation places on the religious. “Galilean outrage against Rome has been building for decades. They have been levied with tax after tax after tax. Antipas is nothing if not ‘a lover of luxury,’ and he uses these taxes […] to finance his own lavish lifestyle”—just like a modern liberal Democrat! There are literally dozens upon dozens of references to taxation in the book (at least 37), almost as many as the 48 references to taxes in the entire Bible, a text nearly seven times the length. By comparison, the Bible has more than 190 references to the poor and poverty, while O’Reilly and Dugard have just 17, even counting when it’s used as an adjective for “bad.” There are “exorbitant taxes” and burdensome taxes, “exorbitant” interest rates on back taxes and punishments for unpaid taxes, “inevitable taxes” and “misappropriated” taxes used for government officials’ fun. One would easily be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ ministry had nothing to do with the poor or the sick and everything to do with complaining about wasteful Roman government spending and protesting the imperial debt. Note, by the way, that those burdensome taxes modern historians calculate at between 1 and 3 percent of income.
The authors even take a moment to bash Caesar Augustus, the man who founded the empire that in time gave Christianity the power to become, by force, a global faith. According to O’Reilly and Watts, “Octavian has misappropriated vast public sums of money for his personal use, raised taxes, and decreed himself to be Divi Filius.”
In a single sentence, O’Reilly and Dugard reveal their ignorance of pretty much everything. They don’t seem to know how ancient governments worked—public money and private money were not distinct categories, and the head of government was the government; l’etat c’est moi, as another absolute monarch said. Corruption was the way Roman government operated; without it, the empire would not function. Augustus did not precisely “raise” taxes; among his acts was an end to tax-farming to avoid the endemic corruption and exorbitant taxation of which O’Reilly is such an opponent. However, Augustus ended the relatively progressive property tax system (only the rich had property) and replaced it with a fairer but more regressive income tax in which the poor paid rates similar to those of the wealthy (1-3%)—wait a minute; isn’t that what O’Reilly advocates? But Jesus hates Roman tax policy? Live by the Word, die by the word. Remember: Jesus hates the flat tax.
O’Reilly and Dugard want us to read “Divi Filius” as Son of God, equivalent to Jesus’ title, as an example of Augustus’ hubris; but Augustus meant it as “son of a god,” specifically his adopted father Julius Caesar, who had been declared a god. “Divi filius” was a truncated form of the full honorific “divi Iuli filius,” son of the Divine Julius. It’s important to note the difference between the Latin word “divus,” a minor divine figure, and “deus,” a full-fledged immortal Olympain Deity like Jupiter and Juno, though the distinction was not always perfectly maintained. Christians, pointedly, called Jesus Dei filius, or Son of God. Pagans imagined a range of divine figures, from heroes to minor gods to low-level Olympians to the Big Twelve. Christians, of course, are completely different in recognizing a hierarchy of saints, various orders of angels, Mary, Jesus, and God. A Roman emperor as divus was not a whole order of magnitude different from the Catholic process of canonizing saints to wield special power in heaven and receive special honors on earth. Incidentally, Augustus being the “son” of a god did not make him prima facie divine, no more that Perseus, son of Jupiter, could ever be more than a human hero; the idea that the emperor was divine in life was an affectation that post-dated Augustus.
But what takes the cake is the way O’Reilly and Dugard impose modern American political ideology onto first century Palestine to argue that liberals are hell-bound sinners. The authors claim that John the Baptist told his audience that the Christ would “punish” the unbaptized “in the most horrible manner possible.” This is their interpretation of John’s speech to the Pharisees and the Sadducees in which he warns them that the one to follow him would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff (Matthew 3:7-12; Luke 3:17). The authors, Catholics both, take a Protestant position that this represents the threat of hellfire and damnation, while other traditions represent this as a cleansing to purify the souls of the wayward, relating it back to John’s claim that Jesus will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
But what is disturbing is that the authors call the Sadducees “liberal”—though apparently unaware that this is both untrue (they were Mosaic fundamentalists and supplied priests for the Second Temple) and not quite what they meant it to mean (they seem to mean “permissive”)—and therefore create, rhetorically, the syllogism that if (a) Sadducees are going to hell and (b) Sadducees are liberals, then (c) liberals are going to hell. I’m not sure either author is clever enough to have planned this, but it reveals one of the underlying themes of O’Reilly’s work, the promotion of a capital-C Conservative (i.e. political) agenda, even above the small-c conservative position on theology. Pointedly, Watts notes that the two authors omit the text of Luke 3:11 in describing John the Baptist’s preaching. That verse, of course, is socialist propaganda in which John calls on his followers to share their material goods and their food.
It just goes to show what I’ve said many times: Popular history and pseudo-history are about the present, not the past, and reveal agendas and anxieties applicable to today, not yesterday.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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