Bill O’Reilly Agrees with Reza Aslan

by Benjamin Studebaker

Bill O’Reilly appears to have written a book called Killing Jesus in which O’Reilly argues that Jesus was killed because he opposed the Roman occupation of Judea (I say “Judea” because that is what the Romans called it at the time) on the grounds that the Romans were redistributing wealth away away from the people of that province, shipping it back across the Mediterranean to Italy. In sum, O’Reilly portrays Jesus as an anti-tax hero, in the mold of the Tea Party. The left has, of course, jumped all over this, emphasizing that O’Reilly neglects the various parts of the Bible in which Jesus defends the poor. What I find so interesting about this is that while O’Reilly has placed the emphasis on specific, narrow parts of the Bible, he is expressing a view that is more or less consistent with the one expressed by Reza Aslan, the man who was the subject of that famous interview with FOX in which they malign him for being a Muslim yet nonetheless writing about Jesus. I wrote about him here.

Aslan argued in his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth that Jesus was a zealot. Here he did not mean “zealot” in the modern context (i.e. a person who is religious to the point at which his sanity becomes questionable) but in the 1st century context–originally, the zealots were a political faction within the province of Judea who agitated for the expulsion of the Romans from that province by violent force if necessary. That is pretty much the same central point argued by O’Reilly. During the period in which Jesus was alive, Judea was governed by the Herodian Dynasty, a puppet government installed and maintained by the Romans. The Herodians levied high taxes on the people of Judea in order to pay for extensive building projects, and these taxes caused hunger, poverty, and high amounts of private citizen debt in Judea.  Jesus hated the money changers because they were contributing to the high level of debt many Judeans found themselves in. O’Reilly is a little bit off–most of the tax money raised in Judea did go to building projects within the province (rather than to Rome, which could harvest much larger amounts of money for itself from many vastly more wealthy provinces). The trouble is that the people as a whole did not benefit from the building projects the Herodians undertook. Most of the buildings were fancy, expensive, and not for them. Furthermore, the Herodians built their buildings in the Roman style and attempted to romanize the province. The Judean people were especially independently minded because their religious views dictated that they were special and that they were to worship one god exclusively.  Romanization consequently met with special cultural resistance in that territory that it did not meet with elsewhere. In most cases, romanization was welcomed because it came with influence and, eventually, improvements in living standards. The Herodians romanized in an unnecessarily unequal way, and further inflamed opposition in so doing.

Both Asland and O’Reilly seem to agree that Jesus was a militant opponent of the Roman presence in Judea.  The primary difference is that O’Reilly sees Jesus as anti-tax without recognizing why Jesus was anti-tax. Jesus was not against the Herodian taxes because he was for small government, he was against the Herodian taxes because they were not being used to improve the standard of living for the local population. The Herodians were using their tax money for grandiose building projects that ignored the needs of the common man. This is a fairly left wing objection by Jesus–Jesus is demanding that the Herodians stop subsidizing the comfort of themselves and the rich in the province and instead either return the tax money to the province’s poor or use it to better the poor’s circumstances. The Herodians, however, had the firm support of the Romans, who supported the building projects on the grounds that they contributed to romanization. In sum, Jesus opposed high taxes but for left wing reasons and on the behalf of the poor in Judea, not the rich. The only thing Jesus has in common with modern republicans is his anti-tax position–the purpose of that position and the people whose interests that position was meant to serve do not align.

Interestingly, some years after the death of Jesus, the anti-Roman zealots got their wish and the province revolted against Roman rule.  The Romans responded by sacking Jerusalem and destroying the second temple. Contemporary writers (whose reports are rarely fully trustworthy, but they’re the best we have) estimated that one million Judeans were killed during the sack of Jerusalem with a further 100,000 taken as slaves. Further efforts to remove the Romans were unsuccessful and resulted in further death and destruction in Judea. In view of this, Jesus appears to have been an impractical idealist–his efforts to galvanize Judeans into rejecting the Romans did not, in the end, improve the lives of Judeans; in the end, these efforts either ended those lives or made them much worse.  Judea would remain part of the Roman Empire until 636, when it was taken from the Romans by the Arabs. The Judeans probably would have been best off continuing to attempt to address their concerns through the imperial system, albeit frequently without success, because Roman power was so overwhelming that independence was unfeasible. There were factions within the Judean population that recognized this, but their influence was not sufficient in several cases, with devastating results.

The fascinating history aside, what I find so amusing about all of this is how close O’Reilly’s view of Jesus is to Aslan’s, despite O’Reilly working for the very network that so famously denigrated Aslan’s view. The profit motive dictates that these two have got to get together–O’Reilly ought to have Aslan on his show, for the mutual publicity and profit that would surely follow.