Killing Jesus Defies Expectations

Killing Jesus, a film adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s book, is not at all what you would expect. The film, which is the most watched program ever on National Geographic, has a novel take on Biblical events. Here Jesus is more tentatively exploring his ideas and philosophy as compared to what one might picture based on the New Testament. The Bible does not give a tone to Jesus’ words, and that leaves room for a lot of creative interpretation. And the interpretation here is that Jesus is not speaking in a speechifying manner, as though his words are preordained. Rather, he seems to be expressing himself extemporaneously, putting his revolutionary ideas into words as they occur to him. 

There is also a spontaneity in the way the crowd reacts to Jesus. At first he preaches rather hesitatingly in the streets. An Israeli wonders, “how can you love your enemy?” before walking away quizzically. His disciples even seem to have their doubts. His brother James, a character who is certainly played down in other films on Jesus’ life, is very skeptical of Jesus’ new ministry. Hence, a prophet is honored everywhere except in his own home town. James’ inclusion illustrates the ambition of Killing Jesus to achieve historical accuracy over a more familiar retelling.

In terms of production value and artistry, this is not Passion of the Christ. Nor does it meet that bar in terms of verisimilitude. Gibson employed the original Aramaic, challenging the viewer to follow along with subtitles.This always struck me as a bold move. As executive producer of Killing Jesus, O’Reilly doesn’t even employ the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of the King James Bible. Obviously Jesus wouldn’t have been speaking English of any iteration, but some of the literary power of the New Testament is lost when converted to modern English. For example, “thou shalt deny me thrice” sounds a lot more poetic than, “you’re going to deny you know me three times.” 

Killing Jesus, as a made for TV movie, does not aspire to compete with or “top” The Passion of the Christ. They do not even light up the same areas of the brain. Passion of the Christ is a film that has a huge emotional impact on the audience, something almost intangible and indescribable. Killing Jesus is more thought provoking than emotive.  Mercifully, Jesus only takes about ten lashes in O’Reilly’s conception, as compared to Gibson’s more extensive flagellation. These are all valid differences of artistic interpretation.

A small qualm is the politically correct casting -- in fact, so PC that Huffington Post fully approves.  I know, the Israelites were and are a Semitic people in the Middle East, but Jesus and his disciples are quite swarthy in this film, much more so than the current residents of Israel, who are the only logical frame of reference. I’m fully willing to concede that Jesus was not blonde haired and blue eyed, but can’t we establish a happy medium, one that is historically plausible but not going too far to compensate for past misrepresentations? The only character that O’Reilly deigned to make European looking was Judas.Gee, thanks.

Perhaps O’Reilly surprised a lot of his potential detractors, who would probably smear him as an “Islamaphobe,” in choosing a Muslim actor to play Jesus. You can call that ironic. Haaz Sleiman is originally from Lebanon. Sleiman does have a certain reverence for Jesus, though, noting, “he influenced the world in such a powerful and positive way.” Sleiman does a creditable job, and it’s no easy role.

A popular book about Jesus by Resa Aslan, Zealot, posits that Jesus was not so much a divine figure as a political revolutionary -- a member of the “Zealots.” The Zealots agitated for independence from Rome. In Killing Jesus, Jesus flatly denies being a zealot. He is not supposed to be a political figure. Rather, his primary mission here is to spread his religious philosophy. And this is emphasized as being one of love.

But the New Testament’s Jesus is somewhat contradictory in that he alternately preaches peace and love, while also using aggressive rhetoric.Killing Jesus reconciles this seeming contradiction in an ingenious manner: as soon as Jesus learns of John the Baptists’ imprisonment, he declares that it is now time for the sword. O’Reilly commented that “some people are going to be surprised” by the anger in Sleiman’s depiction of Jesus. So there is a logical cause and effect which explains the transition from the peaceful Jesus to the more militant one who storms the Temple in Jerusalem. (It is amusing to hear a money changer complain after Jesus overturns his table, “this is my livelihood!”)

Another example of interesting exposition in the film: Antipas Herod’s stepdaughter Salome famously dances to seduce and manipulate him into beheading John the Baptist. In Killing Jesus, Salome explains to her mom that Antipas is always lingering outside her room when she’s changing. In other words, she knows he’s rather fixated on her, and she uses this knowledge to achieve her and her mother’s objective.

It’s really not clear where in sequence of events Jesus decides/realizes that he is the son of God. In fact, it’s notable that he rarely if ever refers to himself in divine terms.  Actor Sleiman describes it as a “journey from humanity to divinity.” The miracles depicted in the film are of the humanly possible variety -- healing an apparently possessed boy, rather than giving the blind sight. When he is baptized by John, there is no voice from the heavens proclaiming, “This is my beloved-son, in whom I am well pleased.”  When he asks his disciples, “Who am I? What am I?” it is as though he is earnestly pondering this very question himself. Instead of witnessing the resurrection, we’re shown Christ’s body to simply be missing, and it is earlier implied that one of his followers could have engineered this to make it appear that he had been resurrected. To say the least, this is an eccentric, and surprisingly secular, interpretation of events.

“Any embrace of Christian tradition is a danger to the left,” O’Reilly argued in response to some negative reviews of Killing Jesus. The Guardian absurdly accused him of presenting a “Tea Party version of the son of God.” It’s interesting that despite making such overtures to achieve historical accuracy, arguably downplaying Christ’s divinity in the film, and his exculpatory depiction of Caiaphas, he is still attacked thusly. This tends to give evidence to O’Reilly’s claim that it is “open season on Christians.”

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