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April 7, 2015 4:45 pm

Picturing the Jewish Jesus: Bill O’Reilly and the National Geographic Channel Get it Right

avatar by Bernard Starr

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A scene from Killing Jesus. Photo: National Geographic.

When I tuned in on March 29, 2015, for the National Geographic’s film production Killing Jesus, adapted from Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus, I was poised, pen in hand, to write about the return of Jesus the Tea Party guy. That’s what O’Reilly gave us in his book Killing Jesus: Jesus kvetching about taxation and big government.

In the National Geographic dramatization, Jesus is still complaining about taxes (but who isn’t). Here, though, he is more vigorously castigating the rich while praising and embracing the poor. The rich are clearly the villains; there is no suggestion of a trickle-down economic system that might share the wealth.

While the narrative does not add anything new, it may prove useful as a straightforward dramatization of the Gospels for bible classes and for others who wish to review and discuss the Gospel stories about Jesus. The production pretty much selectively follows the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death, with a few embellished departures. For example, Elizabeth and Zachariah, parents of John the Baptist, join Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in their journey to Egypt, a journey they make in order to evade King Herod’s order to kill all children in Bethlehem age two and younger. The couple accompanying Mary and Joseph is a cozy addition, but it didn’t happen that way, according to Matthew’s account of the event (Matthew 2: 13-14).

That said, in several important respects this production is unique as an authentic representation of the life of Jesus. Jesus, his family, and followers are portrayed as dedicated Jews. There is not even a hint about a new religion — not until the postscript do we learn that after the crucifixion, Jesus’ death and teachings did inspire a new religion that today has two billion followers.

The production takes care to show Jesus’ criticisms, as in the Gospels, as strictly directed against the Jewish leadership (the Sanhedrin) and, in particular, the ruthless power obsessed High Priest Caiaphas. Jesus deplores their superficial display of piety and charges that the leaders do not represent the true spiritual teachings of the Torah. Jesus fills in this omission in his sermons to multitudes of Jewish followers. Throughout the film, Jesus is called Rabbi.

Adding to the authenticity of the film is the absence of blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned northern Europeans or Scandinavians. Jesus, his family, disciples, and followers, as well as other Jews, are conspicuously Semitic in appearance. They are dark-skinned, with dark, if not, black hair. Also, the attire of the Jewish villagers is spare -many are shown wearing plain Jewish shawls and headwear. Their dwellings, including Jesus’ family abode, are crude and simple, true to the architecture for the poor and working-class in Galilee in the first century. These depictions -physical appearance, clothing, housing, Jewish artifacts – are dramatic departures from the Renaissance representations of Jesus and his fellow Jews.

Walk through the Renaissance Gallery of any museum and you will see painting after painting jarringly at odds with the images in Killing Jesus. In these artistically magnificent Renaissance paintings you will typically be greeted by a blond, blue-eyed Jesus and other similar appearing “Semites” ensconced in palatial settings with regal attire. They are identified as strictly Christian with no indication of any connection to Judaism.

Let’s just focus on one element common in Renaissance paintings: Jesus and others in his entourage displaying a crucifix. Imagine the reaction if in Killing Jesus, Jesus, his disciples, and others were pictured strolling near the Temple in Jerusalem and in the villages in Judaea and Galilee with crucifix staffs – a feared and hated symbol at the time, associated with the tens of thousands of brutal crucifixions of Jews and others. It would be shocking, anachronistic, and blatantly false. Yet these false representations appear in a trove of Renaissance paintings. They would be the only images of the Gospel figures that Europeans would view for centuries — and that we still see today.

On his July 26, 2014, O’Reilly Factor Broadcast Bill O’Reilly slammed me for my criticism of Renaissance art for depicting Jesus as a Christian at a time when he was a dedicated Jew and Christianity did not exist. Ironically, the National Geographic production Killing Jesus, Executive Produced by Bill O’Reilly, confirms my point. Jesus is shown fiercely dedicated to Judaism, as in the Gospels. It’s therefore not surprising that the word “Jew” appears 82 times in the Gospels and the word “Christian” not at all. In fact, it’s safe to say that if Jesus and his disciples were to view Renaissance images, like the ones below, they might think they were cartoons.

Baptism of Jesus by Ottavio Vannini , Holy Family with John the Baptist by Fra Bartolomeo

The Last Supper by Fra Angelico

Art historians might do well to view the National Geographic production of Killing Jesus and afterwards re-examine Renaissance images. They might then finally acknowledge the falsification of biblical history in Renaissance artworks, which has contributed to the historic divide between Christians and Jews, a divide that is only now in the process of reconciliation and healing.

Kudos to Bill O’Reilly, script writer Walon Green, and the National Geographic Channel for setting the record straight by reminding us of the two sides of the Jesus story: Jesus the dedicated Jew, and Jesus whose legacy is the emergence of Christianity. The film expresses Pope Francis’ sentiment: “Inside every Christian is a Jew.”

Bernard Starr, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.” He is also organizer of the art exhibit “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.”

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  • Mike P


    Just so you know, your last name is a Jewish last name, coming from the Hebrew word for pearls.

    In fact, your family is related to the great Medieval rabbi called Rashi.


    Your last name is one of the several spelling variations, but all these spelling variations have only one origin.

  • I may be wrong but it is my understanding that an Arab played Jesus. Couldn’t they find a Jew to play a Jewish man?

  • Corinne Margulies


    You have done more than anyone in recent times, to bring the truth of Jesus to light. Often, perception becomes reality and can lead to false beliefs that translate into deplorable actions – such as past Christian animosity and actions towards Jews. As a practicing Catholic I know that our Pope Francis is absolutely correct – In every Christian is a Jew. Who Jesus really was is key to erasing prejudice and bias. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your work.

    Corinne Margulies
    New York City

  • Taxation is stealing. This unique son of God would stand forthright against the public, organized, institutionalized violation of his Father’s commandment not to steal. If you look up the definition of extortion in the criminal codes of any American jurisdiction, you will see that taxation fits the definition to a tee. Extortion is stealing. The only reason all tax collectors aren’t in prison is because the state grants them immunity from their crime. God’s prohibition, however, makes no such exclusion. It is undoubtedly for that reason Jesus frequently pointed to tax collectors as the archetypes of sinners. The fact that Jesus often kept company with tax collectors, and redeemed at least two (Zaccheaus and Levi) tax collectors, and explicitly stated his mission was to save such sinners, at the very least implies Jesus was attacking Rome’s system of taxation by reforming one tax collector at a time. Perhaps that is why the chief priests, when they dragged Jesus before Pilate, charged him with telling people not to pay their taxes and inciting riots in doing so in Galilee Judea. (see Luke 23:1-5, particularly in the New Living Translation)

    Was Jesus concerned by the crime of collecting (or receiving) taxes. Do a search for the word tax in any modern translation of the Gospels and you will get as may as 36 or more returns. It is almost as if the Gospels were produced by the Tea Party and Jesus was a member.

    Pilate was the man responsible to Caesar for the collection of Rome’s taxes in Judea, and there can be no doubt he would deal harshly (crucify) anyone threatening Rome’s ability to collect the taxes on which the empire utterly depended if he wanted to keep his job and his head.

    When he was asked whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus essential told people to give Caesar nothing. He explicitly said, “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Since no one in the Roman empire had anything of Caesar’s, Jesus’ words can only be interpreted to mean give him nothing. Caesar was a taker, not a lender nor a giver. Everything Caesar might claim to own was in his possession because he had stolen it from others by means of conquest, plunder, enslavement or taxation. And to make his point clear, Jesus added in his response, “And give God what is God’s.” He was obviously referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, wherein it is stated at least six times, as in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” which leaves nothing for poor old Caesar, and nothing is what Jesus would have us pay the violent state in the form of taxes.