Bill O'Reilly and the Muslim playing Jesus

Story highlights

  • A TV movie based on O'Reilly's book "Killing Jesus" casts a Muslim actor as Jesus
  • Maybe best thing Christians during this Holy Week should watch Muslim portray Jesus, says Tony Jones

Tony Jones is the author of "Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History's Most Famous Execution.' He teaches theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and Fuller Theological Seminary.

Tony Jones

(CNN)A year-and-a-half ago, when the Jesus edition of Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's ongoing book series about the deaths of famous people was released, O'Reilly did the talk show circuit to promote the book.

To "60 Minutes" O'Reilly professed that his "Killing Jesus" is not a religious book. It was purely historical, said the Fox News host. He said it investigates the political circumstances surrounding the most famous death of all time.
When asked why Jesus was killed, O'Reilly said, "He was upset that the Jews were taxing -- and overtaxing, extorting -- the folks."
    Jesus was executed, according to O'Reilly, not because he claimed to be God, but because he interrupted the "money flow" of taxes to the Romans and the Jewish temple leaders.
    As a theologian, I must say that O'Reilly buried the lead.
    The death of Jesus of Nazareth, at least historically speaking, was just one more ignominious execution of a peasant Jew in a long line of such executions. A century before Jesus' death, the Romans crucified about 6,000 slaves on the roads leading to Rome, putting to an end the Third Servile War. Like Jesus, these slaves stood up to the Roman Empire and were quickly defeated. Crucifixion was common.
    Jesus' death was unique because of its theological and religious import. At least that's what his earliest followers decided upon reflection. Jesus was not the messiah that the Hebrews had anticipated. In fact, he'd done just about the opposite of what was expected: preached peace, lived in relative obscurity, and died young.
    Jesus was most definitely an outsider -- on this O'Reilly and I agree.
    He lived in the outer reaches of the empire, a non-citizen with few rights. Even his Galilean accent was considered backwoods in the metropolis of Jerusalem. Whether it was the Roman occupying force or the powerful temple leaders, they must have thought, "Jesus is not like us."
    So it's pleasantly surprising that the TV movie based on O'Reilly's book casts a Muslim actor, Haaz Sleiman, as Jesus.
    Sleiman was raised in Lebanon. He is thick-featured and broad-shouldered. And he is robustly hirsute, the very opposite of the wispily-bearded Ted Neely from the Jesus Christ Superstar of my youth.
    Speaking of Ted Neely, he is just one in a long line of blue-eyed Jesuses in art and film. For a long time, the actors chosen to play Jesus have looked more like O'Reilly and me than like a Judean. Sleiman is a welcome break from that tradition, but some people have voiced displeasure at his casting. Having a Muslim portray the founder of Christianity, they contend, is an offense.
    Sleiman disagrees.
    "My religion is inclusivity," Sleiman told me, and he is an effective evangelist of that religion. He is unashamed to talk about his connection to God, his respect for all three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- and in the "beauty and magnificence of humanity."
    To play Jesus, Sleiman said, he simply focused on the divinity that he believes is available to all human beings, a divinity that Jesus was specially aware of.
    When Bill O'Reilly portrays Jesus as a champion of low taxes and an opponent of big government, he's not committing a mortal sin. He's doing what so many have done before: seeing in Jesus what they want to see, and making Jesus into someone who looks, talks, and thinks like they want him to.
    So maybe the best thing that Christians can do during this Holy Week is to watch a Muslim portray Jesus. In that portrayal, we might be reminded that Jesus himself didn't look like the dominant culture of his day, and he practiced a religion that the Romans did not understand or respect.
    We live in an uneasy time between Christians and Muslims, between Christianity and Islam. And it wasn't so different in the first century.
    Then, an obscure figure who was little understood preached peace and died a sacrificial death. Now a Muslim actor is bringing him to life, and that is no more scandalous than Jesus' own life.