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Five things Bill O’Reilly flubs in 'Killing Jesus'
October 4th, 2013
07:09 PM ET

Five things Bill O’Reilly flubs in 'Killing Jesus'

Opinion by Candida Moss, Special to CNN

(CNN)--Bill O’Reilly’s "Killing Jesus: A History" is the best-selling book in the world right now. But it’s far from flawless.

The Holy Spirit may have inspired "Killing Jesus," but he didn’t fact-check it.

Here are five ways it shows: 

1. Not everything Roman historians tell you is true

Of the first 80 or so pages of "Killing Jesus," only 15 are about Jesus himself. The rest is history, biography, and politics of the ancient Mediterranean. Much of this is gleaned from Roman and Jewish historians like the imperial biographer Suetonius and the Jewish general Josephus.

These are authors that O’Reilly trusts implicitly. Maybe it’s because Suetonius reads like the National Enquirer, maybe it’s because the Romans loved eagles, but whatever the reason, O’Reilly gives them too much credit.

The Romans were fantastic record-keepers but had different standards for their history writing. O’Reilly refers to the acta diurna – a sort of proto-newspaper recording political events, marriages, and divorces that was read aloud in public – as evidence for accuracy in Roman record-keeping.

But he is wrong to see these as transparent statements of fact.

They were propagandistic: the Roman orator Cicero complains that he is misrepresented in the daily reports, and the Roman governor Pliny retells a story he had heard in which a dog jumped in the river after his deceased owner. It’s a little more Buzzfeed than Wall Street Journal.

2. Paul was not a Christian

According to O’Reilly, Paul was “a former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity.” Paul was not a Christian; he was a Jew who moved from one branch of Judaism to another.

He never uses the word Christian. It seems that the early members of the Jesus movement referred to themselves as followers of “the Way.”

The word Christian wasn’t used until the end of the first century C.E. The first generation of Jesus' followers lived and died as Jews.

3. The Pharisees were not self-righteous bloviators.

The same old caricature of Pharisees as “arrogant,” “haughty,” and legalistic pervades the book. There is biblical support for this view from the Gospels, but O’Reilly and Dugard claim to be writing history and separating ”myth” from “fiction.”

For the past 30 years, scholarship on the Pharisees has shown that the Pharisees were not hyper-legalistic hypocrites. To make things worse, the authors seem to think that John the Baptist told the Pharisees either to burn or be condemned to hell (a rather peculiar reading of Luke 3:17).

The irony here is that our modern stereotypes of the Pharisees are grounded in Protestant critiques of Catholicism. Protestant Reformers saw Catholics as just like the biblical Pharisees, championing faith through works, and lumped the two groups together as legalizers and hypocrites. O’Reilly and Dugard, being Catholic, are actually stereotyping themselves.

4. Jesus was/wasn’t political

Any follower of Internet memes knows that Jesus can be made to say anything. O’Reilly has vacillated between saying (on his television show "The O’Reilly Factor") that Jesus was not political and arguing in his book that Jesus died to interrupt the revenue stream from the Temple and Rome and that "Jews everywhere long for the coming of a messiah ... [because] Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want."

Even though there’s no evidence for a direct financial link between the Temple and Rome, there’s no doubt that Jesus advocated for the poor. But O’Reilly needs to make up his mind. Is Jesus the man of the people seeking to liberate the oppressed from a heavy tax burden, or is he a peaceful man of God just trying to make a difference?

5. History isn’t just a word, it’s a discipline

O’Reilly acknowledges (correctly) that it’s difficult to look past the agendas of his sources and separate the myth from the history.

Historians prefer early sources and events that are documented in multiple (preferably independent) sources. O’Reilly puts all of this aside and cherry-picks episodes from whichever Gospel version he seems to prefer.

He will sometimes omit stories if they seem historically implausible, but he doesn’t do this consistently. He omits Jesus' words, from the Gospel of Luke, as he is being crucified: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  In his CBS interview he explained that it was impossible for people to speak audibly while they were crucified. Fair enough; but then why does he include Jesus’s final words from the Gospel of John: “It is finished”? Is there something about the word “forgiveness” that sticks in the throat?

Apart from the methodological problems, the entire book is written in the style of a novel, not a history book. We hear the thoughts of Herod as he orders the execution of the male children of Bethlehem, for instance. It’s entertaining, but it’s historical fan fiction, not history.

Editor’s Note: Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Myth of Persecution.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Faith Now • Jesus • Opinion • TV

soundoff (2,095 Responses)
  1. jpherling

    No part of the OT was written down until the 8th Century B.C., so everything in the OT prior to that period is oral tradition, rather than history. Jerusalem was badly damaged by the Babylonians but rebuilt under the Persians. The Jews of the 1st century AD believed that God would eventually furnish a messiah who would defeat their oppressors. This event would be followed immediately thereafter by the establishment of the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, ruled by a king who would be a descendant of David.

    February 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm |
  2. bobmosurinjohn

    Actually, God hates violence. Genesis 6:13
    "And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth." God also forbad David the building of the temple because David had been a man of war. God ordered the 10 commandments, to show man how sinful he is, and gave Israel a king (Saul) only because the Israelites demanded a man to be king over them, and tragedy followed. If Jerusalem and the temple were the sacred seat of God's kingdom why did God have the temple destroyed twice (and the third temple will be destroyed also, by an earthquake when the Messiah returns.

    February 20, 2014 at 6:46 pm |
  3. tristfal

    Paul was a Christian. – Christian means follower of Christ.
    "He never uses the word Christian. It seems that the early members of the Jesus movement referred to themselves as followers of “the Way.”
    So we're admitting paul is a follower of the "the way" and Jesus said "I am 'The Way'"
    John 14:6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life." first part of John 14:6
    Paul believes Jesus is God, and he believes what Jesus says.
    Christian means follower of Christ
    Paul is Follower of the way
    The way = Jesus
    Paul believes this
    Paul is a follower of Jesus Christ = definition of Christian.

    "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah." – Mark 8:29

    February 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm |
    • jpherling

      You understand, of course, that the word "messiah" meant something very different to Peter, a first century Jew, than it did and does to Christians of later times.

      February 19, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
      • bobmosurinjohn

        The Jews indeed were (and still are) deceived into thinking they were (are) looking for a military Messiah .. but that was never promised, the Salvation from their enemies was from the death promised through sin .. 'the soul that sinneth it shall die' .. Christ delivered from the power of satan and death, not enemy nations ... "My kingdom is not of this world..." The Jews after conversion will be among those in the Camp of the Saints awaiting the last 'battle' but will be living in unwalled villages because they know their Salvation will not be through carnal weapons like guns and swords because they will know that God will consume their enemies with fire.

        February 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
        • jpherling

          All the references in the Old Testament are to a leader who would liberate the Jews from their enemies and establish the kingdom of God in Jerusalem. If this did not mean a military leader, then the Old Testament itself was deceiving the Jews and their priests. The OT says absolutely nothing about delivering the Jews from sin. The Christians are the ones who deceive themselves on that point. Yehoshuah ben Yosef (the name Jesus, if he ever actually lived) would have been known by in his own lifetime, believed that he was the Jewish idea of the messiah, and convinced a lot of other Jews that he was, but he proved that he wasn't by failing to oust the Romans. He was an excellent teacher of ethics, but a miserable failure as a revolutionary leader, and paid the price for his failure. The Christian concept of the messiah was among the beliefs fabricated by Paul of Tarsus, the founder of Christianity.

          February 20, 2014 at 11:31 am |
      • bobmosurinjohn

        P.S. Of course God gave Peter the gift of knowledge that Jesus WAS the Messiah, and his Messiah told him that war was NOT the answer .. 'put up thy sword into his place' .. and to 'love your enemies' .. this was one reason the biblical christians could so easily give their lives, they KNEW the kingdom was not of earth, but in heaven, and that the blood of Jesus was the free ticket through the pearly gates.

        February 19, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
      • bobmosurinjohn

        In Genesis God promised that Abraham's seed would be a blessing to ALL the nations of the earth, not just one, and THAT is what the scribes and pharisees missed when thinking Israel and Jerusalem was to be the seat of God, and THAT is why the Messiah's apostle Paul, who had been a pharisee, went to the Gentiles with the message of Salvation, because the Jewish nation's self righteousness rejected Christ out of self righteousness, thinking they were the chosen nation merely because they were born Hebrew.

        February 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
  4. Bob Mosurinjohn

    Bill .. Joseph was not poor .. he was a carpenter, a highly respected and well paid trade then and now, he easily could have booked passage on a ship from the seacoast to Egypt instead of crossing the Sinai. Also, what is your experience with cruxifixion to say a person could not talk 'with volume' on the cross. The people of that day were very physically fit, the average person probably as fit as our top athletes, most did not ride in cars or airplanes, they walked great distances, they had no power tools, they worked hard physically just to maintain daily life, carrying water and firewood, etc. When crucified they were not only hung from the hands, but supported by their feet. Sure, nail an average person today to the cross and they would be dead before the first nail was through. But you are bringing the name Jesus Christ to the world .. best wishes.

    January 18, 2014 at 10:56 am |
  5. ourmisterbrooks

    Reblogged this on Our Mister Brooks and commented:
    Casual critique and a reminder that simply because a book hits #1 doesn't mean it is historically accurate. Or even good for that matter.

    January 12, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
  6. Joe

    Candida Moss? Is that a real name? Thats like saying your name is "fungal infection – treebark grass." Whatsup with that?

    December 30, 2013 at 7:27 am |
  7. Judy

    Bill, On page 74, paragraph 1 you stated that the Temple was the place where God gathered dust to create Adam. Would you please give me a reference to that. If you did in the book , I am sorry I must have missed it. I enjoyed the book greatly and appreciate the research and time you obviously went to . Thank you, Judy

    December 28, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  8. Jim Moseley

    Bill O'Reilly's book actually contains 133 historical errors about Jesus. Candida Moss, sadly, has not detected even one of them but has, refreshingly, introduced several of her own, along with some irrelevancies. 1. So Roman historians were inaccurate. Of course, but in the absence of much else, they're what we have to go on. Just because you suspect Roman propaganda doesn't mean you can make up your own. 2. Paul was not a Christian. Ha-ha! Leave it at that. 3. The Pharisees were not self-righteous bloviators. Some weren't. Many were. History is about the influential actions of prominent people of a given age, not about the actions of some, even the majority, whose thoughts and actions did NOT shape events. 4. Jesus was/wasn't political. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. QED. 5. History is a discipline. Candida is right. She's also right that O'Reilly doesn't rise to the level of historian in this book. But it seems that Candida may lack that skill as well.

    December 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • CMorton

      Finally, something rational!

      December 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Nanasavi

      This is quite rational indeed. Thanks for pointing out these possibilities.

      December 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      Political Jesus in telling his followers to "love your enemies" and by healing the Roman sick was eminently political at a time Jewish 'politicos' and hordes called for revolution through the release of Barabaras, a rebel and murderer, a potential leader of armed revolt against Roman occupiers. But Christ's blood needed to be shed to wash us of our sins.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:03 am |
      • delroy cunningham

        say it again, brilliantly said.

        February 3, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  9. Sam Son

    Wrong, Candida Moss. Paul was a Christian, but you would have to read the Bible to know that.
    Acts 11:25-26 says, " 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."
    How can one be so ignorant?

    December 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
    • Julie

      She's not ignorant, just deceived and uninformed. She may know " religion" as man as defines it, but Jesus is not religion, He is a relationship, apparently something she does not yet have by the way she writes and believes. One can only pray for her.

      December 17, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
      • Bill

        You do that Julie. It is pretty clear that she has forgotten more about Jesus and early Christianity than you will ever know. You just keep doing what your pastor tells you from the pulpit. We'll leave the scholarship and understanding to people who can think for themselves.
        Incidentally, you may want to look up the definition of "religion."

        December 18, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
        • Julie

          Bill, do you think your smart tone and mocking my comments in any way shows me the love of Christ ? The world responds with sarcasm and mocking, not a christian. Christians see people the way Christ does. ie: the woman with many husbands at the well, the adulterous woman who was to be stoned. Christ did not condemn them, he did not mock either nor was he smart mouthed with either. He treated both with love and respect and offered them His love. Incidentally, this is what GOD calls religion: James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Note the keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. . Man organized "religion" is not God and God is not religion. Jesus himself called the religious pharisees and Sadducees hypocrites and worse.

          December 19, 2013 at 12:17 am |
        • Bob Mosurinjohn

          James 1:27
          Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
          James 1:26-27

          January 18, 2014 at 10:42 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        I get the feeling that Julie's god agrees with her opinion on EVERYTHING. I bet every time she prays, Jaysus just "confirms in her spirit" everything she already thought was correct. Interesting how imaginary friends are always so nice and agreeable.

        December 18, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
      • Bob Mosurinjohn

        It's incredible that Candida is a professor of the New Testament .. simply unbelievable that education has fallen as far as the Christian church today (fullfilling prophecy regarding the church) but it has. 'They were first called Christians at Antioch.' Yes. Paul and Christ's followers definitely were Christians,and are today.

        January 18, 2014 at 10:37 am |
    • Bill

      The idea that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch does not in any way indicate that Paul is a Christian. The passage does not indicate when disciples were called Christians at Antioch, just that they were first called Christians there. Again, this does not indicate that Paul himself is a Christian, or considers himself a Christian.

      December 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Sam thinks you're not interpreting those verses correctly, Bill. Either that, or you don't have enough faith to believe the way he does even though there's no scripture to back up his claims. Or maybe it's that god works in mysterious ways. One of the three, anyway.

        December 18, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
        • Bob Mosurinjohn

          2 Peter 1:20
          Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
          2 Peter 1:19-21

          January 18, 2014 at 10:47 am |
      • Bob Mosurinjohn

        Bill I firmly believe you are simply argumentative for the sake of arguing without believing in what you are arguing about. To say Paul was not a Christian is like saying Mathew Mark Luke John Peter Barnabas etc did not believe in Jesus Christ.

        January 18, 2014 at 10:45 am |
    • Glenn

      Some of your critics seem to be confusing apostles with disciples. Disciples (followers of Jesus' teachings) were first called Christians at Antioch. This would have included the apostle Paul since the apostles were also disciples. Critics: Don't bother me with Judas. I know about him.

      January 11, 2014 at 9:08 pm |
    • delroy cunningham

      tomorrow, tue 02/04/2014, at my church at the podium im bringing the word of Acts ch. 9 how saul talk with got blind his soldiers saw him speaking to someone but didn't who he was speaking, ananious sent by jesus, to give him his n baptis him, how he went n speak about god.

      February 3, 2014 at 10:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.