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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 • Jesus • Opinion • TV

soundoff (2,100 Responses)
  1. Smithenwackers

    To say that Paul was not a Christian is pointless. He was, the name just wasn't invented yet. In honest language, it's so stupid to even bring up this point, which is in error, that it's easy to believe that the author has something against Mr. O'Reilly and maybe Christians as a whole. As far as the sources for Roman history, if what he used isn't accurate, is there anything that is? The Pharisees aren't legalistic? Girl, go read the Bible...oh, but that's not accurate history...right. I quit reading the article at that point.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • David B

      I think the point is legitimate. Because he never converted. I think the word converted is where O'Reilly goes wrong. He just followed a different Jewish persons teachings, no conversion necessary.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  2. Sid

    Paul was not only a Christian but he penned about 13 epistles defining what Christianity is all about which is Christ. I believe in the account of Josephus; a liar is not too detailed in his accounts; but a man true to his word is very detailed and not afraid of facts; Josephus writes thousands of detailed facts about the Romans and battles and everything else

    October 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  3. Bob

    What? O'Reilley is a hack and not a historian or journalist who has no training or methodology and just cherry-picks facts and makes up the rest? What. A. Shock.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  4. Eddy

    ...And here I thought this lady would actually prove O'Rilley's "mistakes", far from it, this lady is clueless as to what she's writing, and she and O'Rilley are both wrong in different counts, one because she probably doesn't believe in Christ, and the other one because he thinks that most everything is allegoric in nature in the scriptures. Overall, O'Rilley, does a very good job of depicting 'history', not doctrinal aspects of the Gospel of Christ. Just because we may or may not like O'Rilley, doesn't mean the guy didn't do his homework, all literary buffs know they augment a bit here and there, so no sin in that respect I guess.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  5. tony

    Did Goblins exist before Elves – see the latest Fox News Reearch Investigation.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Eddy

      ...It's a book, you ignorant wise-@ss

      October 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • tony

      Oh that makes it true then?

      October 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • The Other Bob

      You are very ignorant, tony. Goblins, a.k.a. orks, were Sauron's creatures made in mockery of the elves. Everyone knows that. And the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse was named Victor.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  6. Sam

    If you are going to be critical of his sources, please site your own.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Bob

    "Buzzfeed than Wall Street Journal" Given that the WSJ is owned by Fox News, I'd trust Buzzfeed more nowadays.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  8. This is a story?

    All the stuff going on and this makes it to the final cut? Jesus is the guy that cuts my lawn. Nice guy.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  9. musings

    Although I rarely agree with Bill O'Reilly's take on anything, I would have to differ with the author of this article in saying one had make up one's mind about which Jesus was – the preacher of mildness and kindness or the person trying to lift the burden of imperial debts off the backs of his people (the Jews, and perhaps others). To decide that Jesus was one or the other is to reduce his personality to a cartoon.

    I would have to concur with Harold Bloom in seeing great authors such as Shakespeare as creating characters of multi-dimensional attributes which cannot always be pigeon-holed. The writers of the Epistles and Gospels produced enough material about Jesus to prevent easy definitions. So no, I don't think contradictions like the one cited are forbidden and untrue. They are more likely to produce an image no piece of which can be specifically refuted.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  10. TheObserver

    So, given the fact that none of what's in the Bible now was penned by Jesus, and given then fact that those that did pen it a few hundred years later were also deemed to be no more credible than your average joe, can someone again tell me why the large majority of "Christians" in America interpret the Bible so literally?

    Also, given the fact that the modern Bible was also compiled by a Roman emperor who was trying to merge Christianity w/paganism of the time to unite the empire, should we be so literal? Also, Jesus and his disciples would've been speaking Aramaic. The events of the Bible were translated first to Greek, and then subsequently to English. Given all this margin for error and misinterpretation, can the evangelicals in this country just back off already and stop condemning normal people for living normal lives. Also, stop trying to legislate the Bible. Just because I want all my beliefs to be the law doesn't mean they should be.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • gooie

      yea, u got any more gods 2day, besides infinity? (excepting jesus christ, any thing or any one besides him)

      October 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • gooie

      o yea, so.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • musings

      You're wrong about it's having been produced a few hundred years later. Although Paul, who wrote Epistles soon after the death of Jesus did not know him, Peter obviously did and the two men knew each other. It's the Gospels which came a bit later.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  11. Karrie

    Fact checking. A Myth. Ok. Got it.

    Next week's episode...Did Heracles really do 12 labors or was it just 11? Stay tuned...

    October 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • HUIE

      AND SANTA. COULD SO BE SANTA OR TRIANGLES BENT OVER SELF PERPETUATING, unless athies have some new gods

      October 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • SSampson

      GOD is a Myth – yes – of course – like the tooth fairy....

      But there IS some real history there – and it is reasonable to assume that many of the people outlined in historical texts – INCLUDING the Bible – actually existed... Just like Pat Robertson will be recorded....

      Just because they were delusional in their own time doesn't mean they didn't exist

      October 7, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  12. huie

    atheists believe it is the stooges, everything or bent over backwards, triangles of self making plasma

    October 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Karrie

      Christians seem to believe that atheists believe they know things a Human could not yet. This is false. Not knowing and being okay with not knowing is my definition of rational. Christians jump the shark when they invent souls, gods, and after lives. Why jump? Just keep studying instead...

      October 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • louie

        is that right?

        October 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
      • pat

        No we just think atheist are really stupid people who have no grasp on epistemology, cosmology, or basic functions of logic. They operate on the basis that things that cannot be proven are fact. The irony and hypocrisy is that it's the very thing they accuse theists of doing. Atheists believe that from nothing can something come. They believe in time as a linear guiding principle on which all else is based. They belief that the finite is infinite despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, yet they hold science as the ultimate explainer of reality even though that is not it's purpose.
        So we simply think atheists are weak minded individuals.

        October 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
        • Dave

          This Christian wouldn't be quite so harsh about atheists. The atheists I know tend to be thoughtful people trying to make sense of the world. Perhaps it would be best to invite discussion, rather than insult people.

          October 7, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  13. JIM

    CNN Fact checking someone else's work, too funny

    October 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  14. kuewa

    And of course there is the additional flub of relying on the KJ Bible in both the book and this commentary. The KJ Bible is a reconstructed version of non-original text, translated and edited according to contemporary politics and belief systems.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • kuewa

      contemporaneous might be a better word...

      October 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  15. WolfRayet

    Considering that in all probability, Jesus never existed. We know from History and Archeology that Nazareth never existed in the time of Jesus. That's not a belief that's a fact. Nazareth was a city created by the Romans and Greeks way after Jesus's death.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • steelerguin

      What is your source for that info Wolf?

      October 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
      • Data

        According to scholars, Nazareth did exist at the time of Jesus. Only a few authors have argued that it did not and their view is now deemed as "archaeologically unsupportable" by the mainstream. See STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008) as a reference point.

        October 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      No, we don't know that Nazareth didn't exist in the time of Jesus. It is absolutely true that there is no evidence of Nazareth being a major town in the period and only a little evidence suggesting habitation, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

      Also, the hypothesis that an historical Jesus never existed leaves far bigger problems than the idea that he was a real person (regardless of what you think of the claim of his divinity). Every alternate explination for the early Christian movement that omits Jesus as being real has, to my mind, makes even more extraordinary claims than the ones based on him being a real person.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  16. Boris

    Next week, please post an article on some other mythology, the Abrahamic mythologies are boring, vitriolic, false, and what's worse, I strongly suspect there are a few uneducated folks our there who think they really happened!! What part of mythology do people not get??

    October 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • louie

      HEY PAL–THE STOOGES WAS REAL, SO BACK OFF

      October 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Perhaps a myth on Boris' existence...

      October 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
      • The Reverend

        How about the myth that a cat can't use a keyboard or a computer?

        October 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • Dave

      Maybe even a few educated people.......

      October 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  17. MasterWooten

    Just a layman's point to her first so called myth ...
    "Not everything Roman historians tell you is true"

    By that same token not everything told to you by a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame is true either, especially when she's about selling her books!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Buchab01

      MasterWooten, I think Ms. Moss would agree with your statement. You should question what anyone claims to be fact. Josephus and Suetonius are especially dubious because of several reasons other than what Ms. Moss pointed out. They both believed Hercules was real and there is strong evidence that Josephus's writings about Jesus are later interpolations.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  18. Maani

    Re this review:

    1. Her comment about Roman historians is well-taken.

    2. To suggest that Paul was not a Christian because he did not call himself one is semantics. He was arguably the FIRST real "Christ"-ian as we use that word today. As well, her dating of the term "Christian" is faulty. Its first use is in Acts, where the followers of Jesus are called Christian at Antioch. This may have occurred as early as 45-55 A.D., but in no case later than 65 A.D. That is not the "end" of the first century, but closer to the middle.

    3. The Pharisees were in fact religious legalists, and could be self-righteous. However, it was the Sadducees who were even more legalistic and bloviating.

    4. Her point about Jesus' being apolitical is correct. Indeed, the only "political" comment He makes is that about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.

    5. Her comment about history is well-taken. It is indeed a discipline, and is not something one simply regurgitates by cherry-picking from a handful of people in order to serve one's confirmation bias.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  19. tim d.

    "the word Christian wasn't used until the end of the 1st century C.E."???

    Technicallly, it wasn't used until much later than that. Folks weren't even speaking English for another thousand years or so.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Christian

    October 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  20. ZenJahj

    "without God, we are all just Animals"

    October 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • The Reverend

      Speak for yourself.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Boon

      True, we are an animal species, and now thanks to genome sequencing, proven to be related to our three Great Ape cousins, the orangutan, the Gorilla, and the Chimpanzee. Wow, you have a really cool god to lie to you all in such a heinous way! 😦

      [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK3O6KYPmEw&w=640&h=360]

      October 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
      • ZenJahj

        You proved my point, without God, your just an animal...think about it your born with survival instincts. if you continue thru life like that, you join gangs, or packs and act like wolfs and take advantage of the weak...you attack things your scared of...Jails are full of animals...we Cage them...guess where they Find Jesus...in Jail...and some become civilized and are let out of cages, will others need to be caged for life...LIfe without GOD...

        October 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
        • Betty

          Sorry, but I can't help you 😦
          Try not to think about Satan coming for you in your dark moments, it isn't real so you should not be afraid. You have no soul, there is no life after death, and your ideas of gods are false. But always look on the bright side!! You are alive, get up off your backside and get out there and live well!

          October 7, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
        • MikeFright

          ZenJahj, you seem to be the one that’s scared of atheism and projecting all sorts of ad hominem nastiness on atheists, likely because at some deep level you fear we’re correct.

          I am an animal, as are you, and neither of us has a soul in the immortal sense any more than other animals. As for morality, no god is necessary. I can readily empathize with other humans of good will and can see that murder, assault, theft, fraud, and a thousand other forms of criminality and human-to-human predation are cruel and detrimental to a functioning, beneficial society. The latter, despite miscreants of whom many are religious, is what allows so many of us humans to make a living in this world. Apparently unlike you, based on your comments – and I can only assume you’re speaking for what your own conduct would be were your god not present to prevent it – I don’t need a magical being to tell me the golden rule nor to enforce it by threats of punishment.

          October 7, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
        • ZenJahj

          MikeFright, if everyone was like you, we would need no police, since you were born perfect, No one had to instill values into, you were just born that way, great. Most children want things that are not their own, they steal and fight with their bothers and sisters, it's the Nature of the Beast...So since you have never been tempted to do anything wrong...which how would you know what was wrong anyways...if you were born in FIJI from cannibals you would have been feed human meat while a baby, is that wrong? not to them, if you were born were eating Dogs is part of the culture is that wrong? how would you know...no ten commandments, no God just make up you own rules, perfect now nothing's wrong if your the leader of that tribe of country...just like the leader of America tells teenage boys grab and gun and kill these people they are bad...so they do...is that wrong? Obama is our leader he say go kill, you do as your told...he's making the rules for you...right...think about it in this Godless society, I want to marry my goat is that ok? on have two wives one male one female...its that ok...who determines that...i can always move to a country were i can have a harem of women and marry a 9 year old...that's ok...I'm confused...can you help me determine what is right and what is wrong...afterall Hilter thought he was right...Just sayin

          October 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jim in NoVA

      Yes. We ARE just all animals, god or no god. You got that right. Yet somehow, WITH God, humans seem to act even WORSE than wild animals. An animal in the wild will kill another animal for food; but humans kill each other arguing over which god is the "correct" god. That's just pathetic.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:04 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.