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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. 1word

    God is real, he lives in me.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      do you mean Thor? Neptune? Shiva?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • 1word

        Don't worry in due time you will find out the truth for yourself.

        October 7, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
        • Dyslexic doG

          you understand the world in a very child-like fashion.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • snowboarder

      does he climb in and out of any particular orifice?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  2. OCCUPY WALLSTREET FOR CONGRESS

    This quote made me laugh....

    "Jesus is the man of the people seeking to liberate the oppressed from a heavy tax burden."

    LOL, really.... does Bill O'Reilly live in a bubble or something. The taxation was meant to take money from rich people to provide for the poor. Now granted, that hasn't worked out so well thanks to corporations and wall street bankers taking over our government.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • evie

      Thanks, that really made me laugh.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Sabby

      Roman taxation to a great extent went to support the expansion and wealth of Rome I would think.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • quidestveritas

      bankers and corporate interests have been in charge since colonization when they set up joint stock companies to settle north America for business purposes. it's not like big money men all of a sudden rose up and took control.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • quidestveritas

      and no, the romans were not using taxation for redistributive purposes of social justice. they used the tax money to further the expansion of the empire. the romans didn't care too much about the little guy.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  3. Herewe Goagain

    I was expecting a lot more. Instead, it was weak. Do better, Candida.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  4. John

    It's good we are talking about Jesus, the word he asks me to post here is "verbatim" to know that the Bible is inspired word we are not to try and change it to fit our "needs" driven mentality which is a twisted deception that came with the fall of man. The word is all we truly need for our spirit, our flesh will war against it but our spirit knows it is the bread of life. Thank you father in Jesus' name...Amen

    October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • doobzz

      Jeebys asked you to post the word "verbatim"? My, my, aren't you special.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
      • John

        I Love you brother, God speaks to you too, but are you listening? Don't be ignorant because I don't want you to miss out on the life God has in store for you, you actually have an amazing gift that the world needs, stop listening to the fools they are killing you! Time to wake up : )

        October 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • snowboarder

      the fall of man. did you ever think about the absurdity of the christian doctrine. it teaches that the innocent can be corrupted by the actions of their forbearers and that the corrupt can be redeemed with the blood of an innocent messiah.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
      • John

        Not even worth debating, God is bigger than your brain, your deceptions and especially your "need' to be right. I woke up about 4 years ago and life has been totally amazing, do you realize your hate is actually a fear that keeps you from knowing the love of God, you are being fooled. All you have to do is ask God to show you if he's real, he will respond, but if the fear is stronger you won't open your mouth, just do it, cry out to him and see what happens, bless you boys in Jesus' name...amen!

        October 7, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  5. Dyslexic doG

    Jesus was just David Koresh 2000 years earlier. A sociopathic conman with a good story and lots of charisma. All this foolishness, without a shred of proof, has sprung up from there.

    utter, mind numbing nonsense.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Commenter

      Dd,

      I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to call the alleged Jesus a sociopath - he may have been a kindly sort who simply had legends spring up about him later.

      Paul of Tarsus, now, there's more of a sociopathic bent - a misogynistic, misanthropic, body-hating zealot!

      October 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • phil

      AMEN

      October 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Darryl

      and the proof for your statement comes from where?

      Someone needs to take their meds today!!

      October 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        I read it in an old book so it HAS to be true!

        October 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • snowboarder

      considering not a single word supposedly uttered by jesus was written down within decades of his fabled death, the veracity of even a single quote is remarkably unlikely.

      odds are pretty good that the philosopher jesus would be appalled at the results of his teachings.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  6. T McC

    Fact check?? Bill O'Reilly?? BWAAHHAHAHAHA!

    Since when did Bill O'Reilly ever let facts get in the way of making his point??

    October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Geoz

    Fox commentators play loose with methodology of all kinds. They just don't dig science, nor in following up on fact-checking. They really want to just say it, and have that count as good enough. If someone brings up standards of science or process, they get labeled as eggheads or liberals or some other derogatory name. That this book had flaws is no surprise. The flaws will now be points of honor against a "gotcha" media.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • hee hee

      I'd rather be an egghead liberal than someone who learns their history from a talk show host.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  8. Darryl

    Interesting.
    I read her comments and they all appear to be up for debate, depending on how you want to interpret the information Bill used to write the book.

    Could it be just some CNN bashing because Bill is on Fox and his show has been # 1 in its category for just about as long as he has been doing it?

    Talk about knit picking a large volume of work and coming up with 5 categories that they can find possible issue with, depending on point of view.

    CNN is just so dang sad!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Herewe Goagain

      Exactly, the 'review' is a few quibbles at best.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Aaron

    So because history shows that the Pharisees were not all judgemental hypocrites, we are supposed to belief that none of them were judgemental hypocrites? This is an all or nothing argument that doesn't stand up and certainly doesn't invalidate the biblical accounts or O'Reilly's book.

    And Paul was a Christian by our current definition. He converted to a belief in Christ from an unbelief in Christ. Simply because he doesn't call himself a Christian doesn't make O'Reilly's statement false. He (O'Reilly) says Paul was "a former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity" That is true. By our current definition of a Christian Paul was one. Just because the early followers of Christ called themselves followers of "The Way" does not change the fact that they followed Christ and believed in his teachings and divinity, which fits our current definition of Christian. If O'Reilly had said that Paul called himself a Christian, then this author would have room to criticize, but he didn't and doesn't.

    Sounds like someone needed 5 criticisms to pad her CNN piece and chose two pretty flimsy ones.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Aaron

      "Christian" started as a semi-derogatory form that was then adopted as acceptable by followers of Christ. I feel sorry for this author's students at Notre Dame, since she presumes to teach about a Bible she obviously does not read. To say that Paul didn't convert to Christianity completely contradicts a simple reading of Acts 26 in which Paul pleads his case before Agrippa. Aside from all his back history as a Pharisee who went about persecuting the followers of Christ and wos converted following a vision, it comes down to the following statements...

      "28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

      29 And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am... "

      He doesn't say anything about not being a Christian, but takes Agrippa's words and turns them into a statement of his belief and wish that all were like him, a follower of Christ. A Christian.

      This author reminds me of a description given in latter days of people like her. "They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness, but they deny the power thereof."

      October 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Sabby

      Professor provides not a single quote for or against her contention that "history shows that the Pharisees were not all judgemental hypocrites." What history? In fact the whole statement is ridiculous since the gospels do not say the all Pharisees were hypocrites. At least one, Nicodemus, was intrigued by Jesus teaching and assisted with his burial. Were there others? Is it strange the professor uses the passive voice, "history shows", which conceals who authored the history in question. Suppose she wrote "My history book shows?"

      October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
      • Aaron

        So true. Glad you brought up Nicodemus. I was thinking of him myself. There are judgemental hypocrites of all creeds and faiths (or lacks thereof). There are also stalwart examples of truth and uprightness. I have no doubt that Jesus encountered a particularly hypocritical group of Pharisees out of what may have been a larger and more moderate group. And this so called "history" of Pharisees may lack examples of hypocrisy with regards to things that DIDN'T involve Jesus of Nazareth, but who is to say how they reacted when a man came in their midst and challenged all that they knew?

        October 7, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  10. quidestveritas

    interesting, an article criticizing an historical propaganda piece by a right-wing tool, which is written by a left-wing tool who authored her own historical propaganda piece.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • snowboarder

      welcome to agenda spun religion.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
      • quidestveritas

        can I rsvp that I decline the invitation?

        October 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Charles

      This Notre Dame professor is simply resentful of anothers success.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  11. joey

    there is no god or gods. there is only the human mind. eat, crap, fck, fight, die, food for worms, the end.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Darryl

      I won't debate you because there really is no need. We'll all know for absolute sure one day, there's no escaping that!

      October 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • evie

      Agree- but not necessarily in that order 🙂

      October 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  12. Nick

    Paul was a Christian. How can she even dare say he was a Jew?!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • KIRK

      um he was a jew and a roman and converted to christianity he at first killed christians he was called saul then

      October 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • T McC

      Did you READ the explanation in the article?? The disciples saw themselves as Jews who followed Christ. The label did not exist until well after Jesus died. By the way, Jesus was a Jew, too.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
      • Aaron

        The explanation she offers for her criticism is wrong since she tries to say that O'Reilly is incorrect when he says that Paul was a past Pharisee who converted to Christianity. His statement is NOT incorrect. O'Reilly is talking about our current definition of Christian. By that definition, Paul was a Christian. He followed the teachings of Christ and believed in his divinity and resurrection. He could have gone on a long explanation of what early followers of Christ called themselves and what Paul might have called himself, but that wasn't what he was talking about, and for brevity's sake, he just says he converted to Christianity. By our current understanding of the term "Christian", that is correct. Geez. She is obviously grasping at straws here. I have no problem admitting flaws in a scholarly work on the Bible written by a TV personality. That includes any and all televangelists. But when something is called a flaw that ISN'T one, I'll stand up and reject the argument.

        October 7, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Wendy

      He was a Jew under the name of Saul. You need to read the Book of Acts.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
      • Nick

        Yep but then he was Paul, as she stated. We're not talking about the 'old' Saul here.

        October 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • crazyvermont

      Jewish or not, he definitely was a follower of Christ after his experience on road to Damascus. I've read excerpts of O'Reily's book and a few things I'd question, but this woman definitely has an axe to grind with faith and CNN is only to happy to provide her a forum

      October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • snowboarder

      people always nitpick about religion. it is mostly meaningless.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  13. Snow

    omg, somebody disagreed with O'Reilly.. He is going to come behind her with pick axe and a rake in his show now. Brace yourself for O"I am never wrong"Reilly 's ad hominems. Will be fun to watch

    October 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  14. snowboarder

    I am not really interested in reading about a 2000 year dead philosopher made into a cult icon.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • KIRK

      you will when you kneel before him

      October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
      • snowboarder

        i'm significantly more likely to win that powerball.

        October 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
      • joey

        is that how the priests justified all the "kneeling" ?

        October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Aaron

      Probably should stay off the "belief blog" then troll.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
      • snowboarder

        yeah, because the belief blog is all about a long dead jewish philosopher. lol!

        October 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
        • Aaron

          No it's not, but it is about all religious beliefs, of which Christianity is one. Beliefs are different from facts, no? As an atheist, one who refuses to rely on pure belief, your only reason to be on here is to cast ridicule at believers. So why complain about reading something you freely chose to read? Because you are a troll.

          Actually, scratch that, you belong on here since atheism is also a belief. You cannot disprove the existence of God any more than I can prove it. You simply choose to believe that He doesn't exist. Atheism is a religion and can be just as hypocritical and judgmental as the worst of them. Welcome to Belief Blog!

          October 7, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  15. tom

    Technically none of the apostles were Christians if you're judging by most modern day religion. Have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with war, and preach! How hard is that to grasp?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  16. Twrench14

    I am so deeply touched to see CNN so genuinely concerned about biblical accuracy

    October 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  17. KillingTime

    I read both "Killing Lincoln" and "Killing Kennedy" a while ago, checked out both from the library. Both were educational and pretty enjoyable reads. However, I see no reason to spend time reading "Killing Jesus". Regarding Jesus' death, we already have a Bible with 4 unique yet cohesive accounts, from 4 different writers who were each eyewitnesses to his ministry years on earth.

    People have to make a choice what to do with the gospel - accept it or reject it. Believing in the Jesus of the Bible is not an academic exercise, achieved through endless debate, or determined by historical artifacts or a lack thereof. People despised the cross 2000+ years ago, and most people still do today. Why? Because it defines surrender, persecution, pain, and death. Plus, people want facts that they can touch and prove through scientific methods. Ironically, many religious power brokers of Jesus' day saw signs and miracles with their own eyes, but they still wanted to throw him off a cliff, according to the Bible. That's reinforcing the point that the gospel must be combined with faith and surrender, which unbelievers and many 'religious' people resist. Until or unless they come to that place of surrender. Once a person gets hold of the concept (through the Holy Spirit) that Jesus took the pain and death of sin on their behalf, then the cross becomes a thing of beauty as a symbol of inherent and permanent redemption by Jesus. "For by grace you are saved, through faith..." And faith is a free gift from God, just as salvation is free. But like any free gift, you can choose to accept it or reject it.

    "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." - 1 Cor 1:18

    "But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." - Romans 5:8

    "Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”" - John 20:29

    October 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • snowboarder

      you think there are 4 eye witness accounts of jesus death? seriously?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
      • Aaron

        4 written eyewitness accounts...

        October 7, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
        • snowboarder

          unfortunately, 4 accounts don't exist. it is possible that one was an eye witness, but unlikely considering it was written decades after the fabled events.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  18. KIRK

    LISTEN THIS IS TRUTH
    CHRIST WAS THE LITERAL WORD OF GOD MADE FLESH
    YOUR A SINNER IM A SINNER CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS AND WAS RISEN BY THE FATHER ON THE THIRD DAY AND NOW SITS AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER
    to be saved

    9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
    10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
    11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
    12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
    13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Laura

      I don't agree with you. Those are your beliefs, not facts.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
      • KIRK

        im sorry and sad for you laura really am

        October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • KIRK

      thats why he is the GATE KEEPER OR THE DOOR
      JESUS SAID
      NO MAN COMES TO THE FATHER BUT BY ME
      thats it no other way to get to heaven HE ALONE IS THE WAY PERIOD END OF STORY
      if you dont believe that then you are condemned already
      16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

      17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

      18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
      • TheObserver

        The Conquistadors and the Crusaders give this post two thumbs up!

        October 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  19. AARON

    This article is factually inaccurate, which is humerous considering that's what it is claiming about the book. I have not read the book so I won't defend it, however this article is flawed. Who's fact checking the fact checkers?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Eric

      Unfortunately the article is an opinion column that this lady has written, so it was probably not fact checked by anyone. It is alright if her opinion is not backed by actual facts, it just should not be published to the public as factual.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Sabby

      She claims "The first generation of Jesus' followers lived and died as Jews." Which is absolutely false. Some continued to observe Jewish law while others were gentiles. Of course since many here claim both the Gospels and also Roman historians are all fabrications. If all the ancient texts are false, why bother trying to arrive at any conclusion?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  20. TheObserver

    Just to make sure, who is actually expecting this book to contain any factual information?

    If so, put tin foil on your head so the rest of us know who you are.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:06 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.