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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. Slatlantican

    Haven't read O'Reilly's book, and I won't–he's not my idea of an historian. But Ms. Moss has disqualified herself from list of logical thinkers as well. She asserts Paul was not a Christian because he didn't ever use that word for himself, then turns around and (correctly) points out that the word Christian did not come into use until the end of the 1st century. But if Paul couldn't be a Christian because he didn't use an appellation that was not as yet extant, means that no one/u> could be a Christian, until such time as the word came into use.

    Who here believes that there were no Christians until 60-70 years after Jesus's death?

    October 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • QS

      You may want to remove yourself from that list of logical thinkers after that comment.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  2. Sferny

    I find it funny that this review was written by someone named after a yeast infection. #candida

    October 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • QS

      Still a more reliable opinion than O'Reilly's....by far.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  3. notagopfan

    And you expected Fox News to fact check? Yeah right, and I had dinner with the Easter Bunny and the Boogie Man last night.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  4. Honey Badger Don't Care

    The tide goes in, the tide goes out. Cant explain that!

    October 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  5. QS

    "Apart from the methodological problems, the entire book is written in the style of a novel, not a history book."

    This just about sums up the bible itself from where I stand.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  6. puck

    whether you believe in jesus and the message in the gospel is not entirely the issue here....what is, is whether or not i would care to entertain Bill's "well intended" thoughts here. was this book for profit? likely, and if it is indeed making as much money as a "top selling book" book does in this world then one must review what a POLITICAL commentators motives are....for me, this guy does not see and therefore has nothing to witness.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • An Independent

      The profits gained from his books all go to fund charities such as the wounded warrior project.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  7. Doug

    There's a reason CNN's fact-checking is listed under the header "Opinion by Candida Moss"

    October 7, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • David Marks

      Amen to that.

      Candida's opinion holds less water than the subject material in question.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Slatlantican

      Indeed, her logic is often weak.

      I don't think any better of O'Reilly than her, but as an undergrad I could have skewered her from the back of the lecture hall.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  8. Tyler Durden

    Candida Moss was actually on the Bill O'Reilly show a day before this article was published. I guess she still had a bone to pick. Milk it Candida...milk it.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  9. D

    It's kind of sad that people spend so much time agonizing over what fictional characters did/did not do this many years later. One wonders if, in 4013, people will be arguing about what Twilight characters did/did not do. Ha!

    October 7, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Rock0f@ges

      Shut up, satan!

      October 7, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Bert

      You don't have to believe in Jesus, as God's only and eternal Son, to see him as a historically pertinent figure. Historians all agree that a real person (not a fictional character) named Jesus, existed in the days of King Herod and Pontius Pilate, in the land of Judea. His disciples were real. Paul, the persecutor of Jesus' followers was likewise, real. It isn't a question of whether or not these characters were fictional or actual...instead, it's a question of believing (or not believing) their stories, and whether or not they were correct in their assertions about the divine nature of Jesus the man. Jesus lived, taught, spoke, loved and died. These are the facts...historically accurate. Please follow your own heart, in the direction of belief or disbelief. And be courteous enough to allow others to do the same, without such sarcastic, opinionated and judgmental criticisms about their decisions to encounter this story, as they see fit.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
      • Lee

        @Bert
        Good golly, the crazy doesn't stop.
        "Historians all agree that a real person (not a fictional character) named Jesus, existed in the days of King Herod and Pontius Pilate, in the land of Judea"
        Not all historians agree that Jesus was a real person. Even if ALL historians agreed that a middle eastern man was sent by an all powerful God 6,000 years ago to be killed so a bunch of sinners could live forever somewhere in the cosmos....at one point "all" scientists believed the world was flat. All "evidence" pointed to that. It did not make it true.
        Insisting a particular religion is true, and solely basing this conviction on a smelly old book protected by old white in Italy....you look foolish.
        Oh wait, just give the church your money, blindly believe in the supernatural and *poof* you will live eternally. I believe it!

        October 7, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  10. Scott McRdle

    Leave it to the Obama Network CNN to come up with ............. Sure Candy Crowley and Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer loved this.... The Democratic Obama Station... CNN

    October 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Nina

    What's really amazing is that anything O'Reilly wrote was published–why anyone would spend their money on something written by O'Reilly is so incredible to me. He's a narcissist who loves the sound of his own voice. To top it off, he routinely states things that are not true and has a flock of sheep who believe him. What a creepy guy.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  12. Bob

    When I was at Notre Dame, I remember reading a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This is representative of most scholarship in this area. I'm sure Ms. Moss has read it. The conclusion of the author was that for Paul, the "problem" with Judaism was not that it was self-righteous or not based on faith, but that it wasn't Christianity.

    In the opening of the letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks of his "former life in Judaism" in which he persecuted the "church of God." He may not have used the word Christian, but the idea that Paul saw himself as just another Jew, one who happened to believe in Jesus, is completely false. Other members of the primitive Jewish church may have viewed themselves this way, but not Paul. Paul's primary point in his letters was that gentile converts did not first need to become Jews to believe in Christ. He did not believe that he was any different from his converts. When he found himself on the other side of his conversion experience, he did not conclude that he had previously misinterpreted the rules of Judaism. He concluded that he had probably been following them correctly, but that now God had decided to surpass them with something else. Paul ceased to be a Jew when he was converted and his letters are incomprehensible unless one understands that.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • David Marks

      Bob, thank you for so eloquently saying what I did not. You nailed it.

      The fact that O'Reilly has written a book for profit is not important. The Obamas are profiting wonderfully for doing the same. The fact that the left is concerned that people listen to O'Reilly, and that bloviator Limbaugh, is completely unimportant.

      What IS important is that we love God and love each other. On THIS all laws rest. There is no need to sort further. If the desire is for money, rather than peoples' enlightenment, then complain away. Just love them also!

      October 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • Mopper

      She states 'Not everything Roman historians tell you is true'. Is Candida a Roman name?

      October 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Slatlantican

      Well stated.

      She also suffers from the logical flaw of saying he could not be something because he never used a particular word. It's like saying quarks didn't exist until Gell-Mann coined the term.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  13. BeverlyNC

    Why are you surprised Bill's book is factually incorrect? He works for FOX for heaven's sake! They make up their own stories of fiction and distortion every single day.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  14. jim boston

    The writer claims that Paul was not a Christian. It is obvious to anybody that has actually read a bible that that is not the case. Paul references "in Christ" 165 times in 13 of his letters! I suggest you verify your facts before publishing them.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • Mantis

      Anybody who has ready the bible would also realize that it is a complete load of crap.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Yes, the character Paul in this work of fiction was a christian. Big whoop!

      October 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • D Hughes

      Nope, wrong, my good man. Both Jesus and Paul were born and died as Jews. Christianity as a faith didn't start until decades after Jesus' death...no New Testament for much longer than that. Jesus din't want us to be "Christians', just better Jews...read His own Words.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  15. discouragedinMI

    And the point is ...?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  16. koalaholik

    I remember reading that there were so many errors in O'Reilly's Lincoln book, Ford Theater would not carry it in their gift shop. Accuracy has never been one of O'Reilly's strengths.

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

      Especially not when it contradicts his preconceived narrative, too.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Tara

      Not true. They carry it.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  17. Wade

    leave it to CNN to write a stu*id story like this. If the points made here were of any import it might be wort noting. however they are just attempts to pick at bill Oriley. If it had been written by any liberal Author there would be no story here. There is no story here just CNN acting stup*d again.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • c

      I was browisng the book-CNN is right-the book is in large part based on Catholic theology.ie. infant baptism which is mentioned no where in the Bible is given no prominence over immersion Baptism as practiced by many Protestant's. i.e John the Baptist immersion Baptism of Jesus.O"reilly as does many Catholic writers justify this by referring to Catholic doctrine on the subject. O Reilly interjects Catholic doctrine on many areas that do not jibe or disagree's with other Protestant theologies. He put the book forward as absolute truth; statements of fact's speaking for GOD.His point of view are all facts;from the spin zone!!

      October 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • QS

      Leave it to Wade to ignore the entire point of the article and defend a charlatan like Bill O'Reilly simply because Wade is just as brainwashed as his idol!

      October 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  18. whozits

    "Render onto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's" coupled with all the parables involving humble taxmen who were observant Jews whom the Father supposedly respected more than the wealthy man who gave giant checks to the Temple and you have a very different picture of Jesus' opinion on taxes. Many of the parables and miracles involve nonJews as protagonists/ recipients of grace. Barabas was supposedly a Robin Hood of the Hebrews, stealing from the tax man and giving to the Jews and trying to unite the people to overthrow Roman rules while Jesus was, by all the gospels supposedly written by his contemporaries, a 'there's room at the table for everyone and the table doesn't exist to make a profit' kind of guy. I will never understand why the NT (compiled in the 4th century CE, folks) relies so heavily on Paul nor why the Church does. The man was on a mission to deny just about everybody everything. His ministry was an attempt to create a new Culture and to remove any semblance to Judaism (having been kicked out of its power structure for excess zeal, for one thing.) Peter saw the mission as more like Reformed or Conservative Judaism and wasn't too sure of the movement toward greater participation by gentiles (nonJews.) Paul preached almost exclusively to nonJews. There were love cults that claimed to follow the teaching of Jesus. By the 4th century, there were so many power and money hoarding groups claiming to have the one true Jesus mission that Constatine made them all get together and hash it out and then force fed everyone the results. But that was just the first big rewrite. Riley is a nut. He has no more inkling of what the true teachings of Jesus might have been, if in fact Jesus existed, than does my white Rastafarian lawn man. Since it all boils down to faith, claiming the Way and the Light – especially due to a sleeping visitation by the Holy Spirit (could it be Ambien, maybe?) – is nothing more than more right wing arrogance, just with an American Irish Catholic twist. Buy an ad for St. Jude, Riley. You are a lost cause.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  19. Religon is for the weak

    Haha. Jesus never existed. Biblical historians can't even agree when he died. Mean while we have found fossils that predate when the bible says not only earth but when the universe was created....I know its the devil planting magic fossils in the past to trick us!

    Amused.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • whozits

      Well, the first problem with the whole 'the world is only @6K years old thing (not taught until fairly recently, by the by) is that no one knows how long the first day was. Since the sun and the earth were not created first, the days referenced were not earth solar days. Depending on which Christian bible you read, Adam and Eve were not the first humans, just the first of the Chosen (Hebrews) – 'the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve went forth and married the sons and daughters of Moab and Canaan.'. Genesis is not included in the Torah nor is it taught as truth but rather as the written version of a long, oral tradition (and thus, much like a game of Telephone, prone to error.) Yes, there are Fundie Evangelical Christians who believe just as you have written. They do not represent all Christians. 25% of humans are hardwired in the womb to look for God. I always thought that was very interesting. Some folks are strong enough to wend their way through the world without guidance but most people find a need for it now and then. So long as their faith doesn't have them killing nonbelievers or abusing the young and old or committing blood sacrifice, I don't care if they follow Jesus or Zoroaster or Buddha or Haile Salasi. I like the three basic rules of being a good Jew: love god, study and do good works. Or of Jesus: love god, love your neighbor, love yourself. Whether you accept the Golden Mean or Unified Theory or the Theory of Everything, there is a single great definition to which this Universe adheres, a single law from which all others flow, each thing begets the next and all contains a particle of the first. Basic science, guy.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  20. may40

    LOL, Paul was a Christian. Try reading the Bible Ms. Moss. He became a believer on the road to Damascus. The Pharisees WERE self-righteous, how foolish are you???? Jesus called them out on this over and over again. Jesus was not political. He hated the government run by men (as believers we are run by HIM) he just wanted to teach His followers that you follow the law of the land. You really embarrassed yourself with this story. What a complete and utter disaster.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:46 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.