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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. sue21446

    I think this person that "reviewed" his book and wrote the article has done more to help him than hurt him. I, for one, had not thought about buying the book...now I will. Bill O'Reilly will thank you. And what actually makes her all-knowing? Because she works for CNN?

    October 8, 2013 at 6:46 am |
    • mike

      She doesn't work for CNN. She's a biblical historian and professor from Notre Dame, whereas Bill O'Reilly is an opinion entertainer from Fox News.

      October 8, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      LOLOLOLOL ... you're going to read the book ... LOLOLOLOLOLOL

      October 8, 2013 at 7:29 am |
  2. WSanderson

    No fan of Bill O'Reilly's, but Moss is both a poor writer and poor historian. Students of the Bible and early Christian history can't view her as a serious writer-historian. Her book sales will last for awhile and then be relegated to the ash heap that includes other authors who attempted to write books arguing against the mass of human history. She is one more reason to consider a Notre Dame degree greatly over-priced.

    October 8, 2013 at 6:39 am |
    • mike

      In what ways is she a poor writer or historain? have you read the book? Studied her historiographical methods and sources? In what ways are you qualified to question her professionalism? Oh wait...is this Elaine Pagels?

      October 8, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  3. Larry

    I totally agree with BRADGOODMAN

    October 8, 2013 at 6:17 am |
  4. achi

    Let's have an imaginary conversation with the professor in fame (forgive my English because I am a new imigrant)
    Q: Dear professor, what is your purpose?
    A: Truth
    Q: Can we make it more clear, do you want to find the truth, belive the truth, live in the truth or find out someone was lying?
    A: En... A little bit ugly question. Let's say, my truth is someone, the earlier Christians were lying.
    Q: And your purpose agian, please think a little bit deeper. Here is the hint, at a time, peacefully people were pursecuted (it happened in modern time too), and the historical recording was not commonly accepted as a way for helping those who been wrongly treated as criminals (please give some example that, in those ancient time, any "historical" record about a govermnent officer wrongly persecuted any other person), what evidence you want to find?
    A: (If I am in his position), please give me a moment of deep thought. By the way, what does repent and forgive really means?
    We can still see govenment covers their persecution these days in an "information" era. We can still see people give their lifes for freedom and their story get covered or twisted by some dictators. Please search the truth in believe and love, and you will find it, you will find Jesus is the truth.

    October 8, 2013 at 6:13 am |
  5. robert

    There is probably some truth in both the book and the article. However, to place total credibility in modern scholarship is dangerous when many current Biblical research scholars approach their work with naturalistic and humanistic tendencies. It is hard to filter out presuppositions people bring to their work. I don't care who you are. My suggestion is to trust Christ, receive the Holy Spirit and allow Him to illumine our hearts and minds with the closest thing we have to the events themselves, the Bible itself.

    October 8, 2013 at 6:07 am |
  6. bradgoodman

    Bill O'Reilly is a joke as well as his buddy Sean Hannity. Both noobs always distorting the truth and claiming that they re fair and balance. Neither of these jerks are actual journalists

    October 8, 2013 at 6:01 am |
    • stp766

      dumbazz

      October 8, 2013 at 6:51 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        dumber azz

        October 8, 2013 at 7:30 am |
  7. Steve

    Love it when liberals get angry when Bill gets his books on the NYT best sellers list.

    October 8, 2013 at 4:59 am |
    • mike

      Upset? hardly. In what ways should we be surprised? Fox News is the most watched news network, and the vast majority of those viewers have eschewed the importance of facts and the guise of living in reality long ago. Why should there be any surprise when they shell out $35 for the carnival barker when they could have bought a library card for $3 and discovered the truth for themselves at their local university? Kool Aid is still Kool Aid when you read it instead of watch it.

      October 8, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  8. Bill OReiley

    Look up bill oreilly gets owned by kid on utube. Oreilly is a joke.

    October 8, 2013 at 4:33 am |
  9. Fatboy38

    First of all, Candida, you sound like an angry woman. I can't really tell if you are a Bible believer asserting you feel truths have been altered or an atheist asserting that the whole thing is nonsensical. Your post comes off as angry, arrogant, and polemical. Your statement that Paul was not a Christian but a Jew is merely semantics in this case. Was he a Jew? Yes. Was he trained as a Pharisee? Yes. But after his Road-to-Damascus conversion, he was no longer a Jew in the sense that most people think. After that he continued going to Synagogues, but not to take part in the rituals of a Jew but to preach the message of Jesus. I am not sure that makes him a Jew in the way you are trying to portray him. You stated, "He never uses the word Christian. It seems that the early members of the Jesus movement referred to themselves as followers of “the Way.” Followers of the Way, aka Christ are followers of Christ and therefore Christians.

    You also state "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". Ummm, do all historical books have to be boring. I think the average reader will know that Herod wasn't interviewed for the book.

    October 8, 2013 at 4:11 am |
    • SixDegrees

      "Ummm, do all historical books have to be boring."

      No. But they should be factual. O'Reilly's isn't.

      October 8, 2013 at 4:26 am |
    • NooYawkah

      I find it amusing that a "New Testament Scholar" such as yourself can state with a straight face that the word Christians is not found in the Bible or used until the end of the 1st century. It is used THREE times, twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter.

      I'm no defender of O'Reilly, he says the words "Killing Jesus" with just a bit too much relish (and doesn't seem to realize he is breaking the third commandment by throwing the name around so frivolously. But your "facts" are just as specious as many of his.

      October 8, 2013 at 6:18 am |
  10. miscreantsall

    To the author of this article:

    Well done! Thank you! 🙂

    Unfortunately, in my opinion, man can never be trusted with history. Written, orally or vis whatever way, history will always be corrupted with politics, agenda, error, propaganda, lies, hyperbole, and more.

    There is so little truth in history (bible included) that it becomes almost impossible to discern.

    October 8, 2013 at 4:01 am |
  11. pw

    I will buy 10 copies to use as toilet paper

    October 8, 2013 at 3:31 am |
    • Steve

      Big butt?

      October 8, 2013 at 5:04 am |
  12. Glenn

    Just another arrogant ___hole who thinks he knows all about everything there is to know. Try again Mr. O'reilly only choose a topic you know something about.

    October 8, 2013 at 3:08 am |
  13. Cynthia Avishegnath

    "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."

    Dear girl – you are wrong.

    Paul did not convert to Christianity. He was the founder and inventor of Christianity. He mixed the philosophies of Jesus with Hellenistic reasoning, and assimilated the legends early Christians absorbed from eastern and Persian religions.

    October 8, 2013 at 2:54 am |
    • Dang

      And the result was poop stew.

      October 8, 2013 at 3:00 am |
    • miscreantsall

      Sorry, but you are categorically wrong!

      October 8, 2013 at 4:02 am |
  14. Steve

    Lol, more people watch his evening show than all on your combined.

    October 8, 2013 at 2:04 am |
    • Stokanator

      You hit it right in the head! I always find it entertaining when the talentless attack people with talents and critiquing their material LOL! CNN has more false information on the website in a 24 period then O'Reilly has in all of HIS #1 selling books! By the way CNN, how many of your journalist have books that have been best sellers???

      October 8, 2013 at 2:55 am |
      • Draco

        Mein Kampf was THE best seller in Germany a number of years ago. Oh what talent that author had!

        October 8, 2013 at 2:59 am |
      • Dave

        You are catagoricly wrong.

        October 8, 2013 at 6:02 am |
    • qqqqqjim

      Hitler had 80 million followers so using your perverse logic so I guess he was smarter than all of us, including your hero, O'Reilly. Thank God I'm not O'Reilly's lapdog like yourself.

      October 8, 2013 at 3:52 am |
      • Steve

        Betting you are Obama's lapdog

        October 8, 2013 at 5:06 am |
        • Dave

          Betting you are a Tea Party moron.

          October 8, 2013 at 6:01 am |
  15. elvinmerij

    Not the current best-selling book in world. Current best-selling NON-FICTION book in world, yes. But not overall best-selling.

    October 8, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  16. Jesusiscoming

    Something is telling me that Bill wants a encounter with (God) Jesus(Emmanuel) , just like Paul did. to see his glory just like Moses did. Bill hears but he does want to see. Why so little faith .Your friends and family talking about this Jesus.But you speak of a historiated Jesus, But you have to understand we serve a now((God) Jesus .. But you don't open up ur eyes to see his glory.. Pray Bill Pray.. That you may see his glory .I know there's no peace in money just sorrow. The spirit of The Lord will answer.. Jesus is God.. You can't kill God..God was not created .....as much as men wants to bring the sun up ,and down we can't .Our body is just temporary .Let Jesus fill ur body with his spirit.if not you will always have something missing...peace that Passes All Understanding .

    October 8, 2013 at 1:27 am |
    • AHMOSE 12

      DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE DEFINITION OF ALLEGORY MEANS A LOT OF PEOPLE MISS WHAT PAUL WRITINGS WERE ABOUT LIES, JUST KEEP READING DON'T MISS A WORD THESE STORIES WERE WRITTEN FROM STOLEN MYTHS AND LEGACY OF FABLES IF YOU KNOW YOUR WORLD HISTORY THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE EDUCATED YOU WILL SEE TIMES DATES DO NOT MATCH UP TOO RECORDED HISTORY ,SHOW ME WERE ANY OF THE APOSTLE ARE BURIED , IF THERE WAS A FLOOD WHY DO THE KMT (EGYPT) STILL STAND AND IF THERE WERE SLAVES IN EGYPT WHO BUILD THE TOMBS FOR PAST KINGS AND QUEENS , WHY DIDN'T BUILD ADEQUATE TOMBS FOR THE APOSTLES ,OH WAIT LET ME SEE.......I GUESS THEY WERE ALL LIFTED UP TOO THE GREAT BEYOND AND WERE'S LAZARUS WHEN JESUS RAISE FROM THE DEAD HE SHOULD HAD ETERNAL LIFE ... WAIT LET ME SCRATCH THAT ONE .. I GO GO ON AND ON ... AND ON I USE YOUR OWN BOOK AGAINST YOU ALL DAY LONG IT'S JUST TOO EASY

      October 8, 2013 at 2:45 am |
      • qqqqqjim

        Given the way you write, poor grammar, bad syntax, poor spelling, sentence structure and mixing tenses, you sir, are not an educated person, so don't pretend you are. If you wrote a paragraph like that in one of my classes I would suggest you enroll in remedial English classes! Please, at least make an attempt to write somewhat reasonable English!

        October 8, 2013 at 4:01 am |
        • mike

          qqq: isn't there a comma splice in your response? That first sentence is quite awkward.

          October 8, 2013 at 7:11 am |
        • JACKTEACH

          I WANT TO RESPOND TO THE ASS WHO WROTE ABOUT , PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE IF YOU KNEW OF THE PAPYURS YOU WOULDN'T DARE SPEAK OUT OF FOOLISHNEST, WHEN YOUR PEOPLE'S OR TRIBE'S LANGUAGE DOSEN'T HAVE ANY SCRIPT AT ALL APPARENTLY HE OR SHE KNOWS THEIR HISTORY WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE ANY!!!!!!

          October 8, 2013 at 7:52 am |
      • Fatboy38

        You can use our book against us all day? Have you read it, or are you basing it on what a friend of a friend told you on Xbox live? Name one date that does not match up with history. Where were the apostles buried? If you believe there were apostles (I do) and you believe the history behind their deaths (I do) then you would know that they did not die as heroes of a nation, lifted up, paraded home and buried in a fancy tomb. They were seen as enemies of the Jewish culture and often the Roman Empire. So their graves would seemingly have been non descript. However, Peter was buried under the church of St Peter in Rome; Andrew was imprisoned and then crucified in Greece; James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, circa 44AD, killed by King Herod Agrippa; it was done to please the Jewish leaders (Read Acts 12: 1-2 ); John was the last to die,he was buried in Ephesus and his disciples built a chapel over his tomb, In the sixth century, Justinian and his wife, Theodora, built a new monument worthy of St John; Philip died in Hierapolis, where his tomb remains to this day (his body was moved to Rome in 6th Cent. by Pope John the third (560-572);there is no doubt as to the location of Thomas’s tomb; it is in Mylapore, India; according to the Jewish Talmud, Matthew was condemned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin, his body lies in a tomb in Salerno, Italy; James the Less was stoned by the Jews for preaching Christ and buried by the sanctuary in Jerusalem, his body was later brought to Rome in about 572 AD; James, Jesus's brother-began praying for his attackers, they began to stone him and finally one of them struck him in the head with a club, killing him, He was buried on the Mount of Olives; and Paul was beheaded with an axe outside of Rome, this place is now known as Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). Just some information for you so you can look them up.

        October 8, 2013 at 4:33 am |
    • Cynthia Avishegnath

      Jesus is your god but not the Almighty that I accept.

      October 8, 2013 at 2:54 am |
      • Fatboy38

        Politely asking, what does that mean? Jesus is not part of your belief system?

        October 8, 2013 at 4:15 am |
  17. Thaddius

    Anyone who isn't a drooling mouth-breather knows that facts have never been Bill O'Reilly's strong point.

    October 8, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • pa jesseson

      if you are saying 'facts' and o'reilly, you must be saying these words using two breaths. they cannot be said otherwise. he is a self-satisfied, hypocritical, snake-charming (not this snake, by the way, since I slither to morality, truth and facts) user of media. nothing more. the fact that he went to a good school makes it even worse. he shames them.

      October 8, 2013 at 1:29 am |
    • Steve

      I assume you are a knuckle dragger that hates Bill regardless of his talents. Just a typical lib towing the party line. I'm republican but occasionally vote democratic. Something tells me you are just a straight party line person with blinders on

      October 8, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  18. BadDog91748

    Her real complaint about O'Reilly is that on the first day of release more people will read his book than will have ever read the totality of what she has written in her career. Just to be clear, I am not a fan of O'Reilly, nor have I ever read, or ever will read, any of his books. just saying.....

    October 8, 2013 at 1:11 am |
  19. Not Too Hard to Understand

    But to be fair, no one ever said Bill O'Reilly was particularly bright, objective, or well informed.

    October 8, 2013 at 12:48 am |
  20. Think again

    The Pharisees were not self-righteous bloviators? I take it you must be a follower of the Torah? The Pharisees sat under the teachings of a rabbi named Shammai, who founded his school shortly before Jesus was born which were not based on writing but oral interpretation. They were ultra-conservative religious fundamentalists with a pathological devotion to obeying man-made traditions and commandments not commanded by God, which suited their desire for power and wealth. Nothing like an apologist J3w trying to school Christians. Oh Vey!

    October 8, 2013 at 12:46 am |
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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.