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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. Jim in PA

    Why is this article written as though O'Reilly actually wrote this book? It was written by Martin Dugard, with Bill O's name slapped on the front for marketing.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:43 am |
  2. Chas

    Paul wasn't a Christian? Hmmm....I think we have a slight case of the pot calling the kettle black. Christianity isn't just a word, it's a discipline.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • ed dugan

      Wrong. Christianity is a disease that, if the trend continues, is on its way to being conquered.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:48 am |
      • Bernie

        My gosh, how many times has that been predicted over the centuries?

        October 8, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • Joe Smith

        Wrong. Stupidity is a disease, one which you're a poster child for.

        October 8, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  3. eric

    Josephus wrote the bible as Roman propaganda to make the revolutionary jews submit to Rome. Plain and simple, y'all are still sucking in the propaganda waiting on the return while evil sets up the nwo. Step out of the church and onto the streets and fight against poverty, unjust wars and corruption. quit singing and start protesting. He's not coming back, YOU were supposed to be the return but instead your fat and in a pew submitting

    October 8, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • Servant

      You havent a clue what your talking about. You might want to give youtube a rest and go read the scriptures. Stop sucking up those imaginative internet stories and go straight to the Source for your answers: That Source would be Christ.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:36 am |
      • Jeebus Burgers

        "scriptures" = mythology.

        October 8, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  4. Aaron

    Credit where credit is due.
    Bill can frenzy the already paranoid, scared, indignant crowd of evangelicals with one shake of his jowels that all his plastic surgeries cannot seem to fix.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:27 am |
  5. william

    The only reason Bill O Reily writes these books is because they make him a lot of money. I wouldn't to throw up, when he said on 60 minutes the lord told him to write the book.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:27 am |
    • LouieD

      Correction: That's the only reason he *hires a ghost writer to write these books in his name.*

      October 8, 2013 at 9:37 am |
      • Jim in PA

        Not even a "ghost" writer. Martin Dugard's name is clearly there as the actual author. Bill is just the publicist.

        October 8, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  6. doug

    This woman is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame? I know where I'm NOT sending my children for their post high school training. Perhaps "too much learning had made thee mad".

    October 8, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  7. Daily59

    Whatever Bill Really (sic) is his story pales in comparison to Jesus. Eternity will tell. Religion aside I'm in faith for the Truth.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Eric

      The truth requires no faith

      October 8, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  8. Chuck Critic

    ...Having Bill O'Reilly write about history is like having Yugo build a good car..it ain't reliable. In his other book.."Killing Kennedy" he says Oswald acted alone....hahahahah....nobody could get off 3 shots in less than 7 seconds with that kind of a junk rifle......Well Bill...you might be laughing to the bank...but you be nuts...

    October 8, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • Whatever

      I agree, but His is better than the atheist revisionist criticizing him.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:27 am |
    • Joe33

      I'm not advocating for Bill O'Reilly nor am I commenting on him as an historian, as it sounds like there's some real trouble with his scholarship. However your comment about "not being able to get 3 shots off in 7 seconds with that junk rifle" is just plain wrong. FBI testing showed the the Marcano rifle he used was extremely accurate and marksman could/did get 2-3 rounds on target in the allotted time, from the same distance. I don't know whether Oswald acted alone or not, but his rifle and/or shooting abilities were not the problems.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  9. c

    What a joke the writer of this article is. The book is not an autobiography of the greatest man on earth. This writer sounds not just a bit liberal, but a whole lot. I supposed she teaches this BS in school also?

    October 8, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • Websters

      It can't be an autobiography. Well, I guess it CAN be, but the implications of that being true are horrific.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  10. Seattle Sue

    Bill O'Reilly himself is the biggest flub.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • Chuck Critic

      Right on Sue..the guy is a front man for the big money boys...doesn't know squat aboit real honest history..
      Elsberry, Missouri

      October 8, 2013 at 9:22 am |
    • Auntie Denise Bou

      Agree, That is a Fact !!!

      October 8, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Eric T

      You are just name calling. Have you ever listened to him? I don't always agree with him but he usually has something insightful to say. He gets it about abamacare. He understands the lunacy about our "out of control" spending. He understands that the battle for our nation is about ideas. O'Reily is one smart guy!

      October 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  11. Servant

    Fact check #4 – There is no evidence of a direct financial link between the temple and Rome? is that right? is that why there were so many Roman TAX COLLECTORS throughout the city of Jerusalem and surrounding region? In fact, Matthew was a tax collector before he was called by Jesus. These people used to take more than they were required from the people they oppressed to line their own pockets. Some of them had very little sympathy about it. Some of them were even Jews, such as Matthew, who robbed their own people. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the profits went to Rome.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • funhouse

      Okay, I'm kind of on your side so bare with me. One thing about the tax collectors is they did not get paid. They were supposed to add to the tax to make a living. I'm sure many took way more than they should of but hay look at our taxes today. Just an fyi.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  12. joan

    Guess what?! O'Reilly did exactly the same thing with "killing Lincoln": omits stories, tells it as a novel, cherry picks what he wants to include, and makes no real headway into the death of Lincoln. All of it was just rehashed, and not even told in a new way. It was just as bad as this book, evidently.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • Eric T

      Did you read it or did you read about from a person like Candida?

      October 10, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  13. BobbyGB

    Looking to Bill O'Reilly for accurate history knowledge is like looking to Brittany Spears for parenting advice.

    Bill O'Reilly interprets history worse than David Duke interprets ethnic sensitivity.

    Bill O'Reilly is to history like Michael Vick is to dog-sitting.

    Bill O'Reilly is to history like Bill O'Reilly is to news.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  14. michael cuba

    I do not have time to read any of the comments. I did read my readings, psalms and gospel in which I wish I did more. My torah studies are behind, I completed Genesis 1:1-6:8 a week late and talked to my 4 year old son about the days of creation to his level. I missed Isaiah and John. Noah is next! I better schedule better. Yes, Jesus(spelling mistake!) is Jew, from the line of Judah ect(Matthew 1:1 and more). Why do Notre Dame display gladiators on the Sabath?

    October 8, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  15. BAL

    Did you expect O'Reilly actually write a book free of spin? The "no-spin" zone, what a joke.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  16. Winnie J

    Killing Jesus. Last time I checked, he isn't dead. Curious that so many have never taken Him down off the cross.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • funhouse

      True but many view him on the cross for the ultimate price he paid for out sins. Never forget that.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Last time I checked, he's been dead for almost 2000 years. And he ain't coming back.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:33 am |
      • Eric T

        Are you so sure?

        October 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Servant

    Fact Check #3 – Yes, MANY of them were very much the hypocrites and self-righteous finger pointing religious people that Jesus pointed them out to be:

    “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. Matthew 23:13-14

    October 8, 2013 at 9:05 am |
  18. pervert history for faith

    Peter Higgs said a lot more about God than O'reilly ever could.

    October 8, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  19. pervert history for faith

    It never ceases to amaze me how little your average Christian knows about Christianity.

    October 8, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

      I used to feel the same way but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Religion isn’t about facts or reason. It’s indoctrination and belief without facts or reason..they call that part faith.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Whatever

      Judging by pervert's lack of understanding below, I'd say the contrary is true.

      October 8, 2013 at 9:04 am |
      • Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

        I’m starting to feel sorry for you Whatever. As has been stated already studies show he’s right. I know your type isn’t big on facts but feel free to look it up.

        October 8, 2013 at 9:44 am |
        • Whatever

          Right about what? He needs to crack open something other than populist Bart Ehrman who misrepresents the facts. You should feel sorry for yourselves for not being able to get your facts straight. But that happens when you haven't cracked open anything other than popular works.

          October 8, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  20. jzaks

    The Holy Rollers and the Holy Trollers will be out in full force on this one. Pass the popcorn.

    October 8, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • HeyZeus

      The bible and O"Reilly are similar/. Both are full if false stories that while entertaining neither should be taken with any seriousness.

      October 8, 2013 at 8:44 am |
      • t2vodka

        Actually, the bible is a great source for finding ancient cities. It has a lot of facts in it, just ignore all the angels, demons, miracles and crap like that.

        October 8, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • pervert history for faith

      That movie was half over before you finished stuffing your mouth.

      October 8, 2013 at 8:46 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.