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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. harris9513

    By the time I got to the "eagle" reference I knew you were a) dripping with hate and b) had an agenda. By the time I got to Josephus I knew whatever you had to say about him was moot because you were a) dripping with hate and b) had an agenda. "Paul was not a Christian" – wow. You are one of the only ones in the history of the world that knows the truth. You must be truly blessed – by the Underworld.

    October 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  2. Reality # 2

    One wonders why CNN had Professor Moss critique O'Reilly's book when someone like Professor John P. Meier in the same department at Notre Dame is much more qualified.

    "Meier's scholarly interests are in the area of New Testament, specifically the historical Jesus and the Gospel of Matthew, as well as Palestinian Judaism in the first century A.D. and the relation of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas to the Synoptic Gospels. Having published the first four volumes of his series A Marginal Jew in 1991, 1994, 2001, and 2009, he is now working on the fifth and final volume in the series. The fifth volume will cover the three final enigmas of the historical Jesus: the riddle-speech of his parables, the riddle-speech of his self-designations (or Ati-tles@), and the final riddle of his death. All the volumes of A Marginal Jew have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Meier has also written six other books as well as over seventy articles for peer-reviewed or solicited journals or books."

    Hmmm, Professor Moss definitely has the looks over Professor Meier. One does wonder if that entered into CNN's choice? No way 🙂

    October 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  3. George

    Jesus was like Obama: both wanted to redistribute wealth, take from the rich and give it to the poor. Wait for a government check while watching the (congress) circus. Conclusion: the IRS was invented by judas.

    October 10, 2013 at 1:41 am |
    • Jean Smart

      George it was Robin Hood who took from the rich to give to the poor. Don't believe Jesus ever did that in the Bible. He ministered to the needs of the people but not with money.

      October 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      When you look at who controls the Federal Reserve and how the IRS tax system was forced upon the people of this nation, and how that new IRS led the United States into the Great Depression, you really aren't too far away from being correct in the fact that it is Jews who have forced the IRS upon this nation

      October 11, 2013 at 4:20 am |
  4. fedegl

    By the way, it's NOT the best selling book in the world. JUST in the US. Americans stop thinking your are the only thing in the world, you are not and your relevance in the world is declining very fast.

    October 10, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • Cheryl

      I agree; Americans tend the think "the world" is the United States. Ask anyone outside the US and they'll agree.......

      October 10, 2013 at 9:19 am |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        Yeah in the average Frenchman doesn't think the world revolves around France, the average Chinese person doesn't believe that the world revolves around China, and so on and so on and so on. Take your anti-American hate, take your jealousy that you can't be us, and take your ignorance to the UN where I'm sure the North Koreans will welcome your message.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:21 am |
        • Cheryl

          I believe I am " one of us!" I am one of the indigenous people that was asked to relocate to the lovely state of Oklahoma-
          You need to get out and visit other cultures to get a different viewpoint.....

          October 11, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • Eric T

      Yes because Obama is president and the liberal international ideas are coming to America. And do you really believe that a world without a strong United States is a good thing? Maybe the international community will get what they deserve with the world exploded in chaos when tyrants arise oppressing the world.

      October 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Jean Smart

      How do you know? Have you checked the sales in other countries.

      October 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  5. wut

    "Candida Moss"?

    Let me get this straight; your name is Fungus Moss? Were your parents Mycologists or something?

    October 9, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • honore

      I guess the amount of ignorance in these comments was expected, given that foxnews shut down their own commenting sections to keep the "opinions" of their readers out of view. Candida is latin and means white. Your "candle" comes from it (candere, to shine), as does the word candid. Your "funniness" reminds me of the dumb kids in Middle and High school sitting in the back rows. Seriously, man, get an education. And I don't mean the type O'Reilly has to offer.

      October 11, 2013 at 8:21 am |
  6. Ed "

    In addressing Pilate Jesus said: "For this I was born and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Pilate responded: "What is the truth?" O'Reilly is missing the answer to Pilate's question. Jesus taught that we must test the spirits. The is the Holy Spirit and there is the devil, the evil spirit. I truly believe that O'Reilly was hearing the spirit of the evil one.

    In Galatians Paul complained that there were those who taught a gospel that contradicted his gospel. It was Jesus who contradicted Paul's gospel. Paul taught what the Pharisees believed and he commended the Corinthians for following the traditions that he taught. The most compelling evidence that Christians follow the traditions of the Pharisees, as taught by Paul, is found in the way they pray. Jesus commanded: "And when you pray you must not be like the hypocrites who love to stand in the synagogue or street corner......But, whenever you pray go into your room, shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret and he wil reward you in secret. Go into any christian church on any Sunday and you will observe the people disobeying this commandment of Jesus. In John"s First Letter, he wrote: "One who says, 'I know him,' and disobeys his commandment is a liar and there is no truth in him.."

    October 9, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • James A Young

      Well, bearing witness to the truth apparently wasn't Jesus' strong suit. For example:
      Mark 11:23-24 Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore,, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
      It's obvious Jesus believed this nonsense and wanted you and I to believe it too. Equally obvious is that it isn't "truth."

      October 9, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
      • Eric T

        James, yes Jesus used hyperbole language to make the point that God will answer believers prayers. Believers are to pray for what may look like impossible with expectation that God will hear and answer, though it has to be according to God's will. We should not treat God like a candy machine, where we say our prayers and do some good works and expect God to give us a fancy car with beautiful woman to go, etc. Believers are those who put there faith in Jesus, that he died for our sins, lived a perfect life that we may have peace with God.

        October 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  7. Micael Grenholm

    Actually, the early disciples were called Christians even in Acts 11:26.

    October 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Micael Grenholm

      And O’Reilly's book is a joke btw. It's a disgrace to use the Saviour of the world as an argument for not helping the poor.

      October 9, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • not a jerk

        I know you believe in this diety, but there are many of us that do not. There is no savior of the world

        October 9, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • Connie

        Touché!

        October 10, 2013 at 5:25 am |
  8. Reality # 2

    Again, O'Reilly's book and Moss' critique are nothing new.

    Much of the original studies on the historic Jesus are reviewed at:

    o Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.

    October 9, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Reality # 2

      Oops, make that "Many of the original studies are reviewed ......"

      October 9, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  9. M Laval-Lindley

    I couldn't agree with her more. O'Reilly is ALWAYS trying to butter his bread on both sides. The inspiration behind this book is the money it is bringing in and nothing more. His claim that God inspired him to write the book is about as truthful as his claim the Jews were trying to get away from a tax burden! Really? When did Jesus talk about taxes? He said render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, specifically referring to the coins with Caesar's bust on them that were used to pay the taxes. This guy is such a fraud, laughing all the way to the bank.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  10. Doug

    Seriously? Is this professor tenured? Even a casual reading of the book of Acts makes it clear that Paul and those who adhered to his teachings were clearly Christians and that this was far more than a a 'sect' of Judaism. Further Paul himself was 'accused' of seeking to make Agrippa a Christian (Acts 26). on what historical basis then can this professor claim that 'Paul was not a Christian'? The term 'Christian' was termed in the city of Antioch (Syrian) in the 50's AD at the very time that Paul resided there. Seriously CNN, do some simple research before allowing such nonsense to be posted on your site.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:24 am |
    • Eric T

      Doug, you got it right. These "theologians" created by our godless universities will believe anything but the Bible. It is laughable how they distort it. Have you looked at Candida's book? She attempts to say that the early Christians were not persecuted! The problem is more than just Candida for to be recognized in our liberal universities you have to develop a new idea no matter how brain dead it is!

      October 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  11. Stinechef

    I went to university website I guess your not teaching this fall semester I was surprised to see your comments and books published and that a university would pay you to teach others what you feel the Holy Spirit has spoken to you..... We all need to take heed to the words we share and speak to others our God does and will hold us all accountable... Grace & Peace

    October 9, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  12. justino

    the book was not written as an historical record, nor as a theological commentary, instead as nonfiction which is a generic term for "not a novel" thus the above critiques are invalid

    October 9, 2013 at 8:02 am |
    • cacique22

      You're right, it's not much more than a comic book without pictures.

      October 9, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  13. Tonus One

    This is interestingly since Dr. Moss was rather easily eviscerated on the Factor several nights ago over these very issues. While no book is perfect and despite any effort to the contrary, some speculation and or opinion is necessary to offer conclusions for and from events that purportedly occurred over 2000 years ago. Since the msm / CNN can not be effectively critical of O'Reilly's effort specifically because it is NOT a religious tome, they dig into minutia....all too typical. With the issues we face today and the msm being a main source of that pain and confusion, it is time to stop throwing dart and start solving problems instead of searching for and or creating them.

    October 9, 2013 at 3:07 am |
  14. Raj

    I tend not to take O'Reilly seriously anymore, but I was flabbergasted about him essentially saying that Jesus died for tax cuts.

    Come on...

    October 8, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
    • mjnbell

      Whaaaaaaaatt??? You need to either get you TV or hearing checked. O' Reilly claimed no such thing!

      October 9, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • Mike

      I, of course, did not read this book, nor do I watch O'Reilly... however, it would be understandable if his point was that this was what the Jewish People of the time hoped the messiah would bring (i.e. an end to the Roman occupation and, by consequence, the taxes that come with it). That is largely true... certainly that's what Judas thought the messiah would bring, and there were many resistance factions of Jewish people who hoped something along those lines.

      One of the reasons Jesus was so poorly received by the Jewish religious authorities during his own time was because they were expecting an Earthly salvation, not a heavenly one. Their lines of attack, in trying to paint Jesus as an impostor and have him put to death, showed this... questioning him about Roman Taxation, they expected him to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Caeser (after all, this was in keeping with what they expected from the messiah, or anyone claiming to be the messiah). When he responded, "Give unto Caeser that which is Caeser's, and give unto God that which is God's," he not only evaded their trap, but also, more importantly, demonstrated that, as the Messiah, he was more concerned with the affairs of Heaven and of salvation of the soul, than he was about Earth and its material concerns.

      October 9, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  15. conkal

    Bill should write Killing CNN. Fox news has the best rating so it's no surprise CNN criticizes Bill's book.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Raj

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

      October 8, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
    • cacique22

      yeah, and most Americans believe in UFOs. What's you're point? Oh, I see. You only know how to use superlatives.

      October 9, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  16. conkal

    As a Christian I'm thrilled Bill O wrote a book about Jesus. Imagine, his book is already the best selling book IN THE WORLD.
    Negative comments made from fellow Christians are useless. Good Grief.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  17. Stan Current

    Bill O'Reilly misses the point. Jesus was murdered like prophets before Him for speaking out against the hierarchy of His people, placing their laws above God's, believing they were doing God's Will. Jesus made it clear that He came for the lost children of Israel. His large following was a threat to the hierarchy. They could not relinquish worldly power or face the Devil as Jesus did, let alone know their evil as He taught to have the repentance and remission of their sins. If they had, they would have been like the lowly repentant in the temple Jesus extolled over the pharisee who exalts himself, like Bill O'Reilly. This pontificate exemplifies the misrepresentations of the Christian religions for the sake of power and control, especially the subjugation of women. Misogyny is symptomatic of an insecure male. Understandably, Jesus would love Mary Magdalene more than the apostles who tended to act like apostates, exalting themselves and arguing who among them was greatest, even disparaging Mary. When they complained to Jesus why He loved her more than they, He wisely replied, "Why do I love her more than any of you?" They had missed the lessons He taught that Mary had learned and why she became the apostle to the apostles. Understandably she and some of the other apostles became Gnostic, or one of the "knowers" and had little to do with the others. They had rejected her visions of Jesus after His ascension. Maybe if O'Reilly considered what Dr. Moss has to say, it would help reduce some of the hypocrisy.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  18. frank abad

    Oreilly won the onair debate with this so-called historian from Notre dame

    October 8, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
  19. drc

    Its all silliness anyway, as is Bill. Look around the world and even in your own back yard and you can say there is a God? I do not mean to disrespect ones belief but seriously. The creator of the planets, the universe, created this mess? To quote Woody Allen from one of his movies, "If there is a God, the best that can be said about him is he's an underachiever. "

    October 8, 2013 at 7:54 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.