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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. kurtinco

    Be wary of Bill O. trying to re-write Biblican history. There are forces out there that have been trying to re-write the Bible for centuries in order to the public ignorant, especially the narrow-minded, for their own political power.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  2. edpeters101

    Billy O is just taking his lead from Faux News, if the truth doesn't fit your story: Make something up that does and keep repeating it until your listeners believe it to be true (which doesn't take long for his listeners). YMMV

    October 7, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • Liberal sheep

      I love all you Liberal Loons beating up a book you never read because of the author. Jealousy at its finest. Too the nut that said Bill was only hired at Fox because he couldn't work elsewhere? Really. Do a little research next time. A #1 show has offers from every where you idi0t. Oh and Faux news. Haha. So original. Work on new stuff. Like maybe replacing your Liberal Arts degree so you won't suck off society.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:31 am |
      • Observer

        There seem to be far more conservatives than liberals who support the book that claims that unicorns, talking non-humans, and dragons are real. Who is more loony there?

        October 7, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  3. HITCHENS

    O'Reilly is an idiot and his book should not have the word "history" attatched to it anywhere. Also, Paul died a JEW not a christian

    October 7, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  4. Mr. D

    It is appropriate "Candida" is not only the name of this blogger but also of a generally harmless intestinal fungus. What a completely benign attempt to stab at the historicity of Christianity and O'Reilly along the way. At least the "nanny nanny boo boo" tone of the blog post is consistent with the quality of solid writing in it.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • bhp

      Genius child. Candida is not an "intestinal fungus". When you talk all big and sciency to make yourself sound important, make sure you don't look like an idiot.

      BTW: trashing a religious scholar at Notre Dame for using her training to argue against a popular figure's pulp fiction seems a little uneducated, don't you think?

      October 7, 2013 at 11:26 am |
      • Well..

        Actually Candida is a genus of yeast that causes fungus (most commonly in the intestine). So, in some small way you're correct. But, before you sarcastically call someone "genius child" perhaps you should check YOUR facts because I wouldn't want you to look like an idiot either. I hope that wasn't too "sciency" for you.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  5. Gheorghe Gheorghe

    Paul was not a Christian....We are splitting hairs here.
    Paul was a follower of Christ. He was an apostle of Christ.
    If that does not make him a Christian, what does?

    Article is fairly weak as coming from an NT scholar.
    Of course – nobody would confuse O'Reilly with a scholar.
    I assume the book is directed to the more popular level. 🙂

    October 7, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • boocat

      Paul was not a christian till decades after Christ died. READ YOUR DAMN BIBLE.... (eye roll)

      October 7, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  6. Paul & Barnabas

    "Paul was not a Christian"

    It does not really matter what labels Moss or O'Reilly tag Paul to. Paul made it clear that the gift of salvation is available to both the Jews and gentiles alike. Quit focusing on labels, what matters most is , to have eternal life, one needs Christ and accept His plan of salvation, and that is all that matters.

    How we love meaningless controversies, that Paul was a Christian , Paul was a Jew–really does not matter. Paul is still one of the greatest pillars of faith, regardless of your labels. The new covenant is for all who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Caleb

      Controversies sell! 😉

      October 7, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Bruce

      There is no new covenant without the old covenant. Important question to be answered is this: are you part of the New covenant?

      October 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Malibu

      According to O’Reilly, Paul was “a former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity.”

      According to Moss, Paul was not a Christian; he was a Jew who moved from one branch of Judaism to another.

      –Superficial differences, at best!!

      October 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • Pillowcase

        But it made every difference to the Jews, who eventually kicked the "Christian" sect of Judaism out of the synagogues.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  7. Agnostickids

    WOW! Excellent, well researched article! Thank you CNN for publishing an article by someone that actually thinks and doesn't see things in black and white.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  8. Samuel Alsup

    Not defending O'Reilly at all but evidently Dr. Ross has not read the Book of Acts, where those followers of the Way were first called Christians at Antioch, well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. What does Christian mean, anyway? It is the Greek for a follower of Messiah, a very Jewish term. Does Dr. Moss mean something else by "Christian"?

    October 7, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      And you read that in the original Greek, and not in the KJV which was a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation?

      October 7, 2013 at 9:17 am |
      • Philip Brown

        Yes, the word "Christian" is in the Greek of Acts 26:28 and also in 1 Peter 4:16.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • tv2

        You may be surprised but at least my pastor often translates directly from the Greek to give greater meaning and understanding. He would agree with the post.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Lawrence of Arabia

      Thanks, Samuel, you beat me to the point! 🙂
      Yeah, the word "Christian" means "Christ's One" or "Christ's Ones." And they began to be called "Christ's Ones" during the lifetime of the apostles.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:33 am |
      • APIA

        And you know this how? Literal translation?

        October 7, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • Malibu

      According to O’Reilly, Paul was “a former Pharisee who became a convert to Christianity.”

      According to Moss, Paul was not a Christian; he was a Jew who moved from one branch of Judaism to another.

      –Superficial differences!

      October 7, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • JBHedgehog

      Yeah...taking your word over that of a PhD. Of course...you must be so much well rounded in biblical history.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  9. ibiwisi

    Stick with Jim Bishop's, "The Day Christ Died".

    October 7, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  10. eville11

    hmmm, pretty weak article pointing out debatable "wrongs" but yep. wasted my time. thx!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:42 am |
  11. R.M. Goodswell

    Bill O'Reilly (and Fox in general) is more an entertainment/tabloid machine. He (they) have had enough high powered opponents and critics interviewed on his (their) shows that it is obvious that they are trying to capitalize on controversy.

    People tune in to see the arguments. I don't believe for one second that the man is really as dumb as his rhetoric. He gets buckets of money to play the fool.

    If you are having a bad day, flip the channel to Fox for a few- you ll be laughing in minutes.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:16 am |
    • fintastic

      "If you are having a bad day, flip the channel to Fox for a few- you ll be laughing in minutes."

      Replace the word "laughing" with "vomiting"

      October 7, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Dirk the Daring

      CNN is pretty much exactly the same. CNN is essentially reading the Democrat National Committee's talking points for the day, as news.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • R.M. Goodswell

        That would be MSNBC:) CNN likes to swing public opinion on way and then the other.... Example – Article after article covering the negatives of Iraq and Afghanistan wars....and then beating the war drums on Syria.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  12. CommonSensedb

    O'Reilly is a putz, but a popular one. Seems another in a long line of folks who don't let facts stand in their way to make millions.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • DJ

      Just look at where he works. Of course he isn't worried about facts. Worrying about facts will get you fired at Faux News.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  13. children of Israel

    Christ came in the flesh, and if you deny that Christ came in the flesh, you are antichrist (1st John 4:3)

    October 7, 2013 at 1:45 am |
    • Agnostickids

      LOL.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • je40

      Wow, antichrist, you know how to make a guy feel special.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Oy

      And? What's your point?

      October 7, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  14. children of Israel

    You cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without a tribe. When you deny Christ you deny Abraham, Isaac & Jacob (Revelation 21:12)

    October 7, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • CommonSensedb

      Not to worry. The lamb's blood on the door will save you.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:00 am |
  15. Anghri Mahn

    Arguing over Bill's "accuracy" on biblical matters make no sense...this is like Bill writing a comic book "cherry-picking" select quotes and scenes from older comic books – both are works of FICTION!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  16. children of Israel

    Apostle Paul is an Israelite *Romans 11:1 I Say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  17. dick delson

    I would not believe anything O'reilly says. He never stops lying about almost everything he says. I sometimes watch his show for the comedy it supplies.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:03 am |
    • CarefulThought

      I hear people say that, but never have a shred of evidence. It's like this big mystery. Apparently, O'Reilly is UP to something. He's LYING every night and trying to DECEIVE people into thinking something. But no one can give me a straight answer to all this FOX NEWS LIES talk. So, I screwed my brain on. Found FNC on my channel guide, and TiVo'd Oreilly for like a year. I watched every single episode (skipping a few with guest hosts). And I'm no newbie. I've been closely watching politics my whole adult life and haven't missed a mid-term election even in I can't tell you how long. My conclusion? I hate to say it, but Fox did a pretty good job of telling it like it is, and O'Reilly did a pretty good job of being "fair and balanced." There's no question he's not a liberal. Just like there's no question Chris Matthews is not a conservative. But as for turning it on a vomiting, that just sounds like fear-mongering to keep people from hearing the other side of your argument. if your argument is sound, you shouldn't fear anyone hearing an opposing view. If you've heard both sides and picked your side, maybe they will too. I think some people are so afraid to find out that they picked the wrong side on an issue that they actively try to prevent people from hearing the other side, and proving them wrong. (like the fake wizard saying, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain"0

      Also, in a partial testimonail for Fox, they did cover some stories that were very importatn, I thought, and were IGNORED by most of the other press because they made the president's administration look bad. I still get most of my news from Liberal sources, but I check in with Fox here and there to see if there's a story that the liberal press is trying to hide from me.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:13 am |
      • CarefulThought

        As for this article, it seems as though they, and CNN, are bending over backwards to find fault with O'Reilly. I think it's a testament to the accuracy of this book, that they have to stoop to such laughably minutia as trusting 2000 year old Roman Historians as valid history, and that the writer of 2/3 of the New Testament's epistles was not a Christian. It's like if you hire the FBI to thoroughly investigate a guy to be your new Secretary of state and they come back and say, "Whoa, I don't know about THIS guy, Mr. President. He's had not ONE but TWO parking tickets in High School!" That should tell you that this is a pretty squeakly clean guy.

        I haven't read Killing Jesus. I will though, and this article makes me look forward to it more, since it's apparently unassaultably accurate. I did read the Lincoln and Kennedy books. They were fantastic. I felt like I was in the box at Ford theater with the detail, and I was in the convertible in Dealy Plaza. There is no surprise that Killing Jesus the #1 selling book in the entire world right now. I'll probably get the audio book and listen on a long drive. I like hearing the inflection put in by the author himself.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:20 am |
        • boocat

          You want a FACTUAL WRITING about the crucifiction.....read a HISTORY book called "The Day That Christ Died.'"

          October 7, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • Oy

        Careful thought? Not quite...

        October 7, 2013 at 11:29 am |
      • Adam C

        You have an overly optimistic view of people in general. The average person is busy with work, their family, education, etc. They get snippets of news here and there. They hear things from their friends and assume it is true.

        This is why Fox News is successful. They take facts and then spin the facts so that there only a thread of truth to them. They then couple this with distrust and anger directed at people different from the majority. People watching Fox don't realize how distorted of a story they are hearing.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Voice

      Funny, I sometimes read replies like this because they show the ignorance of uneducated people like you.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • nowthatsrigh

        Real ignorance would be only using select sources for your information – the truth is somewhere between the conservative and liberal views and hurling insults towards people who do not agree with your agenda makes you seem much like the words you yourself use 'ignorance and uneducated'......

        October 7, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • CarefulThought

        This is typical hyper liberal strategy: I have no good comeback to your solid point, so I'll attack you personally and hope you go away. Voice: onloockers reading my two posts and this reply will see that I made a conscientious methodical presentation of my opinion, based on my experience and facts. I expect others to dig up on left wing Fox-monitoring sites trinkets of typos on maps to try to make the other side of the story. I would respect that. I mean, they're not going to suddenly show me this plethora of new information. As I said, I'm not going on second hand propaganda from the left, I've "held my nose" and watched a few hundred complete episodes of O'Relly. You can't tell me NOW that He's a lying bloviator. I now know him like most people know the Kardashians. As for me being ignorant and uneducated, I'm glancing to the right on my office wall at a number of diplomas, and certificates on the wall that would beg to differ. The one with the word "doctorate" on it shows that people who have taken the time to get to know me a little better than you, think a little more highly. Ok, nice chatting with you guys. Let's all now get offline and be productive 🙂

        October 7, 2013 at 11:27 am |
        • Observer

          CarefulThought,

          Since you say you know O'Reilly well, you must know how well he does when it comes to actually practicing the "family values" he preaches, right?

          October 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  18. children of Israel

    John 7:19 Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? (Matthew 5:17)

    October 7, 2013 at 12:38 am |
  19. Mike Hansen

    65 Reasons to Believe Jesus Did Not Die on the Cross
    http://www.themuslimtimes.org/2012/04/religion/christianity/65-reasons-to-believe-jesus-did-not-die-on-the-cross

    October 7, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • james

      the only reason to believe that is that he was hung upon a stake (Gr.stauros) a straight pale or pole with hands above not a cross(a pagan symbol from Egypt and Babylon) not what the Romans or Jews would have used. do the research. j

      October 7, 2013 at 9:56 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.