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. Catori Shadi

    Should someone tell Bill Oh Really, that Jesus was the ultimate bleeding heart liberal ?

    October 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • tony

      Not if you want to break the first commandment of successful marketing.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • jvburrows

      You couldn't be further from the truth.....the Bible always has spoke against thieves and laziness. Bleeding heart liberals believe that you should steal from those who work hard and earn things and money and then give them to those who don't work and want to sit around and be lazy.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Woody

      No because trying to classify Jesus that way is simply incorrect. On top of that the frivolous nature of the 5 points in this "opinion" piece makes it humorous. In fact the author even pointed out where O'Riley indicated potential bias. Any student of history must know that it is tainted by the point of view of the one recording the information. Just as the bias of this author shows clearly in the lackluster nature of the points. It reminds me of people who have nothing of value to say so they scream it thinking that makes a difference.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  2. Bob Isanberg III

    "...O’Reilly acknowledges (correctly) that it’s difficult to look past the agendas of his sources and separate the myth from the history..."

    Myth. Yes, that's the word I was looking for, myth. Like your gods? Like a Human soul? An afterlife? What a waste of thought to spend your entire life on babble speak, this is 2013 and over the half the planet still "prays" to these divinities and believes in nonsense.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  3. steelerguin

    As I am neither a fan of O'Reilly or Dr.Moss, I see problems with the book and her critique. For O'Reilly to write a book on an historical figure claiming to be the Son of God and state that the book is historical and not religious is either fooling himself or telling only part of the story. I tend to think both. Dr. Moss does make some good points, however, her argument about whether Paul was a Christian or not as a main critique is a little silly, Call Paul what you want, but he believed in Jesus as Messiah. Many Jews who believe in Christ call themselves Messianic Jews. They still have their jewish heritage but believe Jesus was the son of God. They are still Jews but don't practice Judaism. Was Paul a Christian? The answer can be purely semantic as she makes it. Did he believe Jesus was God. Yes. He would be called a Christian today.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Rob


      Amen to that.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  4. Lee M. Robinson

    There are a lot of things that a man such as Bill O'Reilly cannot explain about Jesus. Jesus was not on earth to stop Rome taxes of the Jews, he was here for a very different reason. Everything that happened to Jesus during his ministry was by the will of GOD. There is always someone with a different story but the truth will always surface to the top as in the Gospel .

    October 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Shelley

      ...and you really do have to just love that good ol' will of god....I mean...it's just so darn useful!! 🙂
      oh look everyone, an invisible pink unicorn! I spend 2 hours every day asking it for a bunny (in my mind) I think he hears me...today might just be the day!

      October 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      The god spell was written by men. To say it is truth is absurd since enough of the bible has been proven false to make the whole of it suspect.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  5. joe

    Ge real. There is not one shred of contemporaneous evidence of any Jesus. Not one. No writings, no jewelry, no pottery, no drawings, no art, no clay tablets. Nothing. It's all after the fact.

    The God who came to earth and did not leave a trace.? Face it, It is what it is–stories made up long after the alleged events and adopted 100s of years later in an attempt to control people.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      No body, no dental records, & no DNA.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        Just an empty tomb.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Which if it existed proves nothing.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • steelerguin

      Reading and education are dangerous things for folks like you Joe. Read the works of the jewish historian Josephus that mentions Jesus and is accepted by scholars.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • Shelley

        why? Who cares. Even if the man existed and really did get nailed to post for asking the soldiers to be nice to people, that's pretty much the end of it. There are still no gods, no souls, no living after death. The rest is bunk, used for societal and individual control. Pathetic. Drivel. In the same any christ follower worth is salt thinks that Ganesh, the elephant headed god of luck isn't real. Now apply that to the one million or so gods Humans have invented in their fiction, add the one more that Jews, Muslims, and Christians have such a hard time adding, and poof! you're done. Gods gone, all better, back to work 🙂

        October 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
        • steelerguin

          First of all, no more caffeine for you today Shelley. Secondly, are you willing to bet your life on what you just wrote? Thirdly, don't despair, I will pray for you.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          steeler, You think we should be scared into accepting your belief in a non-existent being? As insurance? Pascal's Wager is flawed.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
        • steelerguin

          Santa, my comment has nothing to do with fear unless it resides in you. I am not threatening anyone. I just asked a question.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          steeler, "Secondly, are you willing to bet your life on what you just wrote? " Sounds like the typical believer threat – believe in our god or it'll smite you.

          October 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          And I don't fear a non-existent being, although some of the crazies who follow it do concern me at times.

          October 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • TheTruth

      Sorry Joe, but there's extensive evidence of Jesus' life and death. The most impressive is the Royal Records of the Emperor, who ordered his court officials to investigate and report on the subject. Those records survived to modern times. That He lived is undeniable.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  6. snowboarder

    bill oreilly is a successful entertainer.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  7. Mark G

    Ms. Moss;

    Thanks for posting this short piece. I heard your interview on Reasonable Doubts, and I look forward to reading your book regarding the Mythology of Persecution. Understanding actual history is important.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  8. tony

    It's all about the collection plates. Duh!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  9. Monica

    "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?" – I'm starting to really wonder about this article. Why can't he be both?

    October 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  10. JonathanL

    In the first century, if you were a gentile, you were required to convert to Judaism before you could become a 'christian' Jew. it is hard to sort fact from fiction because back then they often played 'telephone' for days months and even years before a story was written down.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  11. Monica

    "Paul was not a Christian" – you are nitpicking. At the time they didn't use the word Christian, it initially was coined to make fun of the Jesus followers, it was an insult. So naturally, they didn't say that about themselves. It didn't stick until later. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi too – would you say Jesus wasn't Christian?... Of course Paul was Christian, he may be one of the best definitions of the word. They just didn't call themselves that then. Nitpicking..

    October 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Acts says they were called Christians at Antioch shortly after Paul's conversion.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • Monica

        They were called Christians, they were called many things. That doesn't mean they called themselves that.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Richard

      Jesus was a Jew seeking to make other Jews spiritual lives more fulfilling. Paul, essentially became Jesus' advertising man. Taking the words of Jesus and spinning them to sell the religion. The books of the new testament chosen specifically to put forward the agenda set by Paul for early followers in order to establish a church and not necessarily the very simple, humble teachings of a peasant preacher.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  12. BillyIsDumb

    O'Reily thinks Jesus came to Earth to fight taxes, LOL. What a dip____.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  13. Daniel

    Why is there so much arguing over a book of fiction written about another book of fiction?

    October 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bill the Cat


      October 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  14. srcactus

    Must be that CNN se s O'Reilly as a threat? Not taking side but cannot deny that this parsing of words is not worthy of the space it takes.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  15. NotYoDaddy

    So he got everything else right?

    October 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  16. John316

    Voodoo has been around forever and will continue to be around as long as there are people to believe it ....a thousand years from now if humans are still here, there will be a new " Thing " .....to sell them.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  17. SouthernCelt

    What makes Suetonius or Josephus better witnesses or recorders than the Apostles? We only know about them because their records survived the centuries as did the Gospel letters. Since none of the Apostles, Suetonius, or Josephus were present at the time and place of Jesus' birth, St. Luke is the only one that recorded it. Where did St. Luke get the information since he wasn't there either? From the only source that was there, Jesus' Mother who told the Apostles the story. History is where you find it. That far back you have to believe in the corroborating sources or not. Historians generally agree that Jesus was a living breathing human that died horribly in the first century C.E. Take a look at the Forensic description of His Death if you need further evidence. Whether or not He rose from the dead and walked around talking to witnesses is a matter of faith which requires no proof.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Cyle

      Until recently, most historians were either christian or supported financially by an organization that would ostracize them for denegrating the bible. Modern historians question the veracity of the "eyewitness" accounts, as none of them can be verified.

      The anglicised names of Mary & Joseph alone should be a clue that it's all just a fairy tale.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
      • louie

        lol. and, don't 4get, moe, larry and curly r gods

        October 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • tony

      witnesses 60-200years after the fact is an oxymoron.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  18. jod

    Candida Moss is the same "academic" who was upset with O'Reilly for not suggesting Jesus would've supported Obamacare. I'm not being sarcastic, she actually took issue with this. Seems she has more against O'Reilly's politics than his book

    October 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      She's a liberal hack who thinks the early church invented their persecution under the Romans. She's not even close to being worth the time to refute.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Isn't one of the claims for Jesus is that he cares for the poor and weak? Doesn't a law that tries to help the poor fit that description?

      October 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
      • louie

        well, only lf u believe in a forged, embellished, edited fairy tale. the real message of christ, who never lived, necessarily must b anything except what was sold to us by hucksters. just ask the poster who describes the n.t. like this. unreason or something

        October 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
      • louie

        u don't exist santa and y would your god force people to help the poor? he supported slavery.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • louie

        u don't exist santa and y would your god force people to help the poor? he supported slavery.

        y worry about hacking now? we have months of ur crimes already on discs

        October 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  19. Wes Scott

    Who, in their right mind, would ever read anything by Bildo O'Reilly and expect it to be anything OTHER than a work of fiction? O'Reilly is a guy who likes to take it up the poop chute – so typically Republican.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • HWB

      Wes, you so obviously show yourself to be some kind of butt-phucking liberal loon that has no idea what O'Reilly nor Ms. Moss is talking about. Need to crawl back into the Black Hole you came from and ask the Universe to make gravity keep you in that hole.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  20. Michael

    The only thing we need anybody to get right is Jesus died for sin and rises from death to free man from both death and sin liberating man kind . With the understanding that that he was the seed of David and the seed of the Creator God. That's all . God came in spirit the son of man in flesh.
    If you beleive this then you should study his commandments and do as you are commanded.
    The Lords Michael

    October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      That is another work of fiction. But, you are free to believe in anything that floats your boat, be it the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, all of which are at least as believable to a sane person as Biblical stories of walking on water, turning water to wine, turning sticks into snakes, parting the Red Sea with sticks or rising from death.

      If we take the Bible literally, then we MUST accept that the world was populated by incest TWICE – first when Eve had intercourse with her sons and then when Noah's family re-populated the earth. The family that plays together stays together. Let's hear it for Biblical incest!

      October 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • Michael

        and that why man was so dumb in the beginning.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • krivka

      If he lived at all, he lived and dies as a Jewish man. He didn't die for anybody's sins, he died because his time was up. He may have been crucified if he did live, but he never claimed to be a god. And the people who did believe he was a messiah never even knew him and actually couldn't care less about the facts as they expected the messiah to come during their lifetime. It didn't happen and the ignorant have been re-assessing their positions since their original mythological belief.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:11 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.