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. Miles

    Oreilly is an idiot. period

    October 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  2. EGB2

    Only five flubs? That makes him the most accurate personality on FOX.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • jvburrows

      Still beating CNN's 65% error rate and MSNBC's 100%.....

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


        October 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • steelerguin

      And CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, HLN, etc., etc. etc.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  3. Seth

    Apart from a few old gits, and some underprivileged poor folks, are there really any Humans still around that believe in all the Christ nonsense? wow.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • whodacares

      Sports players and award recipients.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • steelerguin

      I do Seth. I have a doctorate. Thankfully, not poor. Old??? Depends on your age, Seth.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Aside from a few overpriviledged westerners, who does NOT believe in it?

      October 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  4. 1984

    The Pharisee's WERE NOT over-legalistic ? Honey, what Bible are YOU reading? They were Zealots and they were ALL about keeping the Mosaic Law. O'REilly is not correct and neither is this well meaning critic.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  5. Pragmatic

    Mr. O'Reilly is not taking one item into account. Jesus was clearly a Kabbalist, probably one of, if not the best in the field of his time. This is what the Essenes were about, and also the current Hasids. The Pharisees were not Kabbalists. Thus, the contentious relationship. I can't fault Ms. Moss or Mr. O'Reilly for not knowing this, it takes deep study in Kabbalism to realize this position. 99% of the world knows nothing of this methodology to be able to make the comparison.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • ReallyNot

      A Kabbalist – wow good observation!

      October 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  6. Lew

    And, CNN continues its partisan decline into irrelevance.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Jeebusss

    "It’s entertaining, but it’s historical fan fiction, not history."

    The same can be said for the Bible.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Commenter

      Yes, along with a generous portion of morality tales and sci-fi horror fantasy.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  8. Art Long

    The bible is fiction, 100%, throw it away, sooner is better.

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

      To be fair... it gets the names of some cities and secular historical figures correct.

      But so does Harry Potter and Homer's Odyssey.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • jvburrows

      So if Christians don't believe your way, they are wrong? They should throw there beliefs out the door, all because you know everything about it all, right? Atheists use the argument they want fairness and respect for each other's religious beliefs and don't disrespect anyone else, but you atheist are the first to spit hate and abuse the second you see an opening. You atheist are truly the definition of hypocrites.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Typical Atheist

      Stop shoving your belief down our throats. Your god does not exist.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  9. wrm

    Who cares? He's info-tainment. Take it with a grain of salt and you won't get your panties in a bunch... or watch/read something else.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  10. unknown11

    This author seems to take great exception with style and points of history that are at least arguable. It looks to me like CNN is really searching for ANYTHING negative to say on this subject, and they really did not come up with much.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  11. Bradley G. Barnett

    Bill O'Reilly is a poseur! His books on JFK shed absolutely no new light on the assassination,yet they were "best sellers". That is simply American's under 50 'thinking' the pedant is anything but a 'loose cannon'. He brings nothing creative or new on his shows and John Stewart proved how he is incredibly narrow minded and shallow the man is.

    I am not surprised that his new book,which like his other books is simply recycled theory mixed with well known facts.

    Bill represents all that is negative in american news. He claims he is impartial but he is simply a well educated bully!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  12. mom

    This can't be right. Only 5 things that Bill O'Reilly got wrong? Everytime O'Reilly opens his mouth a few thousand wrong things come out.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  13. George

    Did Jesus use a loofah?

    October 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  14. Jeebusss

    What? Religious people are bad at separating fact from mythical hogwash and wishful thinking? You don't say........

    October 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      And impotent children like you think you are clever by using the term "jeebus". Clod.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  15. Duh

    And who is surprised O'Reilly gets it wrong...isn't that his modus operandi?

    October 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Richard

    "They killed Christ!"
    "Who were the Jews."
    -David Spade

    October 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  17. tony

    If an all-powerful god have wanted a human son, he wouldn't have put all his eggs in one basket, nor in one moment in time, nor in just one geographical location, nor in one tribal language.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • unknown11


      October 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • tony

      To save the huge majority of might be christians world-wide that missed out on knowing about it for for a great chunk of the last 2000 years perhaps? How's that for NOT spreading "the word" ????

      October 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  18. Robin Jones

    This article and the book it discusses tell legends about legends about legends. Their only relevance lies in illustrating the confusion and contradictions that have always surrounded religious history and theory. Attempting to apply rigorous research discipline to a subject which is, itself, void of disciplined rationality, is otherwise a fruitless endeavor.

    October 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  19. Wise Eagle

    Ms Moss is not much of a scholar and apparently a poor professor. Her first point doesn't even apply since O'Reilly never indicated the trusted Roman historians implicitly – he simply pointed out culture around the sources. Her second point shows little knowledge of the New Testament since the followers of THE WAY were first called Christians at Antioch – well before the end of the first century. If her first two points out of five obviously have such bias why argue the last three. She gets a "60" at best which is failing from my point of view. So much for the study of the New Testament at Notre Dame!

    October 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • jvburrows

      She works as a professor at a major liberal university and O Reily proclaims he is Christian. She is going to attack him even if it means being the most dishonest person she can be...... Also, this is CNN, a very liberal news station (remember candy crowly works here and we all remember how she lied for Obama during the prez debates). Its going to be anti-Christian even if they must be dishonest.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        She didn't lie, and Romney had no chance having to appease the extreme right to get the nomination then had no chance to even get back to his slightly right position which would have given him a much better chance.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  20. Vader

    "Bill O'Reilly" and "gets it wrong"...


    October 7, 2013 at 1:18 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.