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. MarylandBill

    Her point about Paul being Christian is actually kind of silly. Sure, they may have called their religion the way, and yes, many might still have seen themselves as Jews, but Paul certainly saw belief in Jesus as the Messiah as being distinct from being Jewish since he argued strongly against Gentiles being forced to follow Jewish Law. As for the fact that the term Christian was not used in the 1st century, that argument is frankly silly; by the same standard, nothing exists prior to it getting its name. Humans couldn't have existed prior to the Anglo-Norman Conquest (which couldn't have happened since Anglo-Norman is a contemporary term).

    October 7, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  2. dewie

    Like you, I have NO PROOF of any of them, but at least I am HONEST enough to admit it."


    can anyone challenge me? ANYONE? PLEASE

    October 7, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • Observer


      Do you believe EVERY word of the Bible and support slavery like it does?

      Still STUMPED?

      October 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • What???

        The Bible support slavery? Really

        October 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  3. Pelagic

    Buddha was not a Buddhist.
    Christ was not a Christian.
    I am not words on your screen.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Fay

      Jesus Christ was a Jew

      October 7, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
      • Pal


        October 7, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  4. Pelagic

    Faith is that little special something you give yourself to believe in anything with no proof.

    Having faith in a lord, a god, multiple gods, other lives yet to come etc really is mass delusion. I hope now that we are in the "information age" there will be a lot less deists in the future. Christians in this epoch don't seem nearly as dangerous as the Islamists but any kind of delusion perpetrated on such a large scale just cannot be a good thing 🙁

    October 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • What???

      What do you find wrong with the teachings of Jesus?

      October 7, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Pal

        ...all the unproven, un-knowable metaphysical hogwash for starters.
        1. soul
        2. gods
        3. life after death

        ...I know you like to focus on the love bit, but you should really come to grips with the absurdity of 1,2, and 3 first 🙂

        October 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
        • What???

          Where did Jesus talk about anything that you listed Chapter and verse please?

          October 7, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
      • Pal 2

        "You shall not let a sorceress live." (Exodus 22:18)

        October 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
        • What???

          I asked about Jesus not Moses?

          October 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
        • Sabby

          To Pal 2: The 3 quotes you gave were Not teachings of Jesus. Two are Old testament, one is a opinion of Saul of Tarsus. IF you intended to provide a teaching of Jesus you disliked please do so.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
      • Pal 2

        "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22)

        October 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
        • What???

          Good point! But when I read this I ask the question in relation to the Word and its foundational truth. This bit of scripture was truely stated by Paul but is it a statement of Truth? I say No it is not a statement of truth, because in Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Romans 10:12, Romans 2:11 and Acts 10:34 to quote a few all tell of a God that has no respect of a person be it male or female, Jew or gentile, free or slave. Paul in this instance spoke from his person and not a prespective of God.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
      • Pal 2

        Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

        October 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
        • What???

          When you don't have an understanding of the Bible you can easily be lead down a rabbit hole and confusion. If I tried to explain to you everything about this scripture then it would take forever. So I will leave this with you about the Old Testament and the Jewish Torah these books are specific to a people and a time. The Old Test. is a physical representation of the spiritual relationship that present day Believers live by. Exp: If you know that smoking can cause cancer and you chose not to smoke, your chances of developing cancers that are caused by smoking is little if at all. When you consider that the information that you using to make this determination is from historical medical facts your confidence that it is reliable then give you faith that it is true. With this point of scripture it is basically saying if you have trusted God and you are being led to unbelief, by a person close to you, in your God with no evidence to prove your God is unreliable your relationship with that person should be “killed or terminated”. I have friends from my childhood that I no longer hangout with because they are doing things that I know are self destructive so I chose not to spend a whole lot of time with them but when I do see them I encourage them and I continue to love them. This scripture is saying the same thing. Then it was a direction to literally kill and now it is a choice to be different and separate or sanctified.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • PHOEY

      Faith is that little special something you give yourself to believe in anything with no proof."

      according to the new nazi Pelagic unabridged dictionary of nonsense, lies and myths published by tom, tom the other one, the moron brothers inc

      October 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  5. Tony T

    I guess she never read about the Road to Damascus and you are correct that the word Christianity was not used at that time by years latter...but follower's of Christ were Christians, what the word means. Also, most if not all the originals followers of Christ were Jewish...really not a suprise.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  6. Conrad

    Read "Caesar's Messiah;" it is all literally made up. Probably the greatest hoax in the history of the world and the Romans are still laughing!

    October 7, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  7. wonderabout

    Besides the fact that O'Reily is a chump with a huge chip on his slopping shoulders – for him of all people to proudly proclaim that the "Holy Ghost" spoke to him, is more than absurd. He is just another loudmouth... sadly, someone who influences a great many people – Head Lemming if you will....

    October 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • Eric

      How does someone who has had the #1 cable news show for 15 years and is a multi-best selling author have a chip on his shoulder
      your a nobody and O'Reilly makes just under 20 million a year, im gonna listen to him

      October 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  8. behonest

    Com'on, why would you even be surprised. It's been known that Bill O'Rilley love to fibricate events or stories just to get better rating and to sell books. The different between him and any used car salesman, besides their bank accounts. Bill is a much better liar.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  9. nhsays

    Guess what, say all you want, he's making more money than 99% of you, and I hope he's laughing all the way to the bank....

    October 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • marks320

      So you're saying the end always justifies the means, huh? Now that's a christian way of leading your life. If you're rich, it's all good, doesn't matter how you attained it.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Fay

      All his profits go to charity.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
      • Hill


        October 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Hill

      Since Christ did not do things to laugh all the way to the bank, doesn't that make O'Wryly not Christ-like?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • ktappe

      Ah, the old "if someone is making a lot of money, they must be right" argument. By this logic, Donald Trump is more virtuous and right than Gandhi was.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Benthic

    If their god had had a daughter instead, maybe things would be better 🙁

    October 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  11. DaveinFlorida

    Who's Bill O'Reilly?...........and who cares?

    October 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  12. observerless

    "The world could have be created by Zeus or a committee of zombies or the Three Stooges or an infinite number of other possibilities."

    got it.

    anyone, everyone except god's son

    October 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Observer


      I didn't exclude anything. Read what I say instead of fantasizing.

      Is your problem due to a reading comprehension disability or lack of intelligence?

      October 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  13. Marianne C

    I find it difficult to take someone like O'Reilley - who makes his living by lying to the gullible - seriously as either a historian OR a Biblical expert. O'Reilley is famous for making up his mind first, then looking for evidence to support his conclusion, making it up as he goes along if he has to. That is not one of the hallmarks of fine scholarship or investigative fact-finding.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Nexus974

      Seeing how O'Reilly is neither historian nor biblical scholar why even consider taking him seriously about either.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Madge W

    First, why would anyone rely on Bill O'r regarding questions of any faith based denomination, and second, why would anyone rely on the author of this article for the same reasons, and finally, according to the bible, followers of Jesus were called disciples or a follower of. They were called Christians by others much later in history because the way they lived reminded others of Christ. In fact, the word Christian appears in the bible two times while the word disciple appears over 200 times. Don't take my word for it. Look it up.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  15. DaveinIL

    The lady writes books debunking the tenets of Christianity so there's no surprises here.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bon

      These religions/mythologies tend to debunk themselves pretty quickly.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • marks320

      "Debunk- to show that something, such as a belief or theory, is untrue". So you are acknowledging that she writes books exposing falsehoods. I guess you must be as appreciative of her work as I am.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  16. Sid

    "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."; sorry dear lady; this is based on Biblical history; you probably should read your Bible first and then criticize later

    October 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • BEth

      ...or just it for T.P. and then it will at least have served some good purpose.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Todd

      Sid...I hate to break this to you, but the Bible does not represent factual history. (unless you believe someone actually lived in the belly of a whale) Read the quote again..."we hear the thoughts"...is it actually possible to hear thoughts? The Bible is a book of parables and should not be read or interpreted literally.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • marks320

      Anybody who truly reads the bible in its entirety would be compelled to criticize it afterwards.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  17. MeinNJ

    I give the woman credit for even picking up the book, let alone read it.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  18. Vence

    B. S.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  19. Sid

    also the Pharisees were totally self righteous and condemned for this by Christ throughout the Gospels

    October 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  20. Kevin

    1. Just like today, bias is a hard thing to kill. However, the willingness of the Gospel writers to die for their works does add credibility. You wouldn't die for a known lie.
    2. Ms. Moss, as a professor of the New Testament have you not read Acts 11:26? They are called Christians at Antioch.
    3. Jesus himself called the Pharisees hypocrites on multiple occasions.
    4. Of course Jesus' teachings on life has political implications. But Jesus never sought political gain. He didn't need to!
    5. The New Testament scriptures themselves, being an anthology, meets your criteria for multiple, early, and independent sources. Earliest fragments of Acts date back to 75-115 AD. Since Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke, the Gospels were even earlier. The earliest copy of Julius Caesar's writting was 1000 years after the event, and yet that is considered historically reliable.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:06 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.