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. donald

    o reilly is nothing but a blow-hard.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  2. KIRK

    26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • doughnuts

      And exactly when was "Acts" written? The last half of the first century, asccording to most scholars: Anywhere from 60 to 94 C.E.

      So-called smart person – 1
      You – 0

      October 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
      • KIRK


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


          October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Jason

      The Book of Acts was written in the 2nd century AD, long after Paul had died, and like most of the bible contained severe historical inaccuracies.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  3. Rick

    It seems that more and more more liberals get their news from Fox News than from any other source.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  4. ScottIndependent

    who cares

    October 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  5. Derek

    One more item to address: How do we know that a person cannot be heard audibly on the ground from atop a cross during a crucifixion? Has some one recently been crucified and we have the stage set for audio-video to test that argument?

    October 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • Chef Sun

      Spot on Derek!
      Maybe we can convince Bill O'Reilly to allow us to crucify him and verify his theory.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  6. KIRK

    paul was not a christian what an idiotic statement and christian was not used until when???? UM LOOK UP Acts 11:19-26
    did you even read the bible?? Candida Moss YOUR AN IDIOT REALLY YOU ARE

    October 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • doughnuts

      He was a Jew. Just like Jesus.

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


        October 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
        • doughnuts

          Then why say he converted to some new faith? He was a Jew who followed a particular rabbi, and he stayed true to his Jewish faith until he died.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
        • Gloria


          S...U....U.....U....U....R....E he did - just like Mohammad and Joseph Smith spoke to angels, L. Ron Hubbard heard from Xenu and Marshall Applewhite communicated with his dead soulmate who was in a spaceship behind a comet, and a ton of others who were real, super, extra special, including:

          "the voices in my head, calling G-l-o-r-i-a!"

          October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  7. joncraft84

    Reblogged this on Handicap and commented:
    Add your thoughts here... (optiWhy does everybody want to criticize anything with the word God in it? God wouldn't want it this way and neither do I. It's like saying "We will believe in you if want to belive in you". We're supposed to believe in him all the time, not just when we have problems or when we ask for him to do something for us. Once a believer always a beliver in my eyes. This goes to shows how many self centered people we have in this world, always about me, me, me! Never about our neighbor. As they say treat your neighbor like you want to be treated, in my eyes were not treating our neighbor very good so some of us are going to be treated very good...some will be treated with disrespect. Some kindness will go a long way, however we have to look for it. Some of us don't have the time to look for it. Some of us do treat our neighbors like we're suppose to with kindness and respect. And that's what I challenge you to do.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  8. Jesusiscoming

    Mat 24:3-5,10-11 (NIV) ..."Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus answered, "Watch out that no one deceives you, for many will come in my name,.. At that time many will turn away from the faith... and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people."

    October 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  9. joncraft84

    Why does everybody want to criticize anything with the word God in it? God wouldn't want it this way and neither do I. It's like saying "We will believe in you if want to belive in you". We're supposed to believe in him all the time, not just when we have problems or when we ask for him to do something for us. Once a believer always a beliver in my eyes. This goes to shows how many self centered people we have in this world, always about me, me, me! Never about our neighbor. As they say treat your neighbor like you want to be treated, in my eyes were not treating our neighbor very good so some of us are going to be treated very good...some will be treated with disrespect. Some kindness will go a long way, however we have to look for it. Some of us don't have the time to look for it. Some of us do treat our neighbors like we're suppose to with kindness and respect. And that's what I challenge you to do.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  10. nathanbrazil

    Wow, if these are the best arguments you can come up with he must have done pretty darn well! These are really weak to say the least! First, that he is wrong to call Paul a Christian because he did not know the term? Whatever he called himself then, we call that Christian now. O'Reilly is just fine using the term. Perhaps there were no Neanderthals because they did not use that term for themselves at the time?! And Jesus' words? You agree that Jesus likely could not have uttered the forgiveness phrase while crucified. But to utter the concept of "It is finished" would have taken a simple word, so not so implausible, so he does not disallow for that. Nothing wrong with that at all. The other arguments are weak as well. Yes, he uses a story form of writing to keep the reader engaged. Works just fine, and worked quite well for "Killing Lincoln" too. Admit it, you just can't separate your dislike for the author from your evaluation of the work.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • jack

      Let us not forget also about the Gentiles who converted to....(not Judaism)...The Way, or what we now refer to as Christianity.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • helen c. andreu

      Your comments are right on. Extremely weak arguments, especially the one about Paul. Just another O'Reilly hater who's jealous she didn't write the book.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
  11. Derrick

    I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • rebeljrs

      Research Pascal's Wager. Not really living by faith!

      October 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Pal 3

      "and die to find out there isn't" ... do you see the flaw? Death is the end, so you don't actually get to find out that there isn't a god. You have to just have faith that Zeus was not real, and have faith that Odin is not waiting, and truly believe with the love of Athena in your heart that you will not be ferried across the river Styxx by Charon the boatman. You see? It's about faith 🙂

      October 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  12. French VanDevender

    Does anyone ever stop to think that the middle east, the part of the world we think has some of the craziest people on the planet, is the same people that gave us judism, christianity, and the muslim religons.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • Pal 3

      hee hee! 🙂

      October 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • jungleboo

      My philosophy precisely. If you think about it, you'll see that it is a cancer that spread via travel technology, and wiped out native populations around the world. Monotheism is the ultimate evil, because by its very nature, it requires a single mouthpiece to tell everybody what the ONE god wants. Then you get mouthpieces fighting each other to be top dog. It's just the ultimate recipe for disaster. I am so very sorry that generally happy, peaceful people throughout the world have historically been subjected to "convert or die" salvation, the conquerers laughing all the way to the bank.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  13. Robert

    Does anyone else get the paradox of using CNN as a platform to call out the acta diurna as a propogadist news source?

    October 7, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • John

      No less credible than Fox.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  14. Derek

    These Roman historians – Seutonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Plutarch – among others, have been pillars of the world's knowledge base of Roman and Mediterranean history for over 2,000 years. Like our historians and news people today, they were most certainly biased, but let's not pretend that we know more TODAY about their ancient contemporaries than THEY DID.

    Right (sarcasm here), Paul was not a Christian – he just repeated over and over again in his letters which he started with writing with, "I PAUL, AN APOSTLE OF JESUS CHRIST". By the way, he wrote about a fourth to a third of the New Testament that this editor claims to be an expert in. Let's start claiming that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren't Americans because they did not frequently refer to themselves as one.

    So many of these "professional historians" with degrees in history assert that no one else outside of their clique is qualified to write history and most definitely not qualified to analyze it then, too. Well, most historians who lived and worked throughout world history would argue with the idea that you need any such degree or qualification since they did not study history as a major in any Ivy League university, or any university at all for that matter. We have volunteer referees in sports, volunteer firemen, volunteer soldiers in the National Guard, and all of these opinionated "talking heads" in our news media, but unless you have a degree, you are not worthy to write, record, analyze, or argue. That's the apex of intellectual, irrational nonsense. We should advise Thomas Edison that he shouldn't have invented the light bulb because he had the wrong college degree, and we should have told Steve Jobs he had no right to invent Apple because he had no degree at all.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Are there any surviving copies of these alleged letters? No?
      The oldest copies are from the 5th century C.E., and they are all hand-copied with no two of them being exactly alike.

      And you expect anyone to take you seriously when you want to use them as proof?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • helen c. andreu

      Bravo! It would help if this "Professor" would only admit that the book accomplished its purpose - and that is to validate that the life of Jesus transformed the lives of so many of his followers, spread a message of truth, love and forgiveness all over the world, and convicted so many of us of our need to repent.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  15. paul

    Read the bible understandingly, do not try to reinterpet it, The true people of god still lives and sees life as jesus did,
    a life to truth, compassion,of purpose and a final destination secure in the heavens,
    It is your eternal salvation, you are responsible to read the bible and search out your own eternal well being,
    If you fail to do so you are denying christ, Not a good way to show up at heavens gate,
    Life is ever speeding onward, nought can stop it,s rapid flight, one thing we are assured of is we will all see death,

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

      it's FICTION. Lol, he really thinks there is going to be a gate! The only part you got right was that death comes for all that lives. (But special little Humans do not get to ignore all Universal laws and re-awaken in daddy's arms for an eternal party)

      October 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  16. Richard Hicks

    O'Reilly is just another hypocrite. "Killing Jesus" will convince many that all religions are nothing more than hogwash.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  17. Joel

    Christianity and the Jesus stories fall apart pretty quickly when put under any scrutiny and historical study. It's 2013 people, time to grow up.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Brown

      ...even under the scrutiny of the most basic arithmetic, they tend to crumble easily. "Eternal soul" being a good place to start...

      October 7, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  18. OBXCrabby

    Perhaps those who are critical of Professor Moss would be wise to look at her credentials. I may be wrong, but I suspect that she is quite as familiar as any of the critics who think they know better.

    "Candida R. Moss graduated from Worcester College, Oxford part of the University of Oxford in Oxford, England in 2000 with a B.A.(Hons) in theology. In 2002 she received a M.A.R. in Biblical studies from Yale Divinity School. In 2006, Moss graduated from Yale University with a M.A. and M.Phil in religious studies, followed by a Ph.D. in Religious Studies in 2008. She became a full Professor in 2012, only four years after receiving her PhD from Yale making her one of the youngest full professors in the humanities in the United States ever." – Wikipedia

    Hmmm, I wonder who has the more accurate interpretation of what probably happened, the professor or the political commentator?

    October 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Mike

      So you are saying Prof. Moss has a vested interest in O'Reilly being wrong......at least she isn't biased (sarcasm). These are ground breaking flubs and clearly not refuted by any opinion by the author. Give me a break. The media hates religion....we get it. Move on.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
      • doughnuts

        No. He's saying that the person who has dedicated their life to theological and religious scholarship is more likely to be correct than the loofah enthusiast who hosted the celebrity gossip-show "Inside Edition."

        October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • screwie


      have u noticed the credentials of christ?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  19. Waiting for a Candidate

    Bill's gift for bloviation is truly mind boggling. I doubt I could muddle through this hacknied version of history.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      You're right. Combining O'Reilly's ego with a search for Spiritual Truth is probably not a good idea.

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

      ...you just taught me a new word, bloviation, and it couldn't describe Bill O'Reilly better!!! Thanks.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  20. dajowi

    All religions are nice little fairy tales meant to convince their followers they should conduct themselves in a certain fashion or reap the consequences which usually include sending the person's soul or spirit to a place called hell or its equivalent.

    Some religions are more goofy than others like Mormonism and Scientology. Some religions are more dangerous than others like islam.

    The idea that an intelligence supposedly responsible for creating the entire universe is interested in humanity is really preposterous. That "god/he/it" sent his "son" down here to convert the heathens to Christianity then have "him/it" to be put to death by the Romans to absolve those humans who believe he is the "son" of "god" from their "sins" really is about as absurd as it gets.

    I know a lot of people who feel that if something good happens it's because it's god's well. If something bad happens it's through the influence of Satan or the devil. What hogwash.

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

      THANK YOU. Well said, going to leave on that note 🙂

      "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." – Stephen F Roberts

      October 7, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
      • bluey

        "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." – Stephen F Roberts
        well, sweetheart, u think so, but u is wrong again.

        god dismisses u

        bye bye

        October 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
About this blog

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.