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. kravmaganon

    I plan on buying the book this week. If cnn says something is wrong than it is probably truth.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  2. A believer

    He has proven himself again an idiot who is foolish to think he knows more than God. Jesus was 100 percent man AND 100 percent God. He is not the Father yet he is God. No worries, he will meet him face to face someday and make a believer out of him though sadly unless he changes...too late.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  3. Billrich2

    This woman actually teaches the Bible?!? That same Bible that she perverts tells us that Satan has many ministers. She is obviously one of them.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  4. Skiharry

    F** it, we'll do it live! You go Bill

    October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  5. Bill O is GOD

    CNN is just upset because they don't have any employees capable of writing more than a few paragraphs of misspelled garbage. Don't believe me, return to cnn.com....viola!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Cleutus

    The history professor who wrote this article must have majored in arrogance. Is this the intellectual trash talk the Notre Dame students receive these days? Biased as it seems to an unrelenting defense of Catholicism rather than being a critique, it reflects the authors own strong bias more than any rational appraisal of the subject book. I do not follow any religion, but would rank, after the Muslim religion, Catholicism as the most anti-intellectual formal religion on the planet. Such a flimsy piece of work as this only reflects more of the "believe what I say you should believe" than any rationale evaluation

    October 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • joey

      you are on an internet blog, what exactly do you expect ? to funny

      October 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  7. Stan

    Ms. Moss is supposedly such an expert and yet states "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". What nonsense!! 1) There were MANY non-Jews that became believers and therefore did NOT die as Jews. 2) The word Christian appears several times in the NT, twice directly related to Paul - (Acts 11:26, and 26:28). Yes - people were called CHRISTIANS (Christ-follower) back then. 3) About the issue of Paul converting to Christianity - a) he still considered himself a Jew - but a born-again Jew and thence a Christian. b) The term Christian could be used of those born Jews or of those born gentiles. I happen to be a "Messianic" Jew - a Jew that has accepted Jesus as my Messiah and yet do not mind being called a Christian. The difference is that "Christ" is derived from the Greek and "Messiah" is derived from the Hebrew.
    If the Ms. Moss erred in something so basic, I have little "faith: in the rest of what she has to say.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • joey

      and the NT was written when ?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Scott

      Well said!

      October 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Julia Gershon

      A "Messianic Jew" is not a Jew. Jews do not believe in a physical manifestation of God. Ever.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  8. js

    The belief section of CNN is 99% garbage. People make good arguments here especially about Paul being a Christian. CNN isn't concerned about presenting an accurate view of the Christian faith. They like to portray the outliers (like this person) as normal and cause controversy.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • TheObserver

      The belief section of CNN is 99% garbage. People make good arguments here especially about Paul being a Christian (PROBABLY THE FARTHEST OFF THE MARK OF ALL THE NEW TESTAMENT PREACHERS) . CNN isn't concerned about presenting an accurate view of the Christian faith (AND UNFORTUNATELY NEITHER ARE CHRISTIANS). They like to portray the outliers (like this person) as normal and cause controversy. (EXACTLY, RELIGION DOES NOTHING BUT DIVIDE PEOPLE AND GIVE THEM A REASON TO KILL ONE ANOTHER, AIN'T IT GREAT?)

      Without religion, we'd live in a world with good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But, for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

      – Stephen Weinburg

      October 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  9. doughnuts

    The faith he was referencing was Judaism.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • Julia Gershon

      Judaism is not a faith; it has no dogma. Judaism is a religious civilization, or tribe.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  10. Steve

    "Rick" Best post I have ever seen on CNN

    October 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  11. caralee2010

    Just checked Acts 11:26 – yup, there it is. "It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians..."

    I don't know about Bill O'Reilley's book – but evidently nobody fact-checked this article!

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

      And that book was written during the last half of the first century, just like the article said.

      October 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • joey

      who fact checked the christian user manual ?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • LilRdVet2

      You understand, don't you, that Acts is a book about the "acts" the Apostles did after Jesus died, raised from the dead and ascended back to Heaven, right?...they may have "been referred to" as Christians, but that doesn't mean that's what they called or considered themselves... SMH

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

      They were still Jews. Until the end of the 1st century Christianity was still considered a Jewish sect, not a distinct religion unto itself.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  12. TheObserver

    Hmmmmmm...... Facts. The American evangelical's natural enemy..............

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

    “Scientists do not join hands every Sunday and sing "Yes gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!" If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.”

    Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

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

      because the herd needs that mental security called "belief". put your money on the plate and move along

      October 7, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  14. suffer'n succatash

    Point number two completely discredits the author of this article. Paul may not have used the word Christian, but he most certainly was one. Stupid point to a bad stupid article.

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

      Does it matter. Paul was one of the least pious and most misguided people in the Bible. If the words of Paul remind you of Bush and Rumsfeld, you're not alone. Paul was the most militaristic, the least loving/empathetic, and least insightful of all the New Testament figures. He basically reduced faith and piety to a laundry list of do's and dont's. He reminds me of a Pharisee who just happened to be trumpeting the other cause. No matter how you wanna slice it, Jew or Gentile, Paul was kind of a jerk.

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

        yeah, he knew how to handle chicks

        October 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
      • LilRdVet2

        Yet!...Paul was the go to guy...he wrote most of the books/letters in the New Testament...hummm...I wonder why?...no, I don't...but perhaps you should...

        October 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • truebob

      I guess it's safe to say facts never git in the way of your opinion.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • glenndavies

      Actually folks, it is true to say that neither Paul, nor any of the disciples ever called themselves Christians. Upon closer examination of the term in Acts, both (2) occasions it is used it is more of a derogatory slur by others about the disciples of Jesus. They never refer to themselves this way. In fact, the only other time it is used in the New Testament in 1 Peter 4:16 the context would suggest that Peter is saying, "Don't let it bother you when people call you Christian."

      October 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  15. CAL USA

    It is worth noting that the Ford Theater Bookstore would not offer O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln because of its many proven inaccuracies. If nothing else, the man is consistent. He's a total fraud, but he is consistent.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  16. KIRK

    every single point you made was either a lie or just plain STUPIDITY WRONG and you are supposed to teach this
    ooh ok??? WOW!!! better stay away from notre dame ummm their teaching IQ level has massively decreased
    how can one teach the bible if you have not read it
    let God be true, but every man a liar; YOU HIS DAY HAVE PROVEN THIS I PICK THE BIBLE OVER YOU

    October 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • KIRK


      October 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • LilRdVet2

      ooohhhh...someone a little upset that she pointed out that many things you believe may not be true?...too bad...doesn't make it less true...

      October 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Matt

      Hey Kirk - Calm down, buddy. You and others claiming this article is soooo stupid should ease off on the caps lock, and provide some evidence that the arguments don't hold water.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  17. Genevieve Albert

    Picky, picky, picky! Could you have been any more biased? The points you pick at aren't important or fact-altering. You can't get any 2 historians to agree on anything so try analyzing the Citric Acid Cycle in a chemistry book if you're bored.(Also known as the Krebbs Cycle, to prove my point)

    October 7, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  18. acsj

    What a patently dishonest and insulting article. Shame on CNN for this dreck.

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

    Really, French VanDevender? Loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, forgiving those who wrong you, you're right, Christianity is crazy, and this is not a way of life we should try to live.

    October 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • French VanDevender

      Yes I'm sure all those people who were tortured and died in the inquistion might beg to differ with your assesment

      October 7, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  20. tom

    Paul was considered one of the apostles he was a christian even if didn't use the word itself an apostle is one who has seen the risen christian he was knocked off his horse and saw him then its in the new testament

    October 7, 2013 at 2:50 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.