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. ronjon51

    The is full of Crap, so why would any believe his book is based on any truth? Besides, the Bible and all other religious books are are fictional man made history books based on myths.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  2. Heloise

    I just listened to the audiobook. Bill reads it himself, first problem. Second problem: all his sources are all from any current Bible. I did not learn anything new. He said he would link Cleopatra, Anthony and Julius Cesar to Jesus. Well, he just mentioned the taxation situation and how the Romans demanded their monies and that was the link to Jesus the Nazarean.

    I got the copy free from my library. I would have been upset if I had bought it from audible because it is not only inaccurate and not following anything garnerned from real scholars but it was from any Bible. I don't think he even used the Q as a source material. The historians he mentions did not have Jesus high on their list. Many did report on the doings of Cleopatra et al. But I found "The Zealot" a lot more informative.


    October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  3. Peter

    Moss is quite correct that Paul never used the word "Christian." There is no evidence that Paul ever heard of a Christian. But it is just as certain that he never used the word "Jew" either, because no one spoke English in those days and "Jew" is an English word. Paul knew as much as anyone what a "Ioudaios" was, but he never referred to himself by that term and he knew that that term had many meanings. By the waym, he never used the term "synagogue" either. No meaning of the ancient word "Ioudaios" ever referred to anyone with a matrilinear family tree or anyone who ever repeated the Passover haggadah. Today, no one who is referred to as a Jew or as Jewish sacrifices animals in the Temple. Everyone who self identifies as a Jew has heard of the Mishnah and the Talmuds. Paul had never heard of these and had never used them either. Neither did Jesus. So why refrain from calling Paul a Christian only to anachronistically call him a Jew?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Gerry

    Can't blame O'Reilly. He doesn't write any of his books. And someone has to read them to him as well.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  5. blf

    This is O'Reilly's attempt to redefine Jesus as a Republican, or as Al Franken calls this view "Supply-Side Jesus".

    October 7, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  6. 2Smart4Tea

    The main problem here is that O'Reilly wouldn't know the truth if it gave him a goodnight kiss! Such hogwash, and such simpletons who buy the hogwash! But then again, they are conservatives – so I guess we must forgive them, they know not what they do.....

    October 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  7. J-Man

    Some of this seems to nit-pick a bit, even going as far as looking for problems to comment on. I like O'Reilly, he seems spot-on, on most (but not all) things. He seems to call out many dishonest people which gets him a lot of attention both positive an negative. I'll be this book is exactly what it should be, a factual, entertaining book not meant to cover everything on this subject.

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

      "O'Reilly seems spot on..." Sorry but he did utter this "Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can't explain that..."

      October 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  8. Gloria

    Ecclesiastes 8:17, "All the work of God...though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it."

    October 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  9. boyamidumb


    October 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  10. judith

    I'm eagerly awaiting O'Reilly's next book, hopefully to be called "Killing O'Reilly"–just kidding. But O'Reilly claims to be a Christian, yet beats up on the concept of social justice and helping the poor at every turn. Jesus, of course, wept!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Logic

      It's one thing to help the poor (like Jesus) and another to cater to their wants (Obama)

      October 7, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  11. asdf

    Geez, this is a work of popular history, not an academic history. The standards are very different, as is the intended audience. He's not writing for the "old men's club", but for mass appeal, just as other popular historians have before him ranging from Bill Bennet to Howard Zinn.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • judith

      Compare him to the overweight, bloviating gambling addict Bennett if you like, but don't you dare put him the same category as the late, great and brilliant Howard Zinn.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    Let's talk about Horus from Egypt in 3000 BC (Jesus is a copy of Horus), or Attis from Greece in 1500 BC (Jesus is a copy of Attis), or Mithra from Persia in 1200BC (Jesus is a copy of Mithra), or Krishna from India in 900BC (Jesus is a copy of Krishna), or Dionysus from Greece in 500 BC (Jesus is a copy of Dionysus) .... or any of the DOZENS of other gods predating the bronze age book character Jesus who were born of a virgin on Dec 25, traveled as a teacher, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, was killed and lay dead for 3 days and was resurrected.

    You Christians are not even original! What a joke!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Robert Brown


      Would you like to source any of that bull you posted, or is that the joke?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Jer

      Have you ever actually researched any of these mythic characters you relate to Jesus to see how they compare , or are you just regurgitating what you've heard in stuff like the zeitgeist movie and other sources without credit? Please respond with any ancient source predating Jesus that shows Horus to be virgin born, born on December 21st (not that Jesus was likely born on that day either), to have had 12 disciples, or to have died and resurrected like Jesus. You should actually do some real research into what you state and not take a one sided approach based on anachronisms and false claims.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • John Knox

      "Horus was born to the goddess Isis after she retrieved all the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband Osiris, except his penis which was thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish,[7][8] or sometimes by a crab, and according to Plutarch's account (see Osiris) used her magic powers to resurrect Osiris and fashion a gold phallus[9] to conceive her son (older Egyptian accounts have the penis of Osiris surviving)."

      Trying to see the similarities between this and Jesus LOL. Is it because he was the the son of a god?

      October 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  13. Barthomew

    Candida Moss should have should that she took into account the common opinion that Christians were first called Christians at Antioch, which was before the end of the 1st century.
    Candida Moss should not have suggested that was only one kind of Pharisee. There were a half dozen or more.
    The assertion by Moss that Paul was a different kind of Jew should have shown that she took into account how Paul disagreed with people like James, who was closer to and more sympathetic to the Jews; it's clear that Paul was less Jewish than James and Matthew and Jesus.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  14. Dyslexic doG

    Bill is just joining the 2000 year tradition of using a mystical figure to generate money for his bank account. It's the oldest con in the book!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Herewe Goagain

      What's a mystical figure?

      October 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        The only reason you wrote that comment is because I am the author. If it was by Bill O'Reilly, this little comment wouldn't even exist.

        October 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  15. Nanasavi

    Sweetheart, If Paul was not a Christian, no one has ever been. I will grant that history in that age is designed to be dispassionate, and that it is not complete as we have it, but if you are so convinced he (O'Reilly) is wrong, why did you bother with your criticism? Why not let it fall on its own?

    October 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • AB

      Oh I dont know sweetheart, maybe because it is her job???

      October 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • makncheese

      Christian was not extremely prominate in Paul's time but they were first called Christians prior to Paul's missionary journeys. Acts 11.26. So you should know your history before putting down someone elses.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  16. magicpanties

    So some doofus writes about a mythological figure and a doofus of mythology reviews it.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  17. Phil

    Not everything Notre Dame professors write is true either. Reading this article makes me wonder if Prof. Moss has actually read the New Testament or is she merely trying to discredit those who have. Acts Ch 11: 25 "Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." And what about Galatians 6:13-15? Paul was clearly a Jewish Christian who boasted in the "cross of OUR Lord Jesus Christ" Prof Moss makes me want to read the book.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Herewe Goagain

      The only reason she wrote the article is because O'Reilly is the author. If it was by Brian Williams or Candy Crowly this little internet article wouldn't even exist.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • deebee

      The bible is historical fiction. Like Aesop's fables. There is a message, but don't get all eccelesiastical about it.

      October 7, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  18. Katie

    My personal favorite misconceptions by Christians is that Jesus set out to create a new religion and called it after himself. Jesus was a Jew through and through.

    Jesus delighted in debate and radical argument and was especially good at holding people accountable for their own hypocrisy. He advocated tirelessly for the sick and the poor, flaunted the rules guiding people from the 'unclean' by touching the so-designated unclean and by allowing them to touch him, and was a voice for the neediest of people no matter their faith (or lack thereof), state of health, background, or gender. He did not promote anarchy, was not anti-law or anti-tax – and he was definitely not anti-Jewish religion.

    Many of today's Christians can be compared to some of the religious leaders of Jesus's day – ie, the Pharisees, who were learned men of Jewish law, often political, and who often interpreted laws as suited their personal beliefs as well as their community standings. I would make the argument that if Jesus were to rise again amongst us today, he would be viewed the same by most of today's Christians as he had been then: as a charismatic trouble-maker because he insisted on challenging everyone into changing their behavior in order to be more respectful, more tolerant, more forgiving, and more peaceful toward other people.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  19. Killbot

    Really? Bill wrote a book that says Jesus was awesome and Bill is right about everything? I gotta read that bad boy!
    In other news, I read a review of the Twilight books and it turns out that the author likes vampires.

    October 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  20. Darwin was right

    Any story that involves MAGIC WHITE GUYS with BEARDS who live in the sky is definitely FICTION!

    October 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
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