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. matsci2

    Five other things Bill O'Reilly got wrong in "Killing Jesus"
    1. Jesus' full name was not "Jesus O'Reilly"
    2. Jesus did not ride into the temple on an elephant; it was a donkey.
    3. Jesus did not say "blessed are the makers"
    4. Jesus said "Be ye therefore perfect" not "Bill be therefore perfect"
    5. It's "But seek ye first the kingdom of God" not "But seek ye first the kingdom of gold"

    October 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  2. dude

    Miss Moss, you sound arrogant and propose no facts to back you opinion, therefore you have embarrassed yourself. Tweet to your followers and please do not show yourself to be a twit here.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • cdgfr94p

      She is nothing but a minion of the Jewish and Christian lobby that for 2000 years have denied the existence of A DIFFERENT RELIGION IN ISRAEL, prior to 70 ad. They all say they were JEWS. No, they were not Jews, but Hebrews. Jews are the offspring of the pharisee rebellion aided by the Roman army.

      Prior to the jews, was the hebrews. The hebrews, for 1500 yrs, starting in Sinai, had 1 set of books, Torah.

      Jews ADDED to Torah, prophets, writings AND their ungodly TALMUD

      But they only did this AFTER they had murdered all the Priests (Sadducee) in Israel

      Sneaky tards

      October 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • QS


      My favorite of all favorites – religious people who have no proof of anything regarding their beliefs demanding that others provide proof AGAINST those beliefs!

      Religious people never cease to amuse me with their complete lack of logic and rational thought!

      October 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  3. not a fan of o'reilly but

    the first flub isnt really a flub at all. anyone who has had the pleasure (or unpleasure) of researching anything prior to the renaissance knows that most historical records written about a specific event, whether they be present or written after the fact, knows they are full of propaganda and religious themes (not unlike historical analysis in the present day). For instance, while researching Alexander the Great and his father, Phillip II, i would rely on ancient sources such as Plutarch. If the writer of this article has beef with O'Reilly's lack of modern historical analysis, then that is a matter of discussion, however modern historians are still drawing much of their analysis from ancient biographies/histories, so in the end much of the biographical information we have on Jesus or anyone prior to the fall of Rome is left unto ancient biographers, filled with great inaccuracies, bias, propaganda, and religious undertones.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  4. Daniel J and Edward L Dubrowski Foundation

    The husband and I actually got to meet Mr. O'Reilly once and found him to be very nice and kind of funny during our short conversation. He congratulated us on our then 10 year anniversary. Nice enough but I would never read or watch anything he was involved in. I liked his old radio show before he became ultra-conservative. He could bash Bush with the best of them!

    October 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
  5. Jim

    You are reading this book like a history, when you should be reading it as historical fiction

    October 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
  6. Marcusaroman

    How could Candida not know Acts 11:26 ... "they were called first Christians in Antioch" ... if she can't get this fact right with her education ... we shouldn't listen to either of them ... Candida or Bill! DO I HEAR AN AMEN?

    October 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Gayle Gill

      What you are referring to is an english translation of the N.T. and only a translation. Words have many meanings. Go back to the original language and then tell us what it says but then again you probably don't know Koine Greek.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  7. George

    I will not read " buffalo" Bill's book. I listened to Don Imus interview BO upon the books release. Listening to Bill tell what he told Imus, sounds to me that he plagerised the infamous ("The day Christ Died" Jim Bishop 1950's). Which is a history book.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Vik100

    Jesus lives forever!!

    October 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  9. jane

    I tried to listen to "killing lincoln" but stopped when he repeated referred to the "calvary" when he actually meant "cavalry."

    October 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • OhNoYouDidn

      I know, right?! Almost as bad as saying "repeated" when you mean "repeatedly!"

      October 7, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
      • HJC


        Ooops! i spelled that backwards! Sorry, my bad!

        October 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  10. OhNoYouDidn

    Don't think I've ever seen a critique that assaults the research of another work while proving no research to back up those critiques. What this "opinion" piece boils down to is "O'reilly is wrong because I say so." Apparently CNN doesn't require a minimum 4th grade composition course of it's contributors, but then again "X is wrong because we say so" seems to be CNN's journalistic standard these days.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • weenadelic

      Did you even look at her credentials? You do know what type of school ND is right?

      October 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
      • OhNoYouDidn

        All the more reason her points should be sourced, you would think. I guess if you're into blindly believing someone because of their "credentials" then the piece is wonderful. She essentially found 5 points where her beliefs or research (assuming she's done any) don't agree with his (imagine that when trying to sort out 2000 year old history) and then claims he's wrong because she doesn't agree with him. No sourcing. No argument. No logic. Just, "He's wrong."

        October 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
  11. cdgfr94p

    Anyway, Christianity and Islam and Judaism, the 3 peas in a pod, the 3 add-on religions are all done for. Thanks for the internet God, now we are no longer illiterate

    October 7, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • Punchmaster

      Abraham offers 3 flavors of nonsense: Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Choices vary depending on where you live.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  12. cdgfr94p

    "Even though there’s no evidence for a direct financial link between the Temple and Rome" hello

    There is a stone in the foundation of the Roman Coliseum indicating that the FUNDS CAME FROM THE looting of the Jerusalem Temple.

    This is like the blind leading the blind

    October 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  13. Anon

    This from a man who said "“It is a fact that Christianity is not a religion, it is a philosophy” (The O'Reilly Factor, 12/28/2012).

    October 7, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  14. cdgfr94p

    What created the Jewish religion was not the 'oral law', which was kept tightly under wraps for 1500 years, but the written law 'Talmud', which was ONLY created once the arch enemy of the Pharisee, the Sadducee Priests, were murdered. Murdered? By whom? The pharisee tried for hundreds of years to destroy the bloodline Priest's control of Israel, but always failed. Failed because the Priests held political positions, held finances, collected taxes, and they had to atone for their sins to the Priests. ONLY until the introduction of the Roman soldier, did the pharisee have a chance, which they took in trade for the Jerusalem treasury, which was used by Rome to build the Colosseum. The Pharisee because the Jew AFTER the fall of Jerusalem's last temple and with Roman help. Like 2 peas in a pod.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • JT

      Wait, are there 2 peas in your pod or 3? And are these Pharisee, Roman or Jewish peas? You keep mixing me up.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  15. John

    OReally says God told him to write a book and he corrects mistakes in the bible and look at the comments in support. Is there anything you people won't swallow. Bah bah sheep, Bah Bah.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  16. Old_Hippie

    A story about a story, how uninteresting.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Martin L

    Bill O'Reilly should stick to reading the news off a teleprompter because he's totally ignorant of history AND theology and is totally incompetent to do anything but read what someone else has written.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • Steven

      I think you give him too much credit.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Miltonboy

      I just read the last half of your post and assumed you were speaking about Obama.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  18. Kirk

    This reporter should really brush up on her Bible. The term Christian was first used at Acts 11:26 which would have been around the year 44. Next at Acts 26:28 King Herod Agrippa II even tells Paul that, "In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian". if Paul had thought otherwise then he would have said it then.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • Canada

      In an interview I just watched with Her, she told O'reilly, that Rich people need to give away there money to get into heaven.... laughable, and extremely sad from a "Scholar on the Bible" She know's lots ABOUT the Bible, but she does not understand it.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
      • I wonder


        But **you** do understand it, eh?

        Yup, that's one reason why there are nearly 40,000 denominations of the religion...

        October 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
        • I wonder

          p.s. @Canada, it sure sounds like you think yourself to be wise? Your book has something to say about that...

          October 7, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
      • QS

        "THEIR money"

        And about that comment below where you call me an idiot.....

        October 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
        • Dippy's Aide

          And why on Earth would this wise person put an apostrophe in know's?

          October 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • weenadelic

      Brush up on her bible? She isn't a reporter, she is a professor of early Christianity at Notre Dame... so now scholars on the subject have to accept incorrect writings by TV personalities and blog commenters? Okay, that makes sense.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  19. dot

    i don't think jesus even existed.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • QS

      You're not alone in that.

      October 7, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  20. QS

    Conservatives are all about revisionist history....it's the only way any of their ideas, notions or "principles" ever make any sense to them – because they are so easily able to rewrite things to fit their own narrative.

    Frighteningly enough though, the most telling aspect of this article is the fact that this "book" is a best-seller!

    Conservatism and religion – the two things that most make me fear for my species!

    October 7, 2013 at 4:37 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.