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. katahdin

    O'Reilly didn't even write the book. It's a common game in the publishing industry. Have an unknown author write a book, then put a celebrity's name on it.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  2. bobby

    The item above about Paul being "not a Christian" is silly word game nitpicking. Yes, Paul was beyond dispute an adherent of the faith that was eventually called Christianity. It may or may not be true that the faith was never called "Christianity" during his lifetime, but that makes no substantive difference whatsoever as to who Paul was and what his faith was.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • QS

      This is cracking me up!

      People are so upset about this particular part of the article, yet they don't even realize that by being upset about it only displays the already blatant and obvious divisiveness that religion inherently advocates.

      i.e. – "How dare you say that a Christian wasn't a Christian and insult that Christian by claiming that Christian actually belonged to some other faith!"


      October 7, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • alex

      Paul was the founder of Christianity.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  3. Puzzled in Peoria

    No, the first generation of Jesus' followers did NOT live and die as Jews. They gave up sacrificing at the temple; Jesus' sacrifice negated that. They stopped following Jewish dietary laws. They worshipped the Trinity, not just Yahweh. They understood that salvation was through grace, not works, as Judaism believed.

    Yes, the Pharisees WERE legalistic bloviators. They said Jews had to obey 613 man-made laws and that salvation came through works and complete obedience, which no one can accomplish. Today's descendants of Pharisees are Hassidic Jews.

    Jesus WAS NOT political. Because he advocated for the poor doesn't make him political. He advocated paying taxes and did not come to defeat the Roman Empire in Israel but for the salvation of mankind.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • QS

      I tend to believe that all religious people are puzzled...in general.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • alex

      Gospels do not say anything about Jesus rejecting dietary laws. Acts, Romans and Colosseans do, these are all Pauline things.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
    • Frank

      A technical error on your part. In the sense you mean, the descendants of the Pharisees are all of today's Orthodox Jews, not just Hassidic Jews. From the Jewish perspective the main difference between the Pharisees and Saducees was the former's adherence and emphasis on the Oral Law, which characterizes all Orthodox Jews, whether Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox or Hassidic.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
  4. russ139

    I'll never know, but I'll bet many people (O'Reilly fans) buy the book actually for others, perhaps as a gift. Very few of those books ever get read, I'll bet. (Not that O'Reilly cares.) I thought the same thing about Sarah Palin's book. Many purchased it – few actually read it. Fewer finished it.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Jeff Scott

      Same could be said for any book 'written' by a 'liberal'.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  5. bobby

    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

    In other words, they were the CNN of the day.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  6. steve-0

    Twits on Fox..for twits by twits

    October 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  7. Before CHRIST

    Anyone who uses CE/BCE instead of AD/BC will burn in hellfire!! Don't fool yourself, it is still measured by Christ's year!

    October 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      The B.C./A.D. dating system was the brainchild of a monk named Dionysius in the 6th century. The Church was very, very powerful in those days and controlled many aspects of society, including politics, economics, literature and history-writing... still, this dating system took hundreds of years (nearly 1000) to be inst-ituted world-wide. Many cultures still keep their ancient calendars going on the side.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • Dave

      Chill, dude. I think God has bigger concerns than how we label dates.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • 5774

      L' shanah tovah!

      October 7, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • QS

      Most people never had the option of fooling themselves....they were subjected to religion against their wills at a very young age which fools one and all.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • Cheryl

      Where in the Bible did you find this Information and if not, are you a prophet?

      October 7, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  8. russ139

    Sounds like it follows the same journalistic rules of Fox News.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  9. Sean

    Why would anyone give Bill O'Rielly any confidence in anything he says or writes about? Isn't this the same man who claimed no one could explain the tides of the oceans on our planet?! Think about it.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  10. Mike

    About point 2

    The word "Christian" is used several times in the Bible depending on what translation you use. The Greek "Christianos" roughly translates to "Little Christ" (Most famously Act 26:28 where Agrippa asks Paul if he thinks he can persuade him to become a Christian). I believe in this context, according to the Bible any way, Paul would have considered himself a Christian.

    I am not arguing for Bill O'reilly, I think he's a total tool bag and hadn't even considered reading the book.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • Oncler

      I'm on the same page with you Mike, totally messed up point 2.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
      • Sethers

        Absolutely...and even if you don't want to translate it that way isn't it still a bit misleading to headline your paragraph "Paul wasn't a Christian"? I am so glad I am not learning about Christian history in her class. Each one of these points is either petty or confusing...and I am no fan of O'Reilly for what it's worth.

        October 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  11. Silky

    Please Candida, focus on something more important.
    No one alive can verify all the facts from 2000 years ago.
    You sound like a whining know it all

    October 7, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Bob

      Like Bill-ow?

      October 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  12. pdqbach

    The biggest flub is Candida Moss being considered an expert by anyone. Her theories about Jesus are so far off the mark that it only serves as confirmation of why kids coming out of college are so misguided and misinformed.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • Gerry Daley

      Actually if you did any research at all, you'd see that she is pretty much on target and O'Reilly is way off base. And that slaughter of the Innocents at Bethlehem? Probably never happened.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Tracy

      I truly can't believe that this article or the author was actually put on this website or any other. Why do people who have obviously either don't read the Bible or do not do any research are allowed to write an article about Jesus or any other part of the Bible? First off Paul was Saul who was spoken to while riding on a donkey and came to his own conclusion that his persecution of the 1st century Christians was wrong. He was not only raised as a Roman but persecuted and had followers of Jesus put to death, including Stephen. After he became a follower of Christ, he went on to become a very zealous follower of "the way" (which is correct) but those followers were followers of Christ – hence Christian. He also wrote many books of the Bible – in the Christian Greek Scriptures. As far as the Pharisees, Jesus himself condemned them, saying the followed the traditions of men and were hypocrites. In fact, they were the ones who paid Judas to betray him. As far as the tax goes, he even explained to Peter thru an illustration that paying taxes were important 'Pay Ceasars things to Ceasar, but God's things to God. There is so much more to say, but why don't you get out your Bible and read Matthew thru Timothy and then research it and then write an article.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
      • Clark

        Really? I wonder out loud why any one would waste their time on reading the bible at all. This subject, if you're going to waste your time, should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. This book is full of fairy tales written long before there was a Jesus.

        October 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Catherine

    Oh my word, CNN will report on a novel written by a FOX employee but won't cover a story on the DOJ trying to ban a non-fiction book regarding Fast & Furious then they wonder why there numbers are down on tv – state run media sucks -– eh boys???

    October 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Rodman

      You mean they wont write about the guy who actually wanted his own Fast and Furious:

      "After he spoke to CBS News and congressional investigators about the Arizona-based Fast and Furious operation, Dodson came under fire by colleagues inside ATF and the Justice Department. Former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke even leaked a memo showing that Dodson proposed an investigation which, like the Fast and Furious investigation, would have allowed guns to "walk."

      Didnt hear that on Fox did you?

      October 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  14. Mike

    Saying "Paul was not a Christian" is highly misleading. The *term* Christian may not yet have been adopted, but Paul clearly confesses Jesus Christ as lord, which is the only thing that matters when considering the question.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • skm

      yes, but chritianity didn't exist until after the establishment of the roman catholic church and after christ's death. the bible could say anything about paul's loyalty to jesus, but he wasn't a christian.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
      • ajk68

        The Roman Catholic Church was established on Pentecost.
        Paul takes the hand of of fellowship with the pillars of the Church, specifically with Peter.

        Christian is a follower of Christ. They existed in some sense even before Jesus' death. Clearly they existed after Pentecost.

        October 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
        • Gerry Daley

          The Roman Catholic Church was most certainly NOT established on Pentecost! It only became "Roman" years later after the destruction of Jerusalem. The head of the Roman Church was just that – head of a Roman church and nothing much else. Only gradually did the bishop of Rome start to assume some leadership and this was certainly not agreed to by, well – about half of the people who called themselves Christians...hence the split of the Church into Western and Eastern branches.

          October 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
      • What

        Followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch, Syria in Acts 11:26

        October 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
      • xjdavid

        He may not have used the term "Christian", but he was most certainly a follower of Christ. To say he wasn't a Christian just because the word was being thrown around yet is silly. When was the word "vegetarian" first used? Does it mean people who didn't eat meat before they called themselves vegetarians weren't really vegetarians? Silly.

        October 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  15. cdgfr94p

    The apple shouldn't have been eaten. Its downhill from there. Expect no love from your CREATOR GOLD

    October 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  16. Opposing View

    Another "anti-God" article by CNN. Why am I not surprised. It has long been apparent that Lucifer is firmly in the driver's seat at CNN, and he's controlling the shots. That's why every article you see published is always "anti-God". Clearly, it's not balanced news reporting. It's obvious they must have nothing but gays and atheists working at CNN…

    October 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • skm

      anti-god? i think the author is trying to point out that o'reilly is a little more short sighted than accurate. probably means he was more interested in making a buck off the conservative masses than providing a factual, intellectual and thought provoking literary piece.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • VoiceOfSanity

      Lucifer is in charge at CNN? Seriously? What have you been smoking? To me, O'Reilly has always been very loose with the facts and an arrogance which is difficult to stomach. And intelligent people generally don't grandstand attacking gays and athiests. If there were more athiests in this country, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to make the mistakes we do not based on facts but blind faith. Poeple like you seriously scare the heck out of me. It sounds like if a story isn't written the way you prefer, you blame....Satan.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • don keller

      I don't see anything "anti god" in this article.
      it is pointing out erroneous facts by O'Rreilly..
      Just because cnn is pointing out some facts, does not make it an anti god issue..

      October 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
      • Oncler


        CNN pointing out some facts??Really? the points/flubs are merely a opinion not facts.

        October 7, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • QS

      LMAO! And we're supposed to accept that people like you ust expect others to respect your beliefs when your beliefs lead you to this level of psychosis?

      The main thing that made and keeps me an Atheist, is religious people talking about their "faith"!

      October 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
      • Oncler

        Having the main base of your beliefs predicated on others peoples faith is ridiculous. Just saying. Try basing your beliefs on data...

        October 7, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • cgonzalez

      Opposing View: You are an idiot. Go back and read what the Bible said

      October 7, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Gerry Daley

      What a crackpot. All you spew is hate.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • xjdavid

      It's just that kind of crackpot nonsense that is driving people out of churches in droves. If you don't temper your faith with reason, then you're a gullible fool. Paul the Apostle implored people to STUDY and not to believe everything they hear, not even from people who professed to be believers.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Cheryl

      "Anti God" is a pretty strong word for someone/something you don't agree with ! Self righteousness is very unbecoming especially for a Christian.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  17. TruthSayer

    If you read a book by Bill OReilly you're an idiot. Apart from his misguided and hypocritical politics, he's about as trustworthy and credible as Judas himself.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  18. Ranch

    Who needs facts, the big $$$ is towing the party line at all cost and keeping the little man down and fighting against themselves.
    "Evil Walks behind you" – ACDC

    October 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  19. Iowa_Sailor

    Why would anyone buy, let alone read, this drivel from this moron?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • Gayle Gill

      Good question. LOL.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  20. Kevin Grab

    Anyone notice that the author of this article is named after a fungus/yeast infection? What in the world were her parents thinking?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:08 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.