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. RodBinNC

    He would have been the first to condemn Jesus to death

    October 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • Rett

      As would many of us

      October 7, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  2. Jim

    I thought the main criticism from CNN would be that O'Reilly didn't use the word "alleged" every time he mentioned Jesus.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  3. noillusion

    Tide comes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. Buhahaha!

    October 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  4. Seoras

    And I was thinking about buying this book........

    October 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
  5. Derek

    O'Reilly may have a lot of input on the book and he no doubt has to ultimately approve it since he has his name on it. But like others, I am suspect that he is the one actually writing the book.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
  6. Jeff

    Wait, are you saying that Bill O'Reily wrote something fudges the details while cherry picking the ones he likes to make his point? WHAT?!?! That's SO unlike him.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • Dave

      If a CNN anchor wrote this book it would be OK. Here's the deal, Take CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and ABC off and the American public will figure out the truth. Each network is bias. Plus you forgot to mention, like him or not, Bill O'Reilly kicks every bodies butt in rating and your all jealous as you all think only you know what is right. Why no criticism of the book Zealot? I'm not conservative or republican, but an independent voters who votes for Democrats and Republicans based on how they vote.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  7. hmmmmm

    A response to Candida Moss

    1.) Not Everything you read on CNN is true
    2.) Correct. Paul was a Jew who was following the Nazerene Sect, which began Christianity
    3.) Pharisees held very conservative views and did not want to tick off the Roman Governor in anyway. They wanted to
    save the temple at all cost, unfortunately 100 years AD. The Temple was destroyed because of Roman Oppression
    4.) O'Reilly was only stating that the Pharisees were allowing the temple to be a marketplace for people to buy animals for
    sacrifice, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'" They were over
    charging pilgrims for the the animals
    5.) I believe the Catholic Church still does Mass in Latin. Which is Old History

    So with that said

    Most Jewish people don't recognize Jesus as there Messiah
    Most Protestants don't recognize the Pope as there Spiritual Leader and
    Most Baptist don't recognize each other in a Liquor Store.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
    • QS

      Ahh religion – the world's ultimate dividing force.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
      • SoSkeptical

        Behind Obama

        October 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
      • Terik Ororke

        Not really –economics is.

        October 7, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • TNPatriot

      I'm 62 yrs old and have not been in a RC church since 1972, the Mass stopped being done in Latin when I was in 7th grade of Catholic school. (1964)

      October 7, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • Terik Ororke

      Amen, Brother.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  8. ThinkForYourself

    BTW, the writer seems to ignore that Paul was baptised in the name of Christ; hence, he did not die Jewish. If the term it self was used or not is not the issue, the fact remains that all of Christ followers back then would have been described as Christian in the meaning of that word.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  9. Do you vote

    If you are dumb enough to give this hateful, capitalist pig your hard earned money, you deserved to be lied to.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Adam

      true. true.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  10. webman6

    I wouldn't believe anything written by this right-wing nutjob. And I sure as hell wouldn't believe anything he wrote about some jewish guy named Jesus from a couple of thousand years ago.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  11. Cars

    Wake Up:


    October 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  12. Mike

    "Paul moved from one branch of Judaism to the other" ... which branch of Judiasm is it that believes that Jesus the messiah, again?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • jwright

      The Sect of Judism of Paul was from was Pharisidic and he became a sect of Judism called "The Way" . I t was The Way that believed Jesus was the Messiah. Read the book of Acts for the sect "the Way".

      October 7, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  13. m

    He wrote a book about religion? Isn't that kind of like jeffrey dahmer writing a cook book?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  14. Jeff Scott

    And here you are talking about something you supposedly care nothing about.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  15. JohnRJohnson

    O'Reilly isn't writing these books. He's using a ghost writer who is more writer than ghost. He's just putting his name on a lot of books to create this phony image of a scholarly journalist, which he ain't.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  16. russ139

    Christians believe in miracles. They believe that Christ could walk on water. That he could keep pulling loaves and fishes from a basket – apparently for hours and hours. In other words, he could defy the laws of physics. But think about that for a moment. If the laws of physics can momentarly be ignored on our planet, then they really are not universal. Therefore, there really are no laws of physics! Wow, that idea scares the shivers out of me. If there are no laws of physics, this entire universe then must be held together by whim (albeit God's whim). If you want to believe that, please do. But I just can't.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • QS

      Agreed....though I typically take a more blunt approach by calling it "believing in magic" rather than "not believing in the laws of physics". 🙂

      October 7, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
      • phoenix86

        One thing is certain, when you die you'll know if you're right or not.

        October 7, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • JMan

      I have my doubts about religion, but using any "science" to disprove it is moronic.

      Humans like to think that everything we say is fact. That we're this super advanced race of beings that has been able to determine exactly how the universe works. We're not.

      If we ever find those alien races that are certain to exist somewhere in space, I sorely wish I could be there when we exchange our thoughts about the universe and how different they would be

      October 7, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  17. Jeff Scott

    Candida Moss has a pretty face. Bet she looks hot giving head.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  18. dave


    October 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  19. ironman59

    Should anyone be suprised that this clown is blatently wrong on so many levels?

    October 7, 2013 at 5:44 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.