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. Ani

    This is silly. St Paul was a Christian. Why is CNN paying for lies about Christianity?

    October 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  2. CT

    You lost credibility in point #2 when you said "He never uses the word Christian. It seems that the early members of the Jesus movement referred to themselves as followers of “the Way.”" to argue that Paul was not a Christian.

    If you want to argue about the word used/not used instead of the fact that Paul was a follower of Christ (and therefore we would refer to him as a Christian), then please don't try to sell the idea that Paul was a follower of "the Way" as it is clear that Paul did not speak English and would never have referred to himself this way.

    If you think this silly, then congratulations it is equally as silly to say Paul was not a Christian because he did not use the exact term "Christian" to describe his beliefs.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  3. Ron

    I would like to know why this article was placed on the front page. It is so poorly written, factually incorrect, filled with conjecture (not enough to say someone is wrong...), that I cannot believe an editor would place it on their board as a legitimate article... Amazing! I have not read Bill O'Reilly's book and to me, it already has more credibility than this article.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • Bonsweenie

      Exactly what I was thinking as I read this

      October 7, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  4. obadiahorthodox

    The writer gets it wrong in #2 where he writes "...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..." Actually in 1 Peter 4:16: " Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf." and Acts 11:26 : "...And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." Those are writings well before the end of the first century if one accepts that the Apostle Peter wrote the 1st letter.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Killing Bill O'Reilly

      The word "Christian" was not used AT THAT TIME. It was added by later writers. Also (guess what), the Bible wasn't written in English.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  5. Killing Bill O'Reilly

    It's funny to see the Jesus-lovin' Fox News fanatics here. If there ever was a group incapable of critical thinking.... "Bill said it so it's true, you communist!"

    October 7, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  6. truthis

    Much adoo about nothing.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  7. Mike

    The Bible indicates that Paul was known as a Christian. His home church is where the term was first used, before he began his missionary trips. See Acts 11:26 " ...And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."

    October 7, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • QS

      This is still cracking me up....that people are so butt-hurt that somebody dared call Jesus something other than what they believe him to be! LMAO!

      Religious people are so divided that they don't even see the things that they do to perpetuate the division.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  8. Arthur Paliden

    Tide goes in tied goes out. You can't explain that. So we have both history and physics fails.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • QS

      Are you seriously suggesting that we can't explain why the tide ebbs and flows? I certainly hope not!

      October 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
      • Arthur Paliden

        Nope that is a famous Bill O'Reilly quote. Look it up.

        October 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
        • QS

          Ah, understood. It totally makes sense now! LOL! 🙂

          October 7, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  9. Bud Evans

    Oh, she's a college professor. That explains everything in this story.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • QS

      I'll take the opinion of a college professor every day of the week over the opinion of a guy blinded by hate-filled dogma!

      October 7, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  10. Diocletian

    Roman historians lie, and the people that wrote the bible lied.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  11. Kevin

    Must be a slow news day at CNN, for they KNOW they will get thousands of hits just by putting the words 'Bill O'Reilly' in a headline. It's they only way they can even HOPE to compete in the rating because Bill and FOX, CRUSH them everyday.
    And CNN will reap what it sows, and this 'article' will come back to bite them in the as.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Observer

      FOX only wins because they have a total monopoly on right-wing news. The center and left has to fight between ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  12. Bill P

    This person is sinply wrong. I am surprised by her credentials. They apparently did not help her:

    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. – WRONG!

    He never uses the word Christian. It seems that the early members of the Jesus movement referred to themselves as followers of “the Way.” – Where does she get this???????? You won't find that in the Bible. The "Jesu movement"?

    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. – WRONG What planet was this woman born on? Read Acts 26:28 where King Agrippa asks, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"

    Here is a verse for her: "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:22)

    October 7, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • NotSensible

      Quoting verses from the bible in English is the biggest stretch of the imagination. (along with believing in a supreme Universe-maker). The bible has been completely translated and mistranslated throughout history, and current words are used in place of ancient words. It cracks me up when believers say...."the bible says..." and then they quote a translation in English which has been altered over hundreds of years. Yup, believe everything you read in the bible as fact.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
      • Bill P

        NonSense: You basically have no idea what you are talking about. Your knowledge of historical accuracy of original texts is showing. The issue was whether the name "Christian" was applied at the "end of the first century" as Candida asserts or not. The Book of Acts was written between 60 and 70 AD and covers Paul's ministry. Note the timing. How is "translation" related to disputation about simple facts and data? And, either King Agrippa 2 talked to Paul about Paul trying to convert him to a Christian or he did not. Agrippa 2 became King about 44 AD. It has nothing to do with translation. It has everything to do with trust and belief. If you do not trust what the Bible says and the historical accuracy of its texts, so be it.

        October 7, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • QS

      Once again, this argument is hilariously petty and childish – you're arguing semantics without even realizing that by doing so you're illustrating the inherent divisiveness of religion.

      October 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
      • Bill P

        QS, I totally agree with your assertion of the diviseness of religion. Even Jesus would agree with you: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household." (Matthew 10:34-36). Here is the key message for you: make sure that you are on the right side – if you understand what that is. The simple answer is John 3:16, John 14:6, and Romans 10:9,10. Hopefully, you care enough about yourself that you will check. You can do that in private.

        October 7, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
  13. Marie

    Bill is awesome.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  14. Tom

    Allah be praised!

    October 7, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • mauldawg

      Your an idiot

      October 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  15. emintey

    Why in the world would anyone want to read a history of Jesus by Bill O'Reilly?

    October 7, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  16. Observer

    When is O'Reilly going to come out with a book about marriage fidelity?

    October 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  17. MIchael

    Jesus was a die-hard socialist liberal.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  18. someguysarerude

    I don't know what in the world inspires people to read anything O'Reilly has written. The guy is such a big fat liar on his own show, I couldn't bring myself to not feel he was leading down some road of his own concoction. And I'll bet he does.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  19. Rjsenterp

    I think Bill should be given some leeway by this revisionist. Historical writings during Jesus time are few and far between (not including the Bible). Josephus and Suetonius are about the only one's there are so they are the best witnesses we have. Paul believed Jesus was the savior which makes him a Christian by definition, even if the term wasn't coined until later. The Bible is not a myth, so it's characterization of the Phillistines is accurate. I could go on but clearly Miss Moss has a political agenda instead of wanting to discuss the facts.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  20. Rose

    The term Christian was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26 and Acts 26:28). Harod Agrippa II used the term when he was speaking to Paul.
    The first Christians were both Jews and Gentiles. Paul was known as the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter concentrated on the Jews.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:20 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.