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. SgtRock101

    Well, I have my own beliefs regarding Christ and the Bible. But, damn, that prof is one HOT mama jama!! I'd fail the course just to retake the class.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
  2. Larry

    Her article was "flubbed". She reached as hard as possible to find something... To quibble that Paul was "not a Christian" is nonsense.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • SgtRock101

      He wasn't. He was never referred to as one by Peter or any other contemporaries. He always referred to himself as a Jew and preached as Temple. He did however argue successfully for preaching to Gentiles as deserving the word of Christ.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Cindy

      True, Larry. The followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch, as noted in Acts 11:26

      October 7, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  3. n8r0n

    There's nothing more ridiculous than people attempting to appear intellectual when arguing about the various details surrounding the story of Jesus ... AS IF IT ALL WASN'T MADE UP ANYWAY!!!!

    I feel like I'm listening to Star Wars geeks arguing about whether Han Solo shot first at Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina.

    Holy Cow, people. How gullible do you have to be to believe this story?

    P.S. All apologies to Star Wars geeks, the vast majority of whom DO know that their beloved story is a work of fiction.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • JAG

      Thank you for one of few intelligent responses.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  4. Uncle Sam

    People are funny.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  5. cdeme004

    Anybody else find it interesting that the author of this article is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity for Notre Dame?

    October 7, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • cacique22

      No, what amazes me is that you and many others here don't know who Candida Moss, Geza Vermes et al. are or that Bill O'Reilly is a pastiche maker not a historian or researcher of any first hand material. next he'll be rewriting Don Quijote or Hamlet and calling it his.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  6. rc roeder

    Candida, the Bible is the greatest story, note I use the word "story". Stories get retold and retold and the truth and fact get shoved in a corner so eventually the "story" becomes the truth. The you have people and take the story and change it to fit their needs. It is sort of like Tolkien's Lord the rings, the book and the movie differ quite a bit, however most people who never notice. But some of the small important details that leads to events down stream not also have to be changed to fit. It is the writers interpretation of the events, then the next writer makes changes,....

    October 7, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  7. Darryn Appleton

    I pray that anyone reading this who does not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior will be caught up by this one key question – who is Jesus? If you honestly tackle that question head-on and do not let go of it until you are sure you are sure, you will experience how Jesus really wanted to set people free. One thing is certain: Jesus cannot be "made to say anything". He is not a puppet that we have the option to control – He is Lord. He said what He said and we are blessed to have had his teachings and words preserved in the Gospel and handed down to us. A disciple of Christ does not try to spin what He said – a disciple seeks to know first the authority behind the Word. Then, in the knowledge of where the Word came from, a disciple is transformed by the true intention of the Father by the words of the Son.

    Christian is a term used very infrequently in the Bible (three times) and is used by outsiders to describe people of The Way. Jesus never called anyone a Christian. He referred to his followers as disciples, and he defined exactly how you would recognize one:
    John 13:34 – “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

    As for Paul: seeing as the word Christian is not at all defined anywhere in the Bible – it seems like it doesn't make any difference whether we think of him as a Christian, because God didn't describe Him that way. Paul very clearly defined himself as an Apostle, a bond servant of Jesus Christ. He himself was an eye witness to the risen Messiah. Prior to that he was a Pharisee – Saul of Tarsus – who persecuted followers of the way, rounding them up for imprisonment and supporting their execution for blasphemy. Jesus Himself appeared to him and revealed his true nature – changing the course of history. Thanks to Paul, the Gospel message spread around the world – including Rome. Not a Christian – true. Just a Jew? No. A Jew who became and Apostle – yes.

    To say that Paul was not a Christian but a Jew is an oversimplification that sadly misses one of the most dramatic examples of the Gospel in motion. The books of Acts and Romans will tell you a great deal about who he was. Don't miss the fact that it was Jesus Himself who renamed him from Saul to Paul.

    The best way to know what Jesus meant by what He said is to look at what He did. And there is no better way to learn about this than from the source of the only eye-witness testimony that has the authority of God behind it – the New Testament.

    I pray that all who wonder if Jesus really is who He said He is will come to know that He indeed is the way and the truth and the light. May that light shine on your heart and let that knowledge of Him come from within your heart from the Holy Spirit.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • mike hunt

      James Cameron is who James Cameron is. James Cameron does what James Cameron does because James Cameron is James Cameron.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • Ed

      Jesus never existed.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Bill

      If there were a second coming of Christ, he'd be thrown in jail so fast. He'd be considered a dirty hippie. He did not believe in material possessions and was clearly a socialist. How does that jive with 'consumer confidence' and our bible of capitalism? If he were not thrown in jail, he'd be a junky – in order to escape the truly horrendous state of the human race on this beautiful blue planet.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  8. Doug

    Why would anyone argue either side of an issue that is pure myth. God is dead . Science got to him a while back. Might as well pack up your tent, gather your belongings and find something else more worthy to follow...if you must follow something. O'Reilly's book is a waste of forest wood.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Peter

      Science debunking god is as plausible as math debunking the color blue. It's a nonsensical idea.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  9. Bruce

    Bill O'Reilly scares CNN, yep, makes sense...

    October 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Flavius Javius

      Bill O'Reilly is not a historian, so there are valid concerns about him attempting to write about book about a period that requires a good deal of expertise to portray accurately.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Ed

      By lying?

      October 7, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  10. Fritz Hohenheim

    I dont like O'Reilly but I must give him kudos: To throw his lot in the ring and write a book about history without having any formal education in history, nor having any idea what he is writing about and just picking some ancient quotes as he sees fit and sell the whole thing as historical: Tip of the hat Bill. I wouldnt have the courage to risk my own reputation that way. Sorry it turned out bad for you. More luck next time. Why don't you write something like " I flew over the cuckoo's nest 2" ?

    October 7, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Bruce

      he has a degree in history

      October 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
      • Earthling

        But he didn't write the book. Who do you think Martin Dugard is?

        October 7, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  11. KC Yankee

    O'Reilly is a second-rate hack when it comes to profound thinking. That's all you need to know about this piece of "nonfiction."

    October 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  12. Jessica Christ

    Gee, an awful lot of defensive writing from ppl who believe that every single word in the most highly edited and censored collection of stories in history was from God's mouth to numberless, nameless story tellers over 5000 years. Is your god so weak that he/she/it needs to be defended nervously in an online chat? How small, weak and fragile your faith must be, afterall! Be off with you now. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is coming!

    October 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  13. Jdubba

    Who cares about the validity of the facts and references in this book. It's a book about a bunch of make believe religious craziness, unprovable claims, faulty history, and the lunacy that ensues from believing in god. To compound matters, it's written by a disconnected, self important, right wing shill who finds himself to be top whacko on the worst news channel on the earth, Fox. Yikes, what a scary combo! But I bet for his fans, this is a right-gasm in the making.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  14. jhonny ausemkock

    Candida, no one who has studied as much as you believes the crap you put in this article. There's no way you don't know better. As such, it's safe to assume you're willing to subjugate your professional reputation and integrity in order to attack a political enemy for the sake of politics alone. Very sad.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Flavius Javius

      I must say, I don't understand what you're talking about here. Each of the concerns raised in this article is a valid one, and one that anyone with a background in history (or a background in theologic history, or a background in early Christianity, etc) would raise with this work. Perhaps it would have been easier to simply put all of these concerns into a single one: Bill O'Reilly is not a historian, and as such, significant caution should be taken before taking any historical argument or work seriously of which he is the author.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
      • Sabby

        At least two of her points are plain wrong based on what texts we have. 1 – She claims "The first generation of Jesus' followers lived and died as Jews." Which is absolutely false. Some continued to observe Jewish law while others were gentiles. 2 – Professor contends that "history shows that the Pharisees were not all judgemental hypocrites." In fact the whole statement is ridiculous since the gospels do not say the all Pharisees were hypocrites. At least one, Nicodemus, was intrigued by Jesus teaching and assisted with his burial. Were there others? Is it strange the professor uses the passive voice, "history shows", which conceals who authored the history in question. Suppose she wrote "My history book shows?"

        October 7, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • QS

      Happy to break it to you....you really don't even have to study that hard to understand that religion is a gimmick and "faith" is a tool of manipulation.

      It requires no credentials whatsoever to conclude that nothing in the bible is relevant today and that those who still so firmly believe in the nonsense of religion are the ones that require the most hand-holding as they venture out into adulthood!

      October 7, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  15. Peter Crossley

    What? Is this the best they can do to try to discredit O'Reilly's book??? Pretty lame. Hmmm, it must be a pretty good book then, guess I'll go get it.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Tim

      Hey Peter? O'Reilley speaks with a forked tongue. 90% of what he bloviates is his imagination.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • QS

      You represent the epitome of the easily manipulated.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
      • Peter

        Well, anyone who knows me would laugh at your assertion that I am easily manipulated. I just point out that the writer's arguments for discrediting O'Reilly's book are pretty weak, and with seemingly questionable "facts" themselves. I will reserve judgment about the book until I actually read it, unlike many people who have commented.

        I will say that I did read Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, and whatever factual discrepancies that may or may not exist, these two books were extremely interesting, hard to put down, and offered an opportunity to learn, re-learn, or at least re-debate important historical events – take your pick,,, but it's usually a good idea to actually read a book first.

        October 7, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  16. jes3890

    Ms. Moss, you are the one who is bloviating here. The term "Christian" first appeared in Acts 11, well within biblical times and not long after Paul converted. Check your facts.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • Flavius Javius

      Acts was written no early than 60 AD, and some modern historians peg its authorship after 100 AD. Paul may well have been dead before Acts was written.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Belseth

      You might want to check your sources. Many references like that weren't in the Greek Bible they came from the King James rewrite. Jesus wasn't leading a religious movement he and his followers were a bunch of Jewish hippies trying to help the poor. What he said and did in his lifetime was turned into a religion by his surviving followers. The actual Gospels were cherry picked from I believe 36 total gospels written by a group several hundred years after Jesus died. Gospels like those of Judas, Thomas and Mary were excluded. Since Judas was his right hand and his closest confident it's an odd omission as well as Mary's. Thomas is thought to be the closest to what Christ actually taught but it was also left out. The final selection of gospels seemed to be more about a political agenda than accurately reflecting what Christ thought and taught in his lifetime. The very fact that much of his life is missing shows that there were major omissions in the Bible. Odds are the time was covered in some of the missing gospels but most of them have been lost. Even Judas gospel was only rediscovered recently and it was incomplete. I believe parts of it were damaged too badly to read. People have been putting words in Christ's mouth for 2,000 years. O'Reilly is just the latest one.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • Friend1786

      You do realize that the book we know as Acts was written and compiled well past 100 years after christ? The Nicene Council were the ones to eventually omit and permit whichever books they thought represented the "correct" teachings of the early Church. Which then left all the other books about Christ from that time period being labeled as the Apocrypha. Just because the word Christian appears in Acts does not mean the people who 'knew and followed' Jesus called themselves Christians.

      October 8, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  17. bens772

    I find it highly offensive and even embarrassing to read such unfactual drivel from someone who obviously knows nothing about the Bible. The author tries to correct O’Reilly by saying that Paul wasn’t actually a Christian. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus by Jesus Christ. The actual definition of Christian is to be Christ like. I would suggest that both of them find a subject thay they know something about.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  18. Justin

    The writer of this article must not be aware that the term "Christian" refers to any follower of Jesus, whether that person is by birth a Jew, an African, an Asian, etc. Paul and the 12 apostles were indeed Christians - because they followed Christ! Yes, Paul was a Jew, but he was a Jew who followed Jesus, the Messiah. Some Jews accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah, and others did not. Gradually, the Gospel was spread to other nations.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  19. jhonny ausemkock

    Lady, if you're going to be a hack, at least make your points believable. I haven't Read O'Reilly's book yet, but I've read this garbage article, and it wouldn't make sense no matter who you were trying to trash. And try fact-checking your OWN work before disparaging others. NO ONE called themselves a "Christian" in that time, dolt.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  20. Michael

    Moss is historically incorrect. Judaism did not have branches at that time; it had "parties" and sects.Paul broke clear from the attachment of "sect" and did not refer to his movement as a part of the Jewish religious umbrella. Obviously, Moss has not read his letters in the New Testament.

    October 7, 2013 at 6:51 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.