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. C Shark

    Once I read CE I knew the fix was in and I was reading subjective propaganda. .

    October 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  2. Jesus said ALL LAWS are still in place - NO SHRIMP FOR CHRISTIANS

    No way around it, Christians – ya gotta give up cheeseburgers.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  3. QS

    You know what's so great about being Atheist....?

    I can say Paul was a Muslim and Jesus was an illegal immigrant and not have to worry about how factual my statements are because I believe none of it and can make up any version of your beliefs that I want and you can't say anything about it other than "No, no, no, you've got it all wrong.....the SNAKE talked and the WOMAN was made from the rib of the man!"

    Seriously people, get a grip on reality and loosen your grip on the fantasy world that religion has you currently wasting away in!

    October 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Vic

    Regardless of the semantics, Apostle Paul was a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; in today's terms, that makes him a Christian.

    Also, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ appeared to Paul (then Saul) on the road to Damascus where He commissioned him through Ananias to deliver the "Good News" of the "Kingdom of Heaven" (Book of Acts.)

    Galatians 1:1-5
    "1 Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me,

    To the churches of Galatia:

    3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen."

    Galatians 1:11-24
    "11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

    13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. 15 But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.

    18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; 23 but only, they kept hearing, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they were glorifying God because of me."

    All Scripture Is From:

    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation


    October 7, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  5. Frank

    You wrote, "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."

    You were right up to that point. Until AD 70, being a Christian (literally "Anointed" meant that you were a Jewish person who believed that Jesus was the Anointed One (Messiah). However, you say...

    "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."

    While one might debate the date of composition of the Petrine letters, the book of Acts is usually relatively fixed. Even by those who prefer late dates, Acts is dated to the First Century. The somewhat rapid end of the book would certainly seem to date it to c. 64 CE. It states that "the students were first known as "Anointeds" in Antiochus." (11:26) Rather than simply mentioning the term in passing, the author appears to be trying to date the origin of the expression. That narrative places the first use of the term at approximately 47-48 CE.

    The term WAS being used, but you are correct in saying it did not denote a "religion."

    You wrote...
    "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)."
    Luke 3:17 is about Priestly Judaism, not about the Pharisees ("perushim") or any individual.

    "Apart from the methodological problems, the entire book is written in the style of a novel, not a history book."

    I agree. This is something that is a trend among historical writings now. As a scholar, I am flatly against it because it makes it impossible to distinguish between well-sourced material and the "bits in between" that were in essence made up in order to connect the dots. For the most part, you and I agree, but there were a few points that I thought important to clarify.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
  6. Layne

    The author lost complete credibility at the point she claimed "Paul was not a Christian"...seriously? Read the book of Acts and Paul's letters again, following is a bare sampling:

    "But A·grip′pa said to Paul: “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian.”' Acts 24:28

    "So he went off to Tarsus to make a thorough search for Saul (Paul) and, after he found him, he brought him to Antioch. It thus came about that for a whole year they gathered together with them in the congregation and taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples (including Paul) were by divine providence called Christians." Acts 11:25

    Paul speaking: "You are all, in fact, sons of God through your faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. Moreover, if you belong to Christ, you are really Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise." Galatians 3:26-29

    Again Paul says: "I bear them witness that they ('they', not 'we', they being Pharisaic Jews) have a zeal for God, but not according to accurate knowledge..." Romans 10:2,3

    October 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • QS

      The bible lost all credibility when....oh wait, it never had any!

      October 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  7. Tchomeboy

    Twits tweeting in a supercilious manner about a childish fable!

    October 7, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  8. Mr Burns

    O Bill O'Reilly will you ever win?

    October 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  9. Jim

    I think our fact checker misses the boat on one of her checked facts... Acts 11:25-27 reports that the followers of the Way were first called Christians at Antioch, and this passage also expressly refers to Barnabas bring Paul to the city in the same breath. Looks to me like they were being called Christians at the same time Paul was ministering, and being referred to as such when he was around. Just my two cents worth.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • Chris

      CNN just could not wait to try and find some idiotic hair splitting over Bill's book. Get a life CNN

      October 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
      • HQ

        So agree with Chris re CNN..nothing new.. a professor's classic ivory tower.view.. hair splitting perspective (and weak at that)... that's her profession.

        October 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  10. Joe

    If one were to say the same things about Freud or Martin Luther King, there would be a hue and cry.

    Christians put their faith in different places than liberals/progressives/social communists.

    It takes a greater leap of faith to deny the existence of the gods than to acknowledge them and move on.

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


      I have to laugh because the ignorance is almost too much and if I don't just laugh at people like you it starts to really get to me that people are this lost.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  11. Eagle0987

    The guy writes several number one best sellers and this clown nit picks. What has she done? Sounds like O'Reilly envy. Pretty pathetic article.

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

      LMAO! Pretty hard to critique seriously a book that lacks any semblance of seriousness and smacks of nothing more than childish proselytizing.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  12. Bristar

    Let's put it this way. Bill O'Reilly's portrayal of what happened 2000 years ago in the life of Jesus is more accurate than ANY story that CNN reports on in the present day.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Eagle0987

      Isn't that the truth!

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

      Or, we could put it this way – The bible's portrayal of what happened 2000 years ago in the life of Jesus is no more accurate than any conservative's prediction that Romney would win the election!

      October 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  13. Mike Gentile

    The Bible is man made. It was put together by the evil Constantine in 325ad. That just common knowledge.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • jkeller

      The Catholic Church established the canon of Scripture. Check your facts.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • Chris

      Fact check dude. The earliest writings of the bible were from 90 AD. Just because you have chosen to ignore real truth in favor of your own weak relativism does not detract what so ever from the words of life.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
      • Justin

        Actually Chris, the Old Testament was written before that. Perhaps you are dating some of the New Testament books such as the Gospels. Scholars believe the Pauline texts were in the 60s AD. The Catholic Church eventually accepted the Septuagint Old Testament along with New Testament books we have today as the canon of Scripture. Many centuries later the Protestants redacted the books to exclude the Deuterocanonical books.

        October 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
        • Chris

          Yes, I was speaking just to the New Testament. Thanks for the check. In the OT Job is the oldest

          October 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  14. CNN knows God

    Hey CNN, since you seem to have insight or "truths" of our past, that no one before you had...please tell us, what was GOD like? I assume you know Satan much better.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  15. GAW

    I wonder if he wants to make Jesus out to be a Republican?

    October 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  16. JAG

    Bill O is basically a sad, obnoxious but decent guy who, like many Christians, takes from the Bible that which suits his agenda and works for him.
    Personally, if I'm looking for fiction that touches my heart and mind, I'd rather read Harry Potter.v

    October 7, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Chris

      A better approach would be an honest search for the truth

      October 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Observer


      You might want to read about the s3xual harassment suit O'Reilly quietly settled. Check on falafels.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      And he's divorced! What happened to "til death do us part"?

      October 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  17. Frank Mondana

    Wait, at first you say that Roman historians were not always accurate. OK, I agree whole hardheartedly.

    Then this happens- "There is biblical support for this view from the Gospels". I really don't get why that book is viewed as the absolute truth on all things historical, legal and scientific. As for the veracity of the stories, well, you get just as much tweaking of the truth to suit the authors version of reality as you get from the Romans.
    Even Christians and Jews can't agree amongst themselves about the accuracy of the Bible yet it is sourced as proof. They can't even agree on what should be included in their respective versions. I just don't get it.

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

      Exactly – they admit that it's open to interpretation; that it's been revised many times; that there are errors in the translations; that virtually none of certain parts should even be followed today (cherry-picking at its finest)....yet they refer to it as an infallible source of information and history!

      I agree....I don't get it how so many people find it so easy and acceptable to set aside reason and logic for myth and superst.ition.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  18. humbleme33

    Professor Candida should have her professorship revoked for these comments. A lot of what she is arguing is a game of semantics and no real facts.

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

      If not presenting facts is grounds for removal....then I propose we remove all religions, period.

      October 7, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  19. bill

    Anybody else think she's full of crap?

    October 7, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • cacique22

      I believe you're full of ignorance if that helps any. Happy now?

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

      Why are you referring to Bill O'Reilly as a woman?

      October 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • tffl

      A whole lot less than O’Reilly is full of.

      October 8, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  20. Rick Tarpley

    Just read part of the article. Had to stop on Paul not being a Christian. He was a Christian just like the Apostles were. They followed and believed in Christ. Don't quite understand where you are coming from. Paul preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    October 7, 2013 at 7:32 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.