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. scdad

    Why not argue about what kind of soup Santa Claus likes? Or what color hair Zeus has? It is all silly mythology

    October 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Big_D

      I still want to see a compassionate conservative.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
      • Simple Beleaver

        Or real conversation

        October 7, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
  2. Ed T Duck

    "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.” "

    Really Candida? Resorting to arguing semantics? Although the first disciples did not call themselves 'Christian', we now recognize them as Christian, and following a distinct faith from judaism.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • Palmer Holt

      I think she missed this verse: "...and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." - Acts 11:26, And Luke, purportedly the author of Acts, was with Jesus and the Apostles from the beginning.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  3. Big_D

    Is he going to come out on the air or later down the road?

    October 7, 2013 at 9:23 pm |
  4. Bobby Morales

    Do not agree w/ Prof. Moss. Paul was a Jew who became a Christian (khri-sti-a-nos, latinized Greek), a follower of Christ Jesus & exponent of Christianity. First mention of Christians in Bible @ Acts 11:26 in Syrian Antioch around 44 CE. At Acts 26: 28-29, King Herod Agrippa II, in Caesarea around 58 CE, responds to Paul's witness of Jesus by exclaiming "In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian." Paul responds "I wish to God that whether in a short tie or in a long time, not only you but also all those who hear me today would become men such as I am " Agrippa recognize Paul as a Christian & Paul did not object to being identified as one but wished all could be like him...a Christian.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Pete McMitchie

      Thanks Bobby, well put. Nice to see some in the comments section aren't looking to pick fights but just to state the truth.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  5. Big_D

    Really is anyone surprised? He works for a company that sued to say they were news entertainment not news so they were not liable for slander. The whole FOX thing is just a sad commentary of the USA losing the wrong values to money.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  6. vienne36

    "...and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." New Testament of the Bible, Book of Acts, Chapter 11, Verse 26.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
  7. JackieKG

    Not sure how you can call these items flubs. Your opinions differ from his. People have been having these arguments since Adam.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  8. leo

    3 of the 5 points are flubs in this article ..lol

    October 7, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  9. ooo

    O'Reilly is just a tamer version of Ann Coulter. They both know that to make money they have to ruffle a few (or many) feathers.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
  10. Fill

    Tides go in, tides go out...

    You have to take anything O'Reilly says/writes with a huge grain of salt.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  11. Truth

    Since when does Oreilly need facts?

    October 7, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  12. Exit 36-B

    What about Acts 11:26 does Ms. Moss fail to understand?

    October 7, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • Plucky

      Some of us don't memorize bible verses. Can you spell out what it says?

      October 7, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
      • JackieKG

        Google it

        October 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
      • totallytrue

        You don't have to memorize a verse to know what the bible says – just know it is there and then you can look it up . . . Acts 11:25-26 , , , 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

        October 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • S1N

      The part about you people being delusional and unhealthily obsessed with a 2,000 year old work of fiction.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
      • Simple Beleaver

        Why do you say it fiction?

        October 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          Because there is no evidence to support The Babble as being non-fiction. The Smithsonian has clearly stated The Babble is not a historical book.

          October 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
        • Simple Beleaver

          Can you show me where the Smithsonian states this, and their is great evidence to support The BIBLE

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


          October 8, 2013 at 12:17 am |
    • Jim Marler

      After reading numerous books and visiting the "holy land" I have to say most of it is fiction. Yes, the record indicated there was a person(impressive) by the name of Jesus, obvious a good and kind person. However, most of the history is pure fiction and was to create a large number of various religions that has caused much conflict over the years. Love one another regardless of your beliefs and this world will be a better place.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
      • Simple Beleaver

        And what problems are their with the history of the Bible?

        October 7, 2013 at 9:27 pm |
    • balmy.1

      Wait....wait. If a professor of the new testament says christians weren't referred to as christians until X point in time, then that statement is backed up by multiple historical sources.

      You, only have one source.... behold, the scientific process, that you are so afraid of.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Texasmike

      You DO realize the bible has be rewritten many times? It may be amazing to you, but they didn't have a King James back in Jesus's times.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  13. Brad

    For nearly 2000 years pinheads have been cashing in on the Jesus story; so why not Bill O'reilly?

    October 7, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  14. Bob Nichols

    Five flubs?

    Flub number 2: Paul was not a Christian, he was a Jewish follower of the teachings of Christ.

    Candida? Is that the best you can do?

    October 7, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  15. craigorie

    Oh my. Bill O'reilly is an egomaniacal bloviator who of course does not check most of his facts as he works for FOX aka the Fox Comedy Network.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
  16. Dan

    I find it amazing that CNN will post this attack on this book by a conservative author but will let all the kee-rap that the left prints just fly by without a word

    October 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • QS

      I find it amazing what petty people find amazing!

      October 7, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Thomas

      Please cite one instance of "kee-rap" from the left that CNN has not covered. Take your time. We'll wait.....

      October 7, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Please provide a few examples.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • balmy.1

      That article was written by a professor of the new testament. The professor gave the book, that's supposed to be historical, an academic critique. Attack?? huh. If O'reilly didn't want his book reviewed in an intellectual way then he should have put a clown on the cover and called it a joke book.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • Texasmike

      Bill O'Reilly is a hack, pure and simple...using his "conservative" extremism to sell books to extremists. He is nothing but a grifter.

      October 7, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  17. QS

    Notice you'll never see conservatives defending Fox News personalities and their "facts" when they are talking about relevant things that actually matter in the real world.

    It's easy to defend statements about religion as being "fact" when what religious people believe to be fact is simply whatever they choose to believe at that particular moment!

    October 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  18. Mike

    How did this editorial make the headlines on my browser?
    She apparently has a personal issue with Bill O'Reilly. A Christian is a follower of Christ by defination. The name Christian, as she said, didn't come until some time later. So what's her "big scoop"?
    Take any book you want. If all you can find are a few differences of opinion, I'd say you have NOTHING for a story.

    October 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  19. pbernasc

    all I can say is that the public who read Bill O'Riley isn't that bright

    October 7, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  20. Notre Dame Grad. Student

    I take issue with point 2.

    1. The word Christian occurs only twice in the NT. John, James, Matthew... only Peter (assuming he wrote 2 peter) and Luke use it. The fact Paul didn't use it does not really seem to be evidential of much.

    2. The semantic game is not really germane of anything substantive. The early churches tended to refer to themselves as "The Way," but the movement itself was materially the same as what happens in churches today. (i.e. Prayer, liturgy, eulogy, etc.)

    3. Early Christians did not all follow Jewish customs, particularly those that were gentiles. The first church council was on the need for gentile observance of torah. Its in Acts and require no outside study. This is an odd discussion to have if early Christians were still following Jewish custom. And the council concluded it was not necessary that gentiles follow Jewish custom.

    4. The word Christian was around during the first century. As noted, its in Acts and 2 Peter.

    5. I am at Notre Dame and know several faculty of the Bible staff at Notre Dame (one professor leads the grad. student small group at my church). I am unsure why Candida Moss comes to the conclusion Paul was not a Christian. I would be interested to hear to response.

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

      I was an ND theology grad student a long time ago. I think this particular professor is motivated by the desire to say provocative things to get noticed and advance her career that way. Although I don't know her and was there before she was. See my response on page 19 of these responses.

      October 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
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