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. Science, Not Myth

    Much ado about nothing...

    Arguing about which interpretation of a myth is the correct one...

    Religion = Ignorance

    October 7, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • sybaris

      Religion require ignorance to perpetuate

      October 7, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
  2. Dr. Buster Muphinhaffe

    Candida. That just has to be the best of all possible names. Am I right?

    October 7, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  3. centeredpiece

    1. Roman sources might not be 100% accurate, but should they be thrown out completely (after all, even the sainted CNN isn't 100% accurate). The author should supply concrete examples of where O'Reilly's reliance on Roman sources missed the mark and then cite her contradictory sources.
    2. True, the early Christians were a sect of Judaism, but they were also the object of persecution by other Jews such as Paul. And Paul was indeed a "Christian" in the very real sense of a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah.
    3. Those Pharisees whom Jesus criticized were indeed arrogant, haughty and legalistic. And that's why he criticized them. And while there are Pharisees (in that sense) yet in Christianity (as in every other religion) I am curious about the author's read of Catholics as being particularly Pharisaic, which she assumes that Protestants are not, thus, in the author's view, being ironic since somehow O'Reilly, being Catholic, thus mocks himself. Does she assume that her prejudicial view of Catholicism as being more "Pharisaic" than Protestants is actually a wide spread view? Jesus condemned the legalism of those Pharisees he encountered, not their engaging in "works." In fact, in Mt. 25, Jesus describes the last judgment as entirely "works" dependent (those who cared for the least of the brothers enter the kingdom). The author's anti-Catholic bias is showing here in spades. If anybody is "flubbing" here, surely it is she.
    4. It might well come as a surprise to the author, but advocating for the poor did not make Jesus a card-carrying Democrat. Yes, indeed he instructed Christians to feed the poor. But he also told THEM to feed the poor, not to engage in political activity. Feeding the poor would be one of those bothersome "works" she has trouble with. If indeed she is a qualified historian she should not only put her own religious biases to the side but she should also beware of falling into the trap of transposing modern political sensibilities onto 1st Century Jewish society. Advocating overthrow of the Roman Empire would indeed have been political; telling one's followers to feed the poor not so much.
    5. History, despite academics' insistence to the contrary, is far more an art than a hard science. The author's own biases show that there is little objectivity, particularly in such a subject as Jesus. She does the same thing she criticizes O'Reilly for – she reads modern sensibilities into the ancient world (when it suits her view) – and throws some sources into the trash bin (Josephus) when they fail to fit her modern notions of "fact." After all, there was no live coverage of Jesus' life, so it is all supposition from the best sources available.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  4. sybaris

    Another huckster retelling a myth to shear the sheep

    October 7, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  5. rgleason426

    Candida Moss (along with Bill O'Reilly) is a pseudo-scholar. Her denial of systematic Christian persecution in the Roman empire is tantamount to holocaust-denial, something one would and should get fired for today. But because we are talking about Christians a long time ago, it is perfectly OK. I do not know why I am surprised that she finally showed up on CNN, but both CNN and Notre Dame should fire her for her terrible, hate-filled scholarship.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
  6. Wayne

    Paul was not a Christian???!??!?! What the hell does that mean? What salient fact does that represent in view of Paul's body of writings? What does Moss think Christianity is if not yet another branch of Judaism? O'Reilly is an ass but dancing around semantics to belittle his book amounts to exactly the same thing that he does (and with equal skill I might add).

    October 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
  7. Satire?

    Is this a joke? Every one of Candida Moss' supposed refutations of things in Bill O'Reilly's is flubbed. I seriously thought this was an iReport promoted to the front page, not some supposed scholar. Of course, she did write a book called "The Myth of Persecution" - what a hack!

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

    it's a matter of observing and dividing by prioritizing information. words are symbols, conversation carries pattern to communicate just as we might not fully, entirely, comprehend each other in conversation despite our nodding (we don't read the mind), but we do communicate and have a way of verifying that to an extent that allows us to get around and cooperate. the same with lie detection not being completely accurate, but we can be told things by what's also -not- told or by reading mannerisms and pattern and observe evidence, and it still can hold useful from certain angles. prioritizing information in history is similar. history is just as fickle as communication. but that doesn't mean communication by historical record can't possibly hold weight or clarity. we're talking about the grounds of faith too, which is why these types of critical angles do little progress more than to say "nuh uh!" you need to delve into the abstraction of communication and wrestle with philosophy and other angles of evidence while bringing it into full picture. a full spectrum.

    as for the pharisees, there's enough indicators of their nature of the time at least, whether they were always that way or not. john the baptist and jesus christ had words of their own about them in scripture also, so it's not quite right to say that people merely draw that understanding from a modern protestant view.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  9. Dave Jensen

    Sounds like the lady is more than a little bit jealous. This will sell millions of copies, and was written with a easy and understandable style that this woman has no respect or understanding of.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  10. scranton

    Well Candida Moss, the next thing for you to do is go on O'Reilly's show and debate him on your discrepancies.

    October 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  11. dontbow

    So this lady is an expert on history. wow she seems to get a lot wrong herself. that's what dems do, re-write history to what fits their brain power.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • mickey1313

      Most repubs are thiests, and all a thiest is is a self deluded ignorant fool, who is too slow to think for themselves.

      October 7, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • sybaris


      October 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  12. davidi

    Lot's of proof here that it's totally possible to read the bible, maybe even study it, and not discover the one real truth behind the entire thing... I personally feel sorry for allot of folks on this post.. Because they have never read the Bible with and open heart and humble spirit. You can repeat all day what "the world" tells you to think about the Bible. You can throw any amount of science at it you want to. But that won't change the fact that one day each of us will have to stand before God. And there won't be any friends, scientists, celebrity's, or anyone else there to help you explain why you couldn't just throw away your earthly pride and ask for divine guidance.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • Kevin

      You can't completely understand The Bible anyway without God's help.

      October 7, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • marsha malone

      Stand before god, huh? Would that be your god, the one with the gray beard and the grandfatherly look, who keeps a record of all our sins on the little speck of a blue planet in a galaxy of 100,000,000,000 stars in a universe of 100,000,000,000 galaxies? Or, could it be the god of Spinoza, who is represented in all the rules and laws of the universe?

      October 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • captdan

      And what will you say to ManBearPig when you are standing there in front of him?

      October 7, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
      • Marsha malone

        I won't say anything, because, you simpleton, you'll never stand before anything or anyone when you die. It's a myth, created by man to rationalize the unknown about death. Humans have rationalized the great unknowns since the beginning of their existence. They use to believe the stars were the camp fires of the gods. beautiful, I'll grant you, but totally untrue.

        October 7, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  13. thegadfly

    Why would anyone bother to subject a book by Mr. O'Reilly to academic rigor?

    October 7, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • marsha malone

      Only those who actually read the book are able to subject it to criticism, you hypocrite.

      October 7, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  14. McBob79

    Very interesting! The professor seems to have more than just a little disagreement about the information in Mr. O'Reilly's book. Sounds a little personal... my sense is that the good professor simply doesn't like him or maybe it's just PMS.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  15. theemptyone1

    One major difference between an actual historian and a writer like O'Reilly is that real historians are professionals with the philosophical goal of finding the truth as all our best research and critical review can substaniate or make a "most likely" reasoned argument for such probability. People like O'Reilly and Buchanan have an obvious bias. But actually, I expected O'Reilly to do even worse. What I would like to see is popular books and films on the order of the suppressed, but excellent film about Hypatia, "Agora," or films like "Dark Kingdom" (renamed and cut version of The Ring of the Nibelungen), both of which are the result of actual historic events and as in the case of "Dark Kingdom" a good expose on how Christianity tricked its way into power.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
  16. sc341

    Since when does CNN post book reviews?????

    October 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  17. davidi

    Best selling book in the world? "about Jesus",, Boy that really gets the liberals and atheists shorts in a bunch doesn't it... And this article proves it.. How ignorant.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • Marco

      Because it's a lame work of fiction in comparison to such greats as Star Wars or Star Trek 😉

      October 7, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
      • Simple Beleaver

        How do you know it's Fiction?

        October 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
  18. Keith

    Look at your comments. You condemn the author because you hate his political beliefs. Grow up and act like adults. If you havent read the book then you know nothing about it.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  19. Big_D

    My comments have a greater degree of accuracy. I'm sure Bill will come out some day.

    October 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  20. scdad

    Remember when he wrote that book about Lincoln and it was so factually inaccurate that the Lincoln Library refused to carry it? He had to heavily re-edited it

    October 7, 2013 at 9:27 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.