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. jarhead333

    Other than an "Anti God" statement, does anyone actually have an original thought about life or how it began?" Honestly, all I see on here is a bunch of people who waste their time speaking about the faith of others, rather than try and support their own beliefs. Why is that?

    October 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Hello

      How life started is not important... what is important is how we treat our planet now and the life on it we share. We have way over populated it and taken the earths elements and created a concentrated toxic environment. We have disrupted the natural balance of the earth. Humanity is an infestation on earth like no other species... we do not see it that way.. but that is the truth.
      Our extinction will be a positive for this planet..When the time comes.. Then new life will emerge again. Hopefully without a species as invasive and overwhelming as ours.

      October 6, 2013 at 6:02 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        How saying "We don't know" "anti god?"

        October 6, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      i have no idea how it happened

      but, i do know that it is a huge logical leap to go from "something created us"

      to "therefore it is (my version of ) god"

      October 6, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  2. Mark

    On point 4: "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?" How about He is God incarnate that came to save us from our sins by dying on the cross. Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world. Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God!

    October 5, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Hello

      Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill on why the Roman Christian myth stated " give to Caesar what is Caesar's". A very pro Roman statement...

      October 6, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  3. Frank

    If Bill O'Reilly did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.

    October 5, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • Mark

      why not?

      October 5, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  4. Matt

    Wow Ms. Moss. You got your degrees and you work at Notre Dame and yet you have no clue about the New Testament. I bet that stings when you see Christians filled with a peace that you can't find . You studied the music but can't play a note. You tried to write a poem but when you were done it read like a reference book. May the Lord Jesus the Son of God give you some faith to believe. Because when that happens, you will start to understand the scriptures.

    October 5, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Veronica

      Good god, man, Jesus is fiction! Get a life and take responsibility for yourself and stop wasting your time praying. Get off your ass and do something worthwhile!

      October 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Frank

      I love your post! You almost had me going for a minute there until I realized you were being funny.

      October 5, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • UmNo

      You guys have this seriously deluded belief that noone can be truly happy or at peace with Jesus in their lives. It's not true, never has been.

      October 5, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
    • Andrew Tatusko

      So... where are any of her claims wrong here? Everything else is an example of being judgmental. Now THAT is a serious problem in the words of Jesus.

      October 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • timmatheny

        OK, Andrew, I'll bite. Her claim that Paul was not a Christian is ludicrous if you believe the Biblical text to be true. Jewish Christians considered themselves just that – disciples of Christ. Paul believed what Jesus had said – that what He taught was the fulfillment of the Jewish law and that the Jews as a whole were not following it. As such, Paul had no difficulty living with under the Jewish law, but to say that Christianity was a Jewish sect is simply unbiblical. Paul's arguments in Romans 9-11 outline the fundamental concept that the Jews had been "broken off" from God's people, but could return through faith in Christ.

        Dr. Moss also criticizes the statements of Paul about the Pharisees based on the scholarship of the past 30 years. Whether or not he was right – it appears to me that his is a lamentably reductionist view of a much more varied and nuanced set of beliefs – it is still important to ask whether 30 years of "scholarship" is preferable to that of nineteen centuries that preceded it. This idea has been termed "the liberal conceit of every generation," namely, that modern ideas trump all those which have gone before.

        Andrew, Dr. Moss also believes that there was no such thing as martyrdom in the first century, either, according to the book which is referenced in her byline. This is a direct contradiction to repeated incidents in the New Testament's Book of Acts. So, no, I don't expect she would care much about what we "unlearned" folks believe if that belief is based on the words of the Bible's text. But it should at least be admitted that her "expertise" in refuting Mr. O'Reilly's book, and this is not an endorsement of that book in any way, is like Rachel Maddow's expertise on conservative political thought. She is an expert in that she believes that she will discredit it, as Dr. Moss is with the Bible's text. Whether or not you agree with them is your choice; I'm simply pointing out that one must judge the reliability of an "expert witness" by admitting that that witness may have biases as well.

        I recognize that my answer to your question is based on certain premises you may not accept, and I'm really not trying to convince you of anything in particular, but you asked, and I assume you wanted to hear a thoughtful answer from somebody who didn't want to just shout you down. Just realize that there are many people, myself included, who DO believe that the Biblical text is accurate and complete, and would therefore believe that, yes, Dr. Moss has said some things in this article that are not true.

        October 5, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
        • ksb

          You wrote:
          "I'm simply pointing out that one must judge the reliability of an "expert witness" by admitting that that witness may have biases as well."

          Excellent, learned observation. Now, do you apply the same healthy skepticism to the new testament, which is, after all, a collection of 'witnesses' accounts of events which they did not even witness?

          October 6, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  5. Joe

    Since O'Reilly lives his life exactly opposite of the Sermon On the Mount, I'm not listening to any bully pulpit spin zone in text.

    October 5, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  6. Robert Hanna

    To claim that Paul wasn't Christian is to say that Jesus of Nazareth was not a Christian. This is technically true, but it does seem to beg the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Surely the author of this article can do more to argue her point than this?

    October 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Mark

      Using her logic I guess George Washington wasn't "American" because that term wasn't coined yet!

      October 5, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
      • russ139

        Correct. Washington and the other famous men of his time (to wom we refer to as the Founding Fathers) all considered themselves subjects of the King of England, which is what they were at birth, and continued to be up to the time of the Revolution.

        October 7, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Robert

      It's a fair critique because the word had literally not been used yet. In fact, the earliest uses of "christian" was as an insult. It would be like calling them "little Christs". That they were imitations of Jesus.

      October 5, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
    • Andrew Tatusko

      Right. Jesus was not a Christian. Paul used the word "Christ" because there was no Greek equivalent to Messiah. However, a king was anointed as in Leviticus. Paul uses a little logic to get the point across to the early churches.

      October 5, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
  7. Realist


    Yo Bill .......


    The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ...

    ........ http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ..........

    ... and thank goodness because he emanates from the ...

    ....... http://www.EVILbible.com


    October 5, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
  8. Rett

    "Paul was not a Christian"....that is a bit nitpicky in my opinion. If a follower of Christ is the definition of a christian then Paul most certainly was one.

    October 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Robert

      Chist is a Greek word for savior or messiah. Jesus never spoke Greek so he never used that word.

      October 5, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
      • common sense

        Greek was the common language left in that area by Alexander the Great years before Jesus' advent. How do you then "know" Jesus did not speak Greek? Jesus may well have spoken, read and written Hebrew, Greek, Roman as well as several other dialects.

        October 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
        • UmNo

          Very unlikely.

          October 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
        • Julia Gershon

          Jesus spoke Aramaic, a variant of Hebrew, just like all the other Jews of his time. A lot of Jewish liturgy, including much of the haggada, and also parts of Daniel, are in Aramaic.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Assuming there was a demented desert dweller named jesus, we don't know anything about what he might have said because there are no records from the time he is alleged to have lived nor are there any eye witness accounts. It's all made up crap.

        October 5, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
      • Andrew Tatusko

        Check the logic. The New Testament writers used the LXX or the Greek Hebrew scriptures in their references to what Christians call the Old Testament. In the cities, Greek was common especially in major trade cities. There is no reason to believe he did not speak any Greek.

        If we miss the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul we are using false lenses to interpret the meaning of what is going on in the New Testament.

        October 5, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
  9. Smitty77

    I'm always shocked that people still believe in all the stuff that was handed down by word of mouth before there was a written; language and still believe in it. I remember in Florida some years ago people were flocking to see a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary that was crying tears of blood! That helped to make up my mind. I'm more of a Bill Mayer fan myself!

    October 5, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • haime52

      Is it to the Pentateuch you refer? The rest was written while there was a written language. In fact, only the first book, Genesis, was handed down by word of mouth only.

      October 5, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • Andy B

        The Gospels were written down from word of mouth from the time of Jesus. You need to do some research haime52.

        October 5, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
        • Andrew Tatusko

          All of you need to do some more homework. The earliest manuscript is a fragment that is in the Gospel of John from the 2nd Century. That is just a fragment. The entire bible was pieced together over centuries. Took a long time to get the data together and then to make sense of it. While that was happening the church was gong through some tumultuous and contested developments.

          Painful to see so many posting here who have absolutely no training in the study of the bible as a discipline who think that they know more about it than trained scholars who have made the bible their life's work. That is like telling a surgeon they don't know anything about surgery because you saw someone do it differently on the show ER.

          October 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
        • Hello

          The gospels and the entire christian myth was written and created by the Roman Flavian family.. Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill.

          October 6, 2013 at 6:22 am |
        • Julia Gershon

          I think Haime was referring to the Hebrew Bible.

          October 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  10. HK Man

    Five opinions (nitpicks really) expressed with no more substance than Oreilly's five interpretations. Guess some peoples book sales are a little slow.

    October 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  11. Mitch Farr

    How do you spell ignorance? "Candida Moss" The word Christian was first used at Antioch, which is a quick read in Acts 11:26. That occurred in A.D. 41-42 and not after the first century. Ms. Moss is using the normal methods of todays "teachers". Just use whatever you want to produce a critic of someone else's work, but please do not do any actual research. I would suppose most of the rest of her treatise on O'Reilly's mess is some of the same. You caught me right, Bill's book is not worth the read. Read the Bible, you will get more out of it.

    October 5, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  12. ZenJahj

    Hahaha, someone commenting about what is true about history vs someone else's view on history...hahaha, were you there?

    God is a ONE on ONE relationship, The bible or whatever will Guide you to a relationship with God, nothing else matters...The story of Jesus is to educate you about God, and how to have a relationship with him, understanding there are demons and dark sides to life here on earth. So, Believe what you want, making others wrong serves what purpose in your life...feeds your EGO...


    October 5, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Well Duh

      Most invisible friends are one on one relationships.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • UmNo


      If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck... etc.

      October 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  13. Homeslice

    If the Bible is the word of God why did the 3 Councils of Nicea feel the need to edit it? I'm not condemming your belief. I don't want you to condem mine. Faith is a personal matter and provides a good community when practised with like minded people.

    October 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Realist


      The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ...

      ........ http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ..........

      ... and thank goodness because he emanates from the ...

      ....... http://www.EVILbible.com


      October 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  14. Billrich2

    Dear Ms. Moss,
    I would encourage you to stay away from Biblical exposition, as you didn't get one of your answers right. You may have been right on the first point, I cannot say for sure. However, your next four points are WAY off base. For example:

    2. Paul was not a Christian
    You rightly stated that the term "Christian" did not come about until the first century. However, Paul was more than a follower of Christ, Paul was chosen BY Christ to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, "But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way; for he(Paul) is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and Kings, and the Children of Israel" (Acts 9:15). Listen to Paul's own words regarding his position in Christ, "For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles-" (Ephesians 3:1). Paul is CLEARLY a Christian.

    The other three points are equally not true. You may be a good journalist, I cannot say. However, I can say with authority that you have no idea what the Bible says. It seems to me that you are simply looking for a way to discredit O'reilly. If this is the case, I suggest that you find a more factual way to do so.

    October 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • JustAGuy

      "You may be a good journalist, I cannot say. However, I can say with authority that you have no idea what the Bible says."

      I disagree with her as well, however she IS a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. To me, that means she knows SOMETHING about what the Bible says...

      October 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • was blind, but now I see

        On that day, many will say, "Lord, Lord..."

        But He will say, "Depart from Me. I never 'knew' you..."

        October 6, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  15. JustAGuy

    Let's all remember that being a Professor of New Testament does not mean you're a Christian. Neither does it mean you're right about an issue. I'm sure anyone could produce a list of New Testament Professors that would have opposing opinions. Personally, I find her approach to be just as abrasive and confrontational as O'Reilly's.

    October 5, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Well Duh

      How bout you take a poll of all of them and find out how many are with, and how many are against. Get all the arguments for and against, evaluate the arguments, then make judgement on who is right or wrong. An opposing view alone, even with someone with "credentials" doesn't always carry a lot of weight. Einstein didn't like the quantum mechanics. As much of a genius he was, he was put out to pasture while science continued without him.

      October 5, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
      • Andrew Tatusko

        But I doubt anyone here is in a position to say why Einstein was wrong. I mean that as a scientist with a mathematical proof giving evidence why he was wrong and Bohr was right. Last I checked, general and special relativity continue to have even more explanatory power for how the universe works from one understanding. The challenge is that scientists cannot combine that with what we know on an atomic level. This is the search for a unified theory which is still out there. The Higgs-Boson is thought by some to point in that direction but it is an early debate.

        Point being, Moss picked 5 obvious facts and did not even go very far into the depths of just how wrong O'Reilly is on each of them. There are others there to be sure. As I tell my students, argue, don't assert. Support what you say with evidence and rigorous reasoning. Saying, "God told me what it means last week and you are wrong" just doesn't cut it. I am often displeased with the lack of intelligence our society displays and even reinforces.

        October 5, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  16. drjphd

    Believers were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 12:26). Surprising that a NT professor missed that if her 2nd point!

    October 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Great. Now all you have to prove is that Acts was written before the date she references, (using EXTERNAL historical sources). Good luck with that.

      October 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
      • drjphd

        The scholarly consensus suggests that the author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote Acts, both likely no later than A.D. 70.
        Luke accompanied Paul on some of his journeys and there is no evidence that Paul objected to what Luke wrote about Antioch, a community with which Paul was quite familiar. While external sources are not available, a date for Acts earlier than Moss suggests is certainly reasonable. Acts indeed ends somewhat before Paul's death under Nero in the mid-60s.

        October 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • ExLibris

      You're referring to Acts 11:26, not 12:26. Furthermore, despite the traditional dating of Acts to 60-70 AD, scholars now place it anywhere from 60 AD to the early 2nd century, with the closest thing to a consensus appearing around 80-85 AD. Thus, I don't see any problem with the author of this article saying the term wasn't used until the end of the 1st century AD.

      October 5, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • drjphd

        Even if one puts Acts late, which doesn't make sense given the way the book ends, the only way to reach Moss's conclusions is to say that Luke made things up and is not reliable about what went on in Antioch much earlier in the century. There is also a use of "Christian" by Agrippa in Acts 26:28, to which Paul does not object. Does Moss believe that Luke made these things up? On a different note, her book on persecution has been widely critiqued in many venues. I'm surprised that she's teaching at Notre Dame.

        October 5, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
      • JustAGuy

        Simply because the term wasn't used in that time period, does not mean that Paul wasn't a Christian. The term "teenager" wasn't used then either, but I'm sure there were teenagers. Likewise, I don't think the term monotheist was used, but there is no doubt that there were monotheists. In fact, I believe the Bible is full of them! 😉

        October 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Jeff

      Not sure which Bible you are reading, but there is no Acts 12:26...

      October 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
  17. Kebos

    The book is just a money grab for O'Reilly. Nothing more than that.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  18. tom LI

    Ms. Moss, expecting Mr. O'Reilly to be consistent would run counter to his JOB as an Entertainer. He like many of his profession of talking-heads are entertainers – who have found this niche where they manage to fool a lot of the public into thinking they are Professorial, Academics who simply have the gift of gab. (Like the Limbaugh's and Hannity's and Alex Jones'...et al)

    What makes them noteworthy is that – except for Hannity – they seem to know, personally at least, that they are simple Entertainers, comedians of a sort, who know how to stir the pot, several of them at the same time. And in that world contradiction is a necessary tool. Dogmatism is never entertaining, except for the ones who see thru it.

    October 5, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  19. Richie


    October 5, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • bill

      WOW SUPER Richie!! The right Word/Song at the RIGHT Time......G B U

      October 5, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
      • Richie

        You're an overcomer!!!

        🙂 🙂

        October 5, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  20. Doris

    Published on May 29, 2013

    Filmed at the Royal Geographical Society on 22nd May 2013.

    Daniel Dennett is one of the world's most original and provocative thinkers. A philosopher and cognitive scientist, he is a Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.

    On May 22nd he came to Intelligence Squared to share the insights he has acquired over his 40-year career into the nature of how we think, decide and act. Dennett revealed his favourite thinking tools, or 'intuition pumps', that he and others have developed for addressing life's most fundamental questions. As well as taking a fresh look at familiar moves - Occam's Razor, reductio ad absurdum - he discussed new cognitive solutions designed for the most treacherous subject matter: evolution, meaning, consciousness and free will.

    By acquiring these tools and learning to use them wisely, we can all aspire to better understand the world around us and our place in it.


    October 5, 2013 at 9:21 am |


      October 5, 2013 at 9:22 am |
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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.