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. Nick

    I watched O'Reilly interview Moss – let's just say Moss has no credibility as she kept trying to push Jesus as being a socialist, which he was not. Advocating for the poor doesn't imply government as the solution as Moss contends.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  2. Yeah_Ok

    And CNN does all the proper fact checking when they publish reports? I have an idea for you all. Report the actual news! You all are becoming a complete joke.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • fnordz

      stop whining, it's a blog.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  3. JJ

    That's right.....CNN was there.
    I haven't read the book and don't plan on it.
    Hell, I stopped watching CNN and Fox months ago but petty articles like this make me glad I'm listening to the BBC now.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • John

      And yet, here you are, posting. What's up with that???

      October 8, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  4. John

    Though not particularly a fan of Mr. O'Reilly, I have to wonder why this is a top story, but the fact that the national mall (which is closed to WWII vets) is being opened for an 'amnesty for illegals' rally and I can't find that anywhere on CNN's page. Isn't that more newsworthy than the inaccuracies in someone's book?

    October 8, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • John

      Selective reading, or limited reading comprehension. Get your facts straight before you make a fool of yourself.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  5. Cleetus Alreetus Alrightus

    Who's a bigger moron, O'Reilly or limbaugh?

    October 8, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • John

      Flip a coin.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  6. Dark Knight

    I just stumbled across this and was amazed at the comments. First of all what would you expect from anything or anyone related to FOX news. Hell I do good to watch Fox sports. It took me way to long to understand the why and how Jesus was put to death. I'm sure the bible has withstood challenges by other self interest or people of greed like ORiley, Look at the other nut job that was on Fox, and now is selling fear for a living. Just be thankful these clowns are not rewriting American history.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • electoguy

      I guess some people will do ANYTHING to attack someone they hate. Rather than read the book and learn something, they would discard the ENTIRE book because they disagree with 5 points. Seriously, you guys are brain dead.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  7. russ

    So let me get this cleared. we should not trust the historians who this book was based on but we should trust historians that Ms Moss bases her opinion on.that seems fair.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  8. doulos

    Candida makes statements as facts but needs herself to do some fact checking. Read your text and check your facts. Luke (Paul's missionary co-worker) wrote of Paul's account speaking to King Agrippa;
    Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, "You almost persuade me to become a Christian (Christianos in the Greek)."
    Also, Peter wrote of their own branded label given to them by non-Christians with the following:
    1Peter 4:16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.
    Do your own research people! Don't take Candida's or O'Reily's word for it.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • Dan

      Exactly. Thank you.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • Jason

      Bam! Thanks for correcting her 'correction' also, acts 11:26 says 'The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch'... and Paul was there.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Eric T

      I would take O'Reily's words before Candida's any day of the week! This moral neutrality is immoral! It smells like liberal to me.

      October 10, 2013 at 3:13 am |
  9. Charles Darwin

    Another mindless book about religion for the gullible to waste their money on.
    Amazing how gullible people are.
    Let the money pour in.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Joe Gideon

      What's it like to have all the answers and know everything? I'm surprised you have the need/time to post here.
      One thing is for certain; everyone is going to die; yes-even you. Hope you find Jesus in life before he finds you in death...

      October 8, 2013 at 10:22 am |
      • John

        CD is right. Ever seen a dilapidated, run down church? Not likely, but there are plenty of palaces out there. Did the money come from heaven?

        October 8, 2013 at 10:39 am |
      • fnordz

        You've got it backwards- religion is the invention that claims to have all the answers.

        October 8, 2013 at 10:48 am |
        • Eric T

          By definition an atheist claims to know about the existence of God. How funny is that!

          October 10, 2013 at 3:28 am |
  10. FrankinSD

    Of course O'Reily isn't an historian. He isn't a brain surgeon either, but that doesn't prevent him from doing frontal lobatomies on his viewers every day.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • Eric T

      If you would take the time to listen to O'Reily and check his facts you would see that he is very educated and knowledgeable. On the other hand, our president keeps lying about Obamacare and every liberal could care less. Obama has been the worst president ever where he has allowed the national debt to explode on us. Anyone who would go along with this is just plain stupid, or they are just waiting for the gravy train and could care less about our children!

      October 10, 2013 at 3:42 am |
  11. debby

    This blow hard is one reason I left the catholic church. His lies and twisting of facts and reality in every book he writes and every thing he says, religious and political, sadly makes him a sick hero to the sheep who follow him.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Dan

      Please name a few of his "lies".

      October 8, 2013 at 10:03 am |
      • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

        That tides prove the existence of the Christian deity is his main one.

        October 8, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  12. Me

    BillO has never been one to let facts slow him down. Not one of his books is known for accuracy or honesty. I think they get shelved in fiction near the DaVinci Code.
    The only thing his books are good for is starting camp fires but one would have to wonder why you would bother carrying his books into the woods with you even if it was free.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Eric T

      And you like burning books eh – a typical liberal hypocrite.

      October 10, 2013 at 3:21 am |
  13. Joe Smith

    lol @ "Paul was not a Christian." Way to make a fool of yourself in front of the world, Candida. I suspect many, like me, stopped reading right there with a roll of the eyes and head shake. What's next? Water isn't really wet? I know there are a lot of people out there stupid enough to believe whatever dribble the media spews at them, but believe it or not, there are still many of us who aren't.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • david williams

      Quite right. Candida's argument is purely semantic- the weakest kind, and she reveals her animosity throughout her critique, thereby invalidating it from scholarly perspective.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  14. Dan

    Believing that magic goo came alive by itself and turned into people without leaving a fossil trail, is about as "mythological" as it gets . Darwin's myth of evolution is the goofiest religion ever invented.

    October 8, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • doobzz

      No, of course it didn't happen that way. Everyone knows that man was made from mud and fairy spit.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • TruroTrash

      Wow, you're ingnorance knows no bounds.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • OwMySkull

      I truly hope that you have not nor plan on reproducing.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:04 am |
  15. BoyOhBoy

    Now CNN has taken to personal attacks on rival network personalities?
    When will the silliness end?
    Candida Moss couldn't stand in O'Reilly's intellectual shadow...what a hack she is.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Joe Smith

      Both "sides" are asinine, actually. This is why I don't belong to either party ("side") and am sick to death of the idiocy BOTH of them spew at us on a regular basis. Tragically, there are a lot of simpletons out there who are no better.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:03 am |
      • russ

        well said. cater to masses who are busy arguing while the car is headed for the cliff.

        October 8, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  16. uos_spo6

    If you already believe something and go looking for evidence, it's easy to find it. If you enter in to a fact finding mission with skepticism, your end result is going to be a lot less optimistic, especially when it comes to historical validation of ancient tales.

    Besides, not many will bother to argue whether or not Jesus as a person existed, it's the being Magic part that raises flags. All in all kind of a pointless book. It's purpose is to merely embolden an existing thought, not spurn new thought. I'm sure the sheep like Christian masses will flock to it though. $ = success I suppose.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  17. Cliff H

    CNN posted this under "More Top Stories", not under "Opinion" (Despite the byline stating "Opinion by Candida Moss"). INDISPUTABLE evidence of Bias by CNN trying to pass this off as a hard-news story.

    Further, does anyone bashing Fox News or Bill O'Reilly actually WATCH either? More importantly, Bill's interview with Ms. Moss, in which she claims Jesus was a Socialist? (According to Ms. Moss, because she grossly misinterprets the "Rich Young Ruler" parable as meaning ALL so-called rich must "give away ALL their possessions or go to hell)?????

    BTW, Paul WAS ABSOLUTELY a Christian, regardless of what term used at the time. To suggest otherwise is grossly disingenuous.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  18. Mic Isham

    Religion is pure mythology! There is no difference between believing Zues is a God or Jesus is a God and all religions are political!

    October 8, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Dan

      Believing that magic goo came alive by itself and turned into people without leaving a fossil trail, is about as "mythological" as it gets . Darwin's myth of evolution is the goofiest religion ever invented.

      October 8, 2013 at 10:00 am |
      • Jeebus Burgers

        Home school much Dan??

        October 8, 2013 at 10:10 am |
      • Mic

        Just keep repeating -The earth is flat because its against your religion.

        October 8, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  19. Dan

    The definition of Christian, is believing that Jesus is the Messiah – the Son of God.

    Paul believed that.

    If CNN's "religious expert" doesn't know that – they need a new expert.

    October 8, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  20. James

    Sounds like the writer is a little jealous of how well the book is doing...

    October 8, 2013 at 9:43 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.