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. Pat

    Now this was funny. Bill smacks her around a little bit on is show and this is all she can come up with? Paul wasn't a "Christian"? A helpful reminder that the Wall Street Journal didn't have a bureau in Judea?

    This little cutie pie just made an abject fool of herself. I don't think that's the best revenge she was shooting for.

    October 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  2. saeed

    this is an irish potato farmer from dublin soon a bottle will get shoved up his a s s.

    October 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    The Legend of King Arthur is not evidence for Merlin.
    The Greek Myths are not evidence for Heracles.
    The Epic of Beowulf is not evidence for Grendel.
    The American Folk Tradition is not evidence for Paul Bunyan.
    The New Testament is not evidence for Jesus.
    The Old Testament is not evidence for Yahweh.

    The miracles happened ... in the story.
    The prophesies were fulfilled ... in the story.
    The character was emotionally appealing and morally right ... in the story.

    Get out of your stories.

    October 8, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  4. I wonder

    History is amazingly interesting to read. Be careful what all you accept as fact, though.

    Here are just a few examples of widely-believed "facts" that are not fact:


    October 8, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • I wonder

      And here's a good one in a quiz format: (you can play as a guest, free, if you want – this is not an ad for the site)


      October 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  5. DonOBrien

    Please re-read Point 4, 2nd paragraph. Dr. Moss does not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. No wonder Notre Dame hired her to teach theology.

    October 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Hope this helps

    Point 2
    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.

    And the beginning of almost ever epistle
    Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus,

    October 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      o You actually give credence to those who rewrote the life of an illiterate, preacher man aka Jesus and embellished and "mythicized" it into a story of godly impregnations of a virgin, atonement theology, deity and resurrection?

      The con artists' names? Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John along with the "necessary accessories", Pilate and Constantine.

      October 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
      • Benzin Bruder

        LOL – you should probably take the time to find out more about Simon Greenleaf.

        October 8, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
        • Reality # 2

          Beyond Greenleaf's apologetics and moving into the 21st century's with rational thinking and conclusions:

          Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

          From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

          Even now Catholic/Christian professors (e.g.Notre Dame, Catholic U, Georgetown) of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

          To wit;

          From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

          "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
          Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

          Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

          Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

          The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

          Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers.

          The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

          "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

          The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

          With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

          An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,


          "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

          p.168. by Ted Peters:

          Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

          So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

          October 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  7. geezer

    After watching O'Reilly's interview with Ms. Moss I was wondering how she would get back at him. Now I know. I always enjoy the clash of two egos.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • wrstlrev

      Trying to get back at O'Reilly is all this rant is about. I would think that a professor might be able to find legitimate points to contend in the book and not spout reasons that lack substance and credibility. Josephus is a well respected and widely quoted of the earliest historians on these issues. Paul not a Christian- merely labeling, no one could contest that he turned from his Jewish/Sanhedrin agenda to become the most ardent promoter of following the Way of Christ (now known as Christianity. I could go on at length, but will say she had one credible point under the History portion- paragraph 3 finally had a credible and logical point.

      October 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • TGD

      Actually it is Dr. Moss not Ms. She holds a Ph.d from Yale and is a full professor pf Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
      She is highly-respected and published in her field. Her major focus is martyrdom so the time of Jesus is an area where she is well versed. Her criticisms here are pretty obvious inconsistencies in O'Reilly's book.

      October 8, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
      • Reality # 2

        But if Dr. Moss was not restricted by her being an employee of Notre Dame, she hopefully would promulgate the following:

        1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

        “New Torah For Modern Minds

        Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

        Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

        The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment. “

        Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

        2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% or less of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

        The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


        For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

        Current RCC problems:

        Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

        2 b., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

        Current problems:
        Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

        October 9, 2013 at 11:23 am |
        • counterww

          Current problems- your posting liberal theological trash on every site possible.

          October 9, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  8. Ahab the Arab

    what part will Tom Hanks play in the movie? Will Mel Gibson produce it? Morgan Freeman as Jesus !

    October 8, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  9. sly

    Oh God, not another religious book? How many books do religious folks need? After all, y'all have your Bibles and Koran's and stuff, they're all the same.

    Oh well, write your big books – kinda like a Sears Roebuck catalogue, but less interesting.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • jlacke

      This is supposed to be a historical rather than religious book. I haven't read it, and don't see it making its way to the top of my list any time soon, but that's the angle.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • steelerguin

      Sly, my guess is there are a lot more "non-religious" books out there. Why the whining?

      October 8, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  10. Zaphod

    Only five? Not bad for a Fox hack.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Benzin Bruder

      In spite of the redundancy, I will point out she is a "CNN hack".

      October 8, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  11. jlacke

    Point 2, in particular, is pointless The term "Christian" may not have existed, but they were followers of Christ – which is what we, today, call a Christian. Today we wouldn't call them Jews, because today's Jews do not believe Christ was the messiah, while Paul, et al did. It's really not hard to follow.

    The rest is only slightly less irrelevant.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • kokomo bedford

      yes thank you. not a fan of Bill by any means but this article is about the laziest piece of intellectual terrorism I have seen in awhile...

      October 8, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  12. Philip L

    The author is splitting hairs in her critique. I would not call anything mentioned in at article as a "flub."

    October 8, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  13. Southernsuga

    Beautiful critique. Now I know I won't buy the book.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Sebastian

      This is not a beautiful article. If you are not going to read the book based on this article you are being deceived. This article is not very accurate at all. The Pharisees were not teaching works-based faith like the Catholics, Jesus said the Pharisees put the traditions of men before the truth of God's Word. Also her facts on when believers of The Way were first called Christians is incorrect. Believers were first called Christians in Antioch after the church fled there to escape the persecution of Saul of Tarsus who would later be known as the Apostle Paul. After Paul's conversion he never referred to himself as a Jew. He referred to Himself as "Paul an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ." I can give you the Books and text but it would be better for you to do your own biblical research instead of believing the author of this article.

      October 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  14. juju bees

    i have not read the book. i am not a huge fan of oreilly. this critique brought nothing? all she did was disagree with the overridng meaning, she did not offer any rebuke of the content. it would have been better to "nanny nanny boo boo i dont like you" i was hoping for something revealing about falsehoods in the book. what i got was a waste of 5 minutes of mylife 🙁

    October 8, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  15. Alan

    Fortunately, I don't have to worry about spending my hard earned money for some book that O'Reilly has written. I wouldn't waste my money buying a book of his, because I don't believe anything he says. He's like a TV version of Rush Limbaugh.

    The reason his books are "best sellers," is because he advertises them on his show, and all the Fox News "zombies' run out and buy one. O'Reilly also gives a lot of his books away, and the gifts count as sales too. The guy is a clown.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Ahab the Arab

      Would like it better if it was written by an MSNBC hack..Maddow,Sharpton,etc

      October 8, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Ahab the Arab

      Would you like it better if it was written by an MSNBC hack..Maddow,Sharpton,etc

      October 8, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • Akira

        Oh, heck no. I'd read O'Reilly before Sharpton, and I would never read O'Reilly.

        October 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Howard

      You speak my mind. Your comment make me thrilled and happy. Finally there is someone who stands up and tell the truth that millions of people want to reveal. The guy who makes $20 millions a year by distorting the truth. To the silent majority he is not a newsman but a means of right-wing politician.

      October 8, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
      • Monica

        Bill O'Reilly is an Independent, not a Republican.

        October 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • Monica

      That 'clown' you refer to gives every penny from the sales of his books to the Wounded Warrior Project.

      How much do you give?

      October 8, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Do you a reference for that claim? I searched for one and couldn't find one. I did find a comment saying he donates his books. . .

        October 9, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  16. Dave

    What did Jesus teach? Christianity? I think he taught Judaism but I am far from certain or right. Just an idea.
    And, I don't think they Paul or the other disciples were called Christians back then. The bible was written and translated by many people and think the word "christians" was made up a long time after Jesus was gone. My thoughts only.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • jlacke

      You're correct. In Christ's time, he was reaffirming the teachings of Judaism, and his followers didn't refer to themselves as Christians. But today, Jews and Christians follow different religions, based on their acceptance or not of Jesus as the messiah; so a term is needed to distinguish the belief systems. The author of this piece is really splitting hairs on this one.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:41 am |
      • Eric T

        How about reading the Bible. The disciples were first called Christian in Antioch (see Acts 11:26). Jesus claimed that he was the prophesied Messiah (see Luke 4:21, Mark 8:29,30).

        October 10, 2013 at 2:09 am |
  17. geezer

    After watching O'Reilly's interview with Ms. Moss I was wandering how she was going to get back at him. Now I know. I'm not smart enough to know who is right but I do enjoy watching two egos go at it.

    October 8, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  18. Seth Hill

    This article only points out how nit-picky and silly some academics can be. I'm an atheist, and I really dislike OReilly, but give the guy a break!

    October 8, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Ceci

      No. It's not nit-picky – it's, Get it right. I am Buddhist but am fascinated with theology; especially history. I think Zealot is the better book.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • samuel F

      I agree with Seth. #2 is especially nit picky.

      You might as well complain if someone calls Pele a "soccer player" and write about how he should really be called a "futbol player". Give me a break.

      Paul believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and followed "Christ" and his teachings. By definition, it is correct to call Paul a "Christian" even if the term we use now was not commonly used at that time.

      December 23, 2013 at 3:32 am |
  19. Mike L.

    Under point #2 Candida makes a mistake and states, "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."

    Scripture itself records the following: " And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." [Acts 11:26, NKJV]

    October 8, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  20. sancho

    Not sure why she bothers with point #2. Paul clearly believed in Christ. He dedicated his entire life to preaching Christ. Whether or not the word "Christian" had been invented yet is irrelevant. Paul was a Christian. Why argue semantics?

    October 8, 2013 at 11:02 am |
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