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. AMP

    Time to Time these writers, publishers misguide and confuse people. Most of them do not have any clue about history. But for sure they know one thing how to fool people and sale their books. If the world arrogant, corrupt, greedy, selfish and self made leaders of religions, stop their malicious intentions either getting rich or famous by misguiding people in any religion, there will be no riots and hate against each other.

    October 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  2. sempoluicaosonora

    I can' t wait for the debate of the millennium between Bill O'Reilly and Richard Carrier at the next Comic-con. It looks like in another self-aggrandizing hallucination, O'Reilly is confessing to killing Jesus in this book. Not to worry Carrier will safe him from prosecution, It is all in Bayes theorem. O'Reilly couldn't have done it.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  3. Astaris

    As for the Pharisees, the Greek-speakibg non-Jews that wrote the Gospels outside Israel 40-50 years after the death of Jesus, have the roles of the Pharisees (Perushim) and Sadducees (Tzdukim) completely reversed. Jesus was a classic Pharisee, an anti-Roman Jewish teacher from the Galilee. The Sadducees were the Jerusalem-based nobility and priestly class, a tiny but influential minority, which to a large extent collaborated with Rome and were hated by the general Jewish population. The rather confused New Testament also has Jesus arriving in Jerusalem at Passover, while the people are waving palm branches from the Sukkot (Tabernacles) festival and singing Hosha'ana (Hosanna) on the last day of Sukkot (Hosha'ana Rabba) which actually took place six months earlier... 🙂

    October 14, 2013 at 12:05 am |
  4. Astaris

    Saul of Tarsus (Sha'ul haTarsi) later Romanized to Paulus and centuries later Anglified to Paul, was obviously an observant Jew, as were Jesus, John the Baptist and all the disciples. Until Paul, the Jesus sect was purely Jewish, also known as Nazarenes (Notzrim in Hebrew, which today means Christian). What Paul novated was the revolutionary and bold concept that non-Jews could accept Jesus without converting to Judaism, which shocked many of the Jewish Jesus-sect. These non-Jewish converts were, strictly speaking, the first Christians. At first they had no churches but were permitted to attend Jewish-Nazarene synagogues. Very swiftly, they became the majority, broke with Judaism and commenced persecuting the Jews, at which time the original Jewish Jesus-sect disappeared, crushed between the pagan Romans, Christians andJews. Paul remained a religious Messianic, Nazarene Jew to the end of his days and was therefore, strictly speaking, not a Christian. Hoewever, he certainly was the founder of non-Jewish Christianity, a concept which would probably have shocked Yeshua (Jesus) to the core. There is no evidence in the New Testament or any other source, that Jesus, a religious disciple of Rabbi Yehuda ben Perahia, ever had any contact whatsoever with any non-Jew, excluding the barbaric Roman governer of Judea, Pontius Pilatus, and the Roman soldiers who tortured and crucified him, as they did many other Jews on a daily basis. Paul invented a totally new religion for non-Jews, which technically, as an observant Jew until his death, he could not have been a member himself.

    October 13, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  5. Get'm BB

    The Bible warns us about false prophets.

    October 13, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  6. Reality # 2

    It appears that this thread has run its course but just in case Professor Moss and/or the CNN moderators are still reading it:

    One wonders why CNN had Professor Moss critique O'Reilly's book when someone like Professor John P. Meier in the same department at Notre Dame is much more qualified.

    "Meier's scholarly interests are in the area of New Testament, specifically the historical Jesus and the Gospel of Matthew, as well as Palestinian Judaism in the first century A.D. and the relation of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas to the Synoptic Gospels. Having published the first four volumes of his series A Marginal Jew in 1991, 1994, 2001, and 2009, he is now working on the fifth and final volume in the series. The fifth volume will cover the three final enigmas of the historical Jesus: the riddle-speech of his parables, the riddle-speech of his self-designations (or Ati-tles@), and the final riddle of his death. All the volumes of A Marginal Jew have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Meier has also written six other books as well as over seventy articles for peer-reviewed or solicited journals or books."

    Hmmm, Professor Moss definitely has the looks over Professor Meier. One does wonder if that entered into CNN's choice? No way 🙂

    October 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  7. Trisha

    Miss Candida,
    I I understand that you have written a book "The Myth Of Persecution". There are many mistakes that you have made in your book, and I would pray that people will see through and research your interpretations.. I think it is really a shame that you can be misleading people with what you have written on persecution. How do you explain all the persecution that is going on all over the world in the name of Christ especially China.
    See in this article

    October 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Nathaniel

      Or especially anywhere in the arab countries following the "arab spring".

      October 11, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  8. ElectricLion

    It IS possible to speak after having been crucified. Your diaphragm is supported by your nailed feet. It's only after your legs are broken that your diaphragm loses its support and you suffocate. Until your legs are broken, the only way you can die is from exposure or thirst, which takes days. Since Jesus died before his legs could be broken, it stands to reason that he could speak the whole time he was on the cross.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  9. David Allred

    One of the most hilarious and ironic things about New Testament scholars is how hard they work to deconstruct the Gospel narratives using ancient Roman writers. They love to point out how these esteemed writers make no mention of Jesus outside of a "spurious" Josephus section. And then her first point is "Hey, don't believe those ancient Roman writers." Too funny. Which is it?

    The notion that Paul wasn't a Christian, but rather switched forms of Judaism is just tossed out there matter of factly. Such a poor excuse for scholarship that it doesn't deserve a response. Talk about cherry-picking. Pot meet kettle.

    Outside of the Pharisee stigma, which is mostly true - the rest of this reads like a scholar with a chip on her shoulder. Don't get me wrong, I will take most of John Dominic Crossan over most of Bill O'Reily any day of the week... thing is, I'm not mad about it as this author appears to be.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Nathaniel

      And we also have to laugh at the notion of referencing those roman scholars, NONE of whom spent any time in or around the early Church. As good a scholar as Josephus was, if he'd ever spent time around them, he would've written about them. So their word carries no credibility, just as Ms Moss' word carries no credibility.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Mark

    You clearly don't know anything about Christians or Christianity. St. Paul was a follower of Christ after his conversion. That in itself makes him a Christian.

    October 11, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Phil Esteen

      Who cares if Bill O'Reilly is Christian?

      Christianity, especially the American variant, and Islam have both demonstrated unsurpassed levels of murderous zealotry since they began to ensare the human mind with their soteriological inanities. A religious zealot of ANY faith is counter-productive to American progress and always will be.

      And by the way, Bill O'Reilly is, by the very definition of the word, a huge flub.

      October 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  11. KACalder

    Paul was not a "Christian"? Seems to me this commenter is failing to see the forest for the trees, and she doesn't even correctly identify the trees ("facts"). If this is the kind of carelessness with facts she accuses O'Reilly of, then she does him one better.

    There are lots of questions to raise about O'Reilly's opus, but this commenter hardly seems the one to be raising them.

    October 11, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  12. millah35

    The author's second point, that "Paul was not a Christian," is clearly inconsistent with the Book of Acts. Paul (also called Saul) helped plant the church in Antioch around 44-47 a.d. At this time, Acts 11:25-26 specifically states that "in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." (ESV). Acts like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John are first hand witness accounts, intended to be historical books. They are not myth or fiction.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Reality # 2

      For another list of early Christian docu-ments and the date of publication, see: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/

      From this reference:

      "It is also the consensus position that the evangelist was not the apostle Matthew. Such an idea is based on the second century statements of Papias and Irenaeus. As quoted by Eusebius in Hist. Eccl. 3.39, Papias states: "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could." In Adv. Haer. 3.1.1, Irenaeus says: "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church." We know that Irenaeus had read Papias, and it is most likely that Irenaeus was guided by the statement he found there. That statement in Papias itself is considered to be unfounded because the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek and relied largely upon Mark, not the author's first-hand experience."

      The referenced lists have rather extensive review links to include extensive reviews as to what is really known about the authors of the NT. The consensus: They were not eye witnesses with John's gospel having little or no historic authenticity.

      October 11, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • ko

      An excellent point millah35. The author of the article clearly has a bent toward a liberal theological interpretation of Scripture, while O'Reilly has a bent toward Catholicism.

      October 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
      • Nathaniel

        And unfortunately neither with a preference toward the spiritual interpretation – the Truth.

        October 11, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  13. metzitzat b'peh is gross

    I wonder how much of this lady's Catholicism would Jesus approve of. You think that Jesus would be down with the Catholic version of the temple, the Catholic version of the Pharisees named the pope and his Cardinals? Really lady if you really want to get down into it let's get down into it, and speak towards your own disgusting and warped vision of the message of Jesus.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:16 am |
    • Nathaniel


      October 11, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  14. Holly Roller

    Why don't you go write your own book. Limited intelligence can always tell where others who have accomplished things slipped up.

    Candida indeed. your just another attention seeking ***thead.

    Without realising it, your the same as Bill O'reilly. You think you opinion counts.


    October 11, 2013 at 3:38 am |
  15. SophiasaWiseA

    Judea was in what is now considered the Middle East not the Mediterranean. And, the name he was called by in Aramaic (the language Eashoa spoke) is Eashoa Msheekhah. Aramaic font is very similar to Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. I wonder how many Americans believe Eashoa spoke and wrote in English. Yes, Eashoa and Jesus are transliterations, but the transliterations are of two very different languages, and with four thousand years of divergent evolution. I think the reason for the name transliteration is because the name Eashoa Msheekhah doesn't go over too well with xenophobes, hence the name and even Western depictions of Eashoa.

    October 10, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      sO Jesus was not black? We always knew he was Caucasian-ish. Don't tell the African-Americans though it'll ruin their new power surge.

      October 11, 2013 at 4:14 am |
      • Nathaniel

        Oh no, don't tell me it's time to cancel Kwanza?

        October 11, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Jimmy Black

    I hope she gets a commission on book sales from all of us that rush out and buy this book after reading these obvious misrepresentations in her article.

    October 10, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Nathaniel

      Well, I for one won't be going out to buy O'Reilly's book, I don't care for him either. And I've heard enough of his comments about the book while he was making the rounds on the media circuit to know that he has no clue what he's talking about either.

      This article is nothing but one person of questionable motives and qualifications calling another of questionable motives out. Just like Congress and the pres, they're both wrong.

      October 10, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
  17. Nathaniel

    This woman claims to be a professor of "New Testament and Early Christianity"? Yeah right, that's why you never trust anyone who gets their "preaching" degree on a piece of paper from a university. She obviously isn't peer reviewed otherwise she would've never made a statement such as Paul or the other early followers weren't Christians. Re-read the Book of Acts woman.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
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