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. Robin

    He's an unwelcome houseguest I consider him to be a terrorist murderer. I hate him. He has no right to come in to a situation where he is unwelcome.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      He told his disciples to leave the unwelcoming, to wash their dust from their feet, in other words, to leave them to their judgement for refusing him.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:11 am |
  2. Robin

    Jesus helps child molesters, rapists, abusive parents and men keep their wives and kids under his authority. There's nothing to like. He's a terrorist.

    October 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      Can you quote some examples Robin?

      January 18, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  3. Chelsea

    The Pharisees were just like O'Reilly portrays them. It's all over the New Testament. And Luke 3:17 is talking about Pharisees....not to brag but I'm a Bible Student, I know what the Bible says. And it means what it says. I say that to teach, not to esteem myself.

    October 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • jpherling

      The New Testament gospels consist of oral tradition, not history. Nothing in them can be taken at face value. The Pharisees were known as the more liberal of the two schools of religious thinking of the time (the other one was the Sadducees).

      October 27, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  4. Joel's Bar

    Ya know, I can't help but see that it seems the atheist line is always, "You have no evidence there is a God!" Well, bro, you don't seem to have evidence other than vitriol that there isn't one. And since we're all Americans here, even though I believe in God, I in no way wish to impinge on your right to believe that which you sincerely hold true. I admit it, tho AE wouldn't, I have no proof of God that would stand the empirical evidence test. Oh I have lots of anecdotes, and claims from historians, and such. But nothing that equals empirical evidence. But, that's kind of your situation, too, isn't it? So let's just agree to disagree. Because the only thing I have that I think could make any impact on you is this: I love you. I want you to be happy. And if you're happy, then great! But you don't sound very happy when you're spewing venom and hate speech. Now, I know that plenty who call themselves "Christians" do and say hateful things. I'm sorry. Real Christians don't feel that way. I don't hate gays (who am I to tell you who to love?) or atheists (who am I to tell you what to believe?) I came to the conclusion that I don't know what's good for me. Left to my own devices I drink like a pig, say hateful things to my parents and friends, damage my children, destroy my own life. I'm not smart enough to live on my own. Guess you could say, if you want to know why I believe in God, it's because it makes me feel better. And if you don't need that, well, you must be a better human being than I am. I have no trouble believing that. Because without Christ, I'm absolutely worthless, self-destructive and doomed.

    October 25, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • Nanasavi

      I think I would like you. I feel much the same. I'd do some messy things if I did not have the example of Jesus saying that I MUST LOVE OTHERS as much as I love myself.

      October 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Idealist999

      An awesome comment. I wish all Christians thought this way.

      October 25, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
      • jpherling

        The burden of proof is on the person who claims existence, not on the person who claims non-existence. If I were to claim that there are little green men on Mars who control everything that happens on Earth, would I have to prove that they exist or would you have to prove that they don't?

        October 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • The Eternal Satyr


      You want more proof that your BuyBull god doesn't exist?

      October 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
      • Ally

        this is not proof just someone on the opposite side giving their beliefs

        October 25, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • TJ

      The vast majority of atheists do not claim to KNOW that there is no god. They simply state that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim that a god does in fact exist. Sure, there are some militant atheists, but most just say, "Look, if you want me to believe that this thing exists, then I need to see actual evidence for it outside of your desire for it to be true. If I claim to be a reincarnation of Napoleon, then the burden of proof is on me. After all, you could never completely disprove that I'm not Napoleon.
      You're obviously "in the program." That's a good thing. Congratulations! I've been sober for well over two decades but no longer attend meetings. And the biggest reason I don't attend meetings anymore is because of all the religious dogma associated with it. Just like church, there are certain beliefs that are tolerated within the program, and certain beliefs that are not.

      October 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Karl Marx

      No one can prove that there aren't 10 or 100 gawds, or that any particular one (Hey-zues for example) exists or existed

      October 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • tshorey2013

      Joel, do you have evidence that there are no unicorns? You can't prove a negative, and in any case, why would anyone need to. Christians are the ones making the extraordinary claims and therefore should provide the extraordinary proof of those claims. Atheists don't make any claims, they just don't accept the stories about religion that they are told they have to believe and accept without proof. If there was evidence no faith would be required. That is why religions make a virtue of believing in things without proof, or in spite of evidence to the contrary. A review of the scientific method might set you on the path of true discovery in looking for evidence based proofs of your assertions.

      October 29, 2013 at 3:14 am |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      No we are not all Americans here .. I'm a Canadian .. but you're forgiven.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:14 am |
  5. the blood

    Interesting opinion. Not very accurate, but certainly interesting.

    October 25, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  6. charles

    all this comes from the woman who said,that arson can get to heaven by good works, the only way to heaven is believing in the lord jesus Christ, as the way the truth and the light, as he said, no man comes unto the father except by me, meaning himself., not good works.

    October 24, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
    • The Eternal Satyr

      "How profitable for us has this myth of Christ been!" – Pope Leo X

      Jesus never existed.

      October 25, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
      • sszorin

        jpherling said : "The New Testament gospels consist of oral tradition, not history. Nothing in them can be taken at face value. "
        You agree that Jewish "Old Testament" is also a fantasy and cannot be taken at face value ? Consequently "the Jews" are a fabrication and should not exist and Israel also should not exist ? Do you confirm that ?

        October 31, 2013 at 2:23 am |
      • Bob Mosurinjohn

        Lots of Popes did not believe in Jesus, that does not make Jesus a myth.

        January 18, 2014 at 11:17 am |
  7. Bazinga

    Amazing that relatively intelligent people believe in old fairy tales....Then again, many people voted for Sarah Palin, so there really is no limit to stupidity...

    October 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Ally

      I agree look at all the stupid people that voted for Obama

      October 29, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  8. Lisa Porter-Grenn

    The real irony of it all is that I strongly suspect that the historical Jesus would not consider Mr. O'Reilly a truly religious human being, given his relative wealth and past offenses. P.S. Candida, I do appreciate your 'candidness' pursuant to the book review!!

    October 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
  9. Reisel Alphord

    Religion is the worlds main problem it can be anything anyone wants it to be good or bad. The Bible teaches salvation of mans soul and how one can be saved from himself and hell. That is in thru and by the blood of Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection from the grave. For one to be born again is to believe on the name of Jesus Christ and His Sacrifice on the cross for the atonement of ones own sins, by believing on Him one is forgiven of his or her sins and adopted into the family of those that Christ has saved, there by having salvation and not just a empty religion of some kind. Jesus is not a religion he is a new life and salvation for those that believe and follow Him and his teaching in the Bible. He is a live and well waiting for the lost to cry out to Him for salvation not religion. Seek and you will find,knock and it will be opened unto you, ask and it will be given, so simple even a child can understand. The question is do you, don't depend on others for your answers read the Bible and ask God for wisdom and understanding of His word and He will if you are truly desiring the truth as God gives it.

    October 23, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  10. Bubba

    O'Reilly and the whole truth are rarely in the same room.

    October 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      "For now we see through a glass, darkly ..." Meaning none of us here on earth know everything.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:15 am |
  11. PAUL

    Pharisees were called by jesus as vipers what does that tell you

    October 19, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • jpherling

      It doesn't tell you anything, because the gospels are oral tradition, not history, so nothing in them can be taken at face value.

      October 28, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      Good remark, Paul.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  12. PAUL

    Paul was a Christian after he was knocked off the horse he was considered one of the apostles after that OREILL WAS NOT WRONG THERE

    October 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  13. rustacus21

    Definitely something wrong w/this dude if this is ALL he's able to write – as it's his pathological, psycho obsession. What about 'LIVING' American citizens being brutalized & exploited by unruly elite conservatives that he regularly ignores 'COMMENTING' on? Just curious...

    October 18, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  14. Truth be Known

    Haven't read the book, but to clear up some untruth`s about Bill O. He accepts no profits from any of his books. All the profits of this book will go to wounded warriors. From what I read here, he did misquote Gods Word, and if he did, he should have had someone who knows Gods word check it for accuracy, before it went to print. If he said that he turned over the tables in the temple, he is indeed wrong, it was because they were using the temple to make money, kind of like a flea market. Sadly that goes on in many churches today.

    October 18, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  15. Ted

    Ppl r starting 2 4get about the Bible n r focusing on religion, about who's wrong n who's right... The Bible just teaches us how 2 live our life happy, n that good it's always going 2 b good, n that bad, it's just bad... Money dont but happiness just fun stuff ( but it is really fun lol) ... Just look @ most of the celebrities lol... They don't kno the meaning of life, they just know that money is everything... But it's doesnt buy happiness

    October 17, 2013 at 4:09 am |
  16. mobiledan

    I just saw O'reilly on Letterman talking about Jesus. God-bless him for witnessing his faith, but, I can't Amen his misrepresenting the life of Jesus. BO said that Jesus was anti-tax, and that is why he was crucified. Oh really, O'Reilly?? If Jesus was anti-tax, why did respond, when asked if it was right to pay taxes, by saying "give to Caesar what is Caesar's?" Clearly, Jesus indicated that money belongs to the powers of the earth, and that coins issued by Caesar were properly taxed by Caesar.
    Then BO went on to say that Jesus turned over the tables of the vendors at the Temple because he was protesting tax. Oh really, O'Reilly? Isn't it clear from Holy Text that the vendors represented profiteers from religion? They were unethical businessmen, and that image is clear.

    O'Reilly may be Christian, but he arrogantly allows his political views to color Scripture, rather than humbly allowing Scripture to color his political views. Really, O'Reilly.

    October 17, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • TravT

      While not religious, and generally apposed to the concept of 'religious hierarchy', I have to echo your sentiment. I'm a history buff, and a former Christian. While I reject Christianity, I think the world would be a better place if more people were Christ-like. The model that we are presented (whether factual, embellished or fabricated) is a positive one and it clearly does not promote an anti-tax agenda. I respect your faith and the fact that you employ it for noble purposes, rather than avoiding taxes like the uber-wealthy Mr. O'Reilly.

      October 17, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Bob Mosurinjohn

      Note that it was a penny and not a gold or silver coin which Jesus held as he said give to Caesar what is Caesar's. Our laws make possible our charitable donations to be exempted from taxation .. would to God we could withhold taxes from military use also, but if we give enough to charity we won't be paying taxes.

      January 18, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  17. C.ANN

    Never one to defend Bill O...but I will defend and correct you on your facts about Paul and others never being called Christians first century CE... in fact the Bible clearly states the exact moment that Belivers/Followers first began to refer to themselves as Christians..... found in the book of ACTS,11 chapter 25-26 verses....it reads..

    25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:

    26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
    Billo got enough wrong ...lets not add to it.

    October 16, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  18. Wayne McClellan

    I am not sure Paul was a Christian. He commandeered what Christ commanded and turned it to something else. Saul of Tarsus converted because of a woman. Today people follow Paul they are not Christians they are Paulist. They worship the words of Paul. All those that say their Christians are worshipers of man and man's word. One has to assume that the words selected by men were also selected by God not Constantine. There are no words of Jesus just reports hundreds of years later of what someone said they are. To believe in the so called Bible is to believe in man and mans message not a Messiah.

    October 14, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  19. Ed

    From what I have read and heard about this book most of it is very opinionated from Bill O'reilly, instead of reading and getting all torn to pieces emotionally by some book that a sinful man wrote why not instead read the greatest love story ever written, the Holy Bible, God's word and find out for yourselves the real truth.

    October 14, 2013 at 4:38 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.