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. scarbrtj

    "Paul was not a Christian..."

    That's just, like, your opinion, man (ma'am).

    October 7, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • Theo

      Well, no. Jesus, if he existed at all, was a Jew. If the stories about him are true, when he returns to his people, those people are ... Jews.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  2. mystified

    Why are people discussing a historical fantasy novel as if it were non-fiction? There is zero credible evidence that J-man ever existed.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Heath


      October 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  3. Stop the Madness

    Wow! The apostle Paul wasn't a Christian. Ms. Moss please tell me you are kidding.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  4. pat

    There are some incorrect facts in this article pointing out historic facts. The word 'Christian' was first used in Acts and Paul did very much consider himself to be one. He was a Bishop in the early church. Not an outside member belonging to 'The Way' a phrase coined much earlier in Acts prior to Paul's arrival in it. Way to get your facts straight CNN....LOL!!!

    October 7, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Heath

      Please make citations – ie. Acts: chapter and verse – so we can verify YOUR claims, as well. Thanks.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • pat

        Acts 26:28

        October 7, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Alley Loo Ya

      Yeah, Eddie Long says he's a Bishop too...

      October 7, 2013 at 11:58 am |
      • pat

        And that's relevant how?

        October 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  5. Bill O" Non Reality

    Bill makes a pretty good living writing revistionist history for the uneducated masses. It's good work if you can get it.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  6. Steve

    Let's be honest, no one can really be an expert on events that happened 2,000 years ago. A few facts are known, but it's all opinion after that.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  7. WV Gleeman

    Shyoot darlin'

    You gots too involved in the words and such. Dun you worry yer perty lil head; This books dun got Jesus in it and it a written by someone who lover Murica. Nuff said.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  8. Fubarack

    No one knows for sure, so maybe write a book and tell what you think happened.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  9. billkleinonline

    No surprise that O'Reilly's book is entertainment posing as history. He works for Fox, which is right-wing propaganda posing as news.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  10. Anoim

    Point Two shows the author of the article also lacks a full knowledge of history. Paul's ministry was to the Gentiles (non-Jews) Wow everyone thinks they are right about their Facts oops maybe that is opinion. Check your facts! Oh Christian is used twice in the New Testament but I will let you research those. You lack discipline Candida Moss!

    October 7, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Captain Kirk

      Jesus never existed....you guys are arguing sources 100-200 years after the fact of his supposed existence.....you need to look at the message and not the story....No one argues that Aesops fables are fake....but the message is real. Seek truth not facts...Fact is Jesus is fake....truth is his message of love, kindness and forgiveness are real, real as the greek and Gnostic philosophy that Paul was inspired by.(Paul was real and a Gnostic)

      October 7, 2013 at 11:47 am |
      • pat

        The first writing referring to Jesus came as early as the the 40's AD. 100 to 200 years after? LOL!!!!!

        October 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Heath

      Have you read the scriptures in their original languages? Unless you have, then you are reading a deeply flawed translation, and are also expressing your opinion, and not facts.
      Besides, (as others have pointed out), as eyewitness testimony is the least reliable kind of evidence (so those Gospels are, at best, "stories"), and in spite of rather a lot of intense searching, there as yet exists not one shred of proof that such a man ever truly lived.
      Ever heard of Mithra?
      Who needs to check their history?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  11. Shae

    I must argue with the point that Paul was not a Christian. He was a Christian,a Jew who converted to Christianity (meaning he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God)

    October 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Jeeps Johnstone

      You're right. It's kind of a technicality. Kind of like when O'Reilly repeatedly referred to the Oval Office in 'Killing Lincoln', even though the Oval Office didn't exist at that point.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:39 am |
      • john

        A little different dou-che bag!

        October 7, 2013 at 11:51 am |
      • Heath

        Oh, I wish I could give you a hug. 🙂

        October 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Captain Kirk

      Paul was a Gnostic Christian basing his beliefs on the Pagan Mysteries that were created in Alexandria Egypt when Greek philosophy, Egyptian mysteries combined with Judaism. Alexandria was the cultural mecca of the day. Why are the teachings of jesus in line with Greek Platonic philosophy and counter current to the Old scriptures? Why is there a teaching of knowledge being key to salvation rather than birth-chance similar to the Egyptian mystery cults? Why are the new scriptures written in Greek? Why are there Christian temples in Egypt that predate christ?

      October 7, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  12. empty


    October 7, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  13. reasonable2

    The FOX shill is stealing publicity from the new (substantive book) Zealot.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  14. jkk

    Ms. Moss...respectfully...you need to do some more homework.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Jdub

      I think ND needs to verify this woman's resume. A professor of New Testament???? She deems certain dogmas as unbiblical that are clearly and obviously in the Bible. Just adding to the stereotype that Catholics don't know the Scripture. Note to CNN: you may have asked her for an opinion on the book, but Ms. Moss has lied about, or is ignorant of some incontrovertible facts. You don't have to believe everything the historians have written, you certainly don't have to believe the Bible. But what is in the Bible is in the Bible and that's that. What is she thinking?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • Heath

      You DID notice that this writer's name is "Candida", right?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  15. Dave

    just because you find another opinion doesn’t make the book wrong

    October 7, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Jeeps Johnstone

      The fact that O'Reilly wrote it makes it wrong.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • wjs

      Saying that the book relates thoughts inside Herod's head is not an opinion. If saying it reflects the truth, then the book is something less than history

      October 7, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  16. A Dose of Reality

    O'Retard is continuing to fleece the ign*rant. I'll give him credit, he knows how to make money off the g*llible.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Liberal sheep

      "O'Retard". Hilarious! Awesome. I love it when elementary school kids post here. You must have thought that was a real winner. Instead you come across like the r3tard.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • A Dose of Reality

        And just what intelligent thing have you said oh great one? Calling me a r*tard is OH SO BRILLIANT. Your toothless parents must be so proud~ There now, have we traded enough insults to satisfy you?

        October 7, 2013 at 11:47 am |
        • TonyStark

          Nothing worse thant a coward that hides behind a computer and slings insults. I would love to give you a dose of reality, but then again, you are too pathetic to take your beating like a man.

          October 7, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  17. boocat

    O"Reilly can't get anything right...that's why Fox hired him. They get most everything wrong too.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  18. A Dose of Reality

    O'Retard is continuing to fleece the ignorant. I'll give him credit, he knows how to make money off the gullible.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Liberal sheep

      "O'Retard" oh hilarious. You must be so proud of coming up with that one. Lunch time at recess? I see only one retard here. And it is the idi0t changing names like a elementary school kid.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  19. Tom Mc

    But...but...but Bill is NEVER wrong! Just ask him!

    October 7, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  20. Habberdash

    I'm sure what really sticks in her craw is that Billo's book will outsell anything she's written by a factor of 1,000 to 1.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Hill Topper

      You are right Habberdash [love that name by the way] – but you should consider that cheap romances and trashy stories always outsell more serious literature or academic studies; and that silly and worthless TV shows are more watched than classical music or serious dramas on PBS. Does that not tell you something?

      October 7, 2013 at 9:53 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.