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. RobinMO

    Why would anyone believe anything O'Reilly said or wrote? He is as bogus as a 3 dollar bill.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Truth Hurts

      #1 NY TIMES Best Selling Author multiple times...........You have a problem with his success

      October 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
      • Sane Person

        so is JK Rowling, she writes fiction too.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  2. NickAnast

    Five historical inaccuracies? O'Reilly is getting better; "Killing Lincoln" had a lot more. But that's because O'Reilly doesn't believe in checking his "facts."

    October 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  3. kali

    what happens when ignorants pretend they're knowledgeable....

    what a joke....

    October 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  4. Jim

    CNN posting something that criticizes someone from Fox News? How surprising.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  5. ColdBlueNorth

    It is easy to target O'Reilly as he often comes across as pretty arrogant. That being said, the "facts" put forth to contradict his book's take on the history surrounding the accounts of the New Testament and the historical references of that time period seem more arguments around semantics.

    Particularly the second argument, as most people of that time and place spoke and wrote in Koine Greek, arguing about his ascribing English biblical terminology "Christianity" to "followers of Christ" is thin and ill-informed.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  6. VonPapen

    Why should we trust Candida Moss? Because she was there?

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

      And Bill O'Reilly was there?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Jethro

      Because she's pointing out inaccuracies and giving us reasons for her claims.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  7. drkent3

    Those arguing that the Bible contains references to Christianity when discussing events occurring at the time of Jesus seem to have either forgotten, or be ignorant of, the fact that the Bible was put together approx 400 years AD, and that those compiling it picked/chose which 'books' to include. In addition, those stories have been translated and reinterpreted throughout the last 2000 years – so just because the text you hold in your hands says 'Christians', that is not evidence that this term was used at that time. That would require research into the actual texts of the time in their original language...

    October 7, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  8. parody

    As O'Reilly in his Factor follow-up segment would say, "Ms. Moss decided not to come on the Factor to discuss the issues she has with my latest book, instead, instead she goes on CNN and writes nonsense about me".
    He would then go on to give an open invitation like this "Look Ms. Moss you are welcome to come on 'The Factor' and we can discuss the points you raised, the spin stops right here" 😉

    October 7, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Tom

      Imagine Moss on the factor show, her head would be spinning faster than a ferris wheel at a carnival.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  9. pat

    OMG!! Candida, I am not a fan of O'Rielly, but your facts are terrible. Did you think about this before you wrote it? The Pharisees were not legalistic? Wow.
    You would have been best not to write this article. Of course, uninformed sheeple will wag their heads in agreement without looking into the facts simply because they don't like O'Rielly, Fox News, Republicans, Conservatives or Christians.

    Perhaps O'Reilly got some things wrong, I don't know, I am not planning on reading the book, but I know this article has factual issues. If you are going to accuse somebody of getting their facts wrong, you need to make damn sure your facts are correct and they are not.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Milton Platt

      I don't know one way or the other. Would you have some links or references to anything written outside the bible be historians that point to the Pharisees being overly legalistic? It is an Interesting question.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  10. lesliee

    I wouldn't believe anything Bill Reilly tells me about Jesus until fact-checking it first.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • snowyowl

      I wouldn't believe anything Bill O'Reilly tells me about almost anything.

      October 7, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  11. Thought

    The author writes, "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." If they did, in fact, believe that J was G-d in the flesh, then, this would have been (and still is) considered Idol Worship from a Jewish perspective (then and as well as now) and these early J followers would not be considered a Jewish movement.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • True

      She must have not read Acts either.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Milton Platt

      If they were Jews, then they didn't think of him as god in the flesh....they considered him to be the Messiah, come to save the Jewish people. The god I pn the flesh thing came much later courtesy of the early Carholics.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
      • UnTrue

        This is incorrect. The Catholics early theology is heavily influenced by Hellenism, which would vehemently dispute the idea of God even touching flesh. The messiah was God in the flesh, not a second person in a trinity. That's why they crucified him "You being a man make yourself God."

        Lots of Bible to support the above. Duet. 6:4, Isaiah 9:6, 1 Tim 3:16, John 14:8ff. Just to name a few.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
        • Milton Platt

          Thanks for the clarification. I didn't think the Jews viewed the Messiah as god himself. Are you sure? Anyway, Hellenism aside, the catholics did come to view him as god manifested in the flesh. God is three, but one. So they drifted quickly that direction.

          October 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
      • YesVerySure

        Catholics today and at the councils which formulated the "Roman Catholic Church" never would say that the God of the Old Testament was 100% fully inside of Jesus. All of their theologians at this time were converts of prominent philosophies. Because of this, they created what would become as you wrote "three, in one" type of language. This theology is idolatrous since the Father (god of the old testament) spoke very plainly in Isaiah that none were beside him and that he would not share his glory with any other. The Jews present for the Passover at this time used this against Jesus to justify his death calling it blaspheme.

        James Dunn, prominent theologian of Paul's writings, would agree that there is no way a Trinitarian doctrine was present in the early churches theology. The only knew Jesus to be God himself (not a part making up a whole).

        October 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  12. Mark in Atlanta

    Only 5? That must be some kind of record for Bill. Pas the luefa, please.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  13. Birdyboyz

    O'Reilly is the same "Genius" that said American troops massacred German prisoners at Malmedy during the "Battle of the Bulge". ,not once but ,TWICE on his show.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  14. AvdBerg

    The Holy Spirit did not inspire Bill O'Reilly in the writing of his Book 'Killing Jesus' as quoted in the above article. So, what spirit did inspire him?

    For a better understanding of the spirit (Luke 9:55) that inspired Bill O'Reilly we invite you to read the latest entry on the 'Current Events' page of our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    October 7, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Milton Platt

      Yes, we're sure that site will be clear thinking, scholarly and unbiased. NOT!

      October 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • PreJudgmental

        ...don't ya think?

        October 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  15. Marc

    Wow, Moss. You missed by a country mile. Five times!

    October 7, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  16. Picky

    And I quote (Acts 11: 25: "Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul (Paul). When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching great numbers of people. (It was there at Antioch that the believes were first called Christians). This proves that Saul (Paul) was a Christian because he was a believer.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Milton Platt

      You are quoting from a book written somewhere between 60 and 150 years after Jesus's time. You must go to writings during and just after his time to know what actually happened. The are no historical records from that time to show that they were called Christians.....that's what is being pointed out.

      You can't use the Bible as an accurate portrayal of historical events.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
      • SureYouCan

        Any reasons why not? "Myth?" Right because myths claiming historical fact have no physical evidence in archaeological (not including the lame ark findings, obviously bogus)?

        October 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  17. formcritic

    This is pretty silly stuff.

    You are trying to sound clever by quibbling.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  18. Johnny 5

    Jesus was the son of a 'deity' that violated a married woman and ran off never to be seen again. The son of the ultimate ghostly deadbeat dad of the universe and O'Reilly is going to tell you all about it. Ahh what a wonderful story to worship.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  19. Birdyboyz

    I wonder if Bill O'Reilly knows that Jesus was a Jew.

    October 7, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • formcritic

      The entire article is filled with ridiculous quibbles. The writer is trying to sound clever at the expense of a better writer. She fails and she makes herself look foolish.

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

        "Ridiclous quibbles". The thought of Creationism" is a ridiculous quibble. You'll believe what was written thousands of years ago on hearsay alone but, if I tell you don't touch the wall because it ha s wet paint on it ,you just have to...to see for yourself.Remember Jesus next time you're getting medical assistance for an illness.Then, "SCIENCE " is just fine with you,right?

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


          October 7, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  20. bcbsr

    Your comment about Paul not being a Christian is bogus. According to Acts 11:26 Barnabus brought Paul (still named "Saul") to the church at Antioch. And it says, "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." Furthermore during one of Paul's trials it is written Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" "Acts 26:28

    October 7, 2013 at 11:45 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.