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. Jolat

    O'reilly has more viewers in one hour than all of CNN combined, so I guess the only way CNN can get anyone's attention is by bashing Bill. Just sayin....

    October 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • drcid777

      Tackling this subject matter is like walking through a mine field. He gets more attention because he sells so many books, but anyone trying to offer new insights into Jesus' life will be pounded by many.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  2. Joseph Bleaux

    This man is a vile, dimwit. But who really cares anyway about a mythological figure that lived thousands of years ago? It's just ancient mythology and ignorant nonsense, only people that aren't too bright believe in it.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Still wondering

      "Aren't too bright"? Is that the terminology you normally use to refer to people with whom you disagree, Joseph? Is that how you prevent any kind of constructive conversation? Please tell me you can do better than this, and by the way, I am both a believer and fairly bright ...

      October 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  3. Andrew Rickert

    Looks like the professor is jealous about the book sales. The errors pointed out are minor compared to what you find in, for example, CNN's fact checks!! Looks like she is politically motivated to attack a person she does not like.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Joel

      She is not affiliated with CNN as far as I can tell. Of course CNN fact checks are flawed, they are hashed together in minutes in pursuit of a deadline. She is a professor of religious history at Notre Dame. I think she probably is just being picky because she is an "expert" an Bill is a casual commentator.

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

      And it should go without saying that jealousy doesn't moot her credentials. Most people, you and I included I am sure, would be jealous – in a sense – of someone's 7-8 figure salary. That doesn't mean we would like to trade places and it does open us up to conflicts of interest in commentary, but most of the time if there is no specific agenda I think it should not be improper for a wage earning citizen to offer critical analysis of a wealthy person's work. Whether it's correct or not is another matter.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  4. Maggie Beaufort

    Paul was absolutely a Christian. He persuaded the other disciples to abandon the Jewish law in the Torah and embrace new beliefs and rules instead. And this is important because Paul, Peter and James agreed, and said repeatedly, that Christians no longer need to obey laws such as the language in Leviticus on gays. Paul is the guy who exploded the evangelical argument that the Bible bans gay marriage.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • FoReelz

      Quite a stretch there, and completely untrue might I add. I guess you're looking for a reaction though.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • oncampusandonline

      Your statements assume that what is written in the bible is literally true.

      That is a big leap of faith.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Christianity is False

      Paul was a usurper. He made up a lot of things he attributed to Jesus like abortion and gays. Jesus never spoke about those things. All Jesus basically said was Love God and Treat others well. The rest is all made up and a pack of lies passed on as christianity.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Mark Turner

    Hmmm. Paul was never called a "Christian"? He was the leader of the church in Antioch where the term originated. This is described in the Book of Acts which is a history of the early church. Perhaps the author knows of a better source of information than the accounts of the people involved?

    From Acts 11 (Saul is early name for Paul) -
    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.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • OperaFan2

      Remember that the New Testament was not written down until 50-100 A.D. (or BCE). Rabbinical writings closer to Christ's lifetime make no mention of "Christians" but actual texts of these are available in later transcripts only, too. My interpretation of Paul's letters and Acts are that he saw himself as a Jew, but one who wanted to extend "The Way" to gentiles.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • isolate

        "CE" is the expression that has replaced AD. BCE is a secular way of stating "before Christ."

        October 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
      • Mark Turner

        I agree that it's certainly possible that the term originated after Paul (even the text in Acts doesn't say it definitely happened then but rather where). It is definitely associated with Paul's legacy reaching out to the gentiles. But to say authoritatively that Paul was never called this term in criticism of someone else's work seems like a huge stretch. Seems like they are really stretching to find things that were "Totally Wrong".

        October 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Christopher

      The assignment was "5 things" he got wrong.

      She came up with 5 things he got wrong. Who cares if she had to resort to semantics, she found 5 things!

      October 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Bill

    I am so angry at this author for forcing me to defend Bill O'Reilly, a man i detest.
    But since the author is factually challenged ... here goes.

    Josephus is known to me a Roman Citizen and a Jewish HISTORIAN.

    The Pharisees, and in particular the Sanhedrin, were most definitely made up of many self righteous, arrogant men. Not all of them, but many. How do i know? Jesus said so. And, oh yeah, the Bible is fact, not myth,

    And no, Paul was not a "Christian" because that term was not used commonly during his life. But he WAS a "follower of the way". And Jesus was The Way. Paul was a jew but The Way was not a sect of judaism. Because many gentiles were also followers of The Way.


    At least if an atheist is going to write a story like this please get your facts right.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Pete Campbell

      Perhaps you haven't read the first two chapters of the Bible, in which two completely conflicting accounts of Creation are given. Go ahead. Read them. Something can't be "fact" if it completely contradicts itself, unless you use a very unusual definition of "fact" and "truth" that allows two mutually-exclusive things to be true at the same time.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Paul

    Gone are the days when people gather facts, information, and make decisions for themselves. There are so many people who find it more convenient to find, and follow, what someone else (here, BO) says no matter how ridiculous it sounds.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  8. PeterD

    Why we are afraid to say that Jesus Christ went to India for years in hiding to Learn Sprituality and Faith from Hinduism.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Fred

      I think the biggest reason we don't say that is...it didn't happen.
      There's your answer.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
      • David

        I thought it was the Beatles who went to India. And they did declare themselves more popular than Jesus!

        October 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Christianity is False

      The Bible Jesus is all made up. THe one that went to India was real anlearned lots not only from India but Tibet buddhists. Oh and Jesus is NOT God like others say.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • David

        I thought it was the Beatles who went to India. And they did declare themselves more popular than Jesus!

        October 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  9. Mike

    I cant believe so many people believe this story about this guy from over 2000 years ago.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Joseph Bleaux

      Me neither. The average American is really pretty stupid.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jesus Says

      Somethings are true whether you believe in them or not.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  10. Return to God

    When in doubt ask, seek and search the Truth. Jesus, peace upon him, is best described and understood in the Quran. God said “Verily, the likeness of 'Îsa (Jesus) before Allah (God) is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then (He) said to him: "Be!" – and he was. (Chapter #3, Verse #59).
    Jesus (PUH) was described and mentioned more than 33 times in the Quran. Also, Miriam (May God be please with her) was described in Quran close to 40 times and there is one Chapter that is called” Miriam”
    Here are additional verses;
    "And indeed, We gave Musa (Moses) the Book and followed him up with a succession of Messengers. And We gave 'Îsa (jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), clear signs and supported him with Ruh-ul-Qudus (angel Gabriel) .Is it that whenever there came to you a Messenger with what you yourselves desired not, you grew arrogant? Some you disbelieved and some you killed.
    ( Al-Baqara, Chapter #2, Verse #87)

    (Remember) when the angels said: "O Maryam (Mary)! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word ["Be!" – and he was! i.e. 'Îsa (jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary)] from Him, his name will be the Messiah 'Îsa (jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah."
    ( Aal-e-Imran, Chapter #3, Verse #45)

    And will make him [('Îsa (jesus)] a Messenger to the Children of Israel (saying): "I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I design for you out of clay, a figure like that of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's Leave; and I heal him who was born blind, and the leper, and I bring the dead to life by Allah's Leave. And I inform you of what you eat, and what you store in your houses. Surely, therein is a sign for you, if you believe.
    ( , Aal-e-Imran, Chapter #3, Verse #49)
    O people of the Scripture (Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of Allah aught but the truth. The Messiah 'Îsa (jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, ("Be!" – and he was) which He bestowed on Maryam (Mary) and a spirit (Ruh ) created by Him; so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not: "Three (trinity)!" Cease! (it is) better for you. For Allah is (the only) One Ilah (God), glory be to Him (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is All-Sufficient as a Disposer of affairs.
    ( سورة النساء , An-Nisa, Chapter #4, Verse #171)

    October 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • Joseph Bleaux

      Just a lot of blah blah blah nonsense from books of ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense. It's silly and childish and anyone who actually THINKS about it, using logic, reason and objectivity can see that plainly.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
      • ITriedThat

        ...I ended up a Xian after all. Quite acting bigoted and supreme.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
        • ITriedThat


          October 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      The Quran? I prefer Mother Goose...

      October 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
      • OperaFan2

        I agree. The Quran plagiarized parts of the Bible which was known by immediate followers of the illiterate Mohammed.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • bereal

      "And We gave 'Îsa (jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), clear signs and supported him with Ruh-ul-Qudus (angel Gabriel)"

      If you are going to translate then translate correctly. "Ruh-ul-Qudus" means "Holy Spirit" not Angel Gabriel..

      October 7, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  11. emck

    Ah yes . . . the Messiah was supposed to lead them out of taxation . . .

    That's exactly why he told those who asked him to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's (i.e. the money bearing the image of Caesar) and render unto God that which is God's (i.e. spiritual things).

    October 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • Sane Person

      The original Ronald Reagan, how wonderful. Deliver us from Taxes oh godlike republicans!

      October 7, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  12. j

    Paul wasnt a Christian? Well since the word means CHRIST LIKE, I would say he was... you stupid woman

    October 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • lesmoore

      Sheesh – lighten-up.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • want2believe

      If that is what you are going to define a Christian as, there are only a handful of true Christians in this world.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
      • jo2

        so true.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • jo2

      Always result to name calling when you're not secure about your position.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  13. onying

    Candida your name alone sounds like VD.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Tamooj

      Ad Hominem attacks = blah blah blah.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  14. bspurloc

    why would u read his book? obviously it is fair and balanced, never mind written about some faerie tail

    October 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  15. JeffT

    Just out of curiosity, what are Ms. Moss' credentials for writing this story? This usually is included in the story. I like to know the background of those who opine in publications.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • JeffT

      I see her background has been included now.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • Steve

      "professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame"

      October 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • Tamooj

        Which does imply she's pretty qualified to speak on the topic, I'd say.
        Most of her criticism seems spot on – this is not the scholarly work it's presented as.
        However, Bill is largely just an entertainer, and not a Biblical scholar so that's to be expected. His general points on the air are commonly worthy of consideration and thought, but most people won't take that time – it's about getting the cortisol hit. Typically media personalities like Bill, and his opposites on the Left, present everything in an uber-hyped, emotional style, with poor adherence to actual facts or consideration of nuance. Of course most newsworthy issues are actually pretty complex, and not black and white – but remember he's not trying to be accurate or to make people think deeply – he's just trying to evoke strong emotions in people, which is how entertainers make money.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • jo2

      opine. learned that word from bo....(smh)

      October 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • OperaFan2

      Even aside from her academic credentials, you could see from her article that she knows the history of the ancient Mediterranean world. I enjoy Suetonius's Twelve Caesars, but Suetonius is not writing history about the twelve Caesars but political propaganda. Hardly a word in them can be believed. Josephus tried to be more historical but did write after Christ's death and not during his lifetime. He also does not mention Jesus except in disproved added-on paragraph by forger.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  16. Sane Person

    Considering he had a ghost writer do the actual writing, I'd say Bill O simply successfully stuck his face on another book designed to be consumed by low education right wingers.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Fred

      ...as opposed to writing a book for low-educated left-wingers, perhaps?

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

        Don't be silly.

        Low-educated left-wingers don't/can't read.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
      • Tamooj

        Generally speaking, the lefties aren't poorly educated.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
      • oncampusandonline

        The guy's only value is to provide foddr for Stewart, Colbert, and Maher.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • jo2

      You summed it up quite well.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  17. mike

    this is a joke, right? you couldn't be more wrong...

    October 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Steve

      Actually, it is you who couldn't be more wrong.

      Note how I used the exact same reference and sources as you to support my comment only I turned them back on you.
      Clever, eh?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  18. lathebiosas

    A Catholic cherry picking the bible? Say it ain't so.

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


      October 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  19. geo1967

    I am certainly no O'Reilly apologist, but this expose of the flaws in his latest book is shamefully off target; and the fact that the person who wrote it is a professor of New Testament makes it doubly shameful.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  20. campbellsoup

    If you really want to know about the killing of Jesus, read the Gospels. While is appreciate what O'Reilly is trying to do, I would not by any stretch of the imagination call him a historian. That said, Moss seems to be nit-picking when she claims that Paul wasn't a Christian. It may be true that the actual word "Christian" was not coined until sometime after Paul's death, but the essence of what O'Reilly said is true and supported by the Bible – Paul went from being a Pharisaical Jew to becoming a follower of Christ. Sure, he was still a Jew, but he was not a Jew who was still searching for Messiah because he knew Messiah had already come. The fact that the particular sect of people who believed in Jesus Christ were not actually called Christians until later is of no import. Also, Moss misses the mark when she says that Pharisees were not self-righteous. I'm sure some Pharisees were not self-righteous hypocrites, but the fact remains they had a reputation for being that way. Paul's own writings about how we was when he was Pharisee as well as Jesus' sayings in the Gospels supports the generally accepted motion that Pharisees were religious hypocrites. While I don't dispute that O'Reilly may have missed some things in his latest book, Moss's critique is thrown together haphazardly and contains its own inaccuracies and hyperbole.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
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