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. cmnsns

    You forgot number 6.
    6. Jesus is not a historical person.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • TheTruth

      You're actually making that worn-out statement? There isn't a single historian (that's a real historian, not just someone blogging) that questions whether or not Jesus was a real person – they all acknowledge that He was.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • Richard Cranium

        That is not true. They all say it is likely, since there is no solid corroberating evidence.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • TheTruth

      Candida, if you're going to take someone to rask for historical inaccuracies, be sure to get yours straight. Christians were first called Christians in the city of Antioch, around 41-21 AD. Throughout his writings Paul spoke extensively about the difference between Jews and Christians in both belief and conduct (starting in 48 AD).

      October 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  2. blakenaustin

    Complete and utter nonsense. Ms. Moss has obviously never read the New Testament, nor studied church history. She just has an axe to grind with O'Reilly.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  3. Kris in AL

    Gee thanks Candi.....if I wanted to read something accepted as definitive about Jesus, I'd read the New Testament.

    If I want to read something that is akin to an entertaining historical narrative, I'll read O'Reilly's books.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      If you would read the ACTUAL New Testament (the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls), then you would read a New Testament that is VASTLY different from the one concocted by the Holy Roman Church with its own version of "the truth" designed to fit its own purposes.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  4. Judas Ascarate

    Too bad the nuns who taught Bill in Catholic grade school were unsuccessful in their attempt to beat some sense into him.
    The man is an arrogant and ignorant "pinhead."

    October 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  5. tepeters

    I am no devotee of O'Reilly and this book about Jesus does conform to O'Reilly's political views on some things like the taxation thing (how does he equate "Render unto Caesar etc. etc.) but Candida Moss is a little off on her history too. Indeed to say Paul was not a Christian, well yes all the early followers were Jews, but Paul is arguably the real founder of Christianity who took the Jesus story and cast in the non-Jewish narrative common in the ancient world of the dying and resurrecting god (Mesopotamian Tammuz and Dumuzi-Egyptian Osiris and Graeco-Roman Dionysus). The search for the historical Jesus as it is called has to look at other sources than the Bible; and take into account the actual historical, political and sociological picture of the day. What you get, always to some extent cherry picked, is a very different image than the Jesus of Christian piety. The attempt is to get at the "Gospel" OF Jesus and not the "Gospel" ABOUT Jesus which is Christianity.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      Paul was NOT the "real founder" of "Christianity. Paul was a fraud and a liar. he never met or knew Jesus. According to Jesus, his church was founded upon Peter – the Rock. Only people truly lacking in factual history would claim the "Christian church" was founded by Paul.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  6. karl from az

    It's really sad to see that Notre Dame has hired a 'blasphemer' to teach the New Testament!

    October 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  7. mr

    just a bunch of opinion from someone in a school.... with no facts being given to back it up... so how is this different from what he is complaining about with this new book?

    October 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Bryan

      Because education trumps ideology and propaganda every time.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  8. drcid777

    "...Jesus' followers lived and died as Jews." Of course they weren't Christian, Christianity was created after Jesus' death, but he and his disciples hardly lived as Jews. Jesus was exiled from the temples for criticizing the Jewish priests for turning the temples into money-making machines. He also questioned much of heir dogma and he greatly threatened their authority.
    Pilate put the "King Of The Jews" sign up at Jesus' cross to spite the Jewish leaders because he resented their forcing their decisions on him. Jesus was Jewish because of his birth but he preached almost entirely outside in the sun and outside of dogma.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  9. Thomas

    "Paul was not a Christian". Really.

    Acts 10:20: "And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God".

    Just not sure how much clearer it can be made to some people.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Albert911emt

      You didn't read and/or comprehend the article. Try again.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Wes Scott

      The earliest of the New Testament books, the Book of Mark, was written between 35 and 42 years AFTER Jesus' supposed death by crucifixion. The others were written many years later than that. NONE of the New testament books were written contemporary to Jesus own life, and none of them are firsthand accounts. They are all hearsay and secondhand or thirdhand information that was filtered through the opinions and translations of those who passed on stories to others who later wrote about them.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  10. snowboarder

    people really buy that book?

    October 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Hur

      More than anything you will ever write.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
      • snowboarder

        then apparently it is true that there is a sucker born every minute.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
        • Pepper

          And you prove that everytime you write

          October 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Loathstheright

    Who cares? Bill O is a complete p.o.s.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Thomas

      Because you don't agree with him or his position. You sir, are a ridiculous human being.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Kitty Litter

      How many books have you written?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • Kevin Jackson

        I prefer non-fiction

        October 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
        • Pepper

          So do I, that is why I like reading Bill's books.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
        • Salt

          Not this one.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  12. judi

    In the King James Version it appears 3x: (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and I Peter 4:16)

    Acts 11:26, "and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."
    Acts 26:28, "And Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian."
    1 Peter 4:16, "but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God."
    The New Testament manuscripts were written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic originally not English as English did not exists at this point. The Greek word for Christian found in these passages is: Christiano meaning a follower of Christos (Christ). Christos means anointed/Messiah. Mashiach is the word for Messiah in Hebrew and Paraclete is the word for Christ in Hebrew. The original disciples never had any formal "name" for themselves but were later called Christians by the Romans who occupied Antioch Greece in which the word had a very different meaning in those ancient days!

    October 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  13. Religion is a disease

    rehashing the same old fairy tales. Jesus, if he existed, was the L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith of his time.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Stop the Madness

      If Jesus existed? Please tell me you're kidding.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        There's no evidence that the Jesus as described in the NT existed and none that he was divine.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
        • Tim

          It's telling that people deny the existence of Jesus but accept the existence of Buddha and Lao Tse. Or Socrates, Rollo, or Perdiccas III, for that matter. Unless there's a corpse (or other personal effect) that can provide DNA there's a certain amount of "faith" involved once you predate the age of photography. Historical mentions of Jesus in the same century of his death and the expansion of the early Church point to a kernel of reality.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          There may well have been real life character arounf whom the myth was crafted – that doesn't make him the divine entity in the NT.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Noone has made fortunes selling the word of Socrates. You doubt Joseph Smith (for good reason) yet the only advantage that more established religions have is that their activities are better hidden in the mists of time.

          October 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Thomas

      If you don't believe that is your business. I have no idea why non-believers get so worked up about other people's faith.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
      • Kitty Litter

        Because they want to make YOU a non-believer.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
      • Albert911emt

        Right back at you: why do some believers get so bent out of shape about what others choose to believe or not believe?

        October 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        Because believers want to push their religion into our lives: taught in place of science in schools, their texts on public buildings, their prayers at public meetings, their religious beliefs as law, their public call to prayer, etc. Christians believe we should just accept that but resist the same intrusion from say Islam.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
      • Objectivity2

        We non-faith heads most of the time find it cute like a child believing in the tooth fairy. Not so amused when faith heads are given all those tax exemptions.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • snowboarder

      jesus was probably a decent philosopher who's life was grossly exaggerated by his followers after his death.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
      • Kitty Litter

        I won't disagree. But living our lives as He has described may help most people live better lives.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
        • snowboarder

          @kitty, I can agree with that, but rarely does it ever stop with just living ones own life. we are constantly defending our rights from those who believe that we should live our lives according to their beliefs.

          October 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  14. Veritas

    It's all about money and narcissism. What a scam he and Fox News pull to rake in money. Bill puts out books about –about every 2 months –what a joke. He's looking out for himself and does not give a hoot about his viewers. It's all marketing hype. What a joke journalism has become. I stopped listening to him and Hannity about 6 years ago. Fox News News needs to clean house starting with these two and Rove!!!

    October 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Mike

      He doesn't care about his viewers... you mean like CNN who consistantly lies to their viewers? Such as Obama ran on Obamacare and was re-elected for it! REALLY!?! Obama AND ALL THE DEOMCRATS stayed away from the topic of Obamacare. He ran on his liberal agendy and did a great job of mudslinging on Romney... Mudslinging seems to be Obama's strength.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Pepper

      First, Bill does not put out a book every two months and since you seem to start with that, you clearly are just mouthing off with no credibility. Have you even read any of the books he has written? Most are quite good, some repeat info, but good none the less.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  15. tony

    Isn't religion business great!!!

    No cost-of-goods, no customer service or returns, no law suits, no off-shore manufacturing,

    All just "Ask and ye shall receive" – in spades.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Thomas

      What O'Reilly gives away in charity would make you blush. How about worrying about yourself, you seem to have your hands full.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
      • tony

        Read the bible. Jesus scoffs at the rich giving to charity and still having plenty left. It's the poor giving their all that he praises.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • tony

        Amd don't forget all the wealthy religious who don't give much at all.

        October 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  16. jerrylax

    a cnn hatchet job... now lets take a real look at obama and clinton.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Did they write books with christian themes?

      October 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
      • Kitty Litter

        Just fiction.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • paul II

      Wow, good debate points. Oh wait, you don't really have any do you.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • Objectivity2

      Not everything is political. If you need affirmation for your politics then I recommend Fox News online. This critique is of a book, not politics.

      October 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  17. Realy people, really?

    " In his CBS interview he explained that it was impossible for people to speak audibly while they were crucified."

    Yeah, but someone rising from the dead is totally acceptable, right?!?!? OMG this is like listening to Star Trek fans argu about how something isn't possible in a totally made up sci-fi world!!

    You can't have it both ways. Either the miraculous and unexplained can happen or they can't. Who's to say Jesus didn't have the ability to speak. Maybe God gave him the power as he considered the words important!

    October 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  18. Mike

    This is certainly the type of review you'd expect from an academic.

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

      Well, of course that is what you hear from an academic. That is what academia is for....you know, find the truth wherever it lies. P.S., I am an academic also and any NT scholar sees right through O'Reilly's pseudo-scholarship. It's really a no-brainer.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
      • Paul

        ....find the truth where ever it is? That is so far from the definition of what an academic does.

        The majority of academics are one sided and teach that way. There is no presentation of a two sided story. It is all to make a case and promote an opinion/agenda.

        Academics are in a dead heat, with the media, for first place ine race for " best at inability to present any story, past or present, without bias".

        October 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  19. Shirley Conroy

    I enjoy Bill's writting techinique and read the book. It inspired me to do further reading to check the facts myself. I do not agree with everything that was in the book...like most historical based books that I read.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "...like most historical based books that I read."

      The only way this book is "historical" is that it's a combination of the words "his story & comical"...

      And what is a "historicaly based" book? That right there says the author has taken a bit of history and then "based" his fictional tale on it. If it was a book that actually contained real history it would be considered a history book and would be peer reviewed and allowed in most schools of learning.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
      • JustSayin'

        No historical book would be a best seller either.

        October 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  20. Bumboclot

    O'Reilly's garbled account of what happened is no worse than the gibberish we now call the "bible", How many rewrites and mistranslations, censorships and heavye edits have happed over 2000 years? The current patchwork Bible is no more historically accurate than the movie 300.

    October 7, 2013 at 12:27 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.