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Riled by O’Reilly

OK, I know I promised to read and review Killing Jesus. But I’m not sure I can do it. It’s just so aggravating. Pointing out its flaws is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ll make one general comment in this post and in the next one mention one of the leading themes of the book to show why its so problematic and then, unless I have a complete change of heart or people ask me pointed questions, I think I’ll just let it go. For now, a general comment.

I was one of the 4893 people who wrote a book *about* the Da Vinci Code (Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine, 2004). The other 4892 people, so far as I know, were religious – usually religious scholars – who were afraid that Dan Brown might lead the faithful astray by his wild claims, and for religious reasons wanted to set the record straight. As an agnostic, that was nowhere near my concern. My concern was that of a historian.

Brown begins his book with a statement about how – even though it is a work of fiction – the fundamental historical claims of the book are factual. And so, on p. 1, before the Prologue, Brown states: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” I didn’t deal with most of this in my book, just the documents. But that was enough, as Brown mangled just about every document (including the New Testament, other writings of early Christianity, accounts of the council of Nicea, and so on) he came within 200 feet of. And so that’s what my book was about. I was concerned as a historian that people not have a false notion about what happened in the past. Why should I care if people have a false idea about what happened in the life of Jesus, the life of Mary Magdalene, the life of Constantine? I don’t know, I’m a historian and I care about these things, and I think if we get history wrong, it tends to come back to bite us on the back side.


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But in any event, Brown claimed to be writing a novel.   The difference with Killing Jesus  is that Bill-and-Buddy who wrote it do not claim to be writing a novel, with some historically accurate background thrown in .  They claim to be writing a historical account.   Fact based.   Telling it like it really was.   So what does one make of a passage such as the following (while the troops are going out to Bethlehem to kill all the young boys, to rid the kingdom of its future king Jesus):

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, King Herod gazes out a palace window toward Bethlehem, anxiously awaiting confirmation of the slaughter….  Herod sighs.  Back in his youth, he would never have stood in a window and worried about the future.  A great king and warrior such as he would have ordered that a bridle be thrown over his favorite white charger so that he might gallop to Bethlehem and murder the child himself.  But Herod is not a man of sixty-nine.  His massive girth and incessant medical problems make it physically impossible for him to leave his palace, let alone mount a horse.  His bloated face is wreathed in a beard that extends from the bottom of his chin to just below his Adam’s apple.  On this day, he wears a royal purple Roman-style mantle over a short-sleeved white silk tunic.  Normally Herod prefers soft leather leggings that have been stained purple,.  But today even the gentlest bristle of fabric against his inflamed big toe is enough to make him cry out in pain.  So it is that Herod, the most powerful man in Judea, hobbles through the palace barefoot.   But gout is the least of Herod’s ailments. the king of the Jews…is also suffering from lung disease, kidney problems, worms, a heart condition, sexually transmitted diseases, and a horrible version of gangrene that has caused his genitals to rot, turn black, and become infested with maggots – thus the inability to sit astride, let alone ride, a horse….


Is O’Reilly serious?  Does he REALLY think that readers who know the least thing about our sources is going to think this is historical writing instead of fiction?  That they won’t realize that it is VIRTUALLY ALL MADE UP???    But, alas, the frightening, or saddening, or aggravating, or upsetting thing is that most of his readers – the ones who watch his show on FOX –in fact will not know.  They’ll think this is based on O’Reilly’s presumably intense eight months of research.

If I didn’t know better, if I had never heard of O’Reilly, if I just picked up this book out of the blue, I quite honestly would think  that it was a schlocky “historical” novel, a work of fiction, kind-a like the Da Vinci Code.

Or that it was a spoof.  If someone told me a TV personality wrote it, I would have put money on Stephen Colbert, written in character.

Jesus as a First-Century Tea-Partier
Killing Jesus is Killing Me….



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 4, 2013

    If Colbert calls to see if you want to come talk about this book and really let loose…please accept!

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    RyanBrown  October 5, 2013

    Perhaps if King Herod had only stubbed his toe, instead of developing gout, the tragic mass murder of infants in ancient Palestine would’ve been averted. On a serious note, how could any discerning reader get past the phrase, “On this day, he wears a royal purple Roman-style mantle…,” with the following sentence stating his normal sartorial preferences?! The mind boggles!

    On the other hand, if the practices of discipline of history have indeed changed, I shall soon self-publish my book “How Jesus Foretold the True Prophet: New Testament Prophecies Confirming Mohammed Was Right.” (Y’know, just to tweak the Fox News crowd a bit).

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    FrancisDunn  October 5, 2013

    Dr Ehrman: LMAO. I told you not to read this damn book. I knew you would scream your head off and tare your hair out. He accomplished just what he set out to do. TAKE EVERYBODY TO THE BANK, LAUGHING. Thats the kind of guy he is. Still laughing my ass off!!!

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    toddfrederick  October 5, 2013

    Sadly O’Reilly probably thinks it is the absolute truth or is laughing all the way to the bank.

    Personally, I truly wish that Christianity is as the story tellers say that it is, but it just isn’t that way at all, and I have come to that realization only a few years ago, thanks to you and others who tell the truth.

    O’Reilly is just perpetuating the myth and the vast majority of the people reading what he writes believes every word.

    My wife attends two Bible classes at churches which are very close to classical fundamentalism (since that’s all there is in this tiny country town), and she brings home stories about the Bible and Bible characters that can not be believed. Fortunately she is getting wise to these falsehoods, and is beginning to send barbs at the fairy tales that are being passed of as truth.

    Good for her.

    Just don’t read that garbage !!

    What you quoted is a fictionalized novel designed to sell big and hit #1 on the best seller lists. Nothing more.

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    jsoundz  October 5, 2013

    Very funny comments, Bart. The length of your critique, if you do indeed respond to all of the errors, might be a Sisyphusian task.

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    hwl  October 5, 2013

    As I never lived in America, I didn’t know much about FOX channel, though I heard many negative remarks from different sources relating its coverage of religion and politics. I had a taste of how the channel is like from watching the moronic interview with Reza Aslan. If many FOX viewers really think O’Reilly’s story is history, I worry about the mental capabilities of a section of the populace of the most technologically and militarily powerful country on the planet.

  7. cheito
    cheito  October 5, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:

    As a historian you should consider challenging O’Rielly’s book to set the record straight. I also think it’s a very good idea, as one of your bloggers suggested, for you to be a guest on his show. You can educate him and his viewers on the accurate historical facts about the persons he’s writing about in his book. After all, as you stated, ‘They claim to be writing a historical account. Fact based. Telling it like it really was’. And,
    ‘I don’t know, I’m a historian and I care about these things, and I think if we get history wrong, it tends to come back to bite us on the back side.

    Question. How would this book come back and bite us on the backside?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2013

      Well, if people believe that Jesus was actually an advocate of no taxes and no social programs, that would hurt….

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    donmax  October 5, 2013

    So did you read the whole book or just the part about Herod??? 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2013

      As I said, I can’t seem to bring myself to read the whole thing! I’ve spot read here and there, and it’s all more of the same….

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    duncc44  October 5, 2013

    Thus far, how would you compare O’Reilly’s book with a work such as Walter Wangerinn Jr.’s “the Book of God”

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    Wilusa  October 5, 2013

    Wow! I can certainly understand your not wanting to read more of this.

    You know what? I’d actually wondered whether you might have made a mistake (or the editor who released that first-chapter excerpt about the soldiers had made an unwise decision). I thought it possible that after a few paragraphs of that crap, the authors would give readers a surprise. Make some sort of “break,” then say: “That’s what many people believe happened after the birth of Jesus. The truth? There’s no reliable evidence King Herod ever heard of him!” And after establishing that no one was trying to “kill Jesus” in his infancy, they’d go on to tell at least a semi-intelligent story.

    I’m glad I’ve never been tempted to read any of O’Reilly’s books. But maybe I should read some reviews. What on earth may he have claimed about Lincoln? Or Kennedy?

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    Steefen  October 5, 2013

    My understanding of the physical condition of King Herod the Great during his last days cause me not to be riled to the degree you are. I thought it was a generally accepted fact that there were gruesome elements to his health during his last days.

    King Herod willed himself to stay alive until “justice” was brought against his son who couldn’t wait for the throne. Herod went against the wishes of Rome and executed his son. As I have read and understand the situation, Herod killed so many people from the royal family before him and maybe his son was an innocent to the extent that Herod the Great should have stepped down when his son saw the writing on the wall that his father’s time was short on this Earth.

    I don’t know how you translate the killing of the innocents historically but I translate it as I’ve just written: Herod the Great killed a number of people of the prior royal family and he killed people in his own royal family, in addition to his son. THE BIG QUESTION IS did he or did he not kill his son’s wife who was the daughter of the prior king? Why not include her in the conspiracy? If he was so against his predecessor’s bloodline, why not send her to her death with Antipater?

    I think in Herod the Great’s last months, weeks, and days, he was concerned with Antipater getting his throne and not some newborn. I have to fault the Bible and teachers of the Bible for putting Jesus on Herod the Great’s mind in front of Herod’s own flesh and blood. The only killing on Herod the Great’s mind was killing his son who could take his throne immediately, not Jesus who could take the throne more than a decade later.

    Now, IF Jesus were the son of Antipater and the daughter of the preceding king (Antigonus) who he ousted, then maybe he had Antipater killed and sought to kill Antipater’s heir IF the newborn was not a girl.

    So, to help me agree with you, explain why you think Herod the Great was in better health?

    Second, the killing of the innocents is not over with the statement, it did not happen in Bethlehem or wherever Jesus was born. If Antigonus was the biological father of Jesus, father and son were enemies of Herod the Great.

    Is your take on the Killing of the Innocents: paranoid Herod the Great did not kill any innocent people? My takeaway is that he earned his reputation for killing the innocent and those who mythologized the Jesus story used that well known reputation to build Jesus up by association with Herod the Great (Jesus is Great because a Great king was threatened by him).

    But we are back to Herod the Great’s paranoia about Antipater having a son by his first wife or his second wife. In all fairness, I think the giving one’s son the death penalty and seeking out a grandson was his last efforts. Any other hunt for a baby fulfilling the Star Prophecy was outside the real biography of Herod the Great.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2013

      O’Reilly doesn’t tell us that we have historical sources that indicate Herod was very sick when Jesus was born (by the way: what sources are those???). He describes his sickness (STD’s!!), and what he was wearing, and how he felt, and how he sighed, and how he wished what he could have done, and — I’m sorry, this is not history but fantasy.

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        Steefen  October 7, 2013

        The Antiquities of the Jews Book 17, Chapter 6, Section 5, Lines 168-169:

        But now Herod’s distemper greatly increase upon him after a severe manner, and this by God’s judgement upon him for his sins: for a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly as it augmented his pains inwardly;

        for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other. His entrails were also exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, father, his privy member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree.

        (I’m going to ask that you owe me since my time to check in on this blog is at lunch time.)

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 8, 2013

          Yes, I know that passage. I first read it in graduate school. Very graphic. But a serious historian would not treat it this way. Instead a historian would point out that our evidence comes from Josephus who was writing a century after Herod’s death; the historian would ask what sources of information Josephus had at his disposal for these medical claims; the historian would ask if Josephus himself had any ax to grind in portraying Herod in this way; the historian would ask if there is any corroborating evidence to support it; and then the historian would explain why s/he is or is not completely skeptical about it. what the historian would not do is paraphrase paraphrase the passage, give it his own medical interpretation, and then set it forth as historical “fact.”

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    maxhirez  October 5, 2013

    Please confirm to your concerned students and readership that you are current on any and all medications you may have been prescribed for hypertension and/or cardiovascular conditions before you continue down this road, Dr. E. Your lecture schedule doesn’t allow for a stroke right now.

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    Yvonne  October 5, 2013

    Actually I do watch O’Riley sometime. However, I have read enough to realize that his book is not historically factual. I too read the Ch. 1, therefore I will not be reading the rest of the book.

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    donmax  October 5, 2013

    You know, this marks the first time in history that two books about Jesus (apart from the Christian Bible, of course) has made it to the top of all best-seller lists. If you’re like me, there must be a tinge of envy about how easily they seem to have achieved their success. In O’Reilly’s case, however, he’s more like you in that he really wants to help those less fortunate than himself. He actually donates a sizable portion of what he rakes in to charity, so let’s at least give him kudos for that. 🙂

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    Pofarmer  October 5, 2013

    I don’t know how anyone watching O’reilly can conclude anything other than “He just ain’t that smart.” Heck, I consider still myself a conservative, and even I think he’s a doofus.

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      ALIHAYMEG  October 18, 2013

      More accurately…he’s a propagandist; a highly paid and highly skilled one at that. I don’t watch him or those like him for the same reason I don’t watch Wrestling. I admire the skill it takes to put on such an elaborate show, but it is very obviously not real.

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    mechtheist  March 2, 2015

    I know this is late, but ‘current events’ have brought its relevance back somewhat. People have been reporting on O’Really?’s lies at least since Al Frankin’s 2004 “Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. I’ve taken to calling him ‘O’Really?’ as SOP, everyone should! It’s only fitting he’d mess up a book about Jesus’ life when he can’t discuss his own without fictionalizing it extensively.

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