|So serious. So funny!|
One of my philosophy students asked me: "What do you think of the movie "Zeitgeist?" I told her I had seen it, and made a few comments over a year ago. I decided to make a more thorough response, based on Dr. Mark Foreman's recent presentation at EPS entitled "Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Alleged Parallels between Jesus and Ancient Pagan Religions."
"In 2007 the ZEITGEIST movie appeared on the internet and had over 50 million viewers in the first three weeks. ZEITGEIST is a two hour documentary film that attempts to argue, among other things, that Christianity is a non-historical myth based purely on teachings and ideas from earlier pagan myths. The primary evidence used to support this claim is the number of parallels between Christianity and other religions. This presentation assess both the claim and the methodology of this argument noting a number of fallacies with this kind of reasoning."
I listened to Foreman's presentation and made the notes below. For $1.99 you can download it and listen - it's very thorough. Nearly everything below is straight from Foreman. It's a bit rough, but hopefully you can see that, though "Zeitgeist" has achieved a level of internet popularity, it is weak, non-scholarly, and grievously erroneous.
What is the “Zeitgeist” movie?
• “Zeitgeist” literally means “spirit of the age.”
• It was released online in June 2007.
• Within 3 weeks of its release it already had 50 million viewers.
• “Zeitgeist” is a two-hour documentary conspiracy film.
• It alleges to show three frauds/myths: 1) the Christian story; 2) the terrorist attacks of 911 were really government-sponsored attacks; and 3) the domination of international events by world bankers (everything that is happening in the world is a because of a conspiracy of international bankers).
• The thesis of the Christianity part of the film is this: Jesus Christ never existed, but is simply a Jewish version of an ancient pagan mystery religion based on sun worship.
To begin with: there are a few astronomical errors in “Zeitgeist.”
One thing that is in error is the claim that Sirius follows the 3 stars/kings in Orion’s belt, that on Dec. 25 they align that way. The fact is they align that way every night. There’s nothing special that happens on December 25.
It is also false that on Dec. 25 these three stars in Sirius point to the sunrise. That would mean Orion would have to be in the eastern part of the sky around sunrise on Dec. 25. But Orion is a winter constellation. This means that beginning at the time of winter (late October) it begins to rise on the horizon. By December, at midnight, Orion is straight up in the sky. Where, then, is Orion at sunrise on December 25? Orion is in the west. It’s nowhere near the east. This is just a mistake in astronomy.
These two elementary astronomical mistakes should tell us we need to wonder about the accuracy of this film’s claims.
Four General Comments about “Zeitgeist”
The film argues that the story of Jesus Christ is a myth, incorporating various aspects of other pagan religions. This is called “the pagan copycat theory.” The idea is that Christianity is just a “copycat” of other religions that are out there.
The tactic “Zeitgeist” uses to argue this point is this: list characteristics of pagan deities that are parallel to the story of Jesus. Then claim that the Gospel writers borrowed from these pagan stories and invented Jesus. Some of the claimed parallels are:
• Born of a virgin
• Born on Dec. 25
• Hailed as a “savior” by his followers
• Give royal and divine titles
• Has 12 disciples
• Was baptized
• Performed miracles (especially turning water into wine)
• Was crucified
• Was resurrected after three days
• His death and resurrection are celebrated in a ritual meal
The idea of using parallels is the essence of “Zeitgeit’s” argument. Biblical scholar Samuel Sandmel noted that finding parallels can be overdone, and used the word “parallelomania,” meaning: “that extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.” We’ll see that “Zeitgeist” is parallelomanical. Foreman says that “’Zeitgeist’ is parallelomania on steroids.”
This is an old idea. There is nothing new here. Many people, when they first see “Zeitgeist,” think “Wow – I have never heard that before!” Zeitgeist-parallelomania was propagated in the late-18th century on Germany by a school called the religionsgeschichte school, the “history of religions” school.” Here was the idea that all religions are related to one another and they all evolved over time. “Christianity” was just another step in the evolutionary process of religions. This 19th -century theory lasted a few years, and in the 1930s began to die out. The reason it died out what that critical scholars looked at it and said, “There’s actually no evidence to support it at all.” Many of the ideas in “Zeitgeist” come from these 19th-century sources. For example, the movie is indebted to James Frazier’s popular The Golden Bough. Frazier’s book has since been discredited by nearly all critical scholars.
Dorothy Murdock was a major consultant for this movie. She wrote a book under a pen name, Acharya S. Her work has even been debunked by Robert Price who himself ultimately agrees with idea that Jesus never existed. Price thinks “Zeitgeist got it all wrong.”
So the idea behind “Zeitgeist” is an old idea – there’s nothing new here.
Another point is: there are going to be some similarities between religions. (20) That should not surprise us. Most religions, for example, believe in a godlike figure. Most religions have rites and ceremonies, and incorporate a meal in their religion. Re. the meals, acknowledging this is not to say that the meals are the same thing as the Lord’s Table in the Jesus story. Just because there are similarities does not mean they are the same, or even say the same things. Most religions try to deal with the universal human condition and questions all peoples ask. Foreman says: “Similarity does not imply dependence.” And that, precisely, is the charge “Zeitgeist” makes against the Jesus story.
For example, one major difference between Christianity and pre-existing pagan religions is that the latter are syncretic while Christianity is exclusivistic.
Note: There is evidence that the Christian church adopted Dec. 25 from pagan religions and used it for the birth of Christ. But that happened in the 4th century, not the 1st century. So it is not original, not an “origins” thing. For the Zeitgeistian parallelomaniac to make her case she has to show that there is a 1st-century pagan influence on Christianity that created the myth of Jesus.
Another point is this: the whole parallelism argument is an example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. In philosophy this is caused the “post hoc fallacy,” aka the “false cause fallacy.” To explain see here.
“The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy is based upon the mistaken notion that simply because one thing happens after another, the first event was a cause of the second event. Post hoc reasoning is the basis for many superstitions and erroneous beliefs.
Many events follow sequential patterns without being causally related. For example, you have a cold, so you drink fluids and two weeks later your cold goes away. You have a headache so you stand on your head and six hours later your headache goes away. You put acne medication on a pimple and three weeks later the pimple goes away. You perform some task exceptionally well after forgetting to bathe, so the next time you have to perform the same task you don't bathe. A solar eclipse occurs so you beat your drums to make the gods spit back the sun. The sun returns, proving to you the efficacy of your action.”
Here’s the form of the post hoc fallacy:
1. Event A happened before event B.
2. Therefore, event A caused event B.
1. It rained just after I washed my car.
2. Therefore, washing my car caused it to rain.
So the fact that a previous pagan religion had a similar belief to that of early Christianity does not in itself prove that the previous religion was the cause of particular belief of Christianity.
Another point: the whole Z-theory rests on the premise that Jesus did not even exist at all. Why does the Z-movie need to hold that very extreme position? Because the Z-claim is that every major event in Jesus’ life is a fabrication of early Christians, and therefore are all mythical. However, to make the claim that Jesus never existed at all is to go against an enormous amount of critical scholarship. Foreman is correct when he says “The vast majority of critical scholars [underline “vast” to include extremely liberal and even radical scholars] acknowledge the existence of the historical Jesus.” For example, John Dominic Crossan [who is, understatedly, no conservative scholar] says that “the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most verifiable historical fact of the ancient world.” Yet according to the “Zeitgeist” movie all these critical scholars are wrong. “Zeitgeist” addresses none of this. That’s but one major problem of this movie.
Foreman then points out 7 fallacies "Zeitgeist" commits.
1. The Generalization Fallacy
This fallacy says: all the ancient religions follow one universal model. This is simply false – there was no one universal belief all these pockets of pagan religions copied. But that’s what Zeitgeist’s astral-theology claims; viz., all of them were basically about sun worship. Not true. There were similarities. They all brought in the vegetative cycle because they were from agrarian societies. Foreman says it is a “simplistic fiction” to believe that there was one universal archetype that all these religions followed. Rather, each developed on their own.
Listen to Foreman’s explanation here of how Z-theorists (copycat theorists) first look to Jesus and then pull out things from various pagan religions that look similar and then claim Christianity is just a copy of them. And then, the Z-theorists stand back in awe and marvel at how similar Christianity is to pagan religions. But of course, since they are using the life of Jesus to guide their “research!” But “Zeitgeist” does not deal with the many things in pagan religions that do not look like Jesus. (I find this really funny…)
2. The Terminology Fallacy
This fallacy does this: events in the lives of the mythical gods are expressed in Christian terminology in order to subtly manipulate viewers into accepting that the same events that happened in the life of Jesus also happened in the lives of the mythical gods. For example, in the movie they talked about the “Messiah Solar God.” Messiah? “Messiah” is a distinctly Hebrew term. Talking about Horus being a “Messiah” is simply absurd. Another is example is the term “baptism.” “Baptism” is a Jewish-Christian concept. You don’t find it in other religions. But Zeitgeisters, in talking about Horus being thrown into the Nile, call it Horus’s “baptism.”
Here are three more examples of the terminological fallacy.
a. “Born of a virgin.” Horus – “born of a virgin.” Krishna – “born of a virgin.” Attis – “born of a virgin.” But these are not really virginal births, at least in the same way we mean when we talk about Jesus.
Take Horus. The most common birth story of Horus is that he was the conception of two gods, Osiris and Isis. Osiris was killed and his body is cut up into 14 parts which were buried all over Egypt. Isis, his wife, looks for the missing parts and collects them. She finds all the parts but one – his penis. So she creates a penis out of wood which she has sexual relations with. Out of this Horus is born. Can this be called a virginal conception? I don ‘t think so. That’s not what is going on here.
How about Attis? Attis was “born of a virgin,” according to “Zeitgeist.” The story is this. Zeus masturbates and spills his seed onto a mountain. His seed becomes a pomegranate tree. Nana, eventually the mother of Attis, is sitting under the pomegranate tree when an apple falls into her lap. She conceives. And Attis is born. This is (understatedly) not exactly the same thing that happens with Jesus.
How about Krishna? Stories of Krishna being virginally conceived come from the 7th century, 700 years after Jesus. And Krishna’s mother had seven children before Krishna, so she was hardly a virgin!
So we don’t really have virginal conceptions in the pagan gods. But why would they say that? Because Z-theorists want to make the pre-Jesus pagan gods sound like Jesus.
b. “Crucifixion.” We are told that many of these gods were crucified. But is that true?
Krishna was shot in the heel by an arrow. Attis castrates himself, flees into the woods, and dies. What about Horus? It depends on which version of the Horus myth you go with. One version tells us he never died. Another versions tells us he died by being stung by a scorpion. In other versions Horus’s death is conflated with that of Osiris. How can Z-ers claim such mythological gods were “crucified?”
Foreman quotes Dorothy Murdock, one of the major consultants for the movie, who says: “When it is asserted that Horus or Osiris was crucified, it should be kept in mind that it was not part of the Horus-Osiris myth that the murdered god was actually held down and nailed on a cross. Egyptian deities (including Horus) were depicted in cruciform with their arms extended or outstretched.” When Murdock says they were “depicted in cruciform” she is already trying to manipulate us. Because they were merely depicted with their arms out. Egyptologists will tell you that he died with his arms out because he was the Sky-god and was “suspending the sky.” This is, truly, deceptive “scholarship.”
c. “Resurrection.” We are told that all these gods were resurrected from the dead. Oh really? Let’s look at the original sources.
After Horus died he became “lord of the underworld.” He never came back to this world. But this is like a resurrection, right, since he’s still alive?
Attis was eventually turned into a pine tree. He’s back in this world, but not exactly resurrected.
Krishna – the earliest tradition says he returned to the spirit world. In the 4th and 5th centuries there was a teaching that Krishna was resurrected. But that’s long after the Jesus-story.
The great scholar Jonathan Z. Smith writes: “All of the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of “dying and rising deities” can be subsumed under the two larger classes of “disappearing deities” or “dying deities.” In the first case the deities return but they never died; in the second case they die but they do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.”
3. The Biblical Fallacy
Copycat theorists often make claims about the life of Jesus that are not based on the Gospel accounts but originate from other sources. In “Zeitgeist” things are mentioned, in support of the argument, that are not even in the Bible. For example, the “December 25” date. These pagan gods were “born on Dec. 25.” Why is this important to Z-ers? Because we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on Dec. 25. But the Gospels tell us nothing about when Jesus was born. We have no evidence for the exact date of Jesus’ birth. The date of Dec. 25 came about in the 5th century. There is some evidence that they may have picked that date because of pagan religions. So in the fifth century the Church was influenced by pagan religions. But it was not influenced by pagan religions in the first century. Which is the century when Christianity was birthed.
What about the “three kings?” In the Horus story there is nothing about three kings coming to worship Horus at his birth. But note: there are no three kings, in the Bible, at the birth of Jesus. It’s true we sing Christmas songs about them. But the Gospels do not tell us that these figures were “kings.” They are called “magi,” who are priests in the Zoroastrian religion. They don’t tell us how many there were. There’s no “three” there, in the Gospels. Yes, there were three gifts there. But this does not mean there were three kings, one for each gift. And, Jesus was probably about three years old when these magi came. Yet “Zeitgeist” wants to talk about these supposed “three kings.” But the issue is not what later Christians came to believe, but about original sources.
4. The Chronological Fallacy
This fallacy says that in order for the copycat charts to succeed one must provide evidence that the “parallel” chronologically preceded the writing of the Gospels and the New Testament epistles which were all written in the first century A.D. For the Z-idea to work one must have evidence that these teachings were around before the first century A.D. so that the early Christians could “borrow” from them and create their myth about Jesus. Do we have that kind of evidence? The answer is: No. There’s no evidence of any pagan mystery influence in first-century Palestine. The mystery religions evolved and changed over time, and as they did their beliefs and practices and narratives changed. Therefore what we know about them from later on is not necessarily true about what they taught earlier. This is important because most of the evidence we have about the mystery religions comes from the second and third centuries, when they were at their peak. We have very little evidence about what these mystery religions were like in the first century. Foreman says “because they evolved so much you simply can’t take the fallacious step and say that what they believed in the third century they must also have believed in the first century.”
In fact, we have evidence to the contrary. Third-century pagan mystery religions may have been adopting beliefs in light of Christianity. Rather than Christianity being influenced by the mystery religions, there is evidence that the mystery religions borrowed from Christianity.
5. The Source Fallacy
Supporters of “Zeitgeist” often talk about how well-documented the movie is. It refers to a lot of sources. But it’s not the quantity of documentation that makes the difference, it’s the quality of that makes the difference. “Zeitgeist” is weak on the use of primary sources. And it is weak on citing authoritative-scholarly sources. And most of Z’s cited secondary sources are from scholars who have been discredited and whose work has been abandoned long ago. These Z-sources often make undocumented assertions. They speculate on causal relationships.
One of Foreman’s favorite examples is Z’s use of the constellation Virgo, which is said to be Mary, since the constellation looks like the letter ‘M.’ And that’s why we have “Mary,” and “the virgin Mary.” Aha! Virgo? M-shaped? Therefore, the Virgin (Virgo) Mary? The claim is that the constellation symbol ‘M’ was the cause of the biblical name ‘Mary.’ But no evidence is given for this astounding claim. Let’s pause here to give thanks that, we hope, our reasoning never sinks to this depth…
There’s a real problem in choosing primary sources for these ancient pagan religions, since in many cases there is no single authoritative text available.
6. The Difference Fallacy
This is where copycat theorists over-emphasize the supposed similarities and they ignore enormous substantive, relevant differences between these religions. “Zeitgeist” gives us the idea that all these religions are saying basically the same thing, and that is simply not true. Especially the pagan religions in comparison to Christianity.
For example, mystery religions are cyclical, generally following the cycle of birth-death-rebirth (vegetative-harvest cycles) ad infinitum; Christianity is linear (history is heading in a certain direction).
Mystery religions involve secrecy with secret initiation rites; Christianity was completely open – no secret rituals and rites.
For mystery religions doctrines were completely unimportant – they were religions of emotion and mystical experience; in Christianity doctrines and beliefs were central. That’s why mystery religions were so syncretic – it didn’t matter what you believed.
Mystery religions were void of any ethical element; Christianity emphasizes moral teachings and living a righteous life.
Mystery religions were not interested in the historicity of their myths; Christianity is wrapped up in its history. The mystery religions self-referred as “myths.” But in Christianity, if Christ is not risen in history, the whole thing fails.
Finally, the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ death in history is completely different from the death of the mystery religions’ gods. In Christianity Jesus died for us, for the sins of mankind. None of the pagan gods died for anyone else. Most of them died under compulsion – they were murdered. Jesus, on the other hand, died willingly. Pagans mourned the death of their gods. Jesus’ death was viewed as a victory.
The Z-copycat theorists do not address these differences.
Note, for something actually scholarly that relates to this stuff see Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case foir the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Gospels.