Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part I)

The discussions on the origins of Christianity in Zeitgeist may sound very compelling to those “village atheists” who make a hobby of searching for that elusive single argument that destroys Christianity as a credible belief system in one fell swoop. But any such easy argument is bound to be an oversimplification of historical or philosophical complexities. The main thesis presented in Part I of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist is essentially as follows: Christianity stole various beliefs and rituals wholesale from other earlier pagan religions and mythologies, particularly Egyptian mythology, incorporating these borrowed beliefs and rituals into its own theological system.

But this thesis has only a grain of truth to it. The formation of Christianity was certainly influenced by other religions and mythologies that predated it. But to the extent that this is true, it is trivial. Only to the extent to which this assessment is alleged to be a profound and decisive game changer is it somewhat misleading, and herein lies the problem. Instead of pointing out the actual religions by which Christianity was influenced, such as the Babylonian religions and Zoroastrianism (the two primary formative influences for Christianity) Zeitgeist opts to dive into completely unrelated belief systems and form spurious connections between them.

With the rise of Zoroastrianism and the Babylonian religions came the emergence of monotheism and the dualistic concept of “good versus evil” in its first stages of development. Concepts such as a worldwide flood, angels and demons, Manichean dualism and other elements of this sort were heavily influenced by Babylonian tales and ultimately came to be acquired by Judaism. Professional historians for at least the past two hundred years have refined the art and the science of tracing and documenting the various changes, additions, and deletions that eventually formed what we today recognize as orthodox Christianity. Determining the source of Christianity’s major tenets and rituals is a task that requires a great deal of careful and painstaking research, and there is a strong consensus among those who have done this hard work that there is a lack of evidence for Zeitgeist’s claim that any sort of insidious conspiracy was in play during Christianity’s formative years. Much of the information relevant to this research is contained in the pages of the canonical Bible itself. The Old Testament is essentially a buffet from which the various off-shooting sects of Judaism, including Christianity, chose which elements and themes they wanted, incorporated these into the documents that eventually formed the New Testament, and added in information about the man they believed was the Jewish Messiah. There was no organized conspiracy in this picking-and-choosing exercise. The process took centuries to unfold, and was messy and unfocused for most of the time it was happening.

Jesus and Other Gods

Rather than educating its viewers about historical facts along these lines and exploring what is actually flawed about Christianity as a belief system, the Zeitgeist makes claims that are not just speculative, but factually incorrect. The part early in the film in which the Egyptian god Horus is being discussed is a particularly egregious case in point. First, Joseph erroneously identifies Horus as the Sun God of Egypt. Horus was actually the god of the sky in Egypt’s mythology, and Ra was the sun god. [1] The source of this confusion may lie in the fact that later on during Egypt’s dynastic era, Horus and Ra became fused together into a single deity. [2] But Joseph does not bother pointing this out, but instead flatly states that Horus was the sun god with no added qualifications. After committing this basic error, Joseph relates this bio:

Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born savior. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples he traveled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as The Truth, The Light, God’s Anointed Son, The Good Shepherd, The Lamb of God, and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected.

The point Joseph is trying to make here is obvious: The Jesus character in the New Testament is purported to have done all these things. And indeed, the similarities between Horus and Jesus appear to be very striking.

Unfortunately, almost all of these parallels were completely made up by Peter Joseph.

Horus was not born on December 25. According to mythology, he was born on either the second or the fifth of the “epagomenal days,” depending on which version you read. [3] The ancient Egyptians divided their calendar into 12 months of 30 days each. The epagomenal days, which were added to compensate for the days of the astronomical year missing from the ancient Egyptian calendar, landed on August 24-28, not in December. His mother Isis was not a virgin; Horus was conceived from the sexual union of Isis with the corpse of her husband Osiris. [4] There are no references in the Horus mythology to a “star in the east” followed by three kings, and nothing about Horus being a child teacher or being baptized at age 30. There is also no evidence that Horus was ever referred to by the gestural titles commonly applied to the Jesus character. if we are very generous, the only example from pagan mythology that could possibly be construed as matching the motif of 12 disciples is found in a drawing from the Amduat, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, which depicts the Egyptian god Horus seated before twelve figures in the Seventh Hour of the Night. [5] But there is no mention in any known ancient mythology of Horus having 12 disciples. None of the known stories of Horus have him being betrayed by Typhon, and he was not crucified. [6] In short, Horus and Jesus have very little in common.

Joseph continues in the same vein throughout the remainder of Part I, dragging in lists of motifs and elements that are characteristic of most religions, such as resurrection from the dead, and asserting that mere thematic similarity is evidence of Christianity’s falsehood. It’s as if Joseph is under the faulty impression that rising from the dead is a feat that would not be ubiquitously desired by most religions past and present. Resurrection is a universal concept, one that has deeply fascinated people in virtually all world cultures throughout history. This is especially true of societies in ancient times that had little or no concept of medicine and the life sciences. It therefore comes as no surprise that it was very common and popular to believe, for example, that the sun created all life on earth or that the sun is a powerful deity because it provides daylight and sustains life. There is no good reason to suppose Christianity could not have developed similar conceptions independently. To insist otherwise, as Joseph does in his film, is to be ignorant of both history and mythology. Christianity had its own set of particular formative influences, one of these being Judaism, which in turn borrowed from earlier belief systems. Similarity does not in and of itself denote wholesale plagiarism from the earlier idea.

So Peter Joseph protests far too much in Zeitgeist. As we previously mentioned, the heretical Jewish sect known today as Christianity selected from a rich buffet of theological concepts and ideas within both Judaism and the Persian religions. Why would the proto-Christian believers have any need to turn to Egyptian mythology for inspiration? One need not study the history of Christianity very long before discovering its similarities with several other cultures in the surrounding regions. Most of the stories being told and retold over and over again did come out of Egypt, as Joseph suggests.

The sources Joseph cites in support of his thesis are highly questionable. One such source that he relies on particularly heavily is Kersey Grave’s seminal 1875 work The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Anyone who is familiar with this book will recognize the strong allusions to its central themes in Zeitgeist[7] In his book, Graves made a large number of comparisons and alleged many precursory connections to the Christ story among other gods, Horus being only one. Much of what is discussed in Part I of Zeitgeist come from Grave’s work. The fact that this book is not sourced in the film may be owing to the general consensus among historians that the book is decidedly unscholarly and highly unreliable. The most heavily-cited sources listed for Part I of Zeitgeist are the works of mythicist and conspiracy theorist Dorothy M. Murdock (more popularly known by her pen name Acharya S) and the nineteenth-century self-styled Egyptologist Gerald Massey, upon whom Murdock heavily depends in her own writings. Much of what is contained in Part I of Zeitgeist is lifted directly from Acharya’s 1999 book The Christ Conspiracy[8] and nearly all sources for Part I ultimately lead back to Gerald Massey and other like-minded authors. Most of these cited authors are dismissed by most scholars as unreliable in their research methods.

In addition to Horus, Joseph sees parallels to Jesus in the gods Attis, Krishna, Dionysus and Mithra. Joseph believes these pagan gods form the inspirational and ideological basis of the Christ myth. Most of these earlier pagan deities, he says, were born of a virgin on December 25, were followed by 12 inner-circle disciples, and were crucified and resurrected, in some cases three days after their death. To quote directly from the film:

The fact of the matter is there are numerous saviors, from different periods, from all over the world, which subscribe to these general characteristics. The question remains: why these attributes, why the virgin birth on December 25th, why dead for three days and the inevitable resurrection, why 12 disciples or followers?

The answer is that none of these mythological figures Joseph mentions fit all these characteristics. None were dead for three days and then resurrected. None were born on December 25, with the exception of Mithra, who was not born of a virgin but instead was produced fully formed out of a rock. [9] None of the others listed had virgin births. In fact, the Hindu deity Krishna was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki. [10] Like the Horus-Jesus connection, the parallels claimed between Jesus and these gods range from dubious at best to factually incorrect at worst.

The Zodiac and the Bible

But Joseph has a different explanation for these made-up parallels which comes straight out of left field. He concludes that these common attributes exist because Jesus, like these other god-men, was conceived of as a solar deity. Using the same arguments used by Acharya S before him, Joseph suggests that Jesus is more accurately understood to be the Sun of God rather than the son. This, he argues, nicely turns out to be the origin of the cross, or crucifix, on which Jesus died according to medieval religious tradition. This cross was not a literal instrument of execution, says Joseph, but instead is symbolic of the solar formation known as the Southern Cross. In short, Joseph makes out the entire Christian story to be one elaborate astrological analogy:

This is the cross of the Zodiac, one of the oldest conceptual images in human history. It reflects the sun as it figuratively passes through the 12 major constellations over the course of a year. It also reflects the 12 months of the year, the four seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes. The term “Zodiac” relates to the fact that constellations were anthropomorphized, or personified, as figures, or animals.

In other words, the early civilizations did not just follow the sun and stars, they personified them with elaborate myths involving their movements and relationships. The sun, with its life-giving and -saving qualities was personified as a representative of the unseen creator or god. It was known as “God’s Sun,” the light of the world, the savior of human kind. Likewise, the 12 constellations represented places of travel for God’s Sun and were identified by names, usually representing elements of nature that happened during that period of time. For example, Aquarius, the water bearer, who brings the spring rains.

There are two misleading implication made here. One is that the Zodiac has always been connected to or associated with the constellations, and the other is that there have always been 12 constellations. However, the oldest known zodiacs did not have 12 signs. The Babylonian zodiac, for example, originally consisted of 18 signs, [11] and the Mayan zodiac had 20 signs. [12] And while it is true that the later Egyptian and Greek zodiacs are composed of 12 signs, these signs were not recognized by all civilizations as representative of cosmic truth. Moreover, there are actually 13 constellations through which the sun passes, not twelve. For whatever odd reason, modern astrologers have ignored the presence of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder. [13]

Joseph’s attempt to interpret the entire Christian story as one sprawling astrological allegory is even more of a stretch. Tim Callahan, religion editor for Skeptic magazine, sets the record straight in his critical review of Zeitgeist:

As to the god who is born on December 25 — this was not Krishna, but Mithra in his solar aspect as Sol Invictus (Latin for “Unconquered Sun”). The reason Mithra/Sol Invictus was born on December 25 was that in the Roman calendar of that day, that was the Winter Solstice, the 24-hour period having the fewest number of daylight hours. From that date the days get longer and the nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice. Owing to imperfections in the Roman or Julian calendar, the solstice gradually shifted to December 21, until corrections were made resulting in our present Gregorian calendar. Christianity seems to have deliberately co-opted the birthday of Mithra as a way of occupying a rival’s holiday, rather than this being the result of Jesus being a solar savior. [14]

So much for the claimed similarities in birth stories of the saviors. The alleged crucifixion of the pagan god-men is also spurious. Each one of the dying-and-rising gods mentioned by Joseph (with the possible exception of Horus) experienced excruciating deaths in the stories told about them, but none were said to have been crucified. Jesus Christ appears to be the only one who was given that distinction. Much has been made of the Orpheos Bakkikos icon, a hematite seal dating from the early Christian era which depicts Dionysus being crucified. But this seal is not, as Murdock has claimed, a pre-Christian artifact. [15] It is at least post-Christian, if not an outright early-modern forgery. [16] In any case, it is more likely an example of pagan syncretism of Christianity’s themes rather than the other way around. Syncretism was a two-way street; the Christ myth picked up and incorporated pagan material, and pagans borrowed Christian material once the latter became a viable state religion in the fourth century CE. The fallacy committed by Acharya S and Peter Joseph is to assume that all instances of parallelism or syncretism proceed in one direction only, and that the pagan traditions always had the original idea.

Here is how Joseph applies his elaborate astrological theory to the nativity of Jesus’ life:

First of all, the birth sequence is completely astrological. The star in the east is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which, on December 24th, aligns with the 3 brightest stars in Orion’s Belt. These 3 bright stars are called today what they were called in ancient times: The Three Kings. The Three Kings and the brightest star, Sirius, all point to the place of the sunrise on December 25th. This is why the Three Kings “follow” the star in the east, in order to locate the sunrise — the birth of the sun.

Joseph’s astrological symbolism goes even deeper. As the days leading up to the winter solstice shorten, the sun eventually reaches its lowest point in the sky. Joseph sees this as representing the death of the sun. Then, right before the winter solstice comes,

Here a curious thing occurs: the Sun stops moving south, at least perceivably, for three days. During this three-day pause, the Sun resides in the vicinity of the Southern Cross, or Crux, constellation. And after this time on December 25th, the Sun moves 1 degree, this time north, foreshadowing longer days, warmth, and spring. And thus it was said: the Sun died on the cross, was dead for three days, only to be resurrected or born again.

There are several inaccuracies here, some astronomical and some historical. First, Sirius does not actually line up with Orion’s belt, and the sun has never resided within the vicinity of the Southern Cross. In fact, the Southern Cross is only visible in the southern hemisphere. [17] It cannot be seen in the skies above Bethlehem, which is located in the northern hemisphere. Second, Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 21 or 22, not December 25. [18] At this time, the sun does not become stationary in the sky. The axial tilt of the Earth on its axis is primarily responsible for the seasons. The distance of the Earth from the sun has very little effect on the change of seasons. [19] Joseph chooses his phrasing carefully here, saying that the sun perceivably stops moving in the sky before moving north again. This is a subtle yet prime example of Joseph stretching the facts to fit his preconceived narrative.

Contrary to both popular belief and the assertions of Zeitgeist, the “Three Kings” motif comes from extrabiblical religious tradition and is actually nowhere found in the biblical story of Jesus’ nativity. Many people are also unaware that there are in fact two distinct nativity stories in the New Testament. The Nativity as represented by modern-day Christmas pageants and storybooks are a combination of the stories found in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. But when the stories of Matthew and Luke are read separately, we find that they disagree in every detail. In Matthew’s nativity story there is no Roman census, no trek of Jesus’ parents from Galilee to Bethlehem, and no birth in a stable. In Luke, there is no story of wise men from the east coming to pay tribute to Jesus.

Even in Matthew’s narrative, in which the oriental travelers appear, there is no mention of “three kings,” or even that the men were three in number. Matthew 2:1-2 states only that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” [20]

There has been much speculation and debate over the centuries as to the nature of the magi’s “star.” One explanation that has been proposed is that the “star” was a triple alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the Pisces constellation, a conjunction that occurred in 7 BCE. Another theory, proposed by Johannes Kepler in 1603, interprets Matthew’s star as an alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. But none of the proposed conjunctions of planets has been made to fit the available astronomical data. Other writers have suggested that the star was a comet or a supernova. [21] But these theories have failed on the grounds that no supernova or other significant astronomical phenomena was reported by any of the meticulous observers and recorders of the skies who lived at that time. [22]

The Star of Bethlehem is rooted in allegory rather than in any natural historical event. However, as we shall see, it is not the allegory Zeitgeist insists that it is. In ancient times, the idea of a rising star was often associated with the birth of a king or other noble personage. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the magi are said to have come from the East. They were probably Parthians, since the Parthian Empire was the only territory east of Israel other than the Arabian Desert.

Matthew’s Nativity account is thus a political myth: Wise men from a foreign Empire are coming to Israel to hail the infant Jesus as a king. At this time, tensions existed between the Romans and the Parthians. A Roman civil war had erupted in Macedonia in 42 BCE, fought between the forces of Brutus and Cassius Longinus on one side and the forces of the Second Triumvirate on the other. The war was initiated by Antony and Octavian, high-ranking members of the triumvirate, to avenge the Liberatores’ murder of Julius Caesar. In the aftermath of this conflict, the Parthians took advantage of the political instability in the region. They invaded the Roman Empire and established Antigonus II Mattathias, the last of the Hasmonean kings, on the Judean throne. But in 37 BCE, the Romans, led by Herod the Great, drove the Parthians out of Israel and executed Antigonus. The threat of another Parthian incursion into Judea is inherent in the act of Parthians arriving in Herod’s kingdom to recognize and pay homage to a future king. Callahan notes that this “may have been a source for Matthew’s magi in the first place.” [23] In short, the story of the magi following the star to Bethlehem is a political allegory, not an astrological one.

The only reason church tradition and popular imagination has conceived of these Parthian magi as being three in number is because they presented three gifts to Jesus in Matthew’s account. As Callahan explains, the gifts themselves also have political significance:

The gifts of the wise men – gold, frankincense and myrrh – recall the homage paid to Solomon by the queen of Sheba, since Sheba lay at the southern end of the Incense Route and was a source of both frankincense and myrrh. Naturally gifts worthy of Solomon are given to Jesus as part of the Matthean attempt to identify him with the Davidic line. The fact that there are three specific gifts is probably the reason for the popular fiction that there were three wise men. Actually, Matthew nowhere states their number. [24]

So there are no “Three Kings,” either in the night sky or in ancient writings. These personages were not “kings” in the first place, and there were not three of them. In Zeitgeist, Peter Joseph has ironically accepted all this extrabiblical elaboration of church tradition at face value in order to build his case that the Gospels draw upon astrology to weave an elaborate fabrication in order to sell the Christ character to the Church’s followers.

Indeed, Joseph appears not to have even consulted the Bible he criticizes in his film. Instead, his modus operandi throughout this first section is to bring together a number of scattered and unrelated ideas and then try to connect the dots to form patterns where none exist. Consider, for example, his allegation that the reason Jesus was said to have 12 disciples is because there are 12 signs of the Zodiac:

Now, probably the most obvious of all the astrological symbolism around Jesus regards the 12 disciples. They are simply the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, which Jesus, being the Sun, travels about with.

There is no evidence that the number 12 as applied to the disciples of Jesus had any zodiacal significance. More likely the number was chosen to parallel the 12 tribes of Israel, not the Zodiac signs. And it is doubtful that the tribes of Israel themselves had any zodiacal reference attached to them. The evidence suggests instead that the 12 tribes were based on the 12 months of the year, since the ancient Israelites established a 12-tribe confederacy in which each tribe maintained the priestly sanctuary for one month of the year. [25] The fact that Simeon may not have even been a tribe makes the alleged connection between the tribes and the Zodiac even more tenuous. Simeon was probably a small and insignificant rural region of Judah that was afforded tribal status in order to provide support for the sanctuary.

As for Joseph’s implication that the crucifix on which Jesus died represents the Southern Cross constellation, this is shown to be highly questionable when we consider that the crucifixion stake used by the Romans in the first century was probably T-shaped. But more importantly, the history of the crucifix has very little to do with the Zodiac. Christians adopted it as the symbol of their religion because the man they revere as their savior is traditionally believed to have died on a Roman cross. If Jesus had been beaten to death with a club, one could imagine that the Christians to this day would have adopted the iconography of a club to symbolize their faith. Peter Joseph has simply taken the easy path of making false connections in order to prove something that conforms to and serves his agendas. Continuing on with its attempt to force a Zodiacal interpretation on every aspect of Christian iconography, Zeitgeist has this to say:

Coming back to the cross of the Zodiac, the figurative life of the Sun, this was not just an artistic expression or tool to track the Sun’s movements. It was also a Pagan spiritual symbol . . . This [the familiar cross with vertices within a circle] is not a symbol of Christianity. It is a Pagan adaptation of the cross of the Zodiac. This is why Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross, for Jesus is the Sun, the Sun of God, the Light of the World, the Risen Savior, who will “come again,” as it does every morning, the Glory of God who defends against the works of darkness, as he is “born again” every morning, and can be seen “coming in the clouds”, “up in Heaven”, with his “Crown of Thorns,” or, sun rays.

Joseph makes a bold and explicit statement here: “Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross.” This is simply not the case. Many early occult depictions of Jesus showed his head on a halo, not a cross. In fact, between the third and sixth centuries CE, halos were commonly featured in the representations of deities and other holy people. Many such religiously-venerated figures, who shared similar character details, can be seen in ancient art that have no connection to the sun whatsoever. [26]

Joseph has not even demonstrated conclusively that the cross of crucifixion, or any other cultural symbol pre-dating Christianity, is represented by the Zodiac in any meaningful or significant way. The evidence from anthropology actually indicates otherwise. The cross is one of the oldest known symbols, dating from as early as the Neolithic era, and was used by every known culture since that era for a variety of reasons. [27] The particular capacity in which the cross was used by any given culture in the past depended largely upon what the local population believed the cross to symbolize or represent. The cross-shaped sign in its earliest known form was represented as a crossing of two lines at right angles, in many cases forming an X that would be used to mark burial sites. The ankh, or ansated cross, is another cross that challenges Joseph’s portrayal of the symbol as one that always conformed to interpretations of the Zodiac throughout history. This ancient Egyptian cross form, featuring a loop that circles on the top, symbolized eternal life and fertility and often appeared as a sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhmet.

Joseph’s superficial Sunday-school understanding of the biblical texts is also apparent in the way he misquotes and misrepresents portions of the King James Bible, the version on which he relies and which itself is already full of mistranslations and copying errors[28] Consider, for instance, what Joseph says about the Passover:

At Luke 22:10, when Jesus is asked by his disciples where the next Passover will be after he is gone, Jesus replied: “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water . . . follow him into the house where he entereth in.” This scripture is by far one of the most revealing of all the astrological references. The man bearing a pitcher of water is Aquarius, the water-bearer, who is always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water. He represents the age after Pisces, and when the Sun (God’s Sun) leaves the Age of Pisces (Jesus), it will go into the House of Aquarius, as Aquarius follows Pisces in the precession of the equinoxes. Also, Jesus is saying that after the Age of Pisces will come the Age of Aquarius.

While the reply from Jesus in Luke 22:10 is quoted correctly here, [29] the question asked by the disciples is not. When we look at the actual context in which the disciples asked their question, we find that Joseph has misused this verse to promote a misleading claim. We find this context in Luke 22:7-9: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’ They said to him, ‘Where will you have us prepare it?’” [30]

The disciples in this passage are not asking where the Passover will be held at a future time following Jesus’ departure, but rather where they should be preparing and partaking of the Passover that very evening. Even if Joseph represented the context correctly, the symbolism put forth by the film is inaccurate as well. Joseph describes Aquarius as “always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water.” In the Luke passage, however, the man the disciples meet is not pouring out a pitcher of water, but rather carrying a pitcher of water. If this does happen to be a symbolic reference, it is not the one Joseph’s film claims it to be.

The film’s misrepresentation of the Bible continues in its use of other passages on which it bases its argument. Joseph claims, for example, that Matthew 28 is one of the primary sources for Christian understandings of end-times doctrines:

Now, we have all heard about the end times and the end of the world. Apart from the cartoonish depictions in the Book of Revelation, the main source of this idea comes from Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says “I will be with you even to the end of the world.” However, in King James Version, “world” is a mistranslation, among many mistranslations. The actual word being used is “aeon,” which means “age.” “I will be with you even to the end of the age.” Which is true, as Jesus’ Solar Piscean personification will end when the Sun enters the Age of Aquarius. The entire concept of end times and the end of the world is a misinterpreted astrological allegory. Let’s tell that to the approximately 100 million people in America who believe the end of the world is coming.

Dismissing the Book of Revelation by saying it contains “cartoonish depictions” is ironic, considering that Revelation contains the majority of the end-times predictions in Christianity’s theological system. Either Joseph has not fully read the Bible or he is utilizing very selective tactics in order to draw a parallel between the Zodiac and the Bible, a parallel to which Revelation does not readily conform, hence Joseph’s dismissal of its significance. Matthew 28 is hardly the “main source” for Christian eschatology. Passages in Matthew 24[31] the second chapter of Second Thessalonians[32] the Book of Daniel[33] and of course Revelation [34] are far better and more in-depth sources. But it is clear that the misrepresentation and selective reasoning present in Zeitgeist is required in order to prop up a case that the Bible is an astrological document. The King James Bible contains a total of 31,173 verses. [35] If the Bible is an astrological document, one would expect to find much more than a few verses indicating astrological connections between Jesus, Passover, the Zodiac, the various dispensations, and so forth.

Ironically, Joseph’s film correctly states that the King James Version of the Bible contains mistranslations (citing the use of the word “world” in Matthew 28 which Joseph says should have been translated as “aeon”), yet Joseph relies on the King James Version to support his claims. In this way he is like the conspiracy theorist we mentioned in the introduction, who insists that the mainstream media is deceptive or untrustworthy while at the same time collecting video clips from mainstream news broadcasts to use as “evidence” for his tinfoil-hat theories. As such, Peter Joseph appears more interested in levying a general attack on the reliability of the King James translation so that he can then spin the passages he has cherry-picked however he chooses. While it is true that “world” in this case actually is a mistranslation of what should be aion, the mistranslated Greek word in question is “αιων,” [36] which means “eternity” rather than “age.” The Greek word for “age” is “παλαιώνω” (palaiono). [37] Thus, despite the mistranslation, the general idea remains correctly conveyed: “even to the end of the world” versus “even to the end of eternity.”

Was Christianity a Political Conspiracy?

To be as fair as possible and give credit where it’s due, Part I of Zeitgeist does get a few points right. The film is correct in stating that the New Testament Gospels are mostly fiction, and there is no question that some elements and concepts in Christianity were indeed inspired by earlier influential mythologies. Some pagan material did make its way into the Christ myth, and this was even acknowledged by early Christian church fathers in their writings. This is borne out by the following quote from the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 CE):

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. [38]

Justin Martyr proceeds to describe a number of pagan heroes who have parallels to Jesus, including Mercury, Asclepius, Bacchus (or Dionysus), and Hercules. But while it’s true that mythology permeates the Gospels, the problem is that Peter Joseph has applied the wrong mythology to his assessment of Christianity. The religion wasn’t constructed wholecloth from a single source, nor can it be reduced to an amalgamation of hijacked astrological symbolism. Nor is there any historical evidence to suggest that the architects of Christianity were consciously orchestrating a vast and organized conspiracy to politically control the lives of people. This latter argument is presented in the conclusion to Part I, where Joseph says,

The reality is, Jesus was the Solar Deity of the Gnostic Christian sect, and like all other Pagan gods, he was a mythical figure. It was the political establishment that sought to historize the Jesus figure for social control. By 325 A.D. in Rome, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. It was during this meeting that the politically motivated Christian Doctrines were established and thus began a long history of Christian bloodshed and spiritual fraud.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the Christianizing of the Roman Empire were indeed calculated for political gain. But this does not mean that the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity was not genuine. Moreover, Constantine did not make Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. He was primarily responsible for ending the state-sanctioned persecution of Christians when he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which legalized Christianity but did not make it the official religion. [39] That would happen several decades later with the issuance in 380 of the Edict of Thessalonica by Constantine’s successor, the Emperor Theodosius I. [40]

The purpose of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 was to consolidate a number of different Christian beliefs together into a more cohesive system. The reason consolidation and unification of various Christian beliefs was deemed necessary by the early church fathers was because the situation was much more complex and diverse than Peter Joseph’s gross oversimplification would suggest. Gnosticism was not the only form of Christianity that existed prior to the Council of Nicaea, as Joseph implies. There was a wide variety of differing view about Jesus floating around the Empire, all vying for attention and legitimization. For example, there were the adoptionists who believed Jesus was only human and was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism. [41] On the other end of this spectrum were the Marcionites, who believed that Jesus was a spiritual entity and not human at all. [42] In between were the proto-orthodox Christians who believed something similar to what ended up being formalized in the Nicene Creed and which modern Christians believe about Christ, that he was simultaneously human and divine. And of course there was a host of Christian mystery cults, including Gnosticism.

Rather than establish anything new, the Council of Nicaea merely chose certain doctrines pertaining to the question of Jesus’ divinity that had already been taught by various Christian churches and made those old doctrines the official position of Christendom as a whole. It was not, as Joseph seems to believe, a shadowy affair where plots were hatched in secret to politically control the Empire.


Summary and Conclusion

The ideas presented in the first chapter of Zeitgeist concerning the origins of religion, particularly the connections between Christianity and Egyptian mythology, came into their own in the late nineteenth century. This was a time when radical scholars and pseudo-historians played fast and loose with methods that were only just beginning to be used by researchers in the fledgling field of biblical criticism. At the time Zeitgeist appeared on the Internet, the arguments of the old radical scholars were beginning to trickle back into popular culture. For example, popular social critic and political commentator Bill Maher has adopted some of the arguments used by Joseph and Acharya S. For example, many of the connections drawn by Joseph between Jesus and Horus in Zeitgeist were also drawn by Maher in his 2008 documentary film Religulous. The erroneous mythic parallels to Jesus also crop up in Brian Flemming’s otherwise admirable 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn’t There. These factually-dubious themes appear to be the only aspect of these films for which Maher and Flemming did not investigate claims as closely as they should have. This demonstrates the need for even skeptics of the supernatural to be careful of the sources on which we base our arguments and criticism. Overall, Religulous and The God Who Wasn’t There contain hard-hitting social commentary and accurate criticism, with a small amount of fiction mixed in. The opposite is the case for Zeitgeist; some few points are correct, but the overwhelming majority of its claims are either blatantly inaccurate or highly tenuous.

Debunking Christianity as a credible belief system is not difficult, and fabricating damning evidence against its historicity is completely unnecessary to the task. Building a sloppy case to the effect that Christianity was wholly plagiarized from earlier pagan religion and mythology is not only a waste of time that could have been spent doing legitimate research, but it also gives honest and reputable skeptics of Christianity and the Bible a bad name. Films like Zeitgeist have the unfortunate effect of giving Christian apologists an excuse to paint all critics of biblical faith as poor researchers whose prejudice trumps any solidly-grounded critique they present. Nobody’s academic reputation is served well by drawing nonexistent parallels and connecting imaginary dots between religions and then compounding the error by suggesting that such parallels necessarily indicate that the later religion must have stolen from the earlier one.

It is not to be denied that Christianity borrowed and co-opted several theological concepts from various Roman religions. One good example that can be cited is the origin of Christmas, which was not celebrated for the first few centuries after the Christian church was formed. But then some church leaders took interest in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, in which worshippers of Mithra celebrated their god’s birth around the time of the Winter Solstice. Being the good missionaries that they were, Christians appropriated that festival, keeping the aspects of gift-giving and general merrymaking, but changing it to be about the birth of Christ instead of Mithra. However, Peter Joseph and his muse Acharya S have greatly exaggerated the extent to which Christianity stole elements from earlier faiths. And even if Christianity did steal as many concepts as Zeitgeist would have us believe, it is fallacious to conclude that a religion whose tenets feature concepts such as recurring life and death must have been taken from an earlier religion simply because the latter also featured the same concepts.

To build a special case for Christianity being a fraud consciously perpetrated upon the masses, based solely on the existence of similarities in past religions, is illogical. But what makes Zeitgeist one of the most dishonest documentaries ever produced is the manner in which it presents its arguments, over and above the actual content itself. As we have seen, the film makes direct claims to the effect that Christianity stole its central tenets and storylines from the ancient Egyptians. Yes, Christianity was influenced to some small degree by Egyptian religion, but there are far more inconsistencies than there are similarities. And the similarities exist only to the extent that the ideas and concepts incorporated by Christianity were ubiquitous throughout Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

Moreover, when religious scholars and anthropologists encounter concepts or philosophies in one religion that are more or less exactly the same as or at least similar to those found in two or more pre-dating cultures, tracing the source of influence is often a matter of asking which culture or civilization was closer to the centers in which the newer religion first developed and flourished. In the case of Christianity, it was the Babylonians who were geographically closer and who therefore had a much more direct influence on Christianity’s development. If Christianity borrowed elements from any earlier culture or religious system, it was the Babylonians, from whom the concepts of monotheism, the dualism of good and evil, angels and demons, a worldwide flood, and others were borrowed. It should come as no surprise that similar worldviews would be fostered and developed by a culture that shared the same social and political problems and challenges as its surrounding cultures. If a people are striving to create a conceptual model of their world that makes sense of their day-to-day experience, they may find the ideas of other cultures very satisfying and thus incorporate these ideas into their own belief system. It is not anomalous for a culture to independently develop ideas and concepts that flourish in other cultures, for example to conceive of supernatural reasons for why the sun shines. There is certainly no need to posit the existence of a vast conspiracy to control gullible masses. Joseph, along with his muse Acharya S, has conducted his “research” bearing the unwarranted assumption that nothing truly original can be created within new religions or belief systems. But not all true ideas are necessarily original, and not all original ideas are inherently more valuable or informative than their derivatives.

I should mention at this point that my criticism of Peter Joseph’s anti-religious claims by no means constitutes an apology for the Christian faith. Christianity remains a very flawed religion regardless of whether Joseph’s claims are true or not. My aim here is simply to distinguish truth from falsehood. I have shown that the essential arguments presented in the first part of Zeitgeist are factually wrong. But I have no personal stake in this matter. If the various disparate claims contained in Zeitgeist are proven to be true by some startling and revolutionary archaeological discovery, my immediate response would be to update the present critique.

This contrasts sharply with the strawman skeptic conjured up in the imaginations of conspiracy theory enthusiasts, who seem to be laboring under the false impression that skeptics who take the time and effort to debunk conspiracy theories are doing so because they have something to gain personally from the exercise. Some of the most common accusations levied against those of us who are skeptical of conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by Joseph and Acharya, include the charge that we are “closet Christians,” government agents, and/or the beneficiary of some powerful corporation’s payroll. When cornered in debate, accusations of this ilk are often the conspiracy theorists’ only recourse.


[1] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

[2] E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion (1899; reprint, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995).

[3] Anthony Spalinger, “Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54, no. 1 (January 1995): 33-47.

[4] E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, Edited with Translations (London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1912); Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] This image, as rendered by A.G. Shedid, is printed in Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 48.

[6] Plutarch, “Isis and Osiris,” in Moralia Vol. V (Loeb Classical Library no. 306), trans. Frank Cole Babbitt (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1936). The full text of this work is freely available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/home.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[7] Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ (1875; reprint, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2001).

[8] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999). Note that Peter Joseph has taken inspiration from Acharya’s subtitle for the title of the first section of his film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

[9] John R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, 2 Vols. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975).

[10] W. Crooke, “The Legends of Krishna,” Folklore 11, no. 1 (March 1900): 1-38.

[11] Derek and Julia Parker, The New Compleat Astrologer (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), p. 194.

[12] Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

[13] Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion, Stars and Planets: The Most Complete Guide to the Stars, Planets, Galaxies, and the Solar System (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 194-96.

[14] Tim Callahan, “The Greatest Story Ever Garbled: A Critique of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – Part I of the Internet Film Zeitgeist,” Skeptic 15, no. 1 (March 2009): 61-67. Available online at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-02-25/#feature (accessed May 3, 2015).

[15] D.M. Murdock, A Pre-Christian ‘God’ on a Cross? The Orpheos Bakkikos Gem Reexamined (Seattle, WA: Stellar House Publishing, 2013).

[16] Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2007), p. 178.

[17] “Crux, Musca, Carina,” The Deep Photographic Guide to the Constellations, http://www.allthesky.com/constellations/crux/ (accessed May 7, 2015).

[18] B.A. Robinson, “Dates and Times of the Winter Solstice,” ReligiousTolerance.org, December 3, 1999, http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice2.htm (accessed September 10, 2016).

[19] Phil Plait, “What Causes the Seasons?” Bad Astronomy, January 21, 1998, http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/seasons.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[20] Matthew 2:1-2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/2.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[21] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979), pp. 171-72.

[22] Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 2002), p. 379.

[23] Ibid, p. 382.

[24] Ibid, p. 381.

[25] Ibid, p. 103.

[26] For some good examples, see “Artists by Nationality: Greek Artists,” Artcyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Great Art Online, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/nationalities/Greek.html (accessed May 3, 2015).

[27] Rudolf Koch, The Book of Signs, trans. Dybyan Holland (1930; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1955), pp. 14-29.

[28] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 209; DPR Jones, “A Brief History of the King James Bible” (video), YouTube, March 3, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFDwK5ko7sI (accessed May 10, 2015).

[29] Luke 22:10, with parallel translations, http://biblehub.com/luke/22-10.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[30] Luke 22:7-9 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/luke/22.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[31] Matthew 24 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/24.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[32] 2 Thessalonians 2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/2_thessalonians/2.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[33] Daniel 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/daniel/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[34] Revelation 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/revelation/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[35] Stephen M. Miller and Robert V. Huber, The Bible: A History – The Making and Impact of the Bible (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004), p. 239.

[36] Mat. 28:20 (King James Version), Blue Letter Bible, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=28&v=20&i=conc#s=957020 (accessed May 10, 2015).

[37] The reader can confirm this for herself by consulting Kypros-Net’s Greek-English/English-Greek dictionary at http://www.kypros.org/cgi-bin/lexicon (accessed May 10, 2015).

[38] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 21. Translated by Leslie William Barnard in Ancient Christian Writers vol. 56 (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).

[39] W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1982).

[40] N.Q. King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[41] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), chapter 2.

[42] F. Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity: Studies in Religious History from 330 B.C. to 330 A.D., Vol I (Cambridge: University Press, 1915).

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