Tim Callahan’s Critique of the Movie Zeitgeist — The Greatest Story Ever Told

Tim Callahan is the book review editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Secret Origins of the Bible, which I recommend. In the latest eskeptic email he critically reviews the Movie Zeitgeist:

The Greatest Story Ever Garbled
by Tim Callahan

Perhaps the worst aspect of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Part I of Peter Joseph’s Internet film, Zeitgeist, is that some of what it asserts is true. Unfortunately, this material is liberally — and sloppily — mixed with material that is only partially true and much that is plainly and simply bogus. Joseph’s main argument is that Jesus never existed and is in fact a mythical character based on earlier sun gods. He sees all the motifs and characters of the New Testament as coded astrological or solar references. The argument that Jesus was a mythical construct has been made before — for example by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in their 1999 book, The Jesus Mysteries, though Freke and Gandy made their argument with a far greater level of scholarship. In reducing Jesus to a sun god, Joseph ignores — as Freke and Gandy did before him — the powerful current of messianic apocalypticism prevalent in first century Judea. The fact that there were references back to earlier dying and rising gods in the Christ myth can lend an air of spurious scholarship to Zeitgeist, as long as one ignores the equally important messianic myth and the fact that there is a viable basis for an actual historical Jesus. Joseph totally ignores the messianic/apocalyptic aspects of the New Testament writings and erroneously asserts that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus. I will return to this issue later. For now, let us consider Joseph’s solar deity argument.

The Solar Cross & Sloppy Solar Symbolism

The first assertion made in Zeitgeist is that the cross is a solar symbol and not a representation of the instrument of Jesus’ execution. That’s true enough, as far as it goes, which isn’t very far. What Jesus was crucified on probably looked more like a capital “T,” the crossbeam to which Jesus’ wrists were nailed being hoisted to rest atop an already anchored upright post. It was then probably secured in place by a spike. The Christian cross probably represents a melding of this “T” shape with the solar cross as a bit of religious syncretism. This can be seen if one considers that many Christian crosses are shown enclosed by or intersecting a circle, as in the Celtic cross. The cross is also a symbol of the four cardinal directions and the four winds. However, the solar associations of the cross, while adding solar connotations to the Christ myth, do not militate against it also being a symbol of the Crucifixion.

Joseph next asserts that the gods Horus, Krishna, Mithra and Attys all paralleled Jesus. Again, there is some truth to this, but Joseph mingles so much falsehood with whatever truths he reveals as to give ample ammunition to evangelical Christians who might want to shoot holes in his thesis. First of all, he says that the Egyptian god Horus was adored by three kings, had twelve disciples and was crucified. He says much the same thing about Mithra, as well as noting that Krishna was born on December 25. Almost none of this is true.

When it comes to Egyptian sources of the Christ myth, Joseph seems to have conflated Horus with his father, Osiris. The Osiris/Horus myth, in much simplified terms, goes as follows: Set, the evil brother of the good Osiris, murders that god and cuts his body into 14 pieces. Isis, the wife of Osiris collects and reassembles the pieces, having to substitute a wooden phallus for that part of the dead god’s anatomy. She copulates with the dead god in the form of a bird, conceives Horus and gives birth to him in secret, raising him on an island in the Nile amidst the reeds. She also raises Osiris from the dead, although this very physical resurrection is in the underworld. When Horus comes of age he does battle with his uncle Set. Set tears out the eye of Horus, while Horus rips off Set’s genitals. Eventually, peace is made between the two, both are healed, and they divide the rule of the year by seasons of life and death.

The physical resurrection of Osiris, even though it is in the underworld, is a significant precursor to Jesus as a dying and rising god, as is the physical resurrection of Dionysus, after he is killed, dismembered and partially eaten by the Titans. Surprisingly, Joseph fails to mention this bit of classical mythology. Horus being born and nursed in the rushes of an island in the Nile is an important parallel to the infant Moses being found among the rushes. However, beyond the resurrection of Osiris, the main parallels between the Egyptian myth and the New Testament are iconic. Isis with the dead body of Osiris prefigures the imagery of the Pieta. More importantly, Christians co-opted the imagery of Isis and the infant Horus in the form of the Madonna and child. I have absolutely no idea where Joseph got the notion that Horus had 12 disciples or that he was ever crucified.

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.

Joseph’s confusion continues when he tries to tie Isis into the Annunciation narrative of Luke. He says that an Annunciation scene from Luxor shows Isis being told by angelic beings she will bear Horus. Actually, the panels from Luxor depict the mother of Hatshepsut being told she will bear the divine child. Next, the god Amon-Ra consorts with Hatshepsut’s mother. Then the divine child (Hatshepsut) is adored by gods and mortals. This is probably the source of Luke’s Nativity. Mary is told by the angel Gabriel she will bear the divine child. The Holy Spirit overshadows her. Then angels and mortals (shepherds) adore Jesus. However, it has nothing to do with Isis. It was part of the standard Egyptian royal myth that each Pharaoh was engendered by Amon Ra, taking his father’s mortal form to have sexual relations with the Pharaoh’s mother. The reason Hatshepsut (ruled 1498–1483 BCE) had to emphasize her divine origins is that, as a female, she was assumed to have ordinary mortal origins. So there probably is an Egyptian origin to the Lucan Nativity, but it has nothing to do with Isis, Osiris or Horus.

Three Kings & Other Astrological Nonsense

Zeitgeist continues to find not only solar but astrological sources for the Christ myth. The star followed by the wise men is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, which lines up with three bright stars on Orion’s belt. These stars are often called the “three kings,” hence the three kings following the star in the Nativity story. Mary is a virgin because she represents the constellation Virgo, which is also referred to as the “House of Bread,” or, in Hebrew beth-lehem, or the town of Bethlehem, The death of Jesus by crucifixion represents the sun being in the Southern Cross, a constellation that in antiquity was visible from the Mediterranean. Thus, the sun was, at its lowest point in the sky (when it “died”) “crucified,” in that it was ensnared in the Southern Cross. Jesus rose from the dead at Easter because it was then, at the Vernal Equinox, that the sun conquered darkness. Jesus had 12 disciples because they represent the 12 signs of the Zodiac. His crown of thorns at the Crucifixion represents the rays of the sun emanating from his head.

This story, like most of Part I of Zeitgeist, is a pastiche of factoid, fiction and ingenious invention. It also betrays a certain naïveté on the part of Peter Joseph in regard to his knowledge of the Bible. This is obvious when he sees in the “Three Kings” of Orion’s belt pointing at Sirius, the source of the magi following the star in the Nativity story of Matthew. At this point, let me ask readers a question: Without looking at a Bible, tell me how many wise men or kings followed the star to Bethlehem. Most likely you answered “Three.” After all, we’ve all heard and sung the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” So weren’t there three kings? Let’s look at the Bible, specifically at Matthew 2:1,2:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.”
Two things are readily apparent from this passage. First, those who saw the star are wise men, not kings. In the original Greek of the New Testament, what is translated as “wise men” is magi, that is, Zoroastrian holy men. The Greek word magos is the source of our words mage, magic and magician. Second, Matthew nowhere says how many magi came to Jerusalem. So where did we ever get the idea there were three of them? Also, if they were actually following a star, it would have led them directly to Bethlehem. The star doesn’t actually lead the magi until they have been told by Herod’s scribes to go to Bethlehem. Only then does the following happen (Mt. 2:9–11):
When they had heard the king they went on their way, and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
This is odd. One wonders why the star didn’t just lead the magi to Bethlehem right off. This has led many to speculate that the “star” wasn’t an actual star, but perhaps a conjunction of astrologically significant planets in one constellation or another. It would be tedious to go into them here. Suffice it to say that Joseph’s “three kings” in the belt of Orion bear no relation to the actual myth in Matthew’s account of the Nativity. The only reason conventions of art and caroling gave us three wise men (not kings) is that the magi give Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is in these three gifts, along with the eastern origin of the magi, that we see the key to the actual myth in Matthew’s Nativity, which is political. Throughout the Mathean Nativity account, the gospel’s author takes great pains to find fulfilled prophecies showing Jesus to be the messiah of the Davidic line of kings. He is born in Bethlehem because that was David’s home town, and Jesus must be born there to fulfill the prophecy in Micah 5:2, which the chief priests and scribes quote to Herod when the magi ask where the baby is that is born to be king of the Jews (Mt. 2:5, 6):
They [the priests and scribes] told him [Herod], “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you will come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel’”
So Bethlehem’s mythic associations have to do with Davidic kingship, not astrology. The three gifts also reflect Davidic kingship, since the Queen of Sheba gave King Solomon rich and kingly gifts (1 Kings 10:10). These included a great quantity of gold and, by implication, since Sheba, or Saba was located in modern Yemen, at the southern end of the Red Sea, frankincense and myrrh. Sheba, or Saba, in Yemen is at the southern end, the point of origin of an ancient caravan route that stretched from Yemen to Damascus called the “Incense Route,” since what was traded from the southern end of the Red Sea were two forms of incense, frankincense and myrrh. Thus, the infant Jesus received from the magi the same gifts given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba.

Other astrological fantasies in Zeitgeist regarding the Christ myth are that Mary is a virgin because she personifies the constellation Virgo, that the Crucifixion represents the sun in the constellation of the Southern Cross, that Easter is related to the sun’s triumph over darkness at or shortly following the Vernal Equinox, that Jesus’ 12 disciples represent the signs of the Zodiac, and that his crown of thorns represents solar rays emanating from his head. The astrological associations of all of these elements are tenuous at best. Certainly, the virgin birth and the elevation of the Virgin Mary in the Gospel of Luke reflects pagan influences on the Christ myth, which can be seen in the Lucan Nativity and which sharply contrast to the messianic/Davidic kingship motifs of Matthew. As previously noted. Luke’s Nativity seems to be based on Egyptian panels from Luxor dating to the 18th dynasty and the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. So Mary could relate to the constellation Virgo, but also took on the iconography of Isis

As to the sighting of Easter near the time of the Vernal Equinox, we must remember that the Passion is staged during Passover. There is a complex layering here that is lost if we simply relegate Easter to a celebration of the Vernal Equinox.

The Christ myth relates not only to previous dying and rising gods, like Osiris and Dionysus, but as well to Jewish messianic, apocalyptic and historical myths. Thus, situating Easter in the Passover season probably relates more to messianic myth than to the sun. Passover itself was probably originally a festival of first fruits, that is, a seasonal, agricultural festival relating to rebirth. However, Jewish seasonal festivals relating to a cyclic view of time were recast in messianic, apocalyptic terms as historical and related to a linear concept of time. In the case of Jewish belief, I believe it’s safe to say that the linear, historical view effectively eclipsed the original seasonal festival. Since the Christian Passion and Resurrection narratives reintroduce a dying and rising god meme into the holiday, the layering of Easter becomes far more complex. Easter blends apocalyptic messianism, emphasizing Christ’s death and resurrection as the critical turning point in God’s war with Satan, and portraying Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s hopes and dreams, with the dying and rising god motif, and the promise to Christians that they, too, would transcend death. It must also be remembered that the cult of Isis and Osiris, which spread through the Roman Empire about a century before the time of Jesus, was not entirely the same as the millennia old Egyptian fertility cult it had originally been. Rather, it was, in all probability, Hellenized and showed some of the refinements of Greek philosophy. This was, likewise, probably the case with the much younger cult of Dionysus, another dying and rising god.

Jesus having 12 disciples also relates more to Jewish messianism than to astrology. The 12 disciples relate to the 12 tribes of Israel, which, though they no longer existed as political entities, were important genealogically to the extent that Paul could confidently claim to be of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). Actually, there were 13 tribes, 12 plus the priestly tribe of Levites. Each tribe originally supported the Levitical priesthood and maintained the central shrine for one month a year. The division of the tribes worshipping Yahweh into 12 divisions may well reflect influences of what was originally a lunar cult, but such influences had been subsumed by the apocalyptic, messianic monotheism of post-exilic Judaism well before the time of Christ. Had the 12 disciples represented the signs of the Zodiac, as Joseph asserts, then we would expect to find the disciples individually given specific zodiacal characteristics in the canonical gospels. Instead, most of the disciples are little more than names and lack any character whatsoever.

Jesus’ crown of thorns, along with most of the specific details of the Passion — his being clothed in a purple robe and given a reed as a scepter, the mocking and scourging by the Roman troops, even his being put to death — were probably elements of the Zagmuku Festival, which the Jews brought back with them from Babylon after their captivity there (587–538 BCE). Elements of this festival are to be found in the entirely fictional Book of Esther and the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim. This, by the way, is not to say that Jesus’ crucifixion was not a real, historical event, merely that its details were heavily fictionalized in the process of dramatization and storytelling.

It is the historiscity of Jesus that will tell us whether the Crucifixion was real or merely symbolic of the sun descending into the constellation of the Southern Cross. I will deal with that subject later.

The End of the Age

Zeitgeist continues its assertion of the astrological basis of Christianity and even of the Jewish Scriptures with the assertion that both Moses and Jesus based their words and actions on a belief in astrological ages of roughly 2,000 plus years dominated by a specific sign of the Zodiac. According to this scheme the Age of Taurus (the Bull) was ending or had ended when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and was being superceded by the Age of Aries (the Ram). This age was, in turn, superceded by the Age of Pisces, in which we live, but which is now winding down. It will soon be followed by the Age of Aquarius, hence the song by the same name from the musical Hair. Moses, Peter Joseph says, condemned worshipping the golden bull calf because it was a throwback to an earlier age. The blowing of the shofar, specifically a ram’s horn, and other symbols indicate that Judaism came, initially, out of the Age of Aries. Since Christianity came into being at the beginning of the Age of Pisces, fish symbolism is particularly common in the New Testament. Thus Jesus tells the fishermen he recruits (Mark 1:17), “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Thus he feeds the multitude with loaves and fishes, and thus the fish is a Christian symbol. There are also, according to Joseph, references in the Christian Scriptures to the coming Aquarian Age. Jesus tells his disciples to follow a man bearing a jar of water (i.e. Aquarius, the water bearer) in Luke 22:10:
He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, and tell the householder, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’"
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples (Mt. 28:20) referring to the Age of Pisces and its transition into the Age of Aquarius, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So, was the fish imagery in the New Testament a reference to the Age of Pisces? When Jesus spoke of the “end of the age,” was he referring to the transition from the Piscean to Aquarian age some 2,000 plus years into the future? The answer to all these questions is, “No.”

Consider the antagonism against bull imagery implicit in Moses condemning the people’s worship of the golden calf. This Yahwistic prejudice seems to have evaporated by that time of the building of Solomon’s Temple, as can be seen in this description of the “molten sea,” a huge vessel containing water that was one of the principle furnishings of the Temple (1 Kings 7:25): “It stood upon twelve oxen, three facing nth, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east; the sea was set upon them, and all their hinder parts were inward.” Oxen also decorate the panels of ten stands made of bronze, along with lions and cherubim (1 Kings. 7:28). Yet, for all the rich imagery of the interior of Solomon’s Temple, it is utterly devoid of any image of rams. Thus, we must assume that the story of the golden calf in Exodus refers, as it would seem, to idolatry.

Fish certainly are common images in the New Testament. Yet so are olive trees, fig trees, sheaves of grain, and, particularly, sheep and lambs. In fact, lambs and lost sheep probably figure more prominently in the New Testament than do fish. Does this mean that Jesus actually wanted to turn the clock back to the previous Age of Aries? Joseph would probably counter such an objection by pointing to the Christian fish symbol. Doesn’t this point to Christianity as the faith of the Piscean Age? The Christian fish symbol has been interpreted as referring back to the “fishers of men” phrase from Mark 1:17 and has also been seen as a vaginal symbol lying on its side. However, it appears most likely that the Greek word for fish, ichthys, was an acronym for (in Greek) Iasos Christos Theos Yios Soter, or “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”

The assertion in Zeitgeist that when Jesus tells his disciples in Mt. 28:20 he will be with them until the end of the age, he is referring to a time roughly 2,000 years into the future is absurd considering the apocalyptic outlook of early Christianity. Consider what Jesus has to say in Mark 8: 38–9:1:
“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I ay to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Despite the efforts of Christian apologists to rationalize this as something other than a prediction of the end of the world in Jesus’ own generation, there is little else to which it could refer. The parallel verses in Matthew even throw in the Last Judgment (Mt. 16: 27, 28):
For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not tastes death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Though there are no parallel verses to this in the Gospel of John, it also proclaims the imminent end of the world (John. 5: 28, 29):
Do not marvel at this, for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
Paul also proclaimed the end of the world in his generation in this passage from 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4: 15-17):
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we, who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep [i.e. died]. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
These are but a few of the apocalyptic references salted throughout the New Testament. However, lest anyone doubt that early Christians believed the world would end in their generation, consider what John of Patmos says at the opening of Revelation, that vivid and detailed description of the end of days (Rev. 1:1, 2, emphasis added):
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
“What must soon take place’” cannot refer to the end of the Piscean Age some 2,000 years into the future any more than it can refer to a series of events triggered by Russia invading Israel in 1988.

History vs. Myth

Again mixing facts with sloppy assumptions, Part I of Zeitgeist concludes with an assault on the historicity of Jesus, claming that, outside the New Testament, there is no indication that Jesus ever existed. Joseph correctly points out that the biblical flood myth has its origins in material antedating the earliest sources of the Hebrew Scriptures. He specifically cites the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, he could just as well have cited the Sumerian flood hero Zuisudra, whose account greatly antedates the flood account in Gilgamesh.

Was there a real Jesus? While the historical evidence is meager, it does exist. In his Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, item 1, referring to the execution of James, Josephus refers to him as the brother of “Jesus, who was called the Christ.” It is quite plain that Josephus didn’t see Jesus as the Christ (Christos, the Greek word meaning “anointed”), he merely recorded that James’ brother was the Jesus who had been called or was alleged to be the Christ.

Beyond this scrap, valuable though it is, we can imply the existence of a historical Jesus from the criteria of embarrassment and difficulty. The criterion of embarrassment says that people do not make up embarrassing details about someone they wish to revere. So, if they say such things about the person, they are probably true. Now let’s apply this to what the Roman historian Tacitus had to say about Jesus early in the second century. Concerning rumors that had spread that Nero had deliberately set fire to the city of Rome, Tacitus says (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, Chapter 15):
To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.
That Tacitus is obviously a hostile witness makes it much more likely that he accepted Jesus as a real person. Had he reason to suspect he was nothing more than a fabrication, Tacitus would certainly have said so. That author’s claim that Jesus had been executed by Pontius Pilate could only have come from one of two possible sources: Either Tacitus knew this to be true from extant imperial records or he was repeating what Christians themselves had said of Jesus. Were Jesus a mythical character they had invented, they certainly wouldn’t have gone out of their way to invent his being a criminal who had been executed.

In like manner, people do not go out of their way to invent difficulties for a character they have invented. It is clear from the Nativity narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke that they were faced with having to explain why Jesus grew up in Galilee if he was born in Bethlehem. Both gospels had to invent rather convoluted means to get Jesus born in Bethlehem in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2, then get him moved to Nazareth. Clearly they were stuck with a real person known to have come from Galilee, when he should have come from Bethlehem. Had they been making Jesus up out of whole cloth, they would simply have said he came from Bethlehem: end of story, no complications. So the evidence for Jesus as a real, historical personage, though meager, is solid.

A Roman Plot?

Considering that Part II of Zeitgeist asserts that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a conspiracy on the part of the powers that be, and that Part III is an attack on the Federal Reserve Board and income tax as unconstitutional plots devised by hidden powers bent on reducing all of us to poverty, one might wonder why Peter Joseph even bothered to open his film with an attack on Jesus and Christianity. Summing up at the end of Part I, Joseph asserts that Christianity was, in fact, developed by the Romans as a means of social control. He cites the Council of Nicaea in 325 as the beginning of this social control. So this is the connection between Part I and the rest of the film: Everything you’ve ever believed to be true is all a pack of lies foisted on you by the secret manipulators who really run things. They faked the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon to manipulate us into a war. They are undermining our financial and other freedoms through manipulation of our money and — guess what?! — they’ve been at it since the creation of Christianity, back in the time of the Roman Empire!

Zeitgeist is The Da Vinci Code on steroids.