“Zeitgeist” – Pagan Myths and Jesus


Zeitgeist is a documentary that became popular several years ago, and despite being completely false, the ideas that it promoted are still fairly popular on the internet.
Yes. On the internet.
And that’s the only place that it is popular.
You will never find anyone in scholarly circles making these arguments.
Side note: if you are interacting with someone and they point to Zeitgeist as a solid refutation of Christianity, you are most likely dealing with an “Internet Atheist“.

The general idea of this video (part 1) is that the story of Jesus is remarkably similar to the stories of other ancient mythological stories (like Horus and Mithras), and from this we are to conclude that the story of Jesus is nothing but a myth (just like Horus and Mithras).
That is the claim. And if you haven’t seen this part of the internet “documentary”, Zeitgeist… click here.

First off, I’d like to point out what a silly claim that is.
Jesus bears similarities to Mithras and Horus, therefore the story of Jesus is also a myth. Unfortunately for us, Peter Joseph (the man responsible for Zeitgeist) never actually presents an argument. So we can’t dissect an argument. But if this was a formal, deductive argument, it might be something like this:
1. If story X is similar to a mythical story, then story X is mythical.
2. Jesus is similar to the stories of [insert pre-christian deity here, (ex: Mithras)].
3. The story of [pre-christian deity] is a myth.
4. Therefore, the story of Jesus is a myth.

It seems obvious that this argument is false, because premise 1 is demonstrably false. As J. Warner Wallace points out in this article, there are many similarities between the Titanic and the pre-titanic story of the Titan. The similarities are actually quite remarkable. Much more remarkable than the claims made by Zeitgeist… but I digress. Check out that article. I really like Wallace’s perspective on this; he shows that we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that Jesus is similar to other “pre-christian deities”.

Let’s take a look at premise 2; the idea that the story of Jesus is similar to the stories of other ancient myths. Is the story of Jesus really all that similar to the stories of ancient myths, like Mithras and Horus?

Short answer? No.
In the words of LeVar Burton, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!”
But before you read on, you should watch it first, if you haven’t already.

Grab some popcorn.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- INTERMISSION -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
(seriously… watch it)

Wasn’t that hilariously bad? Yes.
Some people actually believe this nonsense.

At this point, I am not going to attempt to refute Zeitgeist myself. It really isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. I am, however, going to point you to some reliable sources where this entire video (and this entire viewpoint that Jesus is yet another myth) is dismantled.

So there you have it. Do the research.
And if someone claims that Jesus is similar to other ancient myths… they’re the ones making the claim. They shoulder the burden of proof.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –    EDIT 3/19/2014    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – – – –       Now with new skeptical resources!      – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A twitter friend of mine, @_Lungfish, suggested that it would be a good idea to show that many atheist/skeptical resources exist that also show the foolishness of Zeitgeist. He suggested I add the following resources, and it was a great idea.


16 thoughts on ““Zeitgeist” – Pagan Myths and Jesus

  1. Pingback: The Best of the Interweb this Week (06/29/13) | DaveCruver.com

  2. Kyle Macelroy

    This movie was indeed awful. I stopped paying attention to the religion claims after they seemed not to know that the Southern Cross can’t be seen from where they claim the Jesus myth originated. Oh and the statement about how the sun doesn’t move from the 22nd to the 25th, which is arbitrary nonsense. Even this lowly atheist thinks their nonsense and inaccurate discussion of Christianity was d-u-m-b dumb.

    But don’t get me started on their bad science, history, and outright lies about 9-11. Whoever made this movie is clearly a moron with a lot of google time and little to no critical thinking skills. I’m still not sure what the different parts of that movie had to do with each other… Unless the theme is dumb, ill thought out hogwash with some scary sounds and some pretty stock footage.

  3. Hungry Atheist

    You may not be able to claim that no one in scholarly circles makes the kinds of historical reconstructions of Christianity you see in Zeitgeist. While I won’t defend the documentary’s specific arguments (the movie has a number of shortcomings, and really isn’t worth salvaging), the principle itself isn’t so far-fetched.

    As this is not my specific area of expertise, I won’t get into the details of deconstructing Christianity per se, but I will present an argument for how such a deconstruction might take place, and also demonstrate how such an approach is both scholarly and *might* be applied to Christianity.

    Bruce Lincoln, in his earlier work, set about reconstructing a Proto-Indo European religion. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of data on PIE religion itself, but what we do have is a variety of subsequent religions – including Christianity, but also Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Greek and Roman myths, and so on.

    In order to reconstruct this PIE religion, he identified the major common traits between each of the different groups and took these similarities to reflect an earlier religion from which each of these subsequent ones evolved. In this view, no religion stands in isolation, but rather on a spectrum of development.

    Just as species evolve along different paths if they become separated by geography, so too do religious myths change over time when groups become separated either geographically or, in some cases, along sociological lines (myths can either conform to or subvert existing social hierarchies).

    When Lincoln reconstructed a PIE version of the myth of Mimir’s Spring, he noted the small variations in each of the Greek, Indic and Celtic versions (and others, but specifically these). However, he also recognized that they each depicted souls crossing a river, their memories being washed away and being transported to a spring, where certain individuals drank of the second source to acquire supernatural wisdom.

    It’s these unifying elements that suggested, to him, a common etymology.

    Furthermore, we can then begin to look at the differences as being actually functional in further understanding the different myths and the reason for their existence. In some of the texts regarding Mimir’s Spring, it is the traditional priestly classes that get to drink of this second source of wisdom, while in others it is marginalized or otherwise non-traditional individuals.

    In such a way, each text differentiates from the original in order to reinforce or subvert traditional social structures.

    To apply this same kind of reasoning to something like Christianity, we need to understand some of the contexts from which Christianity emerged. It was in this context that Jews were largely discriminated against by the larger society, and many felt not only estranged from Roman culture but even from many of their own Jewish leaders, some of whom were beginning to pander to Roman interests.

    It could be argued that Christianity emerged as a counter-revolution to reclaim a traditional Israelite identity, which asserted the significant of the estranged over the empowered (the oppressed over the oppressors). This would explain a number of the passages in the Bible that each refer to the difficulty of rich people to enter heaven, the meek inheriting the Earth, and so on.

    However, although this movement originated from Jews that felt marginalized, it quickly evolved from strictly Jewish to include also, and even emphasize, marginalized gentiles. This also explains the debate in the Bible over circumcision, which was essentially a debate between keeping the movement Jewish vs. opening it up to gentiles.

    If the origins of Christianity did not start with marginalized Jews, and only later move towards the inclusion of gentiles, then such a debate would never have taken place in the first place.

    We could also, in principle, compare Christianity to other myths at the time and do essentially the same thing that Lincoln did with other Indo European religions. That is, we could compare them side-by-side to identify the similarities and construct what would essentially be a religion that pre-empts all of them (in the same way that Ouranopithecus represents the link between humans and the other great apes).

    Then, having identified the similarities, we can evaluate the specific ways each text diverged from the original source to give us an indication of why variation exists. This answers the questions of what each text is attempting to achieve.

    I should also note that comparison along these lines is specifically the enterprise of modern scholars of religion, and frankly has been for the last 50 or more years.

    It is also the reason scholars of the New Testament believe Mark was the first gospel, followed by Mathew and Luke whom each wrote their gospel based on Mark and a text that no longer exists, Q. These interpretations are only arrived at after doing exactly this kind of comparative analysis.

    Thus, we can also identify that the changes in the mythological narrative of Jesus’ life and death between the various gospels each reflect the different interests of each author. The fact that the actual timeline of events, and descriptions of them, varies from gospel to gospel is not accidental, but very much intentional.

    We can also say with certainty, therefore, that each of the authors had their own agenda to fulfill.

    This is why we really can’t write off the kind of cross-comparative analysis of divergent religions, all originating from similar geographical locations and times. Such comparison is necessary to fully understand why we see so much variegation among the world religions.

    I would also add that this approach is not only useful for explaining these differences, but is useful in predicting them. It is even applicable in other religious contexts, helping us to understand nearly any religious text we might come across.

    Elijah, on Twitter you asked me if I thought that the early Christians reacting against the political climate, creating a new myth by adapting pre-existing ones for their own purposes, was the best account for the evidence. My theory was placed in opposition to the theory that Jesus literally resurrected.

    For the reasons above, I reaffirm that yes, I do.

    1. Elijiah Post author

      Hey HA, thanks for the response.

      You summarized B. Lincoln’s position in this way:
      “In order to reconstruct this PIE religion, he identified the major common traits between each of the different groups and took these similarities to reflect an earlier religion from which each of these subsequent ones evolved. In this view, no religion stands in isolation, but rather on a spectrum of development.
      Just as species evolve along different paths if they become separated by geography, so too do religious myths change over time when groups become separated either geographically or, in some cases, along sociological lines (myths can either conform to or subvert existing social hierarchies).”

      This is not my area of expertise either, but I think this methodology, while seeming reasonable at face value, may ultimately lead to concluding exactly what B. Lincoln wants to prove: namely, that religions are not true.
      Because of this, it would seem that his entire approach (as you’ve characterized it) is guilty of begging the question, logically. And in addition to begging the question, it seems that he and others can also use this approach as an argument against religious truth, which would then be a genetic fallacy.

      Let me explain.

      First, B. Lincoln seems starts off with the assumption that all religions are inherently untrue. Why else would his position state that religious myths are on a spectrum of development? I guess its possible for him to believe that we are gradually discovering the religious truth”, but his analysis of religions does not include anything about truth.
      His own definition of religion (found here: http://www.as.ua.edu/rel/aboutrelresemblances2.html) does not include anything about truth, but about social structure, practices, collective morality and community-based values.

      Based on this assumption (that religions are not necessarily based on truth), he then attempts to show that the religions are based on other things, including other previous religions. Ultimately concluding that religions are, in fact, mythical accounts of reality based on prior religious myths.

      So it looks as if Lincoln is begging the question with his approach to religion. He starts with the assumption that religions are not based on truth, but on other things. And he then concludes that religions are not based on truth, but upon other things.

      Secondly, lets assume that religions really are based on previous religions. Does this therefore make them untrue? Of course not.
      According to the IEP, “A critic uses the genetic fallacy if the critic attempts to discredit or support a claim or an argument because of its origin (genesis) when such an appeal to origins is irrelevant.” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#Genetic)

      And this is exactly what is going on here: showing how a religion arose and concluding that those religions are therefore false.

      I could easily go on to respond to the rest of your comment, but I don’t think it would be valuable until we determine whether or not his methodology is sound.
      I realize that this is somewhat of a popular approach within the field of comparative religions (having taken 2 religion classes at the undergrad level; phi. of religion & comparative religions), but these are the problems that I see with B. Lincoln’s approach, as well as approaches like it.

      And if my criticisms of this approach are valid, we need to re-work the methodology, to say the least. We should never base our conclusions about any topic based on missteps in thinking.

      Thanks for your comment, and feel free to take your time to respond. I had a little time on my hands this morning.

  4. Hungry Atheist

    Thanks Elijah,

    You initially make the assumption that Lincoln’s intent was to challenge religious truth. I can see why you might suspect this, if Lincoln’s this approach seems to conflict with your understanding of your religious beliefs, but this was not his goal.

    Lincoln’s objective was exactly what I suggested it was: to demonstrate that there existed a PIE religion that set the foundations for subsequent religious beliefs. He was reconstructing a religious history for which there were no direct texts available.

    In fact, the reconstruction of PIE religion was done earlier in his career, when he was still seeking some level of religious truth. It was not until much later in his career that he started to abandon this quest somewhat in his scholarly work, and the second part of my response derives from this later period in his life (I have no idea if he eventually became an atheist, an agnostic, or remained religious). That is, he began looking at the divergence between otherwise related texts and saw differences as reflecting social conflict.

    You also suggest two potential fallacies in the approach, the genetic and begging the question. Neither criticism is accurate.

    The Genetic fallacy I’ve already demonstrated to be false, because Lincoln’s intent was never to necessarily challenge religious truth, nor was it built into any of his premises. If you took it this way, that’s unfortunate, but that’s strictly a call you’ve made. It does not challenge the strength of his argument.

    As for begging the question, you don’t elaborate on this at all to demonstrate exactly why you think he’s begging the question. Thus, since you really don’t provide any justification for the presence of this fallacy, I see no reason to think your argument is valid here.

    In order for you to demonstrate its presence, using the description of this fallacy contained on the website you linked to, you will need to show whether “any premise that is key to deducing the conclusion is adopted blindly or instead is a reasonable assumption made by someone accepting their burden of proof.”

    As I have already established that Lincoln’s conclusion was *not* that religions are false, nor is this built into any of his premises (they may or may not be, but that’s something believers need to determine for themselves, and Lincoln is unconcerned by it), but rather that geographically related beliefs tend to share common origins, which can be reconstructed by identifying the common elements in each.

    Here’s a summary of the premises that supports Lincoln’s conclusion:

    1) Religions that are geographically related tend to share close approximations of the same myths.
    2) The more divorced from time or space these myths become, the less they reflect one another (greater variation is introduced).
    3) Each variation between texts is interesting, and typically appear to reinforce new or traditional values encompassed by the emerging mythologies and rituals.
    4) Comparing two texts that are completely unrelated to one another by time or space (two societies have had no contact, share no common geographic origins), we are significantly less likely to find the same kinds of parallel stories. While parallels may still occur, they’re much more rare and likely coincidental (or may be accounted by other similarities, such as references to oceans if they’re a coastal society, etc.)

    Now, after all of that, you backtrack a little by suggesting that even if everything you had just challenged was true, it still wouldn’t necessarily challenge religion, thus rendering the first half of your argument largely irrelevant.

    Truthfully, I agree. It need not prove religions are false, and that was never the intent nor the assumption. If it *does* prove the religion false for you, then that’s an issue that you must deal with personally, but that is not a challenge to Lincoln.

    I would also like to ask what alternative approach would you propose? Because if we do not accept Lincoln’s understanding that religious myths derive from prior myths, modified to suit the purposes of each subsequent author/story-teller, how do we make sense of the sheer amount of difference between all the different religions of the world?

    Lincoln’s approach is actually *incredibly good* at explaining this variation, and seems to fit the data extremely well. If you want examples of this happening practically before your eyes, look at any post-colonial religious group on the planet.

    In every single instance we see resistance coming in the form of, typically, hybridizing traditional beliefs with the beliefs of the colonizers. We also see modifications to traditional beliefs in order to undermine the interests of the colonizers, inverting the power imbalance that exists between the white and indigenous peoples within a constructed mythology.

    If you want to challenge these premises, you need to explain exactly why any of these conclusions is not justified based on the evidence.

    If you cannot do this, then you should accept that religions do change over time, that these changes directly reflect changing beliefs within the culture, and that these changes are intentional, not accidental.

    None of that necessarily requires you to abandon Christianity as the truth. However, if recognizing that there is nothing unique in Christianity does challenge its authority for you, then that may be something you will need to resolve for yourself. If it doesn’t challenge Christian authority, then it’s up to you to harmonize your Christian beliefs with the raw facts of how religions form (a feat that need not be impossible, but certainly one that must be undertaken).

    My application of Lincoln’s argument stands indifferent to whether or not Christianity is true.

    As my final point of thought, the original purpose of my argument was actually to present that such argumentation is not only practiced by religious scholars today, but is even mainstream. As I saw no challenge to this coming from you, I’m glad you’ve conceded the point.

    I will also add that I’m currently undergoing my Masters in Religious Studies.

    1. Elijiah Post author

      Hey HA,

      My primary concern with his approach is that it seems to ignore any hint of possible religious truth, specifically because he’s looking for ways that religions change, none of which involve a genuine search for truth.
      He seems to ignore the search for truth in his analysis. Don’t you think that “because people group A think religion Y is true” is a legitimate reason for those people in group A to adopt religion Y?

      I’m asking this of you, not necessarily of Lincoln.

      And you’re right – Lincoln doesn’t actually conclude with “therefore, religion X is false”. I was sorta jumping the gun to how people typically take this type of research. If religion C is just another form of religion B, and religion B is another form of religion A, and then religion A is based off of a misunderstanding of reality (pre-scientific era, stuff like that) then we can disregard religion A. And therefore disregard religion C.

      Question for you:
      Lets say that Lincoln is correct in his methodology. What conclusion should we reach about the truth or falsity of a particular religion in question? I would imagine you would like its truth or falsity be an open question, which I would tend to agree with.
      But here’s where the problem is; how can you say that religion X is true, if we can “trace its roots” (so to speak) back to demonstrably false religions? Is there any way that a reasonable person (following Lincoln’s approach) would conclude that religion X *even could be* true?

      You said:
      … you should accept that religions do change over time, that these changes directly reflect changing beliefs within the culture, and that these changes are intentional, not accidental.

      I actually do accept that. I don’t really know why I wouldn’t.
      Of course religious beliefs change as a result of changing beliefs. It almost seems redundant redundant to say it out loud.
      But my main point (and I apologize if I sound like I’m repeating myself) is whether or not a particular religion is true. If we’re asking about the truth-value of a particular religion, tracing its origins back to other previously existing belief systems doesn’t really seem relevant.

      We should be able to test the claims of a particular religion against reality, not merely dismiss them because one religion is similar to a religion that came before it. And again, I’m not saying that either you or Lincoln is doing this, but it does seem to be the logical outworking of this methodology (examining religions as belief systems that change over time rather than belief systems that may or may not be false).

      1. Elijiah Post author

        My replies are not necessarily designed to engage you on every point you’ve made, because that would end up causing us to write and read a book every time we opened up this site. My comments are designed to move the conversation to the point(s) that I see as the most valuable; the major points where we disagree and clarification is needed most.

      2. Hungry Atheist

        I think one of the fundamental disagreements between you and I (or you and Lincoln) is that you believe, because there is a spiritual truth in the world, scholarly work is necessarily depraved if it does not at least consider this fact.

        However, this is an example of begging the question. We have not actually established that there is a real religious truth. If we have not established this, then we cannot move forward with any conclusions that depend on it as a premise.

        Until you prove the validity of Christianity, I am entirely justified in simply not making assumptions about or even considering the existence of God. If God does exist, then his existence should become evident even when I do research that does not pre-emptively look for him.

        Consider an analogy.

        An equinologist does not have to assume unicorns do not exist before studying horses. Rather, the equinologist simply operates without assuming unicorns exist, and moves on from there. If they end up studying the DNA of a horse and it becomes certain that the evolutionary history of a horse requires unicorns, then the equinologist would have to take seriously that evidence only at that time. But that assumption is neither accepted nor considered until sufficient reason is provided.

        I do not, at this time, have any justifiable reason to assume God (unicorns) exists, and therefore I will make no assumptions about either in my research. I am justified in this position *even if I turn out to be wrong,* because I cannot allow every available proposition before conducting research. Research would never advance if that were the case.

        To this point, the only argument I’ve seriously put forward is that scholarship does actually engage in the kinds of religious comparison that you originally claimed it did not. I have not been making a case against the legitimacy of Christianity, per se.

        To that end, I think I’ve suitably proven my case, and we can move on to whether or not Christianity is *true.* Until we can assert that Christianity is true, we cannot challenge the merits of Lincoln’s secular approach to religion on the basis that he is omitting “truth.”

        This is also not a claim for which I am required to provide any positive argument, as I am entitled to the null hypothesis of indifference (as with the unicorn analogy above) until you can present an argument in favour of Christianity, to which I may then offer a rebuttal.

  5. Pingback: Gnosis: The Secret Jesus | Burning Uranus

  6. Max

    Dr. Mark Foreman, DEBUNKED

    William Lane Craig, DEBUNKED

    Primary sources & scholar commentary on them support ZG1:


    Primary Sources & Scholars cited in the ZG1 Sourcebook

    Rebuttal to Dr. Chris Forbes

    Zeitgeist Part 1

    Pagan Parallels: Achilles Heel of Christianity

    1. ElijiahT Post author

      Thanks for the resources, Max.
      Unfortunately, as of today (12/16/13) the only link you provided that is actually available is the sourcebook. Freethoughtnation and truthbeknown are both giving me this message:

      “Service Unavailable
      Server currently undergoing maintenance. Webmaster: please contact support.”

      Although I have a really hard time taking anyone seriously who actually thinks Zeitgeist is a good argument for anything.

  7. Pingback: Christian Mythology | The Tale Of Bitter Truth

  8. Pingback: Ho! Ho! Ho! JesusDidntExist « ElijiahT

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