Who’s Skeptical of the Skeptics?

Tim Callahan’s criticisms of the religious portion of the film Zeitgeist (I wouldn’t recommend anybody watch the rest of the movie) for Skeptic Magazine seems to be a bit off kilter and, well, unskeptical. He begins the article by asserting that the “worst” part of the film was that some of it was true and in the title he refers to the work as “garbled”, but then he goes on to write an equally dubious criticism. While Zeitgeis does provide merely a gross over view of topics that need much more investigation, Tim seems to be hitting the wrong marks in his analysis of the film, which much surprised me considering his usual thoroughness in Biblical criticism. There is a difference between his criticism of Zeitgeist and his previous articles, though: this one is about the existence of Jesus, and that seems like it hits too close to home for him. I’m not out to defend Zeitgeist, per se, I just hate bad criticisms.

I don’t really want to come across as a Christ Myth advocate, but at this point, the theory seems not only plausible, but likely. I would really love some good concrete evidence of an historical Jesus, really I would. Religious origins are, after all, an interesting phenomenon. But, as Mormonism and Scientology has shown us, there doesn’t really have to be much of a spark to start a religion, just a flame in the followers. The origins to these movement may be concrete, they may be abstract. But, after the first generation, what does it matter? Even if any particular revelation is divine in nature, once it is passed on it becomes heresy, nothing more. After all, any god that can give revelation to one individual, can give it to many. Therefore anyone claiming revelation is suspect.

Much of Zeitgeist (religious portion) centers on Astro-theology, and the theory that many religious figures and symbols may have begun as personifications of solar phenomena may seem like a stretch at first, but it is far from implausible, and Tim seemed to make the same mistake other more literalistic (usually Biblical inherentist) scholars tend to make: they seem to believe that a one to one correlation between concepts needs to be made in order to draw any sort of comparison. This demand seems like special pleading for religious figures, since it is not used in other fields. If we demand an infinite number of parallels in other areas, there would be no categories at all. And categories do help us to compare and contrast beliefs across cultures.

How far back could ancient man have begun looking at the stars? Well, anthropologist Curtis Marean has traced mankind’s tracking of astronomical bodies as far back as 100,000 years ago. How might have ancient man interpreted star movement? Personification not only seem both possible and plausible as an ancient German carving of the constellation figure of Orion (dated to 32,000 BCE) has shown. Might those stories then have been handed down the generations? Again, possible.

The Zeitgeist film is far from a definitive work, it’s not meant to be. But, is it wrong in any of it’s assertions? I don’t really think anyone can say that. They can disagree, but contradictory evidence is hard to come by. When watched as a gloss over view, as I believe it was intended, I believe it serves as a good introduction into the concepts of “ideal types” and comparative religion. The biggest mistake in the film, as far as I can see, is its attempt to make religion look like a conspiracy rather than what it is, the basic human tendency to believe in the supernatural. Will we ever know the origin of religious stories? Perhaps not. But it doesn’t hurt to theorize. At least Zeitgeist is looking for a natural explanations in the world around. Just remember to stop it as soon as the religions section is done. I totally agree with the criticisms of the remainder of the film

Tim Callahan has pointed to ancient sources for Old Testament stories in articles before. But, in his criticism of Zeitgeist he seems to suddenly believe that unbiased expert testimony is to be found in the Bible. Why is he choosing to take certain bits seriously and other figuratively? Let’s look at some of his points.

*The Star of Bethlehem

In the gospel of Mathew it claims that the “Star” “went before them” (Math 2:9-11), something stars simply do not do. There is no need to look for a particular star, constellation, or conjunction of planets, it is obvious fiction. No star is mentioned in the earliest Christian documents (the Pauline Epistles, Mark, the Didache) and I believe all references to it are to be taken no more seriously than a December 25th birth date. It does show the importance ancient people put on astrology, though.


Tim claims that no astronomical significance can be attached to the celebration of Easter because Biblically it is tied to the existing tradition of Passover. Easter is tied to Passover in the Gospels, though, unless you are a literalist, that is simply not enough to call it case closed. It could point to two tiered significance: that the Passover was a spring time festival and Easter was a derivative of that. Of course, in the book of Exodus, Moses initially asks for the Hebrews to be allowed to enter into the desert to celebrate another pre-existing tradition: The Feast of Firstlings. But, are either of those the origin? Are there other Easter traditions? Yes there are:

…according to an ancient and widespread tradition Christ suffered on the twenty-fifth of March, and accordingly some Christians regularly celebrated the Crucifixion on that day without any regard to the state of the moon. This custom was certainly observed in Phrygia, Cappadocia, and Gaul, and there seem to be grounds for thinking that at one time it was followed also in Rome. Thus the tradition which placed the death of Christ on the twenty-fifth of March was ancient and deeply rooted. It is all the more remarkable because astronomical considerations prove that it can have had no historical foundation. The inference appears to be inevitable that the passion of Christ must have been arbitrarily referred to that date in order to harmonise with an older festival of the spring equinox. – James Frazer, The Golden Bough, chapter 37.

With their possible late composition (end of the first to the middle of the second centuries CE), to rely solely on the gospels is to rely on religious documents as a primary source and that is just not valid history.

*James the Just in Josephus

Tim asks if we know if there was an historical Jesus, and then points to Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” book 20 with it’s mention of James the brother of Jesus “known as the Christ” to make his point. While this is probably the best piece of evidence, it really isn’t very strong. It was written in 94 AD, making it too late to be anything more than a mixture of legend and fact, as we have seen in other historical works. And that’s not the only problem. As the Antiquities book 18 reference to Jesus has shown us, Christian tampering with historical documents has made suspect any mention of Jesus, especially such a short, fleeting, off handed reference such as this one.

Historically, the skeptics that downplayed James the Just, were the churches. The Eastern Orthodox church considers James the son of Joseph from a previous marriage in order to maintain the “perpetual virginity” of Mary while the Catholic Church considers him a cousin. Is he even really an integral part of the story? Within the Bible, Acts is the only book to make anything of the role of James, and modern critical analysis shows that book to be a work of the second century. As far as the actual passage in Antiquities goes, the earliest known manuscript is from the 11th century.

Even if that passage is accepted as original, was the Jesus mentioned THE Jesus? The name “Jesus” was such a common name that even in that short passage there is a second Jesus mentioned. Coincidence? Let’s see. Jesus is referred to as “the one called christ. As we know, the word christ merely means “anointed”, a reference to a priest. After that, Josephus seems to drop the topic of conversation until he mentions the second Jesus, son of Damneus, who was recently appointed to … the priesthood. Within the context of the passage, this reference does not seem to be a reference to Jesus son of Joseph, but rather to Jesus son of Damneus. On top of that, why would Josephus so off handedly, without any further clarification, mention someone who to Rome was no more than a criminal that was executed 60 years earlier?

Once again, is it possible, yes. But, do we know? No. And that is Tim’s assertion, that we know because of this passage. To argue that these few words in Antiquities is proof of an historical Jesus is no better than any argument made in Zeitgeist.

In his most illogical argument, Tim actually mentions the criterion of embarrassment as proof of an historical Jesus. It is surprising to see him using an apologist’s ploy and it did cause me to do a bit of a double take. We cannot use assumptions of the author’s intent as proof, we can only use unbiased historical texts. He sites Tacitus (56-117 CE), a man that could only comment on rumors, speculation, and an existing religious movement and his mention of Christians in his Annals of Imperial Rome as a proof of Jesus though it is merely commenting on an existing cult, it does not take any time or effort in analyzing the basis of the movement. Similar statements can be found about any other religion. This would be like saying that Marcion’s theology was correct because he was considered a heretic rather than in spite of it.

* End of the Age

Tim criticises the use of the Biblical phrase “I am with you always to the end of the age” as a means of reference a belief in astrological “ages”. He is correct that references in Mark, Thessalonian, and Revelations reveal a belief that the end of the age would come soon. He is wrong when he claims that the film says the end will come in 2,000 years. All Zeitgeist was saying was that the early Christians were saying they were at the tail end of the last age and the the beginning of the next. It’s reference is implying that an age has ended, and new age has begun and, and along with it, a new religion. One that will last until the end of that age. I’m not saying it’s correct, but that is the film’s assertion. Tim’s criticism is based on his misunderstanding. Besides, cyclical ages were a major part of Gnostic Christianity as well as the Roman mystery religions. Tim seems to be so intent on having a contradiction that he creates one.

* Nazareth and Bethlehem

Callahan is also making too much of Jesus’ geographical home, citing the cumbersome ways in which both Luke and Mathew ham handedly tried to have Jesus born in Bethlehem (to fulfill Hebrew messianic prophesy) yet living in Nazareth. Well, he may very well have been historical, just not for this reason. We should not forget that Mark 2:1 refers to Capernaum as Jesus’ home.

Why insist that, when faced with incongruent data, one piece of the information is factual? It merely looks as if the authors were trying to fit together nonconforming pieces of a puzzle, none of them quite fitting. And, upon closer inspection, it looks as though any reference to Nazareth may have been a mistake, never originating with the town at all. None of the synoptic gospels refer to the town of Nazareth and the spelling and use of the term Nazorean changes throughout the texts. Nazorean may just be a reference to the Nazorean philosophers, a group with a very similar philosophy to Jesus. In fact, in Acts Paul is even referred to as “ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans”

*The Twelve

Zeitgeist theorizes that Jesus’s 12 apostles may have an astrological origin. Tim claims their origin stems from a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve really aren’t even given much room in the gospels, except to act as a crowd for Jesus to speak to, and in the epistles they are only referred to as an ambiguous, “the twelve”. Are they based on the twelve tribes of Israel? You would think that would have been spelled out a bit more if they were. Was there even a “twelve tribes”? The Old Testament claims twelve tribes, even though, when counted, they mention 14 tribes by name. So why do they only claim 12? The Ismaelites also claim 12 tribes. Do they coincidently also have the same number of tribes as the Hebrews? Or do they both just share a similar culture? A culture that glorifies the number 12? The number 12 is is used quite frequently throughout Jewish religious writings (Gen 14:4, 17:20, 35:22, 42:13, Etc). 70 is another commonly used number (Gen 46:26, 50:3, Ex 1:5, 15:27, 24:1, Nm 7:13, etc). 40 is another. Because of their custom of using these special numbers, the Old Testament writers claimed that there 70 nations on the Earth, a claim we feel no need to insist on as fact today.

What do these things tell us? When in doubt, the biblical writers would insert certain special numbers, even if they had to fudge the information to get them to fit. How did these numbers gain symbolic importance? We simply don’t know. But an astronomical reason is most definitely not off the table. Placing the origin of these numbers in astrology makes as much sense as any other answer until we find more information, but, we cannot blindly accept a religious document as an unbiased historical source.

* Conclusion

There may be some sloppiness in the religious section of Zeitgeist, but not as much as some would let on. The biggest mistake in the film is an attempt to make religion look like a conspiracy rather than what it is, the basic human tendency to believe strange things. But, if you don’t like the style of Zeitgeist or Acharya S, try reading Ignaz Goldzehek, or Sir James Frazer, or Robert Price. There are plenty of scholars that work in comparative religions and, therefore, no not need to focus solely on an internet film. Was Jesus a myth? Well, the Jesus of Paul seemed to be. The Jesus of James may have existed. But if he did, his history is lost among the heaps of disinformation and religious interpretation.

If you think astro-theology is easily dismissed, well, in the very least it’s a natural explanation. In the end, it really does not matter one bit where the origin of the actual stories came from. It’s the phenomenon of religious belief that must be understood.

In respect both of doctrines and of rites the cult of Mithra appears to have presented many points of resemblance not only to the religion of the Mother of the Gods but also to Christianity. The similarity struck the Christian doctors themselves and was explained by them as a work of the devil, who sought to seduce the souls of men from the true faith by a false and insidious imitation of it. So to the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru many of the native heathen rites appeared to be diabolical counterfeits of the Christian sacraments. With more probability the modern student of comparative religion traces such resemblances to the similar and independent workings of the mind of man in his sincere, if crude, attempts to fathom the secret of the universe, and to adjust his little life to its awful mysteries. -James Frazer, The Golden Bough

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2 Comments on “Who’s Skeptical of the Skeptics?”

  1. Benjamin Steele Says:

    This is a great post. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed presentation.

    You’re very justified in criticizing Callahan’s criticism. I don’t have much to add other than to say I agree. This is exactly the type of thing I might write if I felt so motivated.

    I have discussed Zeitgeist, Acharya S, and Callahan on a number of occasions. These discussions are often rather pointless, but you presented a very balanced analysis here.

    Also, I was glad to see you mention some names besides Acharya S. Some critics would like to believe that Acharya S is a lone voice and so an easy target, but I’ve found that the people who are most critical are those who are the least well read. A while back, I finished Acharya’s most recent book and I must say it is quite the impressive tome. I don’t have to agree with everything she writes, but there is no doubt that the lady does her research.

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