A friend of mine asked me to watch the first section of Zeitgeist (a movie you can watch for free on the internet at http://zeitgeistmovie.com/) and give him some perspective on it.
I don’t recall ever having run across so many factual inaccuracies in such a short span of time. I doubt I even caught them all — they were flying fast and furious.
I’ll start with a few that are easy for an untrained layperson to see right away. There’s some other stuff he said that I know is false, but demonstrating it is less easy. It becomes “my expert you’ve never heard of” versus “his expert you’ve never heard of” with me saying “my expert is better than his expert — trust me.” So I’ll keep this list focused on stuff anyone can easily verify on their own.
One easily-checked fact that he builds his argument on is that the Southern Cross is the real inspiration for the cross of Jesus (watch from 17:35 through 19:03). Three problems with this:
a) The Southern Cross is a modern invention — not an ancient constellation. Check http://www.windows.ucar.edu/the_universe/crux.html and http://www.fillingthesky.com/constellationhistory.html
b) The Southern Cross is not visible from where the New Testament was written. In the Northern Hemisphere you have to be below 30 degrees latitude to see it. The New Testament was written from Jerusalem on north.
c) It’s hard to see how a constellation that didn’t exist and couldn’t be seen inspired the story of Jesus when Romans actually killed people on crosses all the time. Is he seriously suggesting that the Romans didn’t actually crucify people?
Missing such a basic fact doesn’t inspire confidence in the more esoteric, less easily-checked facts he uses to make his entire case. There are other easily-checked facts he distorts. Two from the Bible struck me.
In the time range 23:38 — 25:20 the movie claims that Jesus is a personification of the astrological sign of Pisces. Towards the end of this section, the narrator states that Jesus’ disciples asked him when he would celebrate the next passover with them him after he is gone and that Jesus’ answer in Luke 22:10 was code language for Aquarius (the next age of the Zodiac). This is easy enough to check — and it turns out to be a lie. Luke 22:10 is about the passover they are celebrating that night, not the next meal they will share after his resurrection. That isn’t a minor difference — it undermines his entire interpretation.
Another example of his willingness to distort the Bible to make his point occurs around time marker 21:10, when he says that the Bible teaches that Jesus comes from heaven wearing a crown of thorns, which represent the rays of the sun. He quotes John 19:5 to support this point. Look it up. There’s not even a hint of Jesus descending from heaven anywhere in this passage. He’s walking from one place to another — not descending from the clouds as the narrator claims.
These two instances aren’t nitpicking — these are very easily checked statements in the bestselling book of all time which is always available for instant fact-checking on the internet at places such as Bible Gateway. If he didn’t even check these references that key parts of his argument rely on, then how much stock can we place in his references to obscure ancient Egyptian texts that only scholars have ready access to?
Just look through it. Pay attention to the stories of Jesus in the right column (you are presumably more familiar with them). I think you’ll be surprised at how flaky that list is.
Bottom line: Zeitgeist is very imaginative, but that’s about it.
UPDATE 2/24/2008: This post is still generating comments. It’s been six months since I wrote this post, and since then a helpful review by Ben Witherington has been posted — The Zeitgeist of the ‘Zeitgeist Movie’. Look to it for a more detailed rebuttal of the movie’s claims.