Every year around Easter, as Christians are preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, many television and cable shows feature episodes on the Christian belief in the resurrection. Often times, these shows entail wild claims such as the ones found in the internet movie, "Zeitgeist, the Movie." One claim found in "Zeitgeist" that is especially popular is that the early Christians copied bits of pagan religions to invent their own "Christ" or messiah.
According to the makers of “Zeitgeist, the Movie,” the worship of Jesus is explainable as another outcrop of apotheosis (human figure exalted to divine status and therefore worthy of worship), as just another divine figure in the “religious cafeteria”1 of the first century pantheon of gods, or perhaps a product of astrology. But is this explanation reconcilable to a more comprehensive view of the historical and anthropological evidence of first century Palestinian region2 and of the earliest surviving Christian writings? No. The earliest demonstration of the “cultic” worship of Jesus is by Second-Temple Jewish believers.3 Though, as will be shown, this is an extremely important piece of Christianity’s development, "Zeitgeist, the Movie" completely ignores this fact.
The Second-Temple Jewish believers were unquestionably influenced culturally by the Hellenism brought from the Roman occupation of their lands.4 But what historians must do is look at exactly how these Jewish believers were influenced, and in what areas of life. One area in which they were influenced was language. There are Greek copies of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint; clearly demonstrating that some of the Jewish people spoke/read Greek. However, it does not follow that these people were therefore influenced in religious practice. This kind of conclusion requires more specific evidence.
What we do know about Second-Temple Jewish believers is that their devotion to the “One God” stuck out amongst the menagerie of pagan deities surrounding them. The Jewish adherence to God’s uniqueness can be seen in various non-rabbinic texts of the Jewish provenance: Sibylline Oracles (3.11-12, 545-61; cf. 4.27-32; 5.172-76; 493-500), Letter of Aristeas (132-38), Wisdom of Solomon, (13-15), and references in Philo and Josephus.5 The First Book of Maccabees also describes Jewish devotion to the One God specifically with regard to the Hellenistic influences (1 Maccabees 2:15-26). From the Old Testament, worship of any other gods was established as detestable and vile. “If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed,” as found in Deuteronomy 8:19. Also, in Deuteronomy 13: 6-9, “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’ (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.” So, what can be inferred from these evidences, is that the Jewish believers from Second-Temple Judaism not only disallowed influences of the pagan religions on their belief structure, but also vehemently opposed this activity.
The young Christian movement, located entirely within Second-Temple Judaism, associated Jesus with worship of and devotion to the One God; while at the same time showing disdain for worship of the multiple deities of the Roman environment. The earliest writings of Christianity (c. A.D. 50-60) by the apostle Paul demonstrate this very idea. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul describes his praise of the new believers for their conversion “to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, who he raised from the dead – Jesus who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1:9-10). Also, in 1 Corinthians 8 through 10, Paul addresses the Gentiles with regard to leaving behind their pagan religious practices. He advises them to completely shun any former pagan practices in light of their conversion to the one true God (through Jesus Christ). Plus, let's not forget that Paul, himself, was a testimony to how egregious was the offense of worshipping other gods in Second-Temple Judaism. He persecuted and pursued the followers of Jesus to destroy them before his Damascus road experience. "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13-14)
Conversely, the idea of abandoning all other deities was uncommon and dissimilar to the pagan mystery religions. The apotheosis stories and other pagan deities cannot show the same devotion to worship of one God. The earliest Christian writings show disdain of these very religions for their practices and establish a totally new kind of theology; namely, that Jesus was to be identified and worshipped as the one, true God, not supplanting God, but as a part of God’s identity. The makers of “Zeitgeist, the Movie” need to satisfy some questions regarding the new theology of the Christians in light of the evidence that Second-Temple Jewish believersabhorred pagan worship and deities. The most important question is, "Where is the evidence to support copious borrowing from pagan theology?" Speculation and surface similarities of worship practices will not suffice to wish away the historical Jewish faith or the Christian sect that developed from Judaism in the first century.
1 Hurtado, Larry. How Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Cambridge, Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2005, Pg. 25 2 I have used "Palestinian region" due to the fact that this area was not named Palestine until after the first century. 3 The name “Second Temple Judaism” has become popular in more modern scholarship to describe the religion of the Jewish people who practiced their faith in the time frame of the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple to at least the time of the destruction of this second temple in AD 70. 4 For further study: Martin Hengel. Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003. 5 Hurtado. How Did Jesus Become a God? Pg.118