Zeitgeist the Movie and the Earliest Christians

By Mary Jo Sharp

What About Second Temple Judaism?

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…

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Zeitgeist the Movie and the Earliest Christians

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