Philo Judaeus was an ancient Jewish
philosopher and theologian who lived at about the same time as
Jesus. As a contemporary of Jesus and because he wrote a great
deal about religion some have assumed that he certainly would have
written about Jesus. But he did not, and that has been taken as
evidence that Jesus did not exist, or if he did he was far less
than what the gospels depict.
Is that a valid conclusion?
Here is what we know of Philo from his writings, most of it
preserved by early Christians such as Eusebius. He was born in 20
BC in Alexandria. He made at least one trip to Jerusalem. His
description of the trip is found in On Providence, frag. II:
"There is a city of Syria, on the sea shore, Ascalon by name: when
I was there, at the time when I was on my journey towards the
temple of my native land for the purpose of offering up prayers
and sacrifices therein . . ." That is it. Nothing about Jerusalem.
And there is no indication when he made that trip.
Also preserved are two fragments of Philo's description of the Essenes
a sect of Judaism associated perhaps with the Dead Sea Scrolls and
the Qumran community and sometimes said by modern historians to be
connected with John the Baptist. The fragments contain only
descriptions of Essene life. There is no suggestion in the
fragments of Philo visiting an Essene community on the Dead Sea,
though there are hints of personal observations that may indicate
that he did.
Philo also made at least one trip to Rome in 40 AD to argue before
Roman Emperor Caligula for fair treatment of the Jewish community
in Alexandria. That is all we know of Philo's life.
The question is whether we should expect Philo to have had
knowledge of Jesus either from his personal acquaintance with
Jerusalem or from his acquaintance with an early Christian
community in Alexandria and whether he would have written about it
if he had.
The answer is probably no. Why?
First, Philo was not an historian. He wrote nothing about
Jerusalem that we have in our possession aside from his brief
mention that he was going there on a spiritual pilgrimage. He was
not a travel writer or historian.
Second, if he had been there during the time of Jesus' teaching
ministry would he have noticed Jesus? Maybe. but he might very
well have seen Jesus (or John the Baptist) as an Essene. That is
what it would have looked like to someone not well acquainted with
Jesus but acquainted with the Essenes as Philo was. But
there is no indication of either. So it is probable that Philo was
not in Judea during the window of time of 29-33 AD.
Third, would he have written about Jesus from Alexandria? Probably
not. Philo was interested in theology. Even if he had heard of
Jesus or of his crucifixion, it would not have seemed like a very
significant event. A lot of men were crucified in Jerusalem. There
were even a lot of messiah's or would be messiahs, some about whom
Josephus writes. And Philo writes of none of them. It was not
Finally, would Philo have encountered Christians in Alexandria?
That is possible. But it is also unlikely. Followers of Jesus may
not have gotten as far as Alexandria prior to 40 AD. And if they
had, they would have been a very small obscure group of what would
have looked then to be a Jewish sect. Christians even saw
themselves as a Jewish sect, though Messianic. Even if Philo had
known about them, he would have considered them similar to others
of the many Jewish sects in the city. But there is not one word
from Philo about any of the Jewish sects in Alexandria. They
were not his interest.
Not finding anything about Jesus in Philo's
writings is hardly surprising. It is most likely he knew nothing
of Jesus or didn't care enough about Jesus to write about him.
Philo's silence, therefore, is no argument for the non-existence