There is a popular argument going around these days “Jesus never existed and we can prove it.”
At the time of Jesus, a Jewish writer named Philo lived in Alexandria, a large city on the coast of Egypt. Philo tried to integrate the Jewish religion with Greek philosophy, to make the Jews more Greek and Roman. Historically, he was not popular with his fellow Jews. We know about him now because Christians liked his writings.
It is interesting that Philo never once mentioned Jesus in his writings. This man lived when the New Testament tells us Jesus preached and did miracles, and Philo is silent about Jesus. Today, some critics are saying Christians believe in a made up character, the “Christ Myth.” You can search for “Philo” and the other terms on the Internet, but I don’t want to give links because most of the discussions are aggressive and offensive.
Today, Philo’s silence encourages some people to believe that Jesus never existed.
So what should we do with Philo?
The argument of silence is always weak; Philo wrote about things that interested him. Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist were two preachers from remote regions. People like that were common and often associated with the Essenes who left the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Philo was an aristocrat connected to the highest levels of society, and he lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Jesus was a village carpenter from the northern province of Galilee who was killed soon after he walked to Jerusalem. In the earliest days of the Christian Church, the movement probably looked like a cult from the back country that would soon disappear. Philo had other interests.
There is another ancient story that can help our understanding. In the year 64, about thirty years after the death of Jesus, and fifteen years from the death of Philo, a terrible fire broke out in the city of Rome. The Emperor Nero was in trouble over this, so he blamed the Christians, and started the first Roman persecution of Christians.
Nero’s actions show us something today.He was politically wily, and he needed three things from the Christians in the city of Rome; a well known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. He needed a successful corporation that he could plausibly blame for the massive arson project. An unorganized and vague philosophy from the East would not do the job.
In the year 64, no one disputed that Christians were the followers of a man named Jesus, even though they disputed everything they could about Christianity, with sincere hatred. At that time, eye witnesses who saw Jesus were still available. Our perspective, two thousand years later, cannot compete. Nero tried to exterminate the followers of a man named Jesus, a Jewish carpenter, thirty years after Jesus was executed.
When I was a young Christian, I used to puzzle over historical arguments about Christianity. How could I commit my life to something that was shaky historically? The answer is I can’t, but there is one argument that most scholars won’t talk about.
The Bible tells us that Jesus rose from the dead and that he promised to send his Holy Spirit to us in our life time. We don’t just read history, we make it. We need to look forward, not backward.
Jesus said: I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
Thirty years after the execution of an obscure Jewish carpenter that Philo ignored, his followers in Rome, more than 2000 kilometers away, were famous, and numerous, and well organized. Nero took full advantage because Jesus did indeed build his church.
I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you do know Him, for He abides with you and He will be in you. (John 4:16 and 17)