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The Silence of Philo of Alexandria (1st-Century Fridays #4)

The Silence of Philo of Alexandria (1st-Century Fridays #4) July 16, 2021

Hi and welcome back! For today’s 1st-Century Friday, we have a treat in store: Philo of Alexandria, also called Philo Judaeus. He lived smack in the middle of that critically-important period we’ve identified as the 30s, roughly. Not only that, but he was also Jewish and highly-placed in court circles. Out of everybody on our entire list of authors, I’d expect Philo, at least, to know a little something about Jesus. Today, let’s see if he did.

the usual picture of philo judaeus
The usual picture one sees of Philo Judaeus/of Alexandria. He must have been a blast at parties.

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting ancient figures that were contemporaneous with Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous,” not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Everyone, Meet Philo of Alexandria.

I’ve known about Philo of Alexandria since my college days, though I don’t remember where I first encountered his name. It certainly didn’t come to me from anybody in my Pentecostal or evangelical connections, for reasons that will likely be painfully and abundantly clear by the end of this post.

It’s thought that Philo lived from 20 BCE to 50 CE. He lived in Alexandria, which was then part of the Roman Empire’s province of Egypt. Remember that whole Great Library of Alexandria? He lived during the time when that was around. (The library got started roughly around 280 BCE, then began to decline around the 260s CE and was likely fully demolished in 391 CE. Just imagine living in the same city as that marvel! Oh, there’s my happy place today.)

After receiving a very good education, Philo began writing — in Koine Greek.

Most historians think Philo’s family was wealthy and extremely well-connected politically. Even ancient Christians thought his family was connected to Judea’s priest class and to the dynasty of Herod that ruled Judea in various configurations around the supposed lifetime of Jesus. So he had connections in Jerusalem. Indeed, we know he visited Jerusalem’s Second Temple at least once.

Toward the end of his life, Philo made a trip to see Gaius Caligula (yes, that Caligula). In 38 and 40 CE, riots and ethnic strife broke out in Alexandria between Greeks and Jews. So Philo and his expedition visited the Emperor to beg him to grant relief to the Jews under his rule. By all accounts, the Jewish community chose Philo because he was well-respected.

Unfortunately, the trip didn’t go well. Caligula was rabidly anti-Semitic, and I’m sure Roman Jews didn’t mourn much when he ended up assassinated the next year.

We don’t know exactly when Philo died or how, but since he mentions the next Emperor, Claudius, by name at some point we know he was around in 41 CE at least.

What Did Philo Believe?

Philo was a prolific writer and fervent Jew. He liked exploring philosophical and religious topics.

You know how some Christians today try to say that literally all well-regarded religious ideas come from Christianity somehow? Philo was like that about Judaism. He thought that the Torah contained all wisdom for all people.

The kind of Judaism that was popular during Philo’s lifetime is now called “Second Temple Judaism” after the Second Temple in Jerusalem (which stood from about 538 BCE to 70 CE). And Second Temple Judaism turns out to be a really important stepping-stone between the alarmingly-pagan-sounding early Judaism to the transcendent, unknowable, unguessable omnimax god of Christianity. Philo was in the middle of this incredibly important shift in beliefs.

As a result, Philo’s main claim to fame is popularizing the merging of Torah teachings with Hellenistic philosophy — specifically Stoicism. Stoicism has a lot to recommend itself, being a system of ethics that teachings adherents to live in the moment, treat others fairly, and not get overly controlled by one’s desires.

Of course, Philo wasn’t the very first guy to do this. That honor might go to Aristobulus of Alexandria, a 2nd-century BCE philosopher who inspired Philo. In fact, Aristobulus thought that Hellenistic philosophical ideas had all come from Jewish writings.

It sounds like Philo felt similarly.

The Apologetics of Philo.

It bugged Philo to think about his god having a physical body and human emotions. That seemed way too picayune and fallible for a, well, god. At least some of Philo’s writing, then, seems to be an apologetic meant to elevate his god above the formerly all-too-human gods of the ancient world — and to settle the Torah into position as a timeless, all-singing, all-dancing book of wisdom.

So in his hands, at least some of the Old Testament’s myths became allegorical in nature, with characters representing aspects of the human condition. And his abstract, sublime, unchanging god floated far, far above any human concerns. This god couldn’t be defined, described, or even correctly named.

In a 2012 post from Deseret Times, we learn much more about how Philo subtly shifted the nature of his god:

Another doctrine associated with Philo is that of the “Logos,” or (as it’s commonly but inadequately translated) the “Word.” (This same term appears in the first chapter of the gospel of John.) Philo’s God was so exalted above human conceptions, so transcendent, that Philo was obliged to speak of an intermediate divine being, the Logos, who connected that distant God with us and with the world in which we live.

Christians do love to talk about the Logos, don’t they? Well, like we see in every single other aspect of their religion, they got this particular notion from somewhere else.

Without Philo, Christianity would not exist in the form it does. It’s really that simple.

What Philo Wrote About His Times.

Philo wrote oodles of apologetics and religious treatises and whatnot. But two of his semi-surviving books seem like they’d be useful historical references:

  • In Flaccum (“A Treatise Against Flaccus,” meaning Aulus Avilius Flaccus, who was the appointed governor of the Roman province of Egypt from 33-38 CE. He was a major dick to the Jews. Caligula, who’d never liked or trusted him, eventually executed him in 39.)
  • De Legatione ad Caium (“On the Embassy to Gaius [Caligula]”)

These books are accounts of those aforementioned Alexandrian riots and Philo’s road trip to see Emperor Caligula.

Remember, all of this stuff took place in the late 30s/early 40s. Take a look at them for yourself, and see what pops out at you.

Or rather, I suppose, what does not pop out — not even once.

However, in the first book we do learn about a so-called “King of the Jews.”

The King of the Jews.

After giving Agrippa I his position, Caligula sent him down to Alexandria under a pretense:

And when [Agrippa I] was about to set out to take possession of his kingdom, Caius [Caligula] advised him to avoid the voyage from Brundusium to Syria, which was a long and troublesome one, and rather to take the shorter one by Alexandria, and to wait for the periodical winds [. . .]

However, La Wiki tells us that Caligula’s real reason for sending Agrippa that way was to check on the distrusted governor, Flaccus. Agrippa, perhaps anticipating trouble, tried to dock in the city in the dead of night. Alas for him, the Alexandrians were already running at powderkeg levels of friction:

But the men of Alexandria [. . .] filled with an ancient and what I may in a manner call an innate enmity towards the Jews, were indignant at any one’s becoming a king of the Jews, no less than if each individual among them had been deprived of an ancestral kingdom of his own inheritance.

Flaccus’ courtiers tried to stir up anger in him against Agrippa:

“The arrival of this man to take upon him his government is equivalent to a deposition of yourself. He is invested with a greater dignity of honour and glory than you.”

Flaccus’ response was, apparently, to try to erect statues of Caligula in the city’s synagogues. The move backfired dramatically, resulting in the riots mentioned earlier. The Greeks were furious about a “king of the Jews” lording it over them, and the Jews were furious at this attempt to bring them to idolatry.

Philo Recounts “A Certain Madman.”

There’s this story, too, that we find in the first book. This one sent shivers down my spine.

In it, Philo describes a homeless, mentally ill man named Carabbas. This homeless wanderer wasn’t regarded as dangerous. He was just not at all functional. Some “idle children and wanton youths,” almost certainly resentful Greeks, decided to send Agrippa a message through this poor fellow:

[A]nd they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him [. . .]

Holy cow. Does that not sound much like how the Romans mocked Jesus in the Gospels? But there’s more:

[A]nd when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. [In Flaccum]

Talk about mind-blowing!

What Philo Wrote About Jesus.

So let’s get down to brass tacks.

What did Philo write about Jesus?

Nothing whatsoever.

(I hope that wasn’t a spoiler. We might as well get this out of the way now: Absolutely nobody wrote anything about Jesus during the 30s/40s.)

Indeed, Philo did not write about Jesus’ life, his execution, his death, or his resurrection. Part of me thinks Philo would have found the notion of an Incarnation unpalatable in the first place, like just from a philosophical standpoint. His god would not ever take human form and wolf down fish in front of his shocked followers like some peasant.

In Philo’s handling, the physical events of the Torah all become spiritualized, allegorical calls to the human condition. The Messiah himself isn’t even a physical person to Philo. Instead, it’s an “incorporeal” manifestation of the Logos. (See here, XIV. (60).)

However, Philo also did not write a word about any of Jesus’ supposed disciples and apostles. So he never mentions any of the miracles we hear about in Acts, either. He doesn’t mention the existence of the many hundreds of Christians who must have been floating around — remember that supposed bunch of 500 totes-for-realsies “witnesses” who totally saw Jesus float up into the sky? Or how the whole city of Jerusalem supposedly knew about Jesus’ death?

Well, Philo wrote not one word about any of that.

He doesn’t even seem to know anything about Paul of Tarsus. You’d think he’d at least know something there, since Paul was once the highly-placed Saul the Jew. But nope, nothing.

Also: Alexander the Alabarch, Or Why Philo Damned Well Should Have Known About Jesus.

In addition to being a highly-placed and influential Jewish leader in one of the best-educated places in the ancient world, Philo’s family members operated at the highest levels of the Roman imperial court.

His brother, for example, was Alexander, better known as Alexander the Alabarch. An alabarch was a Jewish official in Alexandria who handled customs and taxation duties. More than that, though, the alabarch apparently rose to a leadership position within the Jewish community itself, and that seems to be exactly what happened with Alexander.

In this position, Alexander got super-stinky rich. And around 32-35 CE, he lent a lot of money to (the wife of) a certain friend of his. We’ve already mentioned that friend, in fact: Agrippa I. Alexander even arranged for one of his sons to marry Agrippa’s daughter!

Sometime around Philo’s disastrous visit to Caligula, the furious emperor imprisoned Alexander — but after Caligula died, the next one, Claudius, released him immediately.

So at least through his brother Alexander and his connections to Judea’s ruling class, Philo should have known about major events in Jerusalem.

In all ways, I find it absolutely inconceivable that Philo could have avoided knowing anything about the events recorded in the Gospels.

Rating Philo as a 1st-Century Source.

This one’s likely one of the biggest anti-witnesses we could ever hope to have. Out of every single other source on any list of 1st-century writers, Philo of Alexandria is the single number one person who was most likely to have heard anything about Jesus and the unrest he allegedly caused in Jerusalem in the 30s.

And yet not only does Philo not know anything about Jesus, he knows nothing whatsoever of any events that the Gospels report as occurring around Jesus, nor anything about the closest followers of Jesus.

Worse, he doesn’t actually seem even vaguely aware of any events or concepts that might lead to a real, physical, living-person Jesus. His silence on these matters is just absolutely damning.

So I’m giving Philo an A+ as a source.

Fascinating guy, fascinating ideas. He absolutely belongs on our list. And whoa buddy, he’s no friend at all to Christian historical revisionists.

NEXT UP: We’ll be checking out the 2021 SBC Annual Report. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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