Among the highly articulate and much publishing American atheists, Victor J. Stenger is one of the more aggressive and well published. In his latest book, The New Atheism. Taking a stand for Science and Reason (Prometheus Books, 2009), he also argues for the nonhistoricity of Jesus (p.58). This is surely a minority view, and his main argument, supposed to be taken from the silence of Philo about Jesus is certainly flawed. Stenger provides the following argument in form of a quote from a John E. Remsberg (which alas is unknown to me), but which he seems to endorse:
Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ’s miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his trimphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness and resurrection of the dead took place – when Christ himself rose from the dead and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him.
If this is in any way indicative of how Spenger treats his sources, it does not give him much credit.
If Stenger here wrote about Josephus, one might have understood his argument. But he does not. He writes about Philo. But Philo lived in Alexandria in Egypt, not in Jerusalem. He did not write “an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth.” He tells us once that he visited Jerusalem once, but we don’t know when or for how long. There are no hints in his works that he stayed there for a prolonged time, nor that he ever was there at the time of Jesus’ public appearances. He might have been there, but we have no reason to say that he was! Hence there is little reason to expect him to have any first-hand knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem. In fact, he tells us next to nothing about what he might have observed himself while being in Jerusalem.
Stenger says he applies the criteria that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence should be there and is not.” While he does not state who is to determine when the evidence “should be there”, or for what reasons, his use of what Philo should have told us about is certainly flawed, to say the least.
Had Jesus ever been in Alexandria during his adult life, we might have expected Philo to tell about it. But we have no indications that Jesus ever was in Alexandria, hence we should not draw any conclusions from Philo’s silence about him. Scientifically speaking, Stenger here fails in his argumentation, not checking his sources, but trusting their reliability. But to be honest to Philo; don’t demand too much of him.