Who do you think I think you are?

Why the imposter theory doesn't work...

By Jeff Laird

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I was recently asked about the so-called "Impostor Theory" of Jesus' resurrection. This is the suggestion that someone impersonated Jesus after His crucifixion, convincing the disciples He had been resurrected. Specifically, the questioner came across a royal impersonator in Josephus' writings, and wondered if this event lent any weight to the skeptical theory. The "spurious Alexander" from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, part XVII, chapter 12, is a man bearing resemblance to a murdered royal, who convinces many people he is the dead man, in part by claiming he was kidnapped rather than killed. Actually, this episode is a great example of why the impostor theory of the resurrection is so implausible.

Here's the setup, from Josephus:
When these affairs had been thus settled by Cæsar, a certain young man, by birth a Jew, but brought up by a Roman freed-man in the city Sidon, ingrafted himself into the kindred of Herod, by the resemblance of his countenance, which those that saw him attested to be that of Alexander, the son of Herod, whom he had slain; and this was an incitement to him to endeavour to obtain the government: so he took to him, as an assistant, a man of his own country, (one that was well acquainted with the affairs of the palace, but on other accounts, an ill man, and one whose nature made him capable of causing great disturbances to the public, and one that became a teacher of such a mischievous contrivance to the other), and declared himself to be Alexander, and the son of Herod, but stolen away by one of those that were sent to slay him, who, in reality, slew other men in order to deceive the spectators, but saved both him and his brother Aristobulus.

Thus was this man elated, and able to impose on those that came to him; and when he was come to Crete, he made all the Jews that came to discourse with him believe him [to be Alexander].
— Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, VXII, 12.1
Notice, the people fooled were not close family or friends, but the general public. These persons had only slight experience with the dead man, "acquaintances" at best, according to other parts of the source text. He found someone with inside knowledge of the murdered Alexander, and used that along with his physical resemblance to pull the wool over peoples' eyes. He literally got the "royal treatment" as a result. So far, so good, for the impostor theory, but at this point the conspiracy totally implodes. As soon as the pretender is confronted by someone experienced with royalty, and willing to ask questions, the ruse instantly falls apart:
Yet did not he deceive Cæsar; for although there was a resemblance between him and Alexander, yet was it not so exact as to impose on such as were prudent in discerning; for this spurious Alexander had his hands rough, by the labours he had been put to, and instead of that softness of body which the other had, and this as derived from his delicate and generous education, this man, for the contrary reason, had a rugged body. When, therefore, Cæsar saw how the master and the scholar agreed in this lying story, and in a bold way of talking, he inquired about Aristobulus, and asked what became of him who [it seems] was stolen away together with him, and for what reason it was that he did not come along with him, and endeavour to recover that dominion which was due to his high birth also? And when he said, That "he had been left in the isle of Crete, for fear of the dangers of the sea, that, in case any accident should come to himself, the posterity of Mariamne might not utterly perish, but that Aristobulus might survive, and punish those that laid such treacherous designs against them."

And when he persevered in his affirmations, and the author of the imposture agreed in supporting it, Cæsar took the young man by himself, and said to him, "If thou wilt not impose upon me, thou shalt have this for thy reward, that thou shalt escape with thy life; tell me then, who thou art! and who it was that had boldness enough to contrive such a cheat as this! For this contrivance is too considerable a piece of villany to be undertaken by one of thy age." Accordingly, because he had no other way to take, he told Cæsar the contrivance, and after what manner, and by whom it was laid together.
— Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, VXII, 12.2
Once he's interrogated by someone who knows better, and threatened, the "spurious Alexander" confesses. As one would expect, those responsible were severely punished:
So Cæsar, upon observing the spurious Alexander to be a strong active man, and fit to work with his hands, that he might not break his promise to him, put him among those that were to row among the mariners; but slew him that induced him to do what he had done; for as for the people of Melos, he thought them sufficiently punished, in having thrown away so much of their money upon this spurious Alexander. And such was the ignominious conclusion of this bold contrivance about the spurious Alexander. — Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, VXII, 12.2
Josephus' false Alexander was able to trick people because he physically resembled the real Alexander, and feigned knowledge obtained through his shill. For those who didn't have extensive experience with the deceased, this was enough to convince them he was the real deal. But when faced with someone more knowledgeable he couldn't maintain the charade.

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Image Credit: Microsoft Clipart

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Published 8-20-2014