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.
This is why con artists are dependent on ignorance. In order to successfully fool someone, you have to know more about the subject matter than they do. Or, stick to a subject the victim knows literally nothing about. The more you know, the longer you can keep up the façade. Bluster and bravado only go so far, and so deep. The scam is balanced on the knife edge, always at risk of running into one person asking one question that can't be answered.
The impostor concept is a staple of fiction, including books and movies such as The Man In The Iron Mask
. Suspension of disbelief is usually the biggest criticism of these plots. People instinctively find it ridiculous to think a similar-looking stranger could really fool the people closest to the one being replaced. We know full well that even identical twins aren't that
identical. Give a fictional impostor shape-shifting powers, such as Mystique from the X-Men series
, and the ruse is still spoiled as soon as it's necessary to know
what only the original person knows
A modern-day example of a "spurious Alexander" — maybe — is the infamous con artist Frank Abagnale
, dramatized in book and film versions of Catch Me If You Can
. Not surprisingly, Abagnale pulled off his impersonations by carefully ducking the tests of knowledge mentioned above. He avoided personal relationships, usually only needed to fool people for a few moments, and skipped town when victims asked questions. And Abagnale wasn't pretending to be specific people, just feigning credentials. Not surprisingly, even his claims to con artistry have been disputed
. It's just hard to believe, in any realistic sense, that so many people could be that gullible; even when the circumstances don't involve a close friend or family member!
Josephus recorded his tale of the false Alexander precisely because it was noteworthy; the charade went on far longer than such things typically do. A person impersonating Jesus would have to duplicate His appearance, voice, and mannerisms with absolute perfection in order to fool people who knew Him so well. He'd also have to be privy to information that, in many cases, only Jesus and a few other people knew (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51). All of this deception would need to be sustained over the 40 days during which He appeared.
The balloon burst for the false Alexander as soon as he was questioned by a knowledgeable source. Mystique's comic book cover is blown as soon as she's forced to think like her victim. Abagnale did backflips to avoid actually having to do those things his counterfeit personalities could do. Jesus was immediately, closely questioned by those who knew Him best (Luke 24:36-44, John 20:24-28), and He appeared to them over a long period of time. If that was a counterfeit, he was simultaneously the greatest spy, thespian, magician, psychologist, and makeup artist in human history. That scam would make Catch Me If You Can
look like an elementary school play.
And, of course, even that wouldn't explain the empty tomb, or the ascension into heaven, as witnessed by the same people (Luke 24:51). Josephus' Alexander didn't even claim anything miraculous, or face the level of scrutiny Christ did after His crucifixion.
In short, the impostor theory cannot be taken seriously as an explanation of early belief in the resurrection. The tale of the "spurious Alexander" is just a vivid example of why.
Even so, there are critics who persist in perpetuating the impostor theory. Most who believe it haven't thought much about it. If you've read this, and are still convinced that those who knew Jesus intimately, including family members, who had walked and talked with Him for more than three years, and had seen Him three days prior, could be so hoodwinked by a fraud that they'd willingly suffering torture and death in order to proclaim Him risen from the dead…
…please contact me as soon as possible. I'm your long-lost cousin, and you owe me money.