On Jesus’ Death, part 1 of 4: Imposter Theory and Secular Evidence

It’s getting close to Easter (aka “Resurrection Day”) again and, as usual, I wanted to come up with something relevant for my readers. I was casting about for something with a theological/apologetical flavor and eventually remembered an old manuscript I was working on back in 2003 & 2004, which I decided to, um, resurrect. So, I guess you could say I’ve been working on this series of posts for almost 12 years!

It was waaaay too long for a single post, which is why I broke it up. I tweaked it a bit, but it holds up pretty well, despite having been composed years before I starting doing any regular writing. I don’t remember all of my sources, but I have heard/read many of the historical facts and explanations from various people over the years. The esteemed Dr. Gary Habermas was likely a major source, as was Dr. Alex Metherell regarding the medical/physiological aspects. I think I got some material from Jesus Under Fire by Wilkins et al., too, but I lost my copy, so I can’t check it. Then, of course, there is a bit of my own speculation….

There are actually 5 parts, since I have one called “On Jesus’ Burial” to finish up with. I’ll be publishing every 3-4 days until they’re all out, so… happy reading!

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One of the most controversial truth claims of Christianity is that of the physical, bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, before examining the truth of the Resurrection itself, at least two other facts need to be established. First, we must look at the likelihood that the biblical Jesus of Nazareth was indeed crucified. Any claim to resurrection requires that the subject be:

1) who s/he is supposed to be, not an imposter;
2) actually dead, not just temporarily unconscious or comatose;
3) beyond natural revivification.

So, we shall consider secular evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion. We shall also examine the “Imposter Theory”, “Swoon Theory” and other naturalistic explanations, as well as the effects of the injuries Jesus experienced during his trials and on the Cross.

Second, there is the matter of Jesus’ burial, specifically in the fresh-cut tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, which was sealed and guarded, yet later found empty. We shall look at a couple of the favorite theories of skeptics and their problems, as well as evidence that Jesus was buried in the manner described by the Gospels.

Death

Imposter Theory

I think it would be best to first clear up who it was that was condemned to die and hung on a Roman cross. (Of course, there were thousands who died in this manner over the years, but you know the time and circumstances I am referring to.) The “Imposter Theory” proposes that Jesus was at some point replaced, either just before or during the trials, by a lookalike (e.g., a brother, cousin, or other) in order to fool the authorities into thinking they had killed Jesus, when He had really escaped into seclusion in another country. It has been used by liberal, gnostic, and secular skeptics over the years, including being incorporated into popular fiction, from the medieval “Gospel of Barnabas” to modern writings by Michael Baigent et al. Some version of this theory also has long been held by Muslims (Surah IV:157-158), who honor Jesus as a prophet but do not believe He was killed or is the Son of God. They typically believe either Jesus did not die from the crucifixion or someone else was crucified in His place — i.e., Allah changed the appearance of either one of Jesus’ followers who volunteered (e.g., Simon of Cyrene) or one of His enemies (e.g., Judas Iscariot) to be a doppelganger for Jesus. Either way, “Allah raised Jesus to the Heavens.”

One major problem with this theory is just whom Jesus or the Apostles and/or other disciples might have convinced to make this sacrifice. Such loyalty to the point of self-sacrifice is not unheard of, but not for a simple rabbi. If the imposter thought Jesus was indeed an anointed king and/or Messiah and/or the Son of God, then such dedication could be understood. On the other hand, people don’t sacrifice themselves for something they know is a lie. (Same argument goes for the Apostles and many first-generation Christians.) And, for Jesus or His chief disciples to ask someone else to sacrifice himself, especially for the purpose of deception, would be entirely against Jesus’ character and teaching, not to mention the fate He had already foretold of Himself. (One further note: While the apostle Thomas was known as Didymas (i.e., the Twin), there is no evidence whatsoever that he was Jesus’ twin, nor is Thomas listed among Jesus’ brothers. It is also questionable whether any of Jesus’ siblings believed His claims prior to His resurrection. Nor is there reason to believe that Judas Iscariot was the imposter, particularly given the later account of his death.)

The second major problem with the “Imposter Theory” is when and how the switch might have been accomplished, such that Jesus’ enemies would not realize the switch had been made and no one else who knew Him but were not “in on it” would inadvertently give it away. Certainly it would have to be done prior to the scourging, otherwise Jesus’ life would have still been at risk by enduring it Himself. (Plus, it would be rather difficult to fake those wounds half-way through the trial.) Jesus probably sat in a cell for a while between His trial before Caiaphas and being taken to Pilate, so perhaps some guards were bribed and the switch was made then. But, Caiaphas and the other high priests and Jewish leaders went along to present their case to Pilate, and they would have had plenty of opportunity from then through the time the alleged imposter was hanging on the cross for at least one of them (or another bystander) to notice anything about Jesus that didn’t quite “fit”. (Unless, of course, it was a divinely altered appearance, I suppose.)

More possibilities could be examined here, but it would all be speculation, because there is nothing to support the “Imposter Theory”. When problems with this theory are brought up, the explanation is typically that the Apostles and/or later Christian leaders eradicated any documentary evidence (in the Gospels or elsewhere) that might point to a possible switch having been made or subsequently discovered. Basically, a conspiracy theory with no supporting evidence. One might ask why the alleged conspirators did not insert more “evidence” to make the now-traditional stories bulletproof.

Evidence that Jesus was Crucified

“Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.”  — John Dominic Crossan (leader of the radical liberal Jesus Seminar), Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145

Josephus AntiquitiesOutside of the canonical Gospels and subsequent Christian writings, which are accepted by most historians as reliable records of history, there are a few other sources from ancient times that attest to Jesus Christ’s having been crucified. Perhaps the two most significant are by well-respected historians from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. In his The Antiquities, the secular Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes about:

“Jesus, a wise man,… who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher…. [And] Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified,….”.

(There are other parts of this passage that are disputed, but not these parts.)

The Roman historian Tacitus, in describing Nero’s blaming of the Christians for the burning of Rome (while he himself was guilty), explains that:

“Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus….”

The ‘extreme penalty’ referred to is acknowledged by modern historians to be the torturous death by crucifixion, a popular method of execution for insurgents and common criminals. The Romans may not have invented it, but they certainly perfected it in their search for ways to inflict the most pain and humiliation possible.

Even ancient Jewish literature makes reference to Jesus’ miracles and His crucifixion. In the Babylonian Talmud (ca. AD 400-500), for instance, it says, “And a Master has said, ‘Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray.'” Another passage states, “It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged.” When someone was said to be “hanged on a tree” in those times, it often referred to death by crucifixion rather than lynching or hanging with a noose.

So, we have no credible evidence of any imposter taking Jesus’ place, nor a likely scenario for the switch to take place without His friends or (more importantly) His enemies noticing something suspicious. Furthermore, we have the witness of ancient Roman and Jewish documents attesting that Jesus Christ, the controversial Galilean rabbi and miracle-worker, was accused of serious crimes one Passover and executed by way of crucifixion under orders of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Sounds pretty clear-cut to me.

Have a Blessed Palm Sunday!

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