I recently read an article that argued that Jesus did not actually die on the Cross, that it was all a ruse between Jesus and Thomas (the twin) who was supposedly Jesus’s twin according to the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas, and that Jesus just appeared afterwards to the Apostles and carried out the work that’s attributed to Thomas by assuming his identity. Is it true that Thomas died in place of Jesus?
Whenever we look at stories about what happened to Jesus, we will be looking for the best explanation of the evidence.
The four facts that we tend to refer to as the “evidence” are as follows:
1) Jesus was crucified and buried in a known tomb.
2) The tomb was found empty on the third day.
3) Numerous people reported having seen Jesus, at different times and locations, following his crucifixion.
4) Jesus’s disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
We’ll want to ask what is the best explanation of these facts? What makes for a best explanation anyway? Here are four criteria for evaluating competing explanations.
1) Explanatory Scope: Better explanations will cover more of the relevant facts.
2) Explanatory Power: An explanation that makes the fact more likely to be true is better than one that does not.
3) Plausibility: Better explanation will more closely conform to known background information.
4) Degree of Ad Hoc: Better explanations will require the fewest number of ad hoc beliefs (ad hoc beliefs are beliefs that must be true for the explanation to be true, but for which there is no independent evidence).
Let’s review the explanation you have offered based on these criteria as it relates to our four facts:
The theory does seem to cover fact (1) by denying that it was in fact Jesus on the cross, and presumably the body of Thomas was the one buried in the tomb. It would also explain the later appearances of Jesus and perhaps the faith of the disciples. It does nothing, however, to explain why the tomb should later be found empty. What happened to Thomas’s body in that case?
I’m not sure if we would fault the explanation with respect to the crucifixion and burial here. It has no power in explaining the empty tomb since that is not even covered in its scope. I’m not sure that we would think the sincere faith of the other disciples to be more probable on this explanation. No one else knew about the conspiracy? No one noticed that the same person represented himself sometimes as Thomas and sometimes as the risen Jesus? It also doesn’t seem to make the appearances more likely, since many of these appearances involved miraculous works (such as Jesus disappearing from the table of the two he had met on the road to Emmaus, or his appearance in the locked room with the disciples). One of the appearances was to Thomas himself in the company of the other disciples, and surely this appearance is less likely if we presume that Thomas had previously been crucified and buried.
There are no early historical sources that suggest Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus. This is, in fact, contradicted by the earliest sources. It is highly implausible that Jesus had a twin brother and that the biblical authors knew nothing of this. Remember that the Acts of Thomas and Gospel of Thomas were written a couple of hundred years after the events recorded in the New Testament, so they would not be considered as historically reliable as the earlier accounts present in the Bible. It also seems completely implausible that the Jesus depicted in the New Testament called his closest friends and family members to die for a hoax that he had perpetrated himself. Jesus’s own brother, James, was murdered at the Jewish temple for his faith in Jesus. On your explanation, Jesus was alive and available when people began murdering Christians for their faith. It just seems implausible that the Jesus depicted in the New Testament would allow them to go to their deaths for essentially a practical joke.
The explanation is entirely ad hoc. There is no independent reasons for thinking that Jesus impersonated Thomas for the rest of his ministry.
With all of that being said, it just doesn’t seem to me that the explanation you have offered fares very well against the explanation that God raised Jesus from the dead.