What is Docetism?

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body. This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil The logic of their teaching is based on the Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) idea that matter is evil. Since matter is evil and Christ is good, he could not have had a physical body. If Christ really suffered, then he was not divine, since God cannot suffer, and if he was God he did not suffer (Burchard, 326.)

Frequently Docetism is seen as part of the larger theology of Gnosticism, and therefore more or less a “Greco-Roman Philosophy” or perhaps even an early Christian attempt to develop a rational non-Jewish theology which would appeal to the larger Roman world.  Since it was strange to imagine a god really becoming flesh and submitting to death on a cross, some Christians described Jesus as “appearing” to be human flesh. The name “docetic” comes from the Greek δοκέω (dokeo), meaning to “appear” or “seem.”

But it is possible that Docetism more Jewish than Gentile.  If 1 John was written from Ephesus in the late 80’s or early 90’s, it is at least  plausible to argue that John was reacting to a Jewish Christian attempt to explain who Jesus was. Rather than making Christianity more palatable to Romans, Docetism would have been appealing to Jews who might find the idea of “God made flesh” contradictory to their view of God as completely transcendent.

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. This group was ascetic, living a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty may have been based on the early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 (selling possessions for needs of the group), or perhaps based on Jesus’ own voluntary poverty. While they rejected sacrifice, they thought that many of the Jewish traditions were still of value, especially circumcision. Bart Erhman describes the Ebionites as similar to Paul’s opponents in Galatia. Since they were a Jewish Christian group, they used only Matthew as scripture, but they also rejected Paul completely (Erhman, Lost Christianities, 99).

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible that John’s gospel was developed while he was still doing ministry in the Land, and that the fall of Jerusalem forced Jews out of the Land, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.  But this objection does not take into account the large Jewish population in Ephesus in the late first-century.  John’s work in Ephesus may have been with Jewish Christian congregations in the city rather than with primarily Gentile, Pauline congregations.

What is there in the first Letter of John that indicates that he is in fact answering an inadequate view of who Jesus was?  The evidence is in the opening paragraph, but runs throughout the book.

Bibliography:  G. L. Burchard, “Docetism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

19 thoughts on “What is Docetism?

  1. You know, Phillip, in my extensive study of Christian origins, I’ve encountered Docetism and Gnosticism(s) quite a bit…. Still very murky isn’t it? Your suggestion re. Docetism arising in a Jewish Xn context is interesting. Don’t think I’d considered that specifically before. Tho I know your only raising the q., you MAY be onto something (with others who may be suggesting it… and nice to see you willing to cite Ehrman, who I do find a careful, insightful scholar, tho he’s a popularizer, too).

    There IS indeed evidence, tho much of it is indirect or implied only, that Jewish Christianity, as distinct from Paul’s brand of “Gentile” Christianity (really Gentile/Jewish), was fairly widespread and strong. That is, both in Paul’s lifetime and on past the destruction of Jeru. in 70. Too bad we can’t know more re. possible direct identification with or connection of Ebionites to survivors of the Jerusalem “Church” (who I doubt escaped directly to Pella). But Acts makes pretty clear that the Jeru. leaders/congregation were still “observant” Jews, contra Paul.

    One clue re. non-Pauline forms of Jesus-as-Messiah belief being more prevalent than the NT directly lets on is in Acts 18/19. The Apollos passage and the Ephesians baptized “into John’s baptism”. Now, after lots of puzzling over this seemingly strange or misplaced passage, SGF Brandon (“The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church”, 1951) has me about convinced that Luke somehow lost focus, train of thought or something… this is a very muddled, seemingly self-contradictory passage. But there has to be SOME reason Luke included it, though it goes against much of the rest of his thesis about nearly seamless Christian unity and harmony, via H.S. direction.

    One possible answer: He really couldn’t totally pass over the presence in Alexandria of followers of John and/or Jesus (probably both). Even early, by Paul’s time. This is only to be strongly expected bec. we KNOW Peter and others quickly went north to Antioch (3rd largest city in Empire then), west into Asia Minor, east to Damascus, and almost certainly south to Alexandria, the SECOND largest city in the Empire, with a 25% to 33% Jewish population! How could it NOT have been evangelized? And early on! Yet info on this is very strangely missing in Acts and the rest of the NT…. except:

    We have this report that implies things, in Acts 18/19 (backed up somewhat by Paul, directly)… Apollos was apparently educated in “the Way of the Lord” (or “The Way”, involving the probably-related Therapeuta/Essene teachings at the least, if not John the Baptist’s message, perhaps not including the supposed “you must increase” parts). And apparently in Alexandria before arriving in Ephesus/Corinth… tho the passage is not specific on this. Apollos’ education was basically accepted by Paul’s associates and Paul bec. he “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John….” (18:25) (How can this be, in the standard “received” view of Xn origins?)

    There are other clues and reasons to believe Alexandria had a probably-substantial Christian or Jewish-Christian congregation, following the Jerusalem Apostles, and for this reason was passed over by Luke as unhelpful for his thesis (too complex to explain here). And Alexandria was ALSO a major center of Greek philosophy and Hellenized (“liberal”) Jewish beliefs (cf. Philo). Part of this involved a likely location for much of the development of Gnosticism… which I think is clear was NOT merely a Xn heresy but developed simultaneously in the same Greek/Jewish/Christian milieu, perhaps beginning even a bit prior to the earliest Christian era.


    • “nice to see you willing to cite Ehrman” – Lost Christianities is a favorite of mine, although it has been a few years since I read through it.

      “Still very murky isn’t it?” – Yes, for the most obvious reason we do not have a “library” of Docetic writings. Scholars rely on reactions to Docetists, when may not always be reliable and they are certainly not friendly!

      “There are other clues and reasons to believe Alexandria had a probably-substantial Christian or Jewish-Christian congregation” – again, I am in wholehearted agreement with you here. But my study of the development of Christianity in Alexandria (and Antioch) has not been examined as much as I would like, I am not aware of anything beyond the basics. Here we are hindered by Luke’s agenda in Acts (Paul in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome) rather than what happened in Antioch or Alexandria.

      “Hellenized (“liberal”) Jewish beliefs (cf. Philo)” – I agree Philo is not the most conservative of Jewish interpreters, but when we meet Hellenized Jews in Acts 6, they are *more conservative* than the Temple aristocracy and are willing to execute Stephen for “blasphemy.” It seems to me some Hellenists were quite zealous for the Jewish faith and traditions (unlike Philo).

      Back to the Docetists – you are not suggesting Alexandria as a location for a Jewish Christian Docetic group, are you?


      • As to your q., no. I haven’t studied pertinent things in enough depth nor tried to “connect all the dots” re. this. I’ve not even read Philo directly… just brief excerpts. And not that he’d necessarily provide good clues. But I do believe Alexandria is a very important location for Jews (before and after Jesus) and for the early Xn Church, tho it it barely mentioned in the NT. (And I think not much in early extra-canonical lit until about the time of Clement of A… correct me if I’m missing something, please.)

        But NT clues (as Acts 18/19 and Peter’s flight to “another place”, presumably not then Antioch) and other factors seem to scream that A. was a key “church planting” metropolis, probably with a strong congregation fairly quickly established. However, the main expected “reporter” on this, Luke, seems to have had his reasons for largely passing over whatever happened and the likely significance of a church in A. SGF Brandon (1951) also argues pretty persuasively that A. was probably the home of “Matthew” (author/location of that gospel). I’ve not checked the counters to his arguments in more recent scholarship at all thoroughly, nor whether A. as location for Matthew’s community is much proposed or defended.

        But, whatever the case on that, it is significant broadly and probably to your docetism subj. that it seems all the Gospels were written from outside Palestine. This makes sense in terms of the decimation of most of the population and the economy from the 4-year war and likely poverty/famine for some time after… Galilean churches probably fared relatively better, but probably had way fewer highly literate (likely Jewish) people who could/would author gospels or other important lit. Brandon believes, as perhaps others, that the shifting of things (some of it major, including belief systems) occasioned by the war is the main immediate CAUSE of the emergence of concrete (narrative) stories of the life of Jesus. And with that, the virtual invention (not sure he’d use that word) of a group of disciples/Apostles which does not line up well within the gospels nor in relation to the contents of Paul or Acts… but I digress, sorry.

        Just one more related issue: James as Jeru. leader (and brother of Jesus?), per both Paul and Acts (obliquely, puzzlingly) presents problems in relation to these Gospel accounts, even tho Luke authors both a gospel and then an attempt (successful in only one sense, to me) at an historical accounting of the early Church as well. To come full circle, Brandon believes the Alexandrian Church was planted probably by Peter (maybe with others) and was loyal/close to the Jeru. group. That probably put it in tension with Paul, who apparently just stayed well away. But for Luke, it was tough having to give a more specific history of what happened in Alexandria while remaining so Pauline…. Makes good sense to me!


  2. I’m doubting what I’ve previously learnt about Gnosticism more and more, but wasn’t Cerinthus a first century Ebionite from Alexandria who set up a school in Galatia and visited a bath house in Ephesus at least once when John was there?


    • That is a story often told, yes. John allegedly ran from the bathhouse in a towel, refusing to be in the same place as the arch-heretic!

      I would like to separate a Jewish Christianity from early Gnosticism if at all possible, it seems to me Gnostics develop as Jewish Christianity interacts with neo-platonism in an attempt to seem more philosophical and mystical. I really think 1-3 John on on the front end of this development, so Gnostics proper are not in view.


      • Yes, it’s fair enough that modern scholars now balk at calling all first century syncretistic Christian heresies as Gnosticism.


      • I’m wondering the source of that Cerinthus story… and if there is much substance to either him or others being “1st century Ebionites from Alexandria”? It would support other things I’ve been learning about likely developments of 1st century in Alexandria, besides the well-known Philo and the largely mysterious Apollos (of Acts, perhaps same as named by Paul).


      • I have always assumed the Cerinthus story was a legend/apocryphal. Oft repeated, so many pastors just repeat it as if it really happened.


  3. John is saying that Jesus really did come down from heaven, was a real person, and had a physical form. He writes that Jesus (the word) was in the beginning. That means He really was God because God was the only one in the beginning. He then says that we have seen him. That means that Jesus came to Earth. He dwelt among us, he walked, he talked. Jesus lived. Then to combat the idea that Jesus had a physical body John writes that we touched it. You can’t touch something that isn’t there. John points to the divinity, the incarnation, and destroys the docetist view that Jesus didn’t have a real body. The fact that he could do all that in a few words is impressive.


    • Miller2016, you may be right that the author of this epistle is claiming to have known, touched the human Jesus. Certainly the Gospels presented such a picture. But whether this author could possibly have been there then is a whole other question… an important one. If indeed this is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” it doesn’t seem he very well picked up the non-judgmental teachings and model of Jesus…. Read the whole epistle without prior assumptions and see what you think, yourself.


  4. 1 John gives a very sensory representation of Jesus Christ. He mentions that they have seen and touched him. This aspect of the senses is extremely important because a spirit could not be touched, only the material could be handled and sensed in such a manner. In fact the very concept that Jesus paid for our sins must mean that he had a physical body for how could a spirit take on the sins of the flesh. There would be no way that Jesus, should he only be spirit, have the ability to feel and take upon himself the sins of the flesh. It is interesting though where this dichotomy of the spirit being good while the material world being bad or sinful came from. Plato was a large proponent of the rational thinking that every physical object came from a mold originating on another plane of existence, the idea plane. Plato’s philosophy would shape and interact with Christianity for centuries after Christ died sometime to harmful effects, such as the cults like the Docetism. It appears that those who held firm to these types of offshoots to Christianity lacked a complete understanding of how the death of Jesus Christ allowed our sins to be forgiven by a God that demands justice for wrongdoing.


  5. John is stating that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Jesus was physically human, not just figuratively. The point that John states that they touched Jesus implies that He was a real human. Through this implication it can be derived that you can’t touch anything that isn’t real. Even though in today we can’t physically see Jesus, we know that people in the saw and touched Jesus have because of the Scriptures. Also, how could the virgin Mary give birth to someone that wasn’t fully human? The incarnation plays a role here because that states that Jesus did have a real human body. Without the belief that Jesus’ body was real, it is hard to imply that He came to save the world and become one of us in human flesh. One of the main reasons for Jesus to come and die for our sins is that He came in humanly form.


  6. John opens his letter with allusions to his time spend in the presence of Christ. 1 John 1:1-4 calls upon his own experience and encounters with Christ as justification for the humanity of Christ. John says that he has seen the testimony for Christ, that he was there for the miracles, parables, and even viewed the resurrection. John is asking the audience of his letter to put faith in him and his testament concerning the life of Christ. John must have been aware of the authority that he had and used it to his advantage to vouch for the trinity. It’s important for the theology of Christianity that believers accept Christ as a man and as God.


  7. As others have stated, the concept that Christ was fully man and fully God is fundamental to Christianity, and John seems to provide his own experiences as his primary evidence that Jesus indeed walked among us. In response to your first question, I think John’s strong words used throughout the epistle (Anti-Christs, deceivers, false teachers) show that he was primarily writing to combat people who had theology that contrasted his. I think it is possible that he is specifically writing to people who used Docetism or Gnosticism to justify living in sin. Both philosophies were rooted more in intellectualism and head knowledge, and throughout the letter, John speaks about living in sin and lawlessness. Because both the spirit of deception and living life “in the dark”, I believe John was writing against those living lives contrary to God’s will and justifying it with false theologies.


    • The contention that John was addressing people who were using Docetism or Gnosticism “to justify living in sin” displays a lack of knowledge of how religious beliefs and affiliations with religious groups almost always works. I’m wondering if you know of any studies or historical data, etc. that would support your idea? In my long study of Christianity, psychology and religious beliefs I’ve not encountered such.


    • You might be thinking of the antinomians in 2 Peter than the ones who have wandered in First John. As we talked about in class today, the Docetists were making an honest attempt to explain who Jesus was (and were probably living a rather ascetic lifestyle!)


  8. The Letter of John begins by solidifying the belief of Jesus being fully human while at the same time being fully God. Throughout the whole gospel there is the theme of Jesus’ humanity. The concept of Docetism makes sense if you did you not have an understanding of why Jesus had to become man. It is mind blowing to think that God could have come down and actually been a real human part of this sin filled world. Yet John shows us that is exactly why He is the ultimate sacrifice. If Jesus had not taken part of humanity in the way that he did, he would not have been the perfect sacrifice. I think John is pointing out the flaws with this, and other false teachings, and showing that Jesus not only was human and suffered, but that is also what makes Jesus’ sacrifice the perfect atonement for mankind.


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