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.