Was 1 John Written to Answer Docetism?

The opponents in 1 John are usually identified as having some kind of deficient view of Jesus.  In her Letters to the Church, Karen Jobes mentions both Docetism and Cerenthuis as possible targets of 1 John, although she is quick to point out that John does not dwell on these Christological errors as much as is often taught (420). The oft-repeated story of John in the bathhouse at Ephesus is likely apocryphal, but it makes for good preaching so it keeps turning up in sermons and commentaries on 1 John. But the letter may not even be about Docetism as it is defined in systematic theologies surveying the early Christological heresies.

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body.  (The name “Docetic” comes form the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to appear.”)  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.

John vs CerenthuisIrenaeus wrote in Against Heresies 3.11.7 that John wrote against an error taught by Cerinthus, although there is a considerable amount of legend concerning the contact Cerinthus may have had with John’s churches. Ignatius argues against Docetism in Ad Trall 9, 10 “Turn a deaf ear therefore when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David the child of Mary, who was truly born, who ate and drank, who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died….”  Notice that Ignatius follows the same logic as John by pointing out that Jesus had all of the characteristics of a human, including eating, drinking, suffering and dying.

Is Docetism more Jewish than Gentile?  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.

But this may not be a proper view of how Docetism developed.  Docetism is the earliest of the “Christological controversies.” If the common view that 1 John dates to the mid 90’s and the letter was written from Ephesus, it is a least plausible to argue that John is 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, since the idea of “God made flesh” is troubling to their view that God is 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.  On the other hand, they may have taken Jesus’ teaching “Blessed are the poor” quite literally!

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 Judah, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.

Given what we know about Docetism  1 John 1:1-4 seems like a good answer, but 1 John has a great deal more to say about “those who have gone out” and are trouble his readers. Reading only 1 John, what is the nature of the false teaching in 1 John?

10 thoughts on “Was 1 John Written to Answer Docetism?

  1. A few years ago I began to question whether or not Docetism was in view in 1 John. What you have presented was unknown to me at that time. Needless to say, your insights are very interesting to me.

    I have thought that the heresy in 1 John was simply Christological. In other words, the author wanted to say that Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah, and consequently Christ’s teaching that the Gentiles were to be welcomed into the assembly of the elect on equal footing, were not to be considered part of God’s people any longer.

    In 1 John 2:2, the “our” would be Jews.

    To “have no sin” does not necessitate a presumption of perfection. It could just suggest a recognition of and a reliance upon God’s traditional provision of a means of atonement (i.e. the Temple). Perhaps the heretics were relying on some post-temple, non-Christian Jewish conception of atonement, or maybe the heretics were Jewish Christians who were heavily nationalistic, arrogant, and unwilling to welcome Gentiles on equal footing.

    The “new commandment” and the emphasis on “brotherly love” could have a specific reference towards the new-but-not-new attitude of Christ towards Gentiles, who were now the brothers of the Jews in Christ.

    The focus on the “flesh” might refer to the fact that Christ took on the very human flesh which is shared by Jew and Gentile alike.

    The author’s need to warn against “worldliness” might be a way of confronting an assumption that to love or to welcome Gentiles in the way that the author was suggesting was, by nature, worldly.

    Those who “went out” (2:19) could refer to Jews whom, when confronted with the Christ event which inaugurated the influx of Gentiles into the assembly of God’s people, rejected Christ; and thus found themselves outside of the assembly.

    I realize that I have been brief and vague, and that I am hindered by the fact that I am merely a layman; but these are my thoughts at this time.

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  2. As i read through 1 John 1:1-4, it is easy to see how how one might assume that John’s opponent was docetism. Another strong case for this is found in John 4 in which John makes another case for the incarnation of Christ. He declares once again the incarnation of Jesus and tells his audience to discern the spirits. My only problem with this comes from 1 John 2:18-27. We find that John is warning them to run from anyone who denies that Jesus is the Christ. It seems as if the Docetist’s were struggling, not with the deity, but with the humanity of Christ. In fact, they created this theology because they couldn’t come to grips with the thought that Jesus could be a human. Why then would John say in 2:22-23, “Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the Antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” It is not conclusive, but it may be time for us to start looking towards other heresies from this age. For one, we know that it branched off of Christianity because of 1 John 2:19, in which it tells us that they went from us (Christians), but did not belong to us. This is an interesting dynamic as we see in 1 John defenses for both the deity and humanity of Christ, from a group who is apparently formed from Christianity or possibly Judaism. Jobes suggestion for Cerinthus is a compelling thought as well. “If one were to hold to such an opinion of Jesus as Cerinthus did, then clearly the significance of Jesus for Christianity would be Jesus’ life and miracles but not his passion and death… In this way of thinking, Jesus becomes a revealer of divine truth but is himself not divine” (Jobes* 420). This heresy about Jesus would answer John 2, but we are right back to where we started as far as not having an answer for Chapter 1 and 4. Could it be that John was combating against both docetism and cerinthianism? Could it be another false theology about the deity and humanity of Christ? I am not sure if we can know. But there is a ton of knowledge that we can glean from 1 John regardless of the opponents that we find, and we can continue to learn and grow on account of this letter.

    Jobes, Karen. Letters to the Church: A survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles

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  3. Docetism, as described in Karen Jobes’ book (Pg. 420) does seem to match the beliefs of the false teacher described in 1 John. When John discourses on the testing of spirits in the fourth chapter, he says that “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2) which sounds like an indirect way to call out the false teachers who would argue otherwise. Even worse, John says that spirits who do not acknowledge this fact are not from God and are spirits of the Antichrist (vs. 3). In considering arenberg93’s response, what other kinds of heresies about the identity of Jesus Christ existed at the time which john could be combating?

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  4. I agree with Sean that when reading the beginning of 1 John it does seem that Docetism could be a viable opposition. If John is combating this view it could be coming from Gentile philosophical influence or from Jewish influence. Last semester I had the opportunity to go to a Synagogue and talk to a Jew. I know there are quite possibly many differences between Jews today and Jews of the 1st century, however the arguments against Christ seem to follow Docetism. Jews believe in a fully transcendent God, and the idea that God would become a man and a servant is mind boggling. To understand this, it would make perfect sense for Jewish Christians to try to understand Christ as only seeming to be human, so that God can maintain his transcendence as understood by the Jews.

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  5. I see no reason to take the phrase “who confess that Jesus has come in the flesh” as a reference to Jesus’ physicality. “In the flesh” can be read as “truly” or “really” which fits with John’s discussion in chapter two. 2.22 “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” The antichrist in chapter 2 is the one who claims to have the Father but denies the Son, denies that Jesus is the Christ. Antichrists are jews who deny that Jesus is the Christ. They claim to have the Father, but they don’t because you can’t have the Father without having the Son. Try reading through the entire letter as jewish-christian polemic and it fits perfectly. It fits with the polemic in Hebrews and James. It fits with what we see in the gospels. I see no reason to think it is anything more than Jewish-Christian polemic.

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    • One additional line of evidence often offered for the view is the phrase “…and our hands have touched” in 1:1, along with 4:2, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” taken along with the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh” it is hard to take flesh as “truly” or “really.” John’s point in GJohn 1:4 is what ever God is, the Word is, and the Word took on real human flesh in order to dwell among his people.

      Is there a single instance in the New Testament where σάρξ does not refer to real flesh? Maybe the Pauline dichotomy between “flesh and spirit”, but still is not “truly” or “really”.

      I really do not have a problem with 1 John as a “jewish-christian polemic”, mostly because I think of the Docetists as a rather conservative Jewish Christian, or sub-Christian (since we do not really know much about their theology).

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      • The way that the New Testament presents idea of eyewitness testimony to the reality of the resurrection I think is very helpful here. In Luke 1.1-4; 24.37-43; Acts 1.1-3; 10.40-41; John 20.27; 21.12-13 much emphasis is placed on seeing, touching, eating and drinking with Him. The Lord even says that they should touch him and not think that he is a mere spirit. But it is important to see that in every one of these contexts the matter in question is not the reality of the incarnation, but rather it is about the reality of the resurrection. The doubt about whether they might be seeing a spirit is not a question about whether or not he ever had a real body. It is all about whether he really rose from the dead or not. Much like Peter’s miraculous release from prison in Acts 12. When Rhoda reported that Peter was at the door, they thought she was crazy and suggested that Peter was already dead and she had just seen his angel. All of the talk of seeing, feeling, eating and drinking together with Jesus after the resurrection is to confirm that he really did rise from the dead.

        In exactly this way, when 1 John 1 talks about how the apostles saw and touched Jesus, I still don’t think that John is talking about the reality of the incarnation. He is using what was standard language of eyewitness testimony for describing the reality of the resurrection.

        This is confirmed by comparing 1 John 2.22-23 and 4.2-3:

        1 John 2.22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

        1 John 4.2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

        In the first passage antichrist is said to be manifest by a denial of the Father and the Son. But the real problem is not those who explicitly deny the Father. The opponents think they have the Father, but by denying the Son John says they are implicitly denying the Father also because you can’t have one without the other. These “antichrists” seem to me to be obviously referring to unbelieving Jews. “Den[ying] that Jesus is the Christ” is parallel to “den[ying] the Son,” and is contrasted with “confess[ing] Jesus.” There’s nothing that suggests that docetism or gnosticism is in view. It’s all about acknowledging Jesus as Messiah.

        Now, comparing this with chapter four strongly suggests that they have the same opponents in mind. 4.2 talks about “confess[ing] that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” while 4.3 shortens it to “confess[ing] Jesus”, but those phrases are surely intended to be synonymous. The second of these is exactly the same phrase from 2.23. Further, identifying the opponents in both cases as antichrists suggests that both passages have the same opponents in view.

        Also, notice how this language of “confessing Jesus” or “confessing that Jesus is the Christ” seems to be a parallel with “confessing that Jesus is the Son of God” in 4.15; 5.1; and 5.5. Also, the language about believing God’s testimony concerning his Son in 5.9-10 seems to be a reference to the voice on the Mount of Transfiguration (cf., 2 Peter 1.17-18). That testimony wasn’t about the incarnation, but rather his Messianic sonship.

        The discussion about the sin that leads to death (5.16), seems to be an echo of the unforgivable sin in the gospels which is all about Jewish unbelief. The Jewish nation will be forgiven their rejection of Jesus’ testimony about himself, but when the Spirit comes that is their last chance. If they reject his testimony they’ll never be forgiven and only destruction awaits. Their priesthood and their temple will be taken from them.

        The discussion about it being the last day or last hour seems to be an allusion to Jesus’ Olivet and other prophecies about the removal of temple and priesthood. Cf. Hebrews; James.

        To summarize, there is strong precedent for the language of seeing, touching, eating with Jesus as being about confirming the reality of the resurrection. I see no reason to take it as suggesting doubts about the incarnation. Comparing all the related passages about “confessing” or not “denying” the Son all seem to be talking about Messianic Sonship. Jewish unbelievers prove that they don’t have the Father when the reject the Son.

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  6. In the book of 1 John, there is a huge concentration upon Jesus as a real human being, that Christians should not continue sinning and that Christians should not hate anyone. As the article says, this points directly at Docetism. Because of this belief, adherers to Docetism would not be able to truly understand Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection. For me personally, if I did not understand Christ’s sacrifice to be in a physical body and instead see the crucifixion as “spiritual torment”, I would not understand the purpose of not sinning. The seriousness of sin is shown to me through Christ’s bloody crucifixion. Jobes suggests that, “This Christological error had given rise to wrong thinking about sin in the life of Christians and about what it means to love one another, and so was threatening to disrupt Christian life and practice in John’s churches.” (Pg. 416) The false teachers’ continuance in sin reminds me of Antinomianism. Instead of changing their lifestyle as a result of believing in Christ, they remain as they were before Christ, suggesting that they were not truly saved to begin with. 1 John 5:18 says that children of Gods do not sin. While Christians do in fact still sin, they are no longer under sin’s power (a little Pauline language I know). The false teachers were indeed not Christians to begin with. (1 John 2:19)

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