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?

John and Messianic Expectations

John is described in the Gospels as actively looking forward to the reign of the Messiah.  Two stories illustrate this fact.  First, when Jesus was refused by a Samaritan village, James and John offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy the unbelieving village (Luke 9:51-56).  Context in critical in this short story.  Luke 9:51 is the major transition in the book of Luke, at this point Jesus begins a journey to Jerusalem which will result in the crucifixion, He is absolutely aware of what he is about to do, and it is possible that this “resolution” was communicated to his disciples. James and John therefore see this as the time of the Messiah coming – Jesus is going to Jerusalem to judge those who are not living in accordance with the Law and to establish True Israel (with the disciples a s new twelve tribes, James and John on the right and left, etc.)

Why call down fire from Heaven?  These Samaritans have rejected Jesus and the truth that he is the Messiah.  James and John see themselves as re-enacting Elijah’s ministry.  Elijah was the prophet who confronted Baalism in Samaria and called fire down form heaven in order to judge those who had already rejected the Lord.  James and John, therefore, should be seen as preparing for the kingdom to come immediately, or perhaps, they believe that it has already come in the person of Jesus when he “resolutely set out” toward Jerusalem.

James and John request to sit on either side of Jesus when the kingdom is established (Mk 10:35-45).  In this well known story, James and John were so zealous for the Lord that he was willing to ask Jesus for the highest place in the kingdom, along with his brother John.  Presumably they were both there when their mother made the request.  This request as necessarily a bad thing, at least it was better than seeking the last possible seat in the Kingdom for fear of having to really do any work.  They were zealous for the Lord’s work, although it expressed itself badly. At that time, Jesus told the brothers they would in fact drink from the same cup as he would.  James was the first of the Lord’s disciples to be martyred (Acts 12).  John, on the other hand, lived a very long life, probably into the 90’s .  It is possible he was quite young during the ministry of Jesus, maybe even a young teen, but to live into the 90’s indicates he was quite old at that time.

In Acts, Luke describes Peter and John as a kind of ministry team (Acts 2-4 and 8:14-25).
They were the pair of disciples who preached the imminent kingdom in the Temple.  But as far as Luke describes it, Peter is the spokesperson, John is silent. The pronouns used to describe Peter and John in chapter four indicate that they are both considered bold, despite Luke only giving us the words of Peter.   The last time John appears in the narrative of Acts in 8:14-25. Like chapters 2-4, he is only mentioned alongside Peter as the two disciples who went to Samaria to investigate Philip’s ministry there.  Both returned to Jerusalem after Peter rebuked Simon Magus, and there is no indication in Acts that the apostles had much to do with Samaritan ministry.

While Luke has no interest in tracking the ministry of John, this does not mean he was inactive after Acts 8. In fact, we know he was very active from the body of literature which he produced in the New Testament.