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.
Irenaeus 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?