What is Docetism?

By the end of the first century, some Jewish Christians began to deny Jesus had a physical body. This teaching became known as Docetism. Condemened as a heresy, Docetism was motivated by a strong belief Jesus was God but also by a belief material things are inherently evil The logic of the 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 (Burchard, 326).

Fuzzy Jesus, DocetismFrequently 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 only having the appearance of human flesh.The name Doceticism comes from the Greek δοκέω (dokeo), meaning to “appear” or “seem.”

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

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. They Ebionites were ascetic and lived a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty is similar to early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 who sold their possessions to supply the needs of the group. It is also possible they followed Jesus’s example and live a life of voluntary poverty. Although they rejected sacrifice, they thought many of the Jewish traditions were still of value, especially circumcision. Bart Ehrman 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 (Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 99).

It is common to associate the Docetic heresy with Cerinthus, a view dating to the second century. Irenaeus reported a tradition from Polycarp, who claimed John would not use the same bathhouse because Cerinthus, “the enemy of truth” was inside (Haer. 3:3.4). Based on this tradition, the Gospel of John and 1 John were written to answer the developing belief Jesus did not come in the flesh.Take, for example, the first line of 1 John, where the writer says he “touched Jesus with his hands.” In John 4:2-3 anyone who denies “Jesus came in the flesh” is the “spirit of antichrist.”

But as Colin Kruse observes,

“While it might be attractive to identify the opponents of 1 John with Cerinthus and his followers, seeing that there is evidence that the disciple of the Lord did know of him and repudiate his teaching, nevertheless this identification is highly unlikely” (21).

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible 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 1 John to indicate he is 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, 1986); Derek Brown, “Docetism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016); Gareth Lee Cockerill, “Cerinthus (Person),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:885. Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities. (Oxford University Press, 2003); Colin G Kruse. The Letters of John (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).