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"Docetism" is the name given a variety of christological tendencies whose unifying characteristics are subject to considerable scholarly debate. Ancient theologians argued against the position that Christ only seemed to suffer; this usage draws on the term's etymology (Greek dokein = "to seem") and is the most common referent of "docetism" in contemporary scholarly discussions. This was not, however, what the church's heresiologists specified as a salient characteristic of docetism. The heresiologists named as Docetists those who believed that Christ's divinity was irreconcilable with his actually having been physically born. Some ancient theologians may have called themselves Docetists, but they do not seem to have subscribed to any of the above doctrines. Finally, it should be noted that some contemporary theologians use "docetic" to describe christologies that lack sufficient historical grounding. The confusion of these (and other) usages impel Norbert Brox to describe "docetism" as "a problematic designation" (Brox 301).
Possible Early Signs of Docetism
The locus classicus of docetic christology in the early church appears in the Johannine literature's tendency to depict a Jesus who was in control of all the contingencies of his situation, who knew what was in people's hearts, who referred to his ignominious execution as a "glorification." Ernst Kaesemann puts the matter forcefully:
In what sense is he flesh, who walks on the water and through closed doors, who cannot be captured by his enemies, who at the well of Samaria is tired and desires a drink, yet has no need of drink and has food different from that which his disciples seek? He cannot be deceived by men, because he knows their innermost thoughts even before they speak. He debates with them from the vantage point of the infinite difference between heaven and earth. He has need neither of the witness of Moses nor of the Baptist. He dissociates himself from the Jews, as if they were not his own people, and he meets his mother as the one who is her Lord. He permits Lazarus to lie in the grave for four days in order that the miracle of his resurrection may be more impressive. And in the end the Johannine Christ goes victoriously to his death of his own accord (Kaesemann 9).
Kaesemann's assessment of John's theology is subject to question--certainly many passages stress Jesus' actual carnality--but whether John is sponsoring incipient docetism or trying to oppose it, the Johannine literature (which is usually estimated to have come from the end of the first century) manifestly wrestles with the problem of incarnational theology. At the same time, there is no record of an early theologian assessing John or his opponents as "docetic."
The first witnesses to the use of dokein in what is ostensibly a context relevant to christological controversy are Ignatius's letters to the Trallians and Smyrnans (c 110-115 CE). Ignatius mocks those who claim that Christ appeared to suffer (to dokein auton peponthenai; Tral. 10:1; Smy 2; cf. 4:2). The "godless unbelievers" against whom Ignatius polemicizes may well be docetists; his use of "to seem" suggests as much. All the same, there is no explicit evidence that "docetist" was a term in current circulation at Ignatius's time; lacking an explicit warrant for linking Ignatius' opponents to a party called Docetists, scholars ought to exercise caution in identifying the two.
Docetists and Presumed Docetists
The first use of "docetist" as an identification of a particular group occurs in Serapion's condemnation of the Gospel of Peter (c 190 CE). Eusebius reports that Serapion forbade use of the Gospel of Peter on the basis of its docetism. Serapion does not, however, specify what aspects of Peter might be docetic; he simply alerts the congregation at Rhossus that with the help of the successors of those who originated a particular heresy, whom we call Docetists, he was able to sort out the orthodox parts of Peter from fragments that the heretics had added (Eusebius, EH VI.xii). Jerry McCant has argued that none of the extant fragments of the Gospel of Peter bears a distinctly docetic stamp (but McCant's argument suffers from the lack of a sound definition of docetism as a criterion). Clement of Alexandria also knew of a group known as Docetists without explaining what they believed; he simply observes that their name derives from their doctrine (early third century; Stromateis VII.xvii). Clement did opine that the founder of docetism was Julius Cassian, but this assessment seems to be grounded in Cassian's belief that birth is an evil (Strom. III.xvii). Clement associates Cassian with Marcion and Valentinus on this basis; but historians of dogma usually do not regard the claim that birth is evil as distinctively docetic.
Somewhat earlier, Irenaeus had attacked a variety of Gnostic teachings that are commonly identified with docetism in his Adversus Haereses (late second century). Michael Slusser cites seven passages in which Irenaeus opposes docetic-like heresies (Slusser 169; he omits mention of Cerinthus). The gnosticism of Simon Magus taught that Jesus had been an incarnation of Simon himself, and that though he had seemed to suffer, he had not in fact suffered (Adv. Haer. I.xxiii.2). Basilides evidently taught that the Nous took human form as Jesus in order to make the unborn, nameless Father known. Since the Nous was inhabiting Jesus, he--the Nous--could not actually suffer and die, but changed places with Simon of Cyrene, who was transfigured to resemble Jesus, and was crucified while the actual Jesus/Nous stood aside and laughed (Ad. Haer. II.xxiv.4). Cerinthus taught that the Christ descended on Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism and departed from him before his passion, so that although Jesus was physically born, suffered and died, the Christ remained spiritual and untouched by suffering (Adv. Haer. I.xxvi.1). Marcion and others likewise taught that the Word/Christ descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and ascended to the Pleroma before suffering; Valentinians, that the Christ apparently was born of Mary, but that he simply emerged from her "as water [passes] through a tube." However, Irenaeus emphasizes that none of these teachers believed that the Word became flesh (Adv. Haer. III.xi.3, xvi.1, xviii.3-6; cf. also III.xxii.1-2). Irenaeus implies that Marcion and others held that Jesus "was a man merely in appearance" (Adv. Haer. IV.xxxiii.2, 5, V.1.2).
Though these scattered references amount collectively to a clear sign that some of Irenaeus's opponents taught that Jesus' divinity was incompatible with full humanity, the most striking aspect of the whole array of allusions is that nowhere does Irenaeus refer to these false teachers as Docetists--although the term was available to Serapion and Clement only a few years later. Though Slusser suggests that Irenaeus condemns his opponents "as docetic" (169), a more precise formulation would stress that Irenaeus condemns his theological opponents without accusing them of docetism. Irenaeus' free use of designations for numerous theological parties makes his silence with respect to docetism all the more striking.
Most helpful is Hippolytus' Refutation of All Heresies (early third century), since Hippolytus seems to know of a group who call themselves Docetists, and he provides a summary of their teachings. They subscribe to an ontology of three Aeons from one primal Pleroma. These Aeons together generated a Savior in the Virgin Mary; this offspring was equal to the Aeons, except that he was generated while they were not. The Docetists' Savior put on human flesh in order to redeem humanity; when he washed in the Jordan, he received a promise of a spiritual body along with the human body he received from Mary. Thus when the carnal body suffered and died, the Savior redeemed the flesh by means of the flesh, though he himself had stripped off his mortal body. This testimony from Hippolytus is all the more helpful since Hippolytus also knows of the Basilideans, Cerinthians, Marcionites, and so on--though he evidently does not consider them Docetists.
The result of all this doctrinal excavation is thus perplexing. The earliest sources indicate that some parties held that Jesus had only appeared to suffer; these are never explicitly styled "docetists." Later sources likewise know of an apparently-human christology, but also of a party called Docetists. The latter hold doctrines that are patently Gnostic in orientation, including their abhorrence of the idea that the Christ should suffer; but the "apparentness" of Christ's suffering is eclipsed by the complicated Gnostic cosmologies intertwined with the particular christological issue in question here. Moreover, there are numerous texts (such as the Acts of John) whose christologies are possibly docetic, though they do not claim that title and are not accused of docetism by ancient heresiologists.
The matter is all the more confusing when one considers contemporary scholars' inclination to accuse their adversaries of docetism. Few, if any, contemporary interpreters subscribe to the elaborate Gnostic version of Hippolytus' docetic opponents, nor do they advocate the surrogate-identity christology in which Jesus only seemed to have been born, or deftly avoided crucifixion by a last-minute change of identity. The contemporary critics are not complaining about a recrudescence of these anomalous beliefs, but are protesting against christologies constructed without an adequate basis in a historical reconstruction of Jesus' identity.
In the face of this array of docetisms, Michael Slusser suggests that "docetism" be defined in accordance with the broad historical use of that term; he approves of F. C. Baur's definition of docetism ("the human appearance of Christ is mere illusion and has no objective reality"), though he cautions that the word "appearance" should be construed as referring to Christ's whole earthly career, rather than to his countenance or the mode of his arrival (Slusser 172). Norbert Brox--concerned to differentiate ancient docetism from modern christological problems--suggests that the term "docetism" be reserved for cases where a doctrine deliberately distinguishes Jesus' manifestation from his essence: "Docetism lies at hand where a christology claims: Jesus was different from what he seemed to be" (Brox 309). Both of these definitions strain to accommodate the diverse data they address, but it is unlikely that any single definition of docetism will satisfy the many conflicting accounts of what constituted ancient docetism. Though Brox more self-consciously distinguishes ancient docetism from related modern phenomena, both he and Slusser propose definitions that would, if followed rigorously, provide helpful clarity to the discussion of this elusive topic.
Brox, Norbert. "'Doketismus'--eine Problemanzeige," Zeitschrift fuer Kirchengeschichte 95 (1984): 301-314.
F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 413.
Kaesemann, Ernst. The Testament of Jesus, trans. Gerhard Krodel Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968.
McCant, Jerry. "The Gospel of Peter: Docetism Reconsidered," New Testament Studies 30 (1984): 258-273.
Slusser, Michael. "Docetism: a Historical Definition," The Second Century 1 (1981): 163-172.
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