views updated Jun 11 2018


DOCETISM . The term docetism is primarily used with reference to ancient Christologies where the reality of Jesus Christ's physical body was denied, or at least various of the normal carnal properties and functions were refused in favor of those more spiritual or ethereal. Christ had only the appearance (Greek, dokesis ) of a human, and only seemed (dokein) to be a man. Such docetists were accused by their opponents of putting forward a phantasm, and obviating the fundamental Christian hope in the resurrection with a birth and death that were not entirely real.

Beliefs in the divine origin and nature of the Christ inevitably put pressure on the full humanity of Jesus from the earliest times. Many found it hard to accept that he would eat and drink in the normal way, let alone perform more gross human functions, suffer the debilitations of old age and disease, or emit bodily fluids. Thus, some texts ascribe special characteristics to his body, such as that he could alter his appearance at will, or, in the Acts of John, that his eyes never closed and he left no footprints. A particular issue was his conception and birth, and here one can argue that docetic tendencies have affected mainstream Christian beliefs, where the virgin birth and associated doctrines have had enormous devotional power. Another problem was the reality of his death, and again one can track a variety of strategies that have attempted to circumvent that most human of fates, such as substitution of another on the cross or survival somehow of the experience to awaken in the tomb.

Certainly, the resurrection narratives, with their curious portrayals of Jesus unrecognized by his closest associatesor suddenly disappearing or appearing in their midst, implicate docetism in the basic Christian story, while the notion of "the resurrection body" enables it to coexist with imperatives requiring his full humanity. The disciples fear that they have seen a ghost, and thus he must eat a piece of grilled fish before their eyes (Lk. 24:3743), just as he puts Thomas's hand into his side (Jn. 20:27).

Apart from these contentious issues about the canonical gospel narrative itself, it is clear that docetic beliefs received support (whatever the original intention) from phrasing in the early hymn embedded in Philippians 2:511, which states that Christ Jesus took "the form of a slave, being born in human likeness," as this echoes as a proof-text through the writings of adherents to such views. Conversely, 1 John 1:13 and 4:13, and 2 John 7 evidence anti-docetic emphasis on the flesh that has been touched. Already, by the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp were combating those who denied the fleshly reality of Jesus' birth, life, and death, as well as those who claimed that his suffering was only apparent. Marcion can be taken as indicative of the trajectory of an indigenous Christianity in Asia Minor that now sought divorce from its Jewish and historical origins, and for whom Jesus descended suddenly from the third heaven to Capernaum in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, fully formed but in appearance only.

Although docetism is frequently associated with Gnosticismand many variations of such ideas can be found in the Nag Hammadi and similar writingsit is best understood as a collection of widespread tendencies that evidence the imperatives of popular piety, the impress of pagan notions of divinity or archetypal polarities between heaven and earth, and the influence of the glorified Christ already envisioned in the transfiguration and resurrection appearances. The term docetist first appears in a letter of Serapion of Antioch as quoted in Eusebius of Caesarea's History of the Church (6.12.6) with reference to those who circulated the Gospel of Peter, dating from around the mid-second century; but indications of pressure in this direction are evident from virtually the earliest strata of Christian belief that can be tracked historically. There is no evidence for any single sect of "docetists," and (even though Clement of Alexandria ascribes it to Julius Cassianus) no founder or point of origin can be supposed other than in theologically driven histories of heresy. However, docetic Christologies are useful in tracking the heritage of later systems, such as the understanding about the advent of Jesus (that he came "without body") assumed in Manichaeism; the duplication of the docetic Jesus in the Mandaean savior figure Anosh-Uthra; and possibly the Qur˒anic teaching at 4:157 about the crucifixion (that Jesus was not killed, but rather a resemblance of him on another). It has even been suggested as a source for the development of the triple-body of the Buddha doctrine in Mahāyāna texts.

Essentially, docetism is a term of opprobrium utilized by opponents to highlight the supposed correctness of their own views. Its usage reflects a refusal to accept the worth or impetus driving divergent Christologies, and thus the development of varied Christianities, some of which (such as Marcionism or Manichaeism) placed a premium on a noncorporeal savior free from limitations of time or matter. The term is still found in contemporary discussions of Christology to indicate particular emphases, but it remains rooted in theological or value-laden assumptions.


Standard accounts of early Christian doctrine provide references to primary sources. See, for example, Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, 2d rev. ed., vol. 1, From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), translated by John Bowden (London, 1975); J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th rev. ed. (London, 1977); and Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100600 a.d. (Chicago, 1971).

Iain Gardner (2005)


views updated May 18 2018


The theological error of those who denied the material reality of the body of Christ. The word probably comes from the Greek δοκε[symbol omitted]ν, referring to appearance or representation of something not existing in reality (Tertullian, De carne Christi 1). According to the Docetists, Christ did not have a true body during His earthly existence, but merely a bodily appearance. The origins of Docetism are obscure. The heresy could have taken its rise from diverse causes such as the opinion current in the first century that material in itself is evil; or the scandal given by the bodily weaknesses exhibited by Christ while on earth, and more particularly his ignominious death on the cross. The earliest evidence of the existence of this heresy is probably that of the first two Epistles of St. John (1 John4.23; 2 John 7). At the start of the second century, igna tius of antioch explicitly condemned this doctrine (Smyr. 13; 7.1; Tral. 910). Ignatius saw clearly that to deny the reality of the body of Christ was to destroy the reality of Christianity and the christian way of life.

In the course of the second and third centuries, Docetism found an ally in gnosticism. Beginning with the principle that the flesh is evil and that salvation consists in evading the consequence of having a body, the various expressions of Gnosticism, even though differing in modalities, were united in claiming that Christ had assumed only a bodily appearance. According to Basilides, Simon of Cyrene was miraculously substituted for Christ and crucified in His place, while Jesus Himself returned to heaven (Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 1.24.4). According to Valentinian, Christ had passed through Mary as water passes through a channel; and His body had not known any physical necessities (ibid. 1.7.2). Outside the Gnostic circles, Docetism exercised a more or less profound influence on the early Christian world. Traces of it are to be found in some of the apocryphal books, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Ascension of Isaiah and certain expressions used by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 6.9.71) and Origen (In Matt. 13.2) that, if detached from their context, have a Docetist connotation.

Among the adversaries of Docetism, along with Ignatius of Antioch, were polycarp of smyrna (Philip. 7.1), Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 4.23.15; 5.1.2; 5.2.2), Serapion of Antioch (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.12.6) and particularly tertullian (Adv. Marcionem 3; Adv. Valent.; De carne Christi ). With Tertullian the history of Docetism, properly so-called, ceases. While Docetism in its radical form was a heresy of the first centuries of Christianity, certain Docetist tendencies and mentalities continued to make themselves manifest within Christianity both in the sphere of doctrine and in the moral and ascetical sphere, particularly as a consequence of Pelagianism. Docetism is a danger for all who do not admit that the Son of God became man in everything similar to all men, except sin, and refuse to draw the practical conclusions from this fact (see pelagius and pelagianism).

Bibliography: g. bardy, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al., (Paris 1932) 3:146168. a. grillmeier, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, eds., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:470471. r. schnackenburg, Die Johannesbriefe (2d ed. Freiburg 1963) 2022. l. vaganay, L'Évangile de Pierre (2d ed. Paris 1930) 188122. Les Actes de Pierre, ed. and tr. l. vouaux (Paris 1922) 6673. Ascension d'Isaie, ed. and tr. e. tisserant (Paris 1909). g. bareille, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 4.2:14801501.

[a. humbert]


views updated Jun 27 2018

Docetism (Gk., dokeō, ‘I seem’). The doctrine that the humanity and sufferings of Christ were apparent rather than real. The view that Jesus miraculously escaped death on the cross (such as, on the usual or orthodox understanding of the Arabic, in the Qurʾān, 4. 157) may also be termed docetic.