Docetism was an early Christian heresy dating back to the time of the Apostles. The most important characteristic of Docetism is a belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion and didn't truly exist. The beliefs of Docetism strongly resemble other Gnostic thought, which teaches the inferiority and wickedness of the material world compared to the spiritual world.
Overview of Beliefs
Docetism comes from the Greek word for "appearance" or "to seem" because it presents Jesus' flesh as an illusion. Standard Christian doctrine is that Jesus is both human and God, but Docetism did not believe a high, spiritual being could also be a lower, material being. The term Docetism can refer to the complete denial of Jesus' body or a more partial denial -- some Docetists only denied the reality of Jesus' flesh at the times of birth, crucifixion or death. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Milder Docetists attributed to Christ an ethereal and heavenly body but disagreed on the degree to which it shared the real actions and sufferings of Christ."
The Catholic Encyclopedia insists that Docetism is not a proper Christian heresy because it came from outside the Church. Docetism is an extension of Gnosticism, a series of beliefs focused on secret knowledge that existed before the time of Jesus. Gnosticism's prime trait is a belief that the material world is wicked and temporary, and that the spirit world is superior and eternal. Therefore, when Gnostics began mixing their beliefs with Christianity, they discarded Jesus' humanity because it seemed unworthy of a deity.
Alternate Reading of John 1:14
The early Church most often refuted Docetism with John 1:14, which states: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us." Docetists read this passage metaphorically, once again interpreting the situation through the Gnostics' negative attitude toward the body. A Docetist would read this passage as, "And the Word took the appearance of flesh and lived among us."
Most Prominent Opponents
The most well-known opponent of Docetism was St. Ignatius of Antioch, who used his authority as a bishop to label it a heresy in the second century. Polycarp, a second-century bishop and martyr, was also a vocal critic of Docetism, as were anti-Gnostic warriors such as Tertullian. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. John was referencing Docetists in his epistles -- known as 1 John and 2 John in the Bible -- when he wrote passages such as 2 John 1:7: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist." This and other verses from John speak critically of those who deny the flesh of Jesus Christ.
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