Daniël Maritz

Jesus as a Phantom: The Heresy of Docetism

Daniël Maritz | 18 May 2021 | 10 min read

In Matthew 16:13-18 Jesus asks His disciples an especially important question: “Who do you say that I am?” This question was obviously aimed towards the true identity of Jesus. Although the apostle Peter was there in that instance to answer the question correctly, during the time right after the lives of the apostles[1] many different answers to this very question Jesus posed, appeared on the scene of church history. However, any answer to Jesus’ question which eventually did not maintain that He is both fully God and fully man[2], came to be classified as a heresy.

The label of “heresy”[3] was (and is still) used by the church to refer to “a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church.” It was not used to refer to any peripheral doctrinal disagreement between Christians, but rather to an idea “that seemed to undercut the very basis of Christian existence.”[4] Heresy was therefore aimed at the heartbeat of the Christian faith, and if “there is a heartbeat of the Christian faith, it lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”[5]

Any answer to the question over the true identity of Jesus that contradicts who He really was, and what He really did as it is attested to in the Scriptures, can properly be called a heresy. One such answer that was given late in the 1st and early 2nd century, came to be known as Docetism.

The What’s and Why’s of Docetism?

While the early church almost immediately recognized the divine nature of Jesus, the question over His human nature proved to be difficult for the Docetists. They affirmed the deity of Jesus, yet maintained only His “apparent, but not real, humanity.”[6] If you were to have a dialogue with an early Docetist about the human nature of Jesus, he would have likely responded saying: “Oh, sure, Jesus might have looked like a human, but he wasn’t really. Jesus only seemed human.”[7]

The term docetic or Docetism was first used as a label by Serapion of Antioch (191-211 A.D.) and comes from the Greek word dokein (δοκεῖν) which means “to seem” or “to appear.”[8] The defining idea of Docetism is that Jesus only accidentally seemed or appeared to be human, but never really was human in substance. He was more like a kind of ghost or phantom who only appeared to be a man with a real human nature. While the disciples, only for an instant and out of confusion, thought that Jesus was a ghost or a phantom when He walked on water in Matthew 14:26[9], the Docetists actually believed and consistently taught this to be the case regarding the humanity of Jesus; He was a phantasm, an apparition, a mere illusion of sorts.[10]

An image of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14:26

One of the reasons why the heresy of Docetism found inroads into the theology of the early church, was probably because of Gnostic dualism.[11] Gnostic dualism posits an irreconcilable clash between anything that is material and anything that is spiritual. The material world is viewed to be “ignoble, shameful, and evil,” while the spiritual world of the divine is “noble, pure, and good.”[12] The idea is therefore that since matter is inherently evil, and since Jesus is divine, He would never have taken up a human nature, which by virtue of being material, would be inherently evil. It is like saying the phrase “the Word became flesh,”[13] is the same as saying “the Good became evil.”[14] Douglas Kelly helps to explain it as follows:

“The Docetists were probably influenced by Gnostic dualism, which viewed the material world as thoroughly bad, created by evil forces and not by God (who was entirely separate from the world). They claimed that since creation is unclean and flesh is inherently sinful, Christ could not have become incarnate in a real body. Rather, he only ‘seemed to be’ in a body (δοκεω). His human experiences, such as hunger, thirst, suffering and death, and even resurrection were not real for God; they were illusions. Salvation seemed to lie in not being deceived by these illusions of the Gospels, but in somehow escaping the material realm to a higher, spiritual reality, although what remains of their teaching is not very clear on how this was to be accomplished.”[15]

It is worth mentioning that the docetic view of Jesus, denying His real humanity, is often also accompanied by occult practices, “in which the ‘spiritual’ activities of necromancy, words and magical gestures, produce a physical effect.”[16] Moreover, one of Docetism’s major implications on anthropology is that if the Saviour is denied a human body, one’s own body becomes despisable and ultimately disposable. What matters is only the spiritual part of man.[17] However, as we are reminded, “man, and not [merely] a part of man, was made in the likeness of God.”[18]

For centuries we had nearly no record of early Docetic writings apart from early Christians who referred to them. However, during the 20th century, many manuscripts were discovered which came to be known as the Nag Hammadi library. It was named after the location of discovery.[19] Some of these manuscripts revealed the different forms of early Docetism. In the pseudoepigrapha (i.e. the ‘false writing’), the Gospel of Phillip, one reads for example that “Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which [they would] be able to see  him.”[20] Other names that are typically associated with early Docetism is also Valentinus[21] (100-160 A.D.) and Marcion[22] (85-160 A.D.).

In our modern world where secularism flourishes, “few people would go so far as to deny that Jesus was really human.”[23] Docetism has, to a large extent therefore died out. You will probably never encounter a card-carrying Docetist, however one would assuredly find those who deny that Jesus was supernatural or divine in any sense.

Scripture’s Testimony about Jesus’ Humanity

The earliest anti-docetic writing we have, is probably the first epistle of the apostle John written around the year 90 A.D. He starts his letter, not only claiming that he was an eyewitness to the events surrounding Jesus, but also that he touched Jesus.[24] Later he confirms that “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” However, those who do not confess this “is the spirit of the antichrist.”[25]

According to H.H. Wyatt, the true faith according to Scripture’s testimony, over against Docetism, maintains that Jesus, instead of being a man in appearance only “became really and truly man.” He also mentions that “if it can be shown that the Man Christ Jesus passed through each stage of human generation; exhibited each phase, each property, each infirmity of human life, and fulfilled the conditions of humanity in death, the truth of His Manhood is sufficiently established.”[26]

Although his birth was miraculous, Jesus was really conceived in the womb of Mary who was stated to be “with child.”[27] Like any other birth, except that Jesus was not humanly generated, “the time came for [Mary] to give birth” and she “gave birth to her firstborn son.” After his birth she wrapped him in “swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger”[28] which shows his body to be a material substance. Jesus therefore “fulfilled the first condition of human existence” in that there was “a true conception, gestation, and parturition of man.”[29]

Moreover, eight days after His birth, Jesus “shed human blood in the rite of circumcision, which the knife could not fetch from an empty form.”[30] Forty days after His birth, Jesus was also presented to the Lord since it is written in the Law “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.”[31] It is also stated that Jesus, as a child “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.”[32] He grew from a child to a man being “thirty years of age.”[33] The question in this regard is:

“Shall we say of Him all these years, It is a Spirit? Rather if the first Adam was created in maturity of body, and yet was very man, who shall resist the evidence of the Manhood of the Second Adam, born an Infant, growing as a Child, and after the gradual lapse of years slowly and visibly ripening into the prime of Manhood?”[34]

Just like any other man, Jesus got hungry “after fasting forty days and forty nights.”[35] On another occasions “as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.”[36] While hanging on the cross, He also said “I thirst.”[37] The infirmities of man were also experienced by Jesus. He was “wearied” from his journey and sat beside the well of Jacob.[38] While on the boat, “he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.”[39] Do normal men not get hungry, experience thirst, and need rest when they are weary?

Jesus also experienced human passions. Because of His “zeal” for His Father’s house He drove the moneychangers from the temple.[40] At one time He was looking at the people around him “with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.”[41] He also “wept over” the city of Jerusalem and over the death of His friend Lazarus, thus shedding human tears because of pity.[42]

At the events surrounding the death of Jesus “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”[43] The soldiers “stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him” before putting a crown of thorns on His head. They went on to “spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.”[44] After Jesus died on the cross, the soldiers did not break His legs like they have done with the other crucified victims next to Him. Instead, one of the soldiers “pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water”[45] which “shows the ordinary organization of a human body.”[46] Surely, He could not have been a mere phantom during all these events.[47]

It was also definitely not a phantom which Joseph of Arimathea asked for when he “went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” After learning that Jesus had already died, Pilate then “granted the corpse to Joseph.”[48] Nicodemus also brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, and together with Joseph, they “took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”[49] This process of embalming could surely not have been performed on a mere shadow.[50] Even the women who followed Jesus from Galilee witnessed how the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb.[51]

After His resurrection from the dead, when His disciples “thought they saw a spirit,” He invited them to touch Him: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”[52] During the time after His resurrection Mary Magdalene and the other Mary also “took hold of his feet”[53] and Thomas was encouraged to place his finger in the wound of Jesus.[54] It is clear then that just like any other men “share in the flesh and blood,” the person of Jesus Christ “himself likewise partook of the same things.”[55]

Wyatt strikingly summarizes:

“If, then, after His resurrection, our Blessed Lord possessed a real body, it follows that He possessed it before His death; for the notion of a resurrection is the rising again of the same body, and its reunion to the same soul from which it was separated by death. See ‘that it is I Myself.’ But that body cannot be said to be re-united, which had never been joined to the soul; that body cannot be said to be resuscitated, which never existed; that body cannot be said to rise from the grave which had never been buried there. Yet there had been, we have seen, the burial of a real body, and there followed, we have seen, the resurrection of a real body. It was therefore a real body which had lived, yea a Man, though God-Man, ‘which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of Life.’ Wherefore, with this accumulation of evidence, it cannot be doubted, that Christ took a true and real body.”[56]

The testimony of Scripture however goes further still. Jesus ascended into heaven “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”[57] This He has done as “a forerunner on our behalf.”[58] But “how shall He who neither lived, nor died, nor rose from the grave, with a real body ascend to Heaven therewith?”[59] Moreover, If Jesus did not bodily ascend into heaven, the Holy Spirit would not have come to us.[60] Also, the re-appearance of Jesus at the consummation of time will not be a bodily return if He did not bodily ascend, for He “will come in the same way as [the disciples] saw him go into heaven.”[61]

The apostle John understood the deadly consequences of Docetism. In his second letter he labels those “who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” as “deceivers.”[62] He knew all too well that if Christ’s humanity is denied, “the great events of the Christian history, on which the body of Christian theology rests” also disappears. For “If our Lord was only Man in appearance, He only suffered death in appearance; man’s redemption, therefore, was not in reality achieved; human guilt remains unexpiated; God and man are still unreconciled.”[63]

The Early Apologists and Docetism

The early Christian apologists, following the testimony of Scripture also engaged with Docetism. Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155), a disciple of the apostle John, condemned a form of Docetism saying that those who do not confess that Jesus “has come in flesh” is an “antichrist.”[64] Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), who according to tradition knew the apostle John, for example repeatedly insisted that Jesus “suffered all these things for us; and He suffered them really, and not in appearance only, even as also He truly rose again.”[65] In the same manner, Hippolytus (d. 235) also addressed this heresy when he attributes the idea that Jesus “was manifested as man in appearance only” to a man named Saturnilus.[66] According to Saturnilus, Jesus was “unbegotten and incorporeal, and devoid of figure.”[67]

A prominent figure in the early church, Irenaeus of Lyon (120-202/3), who studied under Polycarp, the disciple of John, similarly addressed some or other form of Docetism. He counters Docetism, saying that

“Vain indeed are those who allege that He appeared in mere seeming. For these things were not done in appearance only, but in actual reality. But if He did appear as a man, when He was not a man, neither could the Holy Spirit have rested upon Him, – an occurrence which did actually take place – as the Spirit is invisible; nor, [in that case], was there any degree of truth in Him, for He was not that which He seemed to be.”[68]

For Irenaeus God, who is truth, will only reveal Himself in true appearances and not in false ones. In this sense “taking on the appearance of a man without being a man (in reality) is not the work of God as it relates to the incarnation.”[69] Irenaeus clearly presupposed and upheld the trustworthiness of the senses by claiming Jesus was really what and who He appeared to be.[70] The appearance of Jesus as a real man, is therefore an appearance which corresponds to who Jesus really was, a real man. If Jesus was not really a man, then “nor did He truly redeem us by His own blood, if He did not really become man, restoring to His own handiwork what was said [of it] in the beginning, that man was made after the image and likeness of God.”[71]

Irenaeus also links the real body and blood of Jesus to the sign of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. He argues that if Jesus’ humanity was only an illusion, then the spiritual nourishment celebrated in the Eucharist makes no sense and becomes meaningless. If He only falsely appeared to be a man in substance, then He was not composed of a true human body and blood, and there would be no correspondence between the signs of bread and wine and the reality of Jesus’ body and blood.[72] The point Irenaeus was making is that a pseudo-Savior, based on a pseudo reality, achieves only a pseudo salvation.[73]


While Docetism maintains that Jesus Christ is “immaterial, incorporeal and intangible,” Christianity maintains that He has a fully human nature which was and still is united with His divine nature.[74] As seen, Docetism does violence to “a history of facts” when Christ’s humanity is reduced to a mere phantom and any sensory contact with His humanity is explained as being illusory.[75] Docetism is clearly a rival account to reality. The following statement will suffice to summarize this article:

“We possess as much evidence that Jesus Christ lived, as Man, a really human life on earth, as that any other human being ever lived, besides ourselves. Wherefore we believe and confess, great as is the mystery of godliness, that God was, most literally, manifest in the flesh, taking on Himself not the nature of angels, but the seed of the woman; and that with a real human Body, the Eternal Word was born, lived, suffered, died, rose, ascended, and now sits in Heaven, ‘whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things,’ when in the same human, though glorified, flesh He will return to judge mankind; for the Father ‘hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world by that Man whom He hath ordained.’”[76]

Suggested Readings

Brown, Harold, O.J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Tran. John Keble. Oxford: Nashotah House Press, 1872.

Miles, Todd. Superheroes Can’t Save You: Epic Examples of Historic Heresies. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2018.

Papandrea, James L. The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. Downers Grover: Intervarsity Press, 2016.

Pawl, Timothy. In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Wyatt, H.H. The Principal Heresies Relating to Our Lord’s Incarnation: A Treatise. London: Rivingtons, 1881.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] This era is typically known to be the postapostolic age. James Papandrea elaborates on this era as follows: “The apostles, along with their own disciples, were the world’s leadings experts on who Jesus was because they had known him personally or because they were there in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit proceeded to the church on Pentecost. And when they wrote the documents that became the New Testament, they were (and still are) believed to have been inspired by God. According to tradition, John lived the longest, living into the early second century. But by the late first century, any apostles still alive functioned like bishops with itinerant ministries of oversight and regional authority. This means that the beginning of the ‘postapostolic age’ (the age right after the apostles) began at different times in different places. In Rome it had begun after the deaths of Peter and Paul in the mid-60s of the first century. In Asia Minor it did not begin until the death of John. Therefore, while admitting that there is no clear or uniform beginning to the postapostolic age, we can still define it as the earliest time in the church’s history when there were no living apostles to give a definitive answer to the question that Jesus had asked: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mt 16:13-18).” (James L. Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age [Downers Grover: Intervarsity Press], 11-12).

[2] As the second person of the Triune God, Jesus Christ did not ‘become’ a human in the sense of the divine going through a transformation process which results in a human. The correct technical phrase would be that He took on a human nature. Since His divine nature is His nature by nature, He added to Himself a human nature. These two natures are united hypostatically in the one person of Jesus Christ and in a broader context is referred to as “Conciliar Christology” (Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay [Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press], 19). 

[3] The word heresy comes from the Greek noun hairesis (αἵρεσις) which originally meant “party” (see Acts 5:17; 15:5 and 26:5). During the early history of Christianity however, the term was used to indicate a split that resulted from a “false faith.” Also see 1 Cor. 11:9 and Gal. 5:20 (Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church [Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers], 2).

[4] Brown, Heresies, p. 2.

[5] Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (London: SPCK Publishing), 17.

[6] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume 2, God, Creation (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers), 295.

[7] Todd Miles, Superheroes Can’t Save You: Epic Examples of Historic Heresies (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic), 13. H.H. Wyatt, in a somewhat more technical manner, and in contrast to Conciliar Christology, unpacks the heresy of Docetism as follows: “Whereas, then, the Church affirmed that the Son of God was truly Incarnate, taking man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance, and so became very Man, His manifestation as Man was, according to the Gnostic heresy, illusory; He assumed, in Gnostic language, a corporeal appearance, but not the real corporeal substance of a human body. He became visible to mortal eyes, not in the reality of human flesh, but in an aerial form or shadowy resemblance of a body. This extravagant figment subverts the whole Christian history, and, by consequence, the whole body of Christian doctrine” (H.H. Wyatt, The Principal Heresies Relating to Our Lord’s Incarnation: A Treatise [London: Rivingtons, 1881], 10-11).

[8] See Eusebius of Caesaria, The Church History of Eusebius (In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine [A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company], 257-258.

[9] The parallel account of Jesus walking on water can be found in Mark 6:49. The Greek word used in both Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49 to describe Jesus as a “ghost” or a “phantom” is phantasma (φάντασμα).

[10] Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 46-48. Papandrea goes further to distinguish between “purely docetic christology” and “quasi-docetic christology.” The former can be defined as a position where not only Jesus’ humanity is apparent, but also His corporeality. He therefore only appeared to be human, and He only appeared to be tangible. Any contact Jesus might have had with the human sensory faculties was only an illusion. The latter is defined as a position where Jesus’ humanity is apparent, although He might have been tangible in some way. Jesus therefore might have had a tangible body of some kind even though He was not really human (p. 47-48).

[11] Gnosticism is a complex group of early heretical movements which emphasized secret gnosis which means “knowledge” (γνῶσις). Gnosticism typically holds that the goal of gnosis (i.e., “salvation” by knowledge) is for the purpose of freeing oneself from the embodied existence and live as a pure spirit. Thus, salvation is dependent on gaining the correct knowledge which is usually hidden and/or mysterious and only available to an elite group. Louis Berkhof states that “Gnosticism mistakenly sought to elevate Christianity to its rightful position, that of universal religion, by adapting it to the needs of all, and by interpreting it in harmony with the wisdom of the world.” Berkhof further mentions three characteristics of Gnosticism: (1) Due to its claim of gaining deeper knowledge, it was a highly speculative movement. (2) Due to its claim to be Christian in character, it was a popular movement. (3) Due to its eclecticism of sources, it was a syncretistic movement (Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines [Edinburgh: Banner of Trust], 46-47). Brown goes so far as to say that the Gnostic movements cannot really be called “heresies” as if Christianity was still its host religion. Gnosticism, according to Brown was too foreign to Christianity and rather represented “an alternative religion” (Brown, Heresies, p. 52).

The relationship between Docetism and Gnosticism can be historically complex. Papandrea maintains that Docetism was part of “the evolution of Gnosticism” and in this sense paved the way for Gnosticism. According to him a pure form of Docetism later evolved into what he calls “Docetic Gnosticism” wherein other Gnostic tenets were gradually added to the position (Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 45). J.N.D. Kelly explains that Docetism “was not a simple heresy on its own; it was an attitude which infected a number of heresies, particularly Marcionism and Gnosticism” (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, [London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury], 141). Miles also explains that “A full-blown Gnosticism did not arrive on the scene until the second century, but Docetism, an essential part of Gnosticism, had arrived in the church much earlier” (Miles, Superheroes Can’t Save You, p. 15). In the same manner, Berkhof indicates that there “are indications in the New Testament that an incipient Gnosticism was already making its appearance in the days of the Apostles” (Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, p. 45). It would seem then that, according to these scholars, the heresy of Docetism is very early indeed, and in some sense paved the way for the arrival of a more fully fledged Gnosticism later in the 2nd century A.D. What Berkhof labels an “incipient Gnosticism” might even be a reference to Docetism. However one historically views the relationship between Docetism and Gnosticism, the strong link between them remains undeniable by virtue of their similarities in the area of Christology.

The Gnostics, taking Plato’s thought to the extreme, introduced a dualistic separation between spiritual realities which are deemed to be good and godly, and material realities which are deemed to be inherently evil. For obvious reasons, this led to a rejection of the bodily incarnation of Jesus as is the case in Docetism. Papandrea therefore states that “docetic christology was an attempt to distance the divine Savior from the material world, apparently believing that the phrase ‘the Word became flesh’ (Jn. 1:14) was the same as saying, ‘the Good became evil’” (Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 49).

[12] Miles, Superheroes Can’t Save You, p. 14.

[13] John 1:14.

[14] Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 49. Brown also elaborates by saying that “The fact that docetism frequently recurs within Christendom illustrates the truth of Paul’s statement that the preaching of the Cross is ‘folly to the Greeks.’ The folly lies in the idea, unpalatable to the philosophical and religious thought of Hellenism, that the divine can take on material substance and suffer the fate of material beings” (Brown, Heresies, p. 53).

[15] Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology: Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in Light of the Church, Volume 2: The Beauty of Christ – A Trinitarian Vision (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Mentor), 252. In the same manner Herman Bavinck unpacks this notion as follows: “[Jesus’] humanity, however, was no less vigorously contested than his deity. The Gnostics, in virtue of their dualism, could not recognize it and therefore stated that the aeon Christ had only assumed a phantom body (Saturninus, Marcion). Or that he had brought with him from heaven a glorious spiritual body and had only passed through Mary like water through a conduit (Valentinus, Bardesanes)… The denial of the true and complete human nature always results from a certain dualism. The σαρξ, “matter,” is then by nature sinful and cannot be a constituent of the true Christ. Christ, accordingly, derived his substance not from the sensible, material world but from the invisible heavenly essential being that is in God” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic], 295, 297).

[16] Brown, Heresies, p.53.

[17] Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 63.

[18] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 6, § 1 (In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus [The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company], 531).

[19] John Gilchrist, Jesus Disfigured: Exposing the Gnostic Gospels (Benoni: Christian Resource Ministries), 14-15.

[20] Isenberg, Wesley W., “The Gospel of Philip (II, 3),” (In The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. by James M. Robinson, 4th rev. ed. [Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996]), p. 144-145.

Other books which contain certain traces of Docetism or at least a Gnostic dualism include the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, The Acts of John, The Acts of Andrew, The Concept of Our Great Power, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, The Testimony of Truth (See Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 51-62).

[21] Valentinus was an Egyptian monk who, after losing an election to become a bishop, defected into heresy. The Gospel of Phillip is considered to be a “foundational Valentinian text” (Gilchrist, Jesus Disfigured, p. 50).

[22] Marcion was famous for being an “arch anti-Judaiser.” As he struggled to reconcile the Old Testament with the New, he rejected anything Jewish. He also became known for his Gnostic tendencies (Gilchrist, Jesus Disfigured, p. 50-54).

[23] Miles, Superheroes Can’t Save You, p. 16.

[24] See 1 John 1:1-4. This entire passage reads as follows: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

[25] 1 John 4:2-3.

[26] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 11.

[27] Luke 2:5.

[28] Luke 2:6-7.

[29] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 12.

[30] Ibid. Also see Luke 2:21.

[31] Luke 2:23.

[32] Luke 2:40.

[33] Luke 3:23.

[34] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 13.

[35] Matthew 4:2.

[36] Matthew 21:18.

[37] John 19:28.

[38] John 4:6.

[39] Mark 4:38.

[40] John 2:17.

[41] Mark 3:5.

[42] Luke 19:41 & John 11:35.

[43] Luke 22:44.

[44] Matthew 27:28 & 30.

[45] John 19:34.

[46] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 15-16.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Mark 15:43-45.

[49] John 19:39-40.

[50] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 16.

[51] See Luke 23:55.

[52] Luke 24:37-39.

[53] Matthew 28:9.

[54] John 20:27.

[55] Hebrews 2:14.

[56] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 18.

[57] Hebrews 9:24.

[58] Hebrews 6:19.

[59] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 21.

[60] See John 16:7.

[61] Acts 1:11.

[62] 2 John 7.

[63] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 19.

[64] Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (In Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company], 34).

[65] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 2 (In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus [The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company], 87).

[66] Hippolytus, The Refutation of all Heresies, Book 7, Chapter 16 (In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix [The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company], 109.)

[67] Ibid.

[68] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 1, § 2 p. 527.

[69] John Nerness, Theological Examination of Nihilism and the Eucharis applied to Missions and Apologetics (Ph.D. thesis at NWU), 231-232. Nerness goes on to say that “Christ had to participate in our corruption (yet without sin) and weakness in order to truly redeem us… the incorruptible one (fully God) became corruptible (fully man) while remaining incorruptible (fully God and perfect man) so he may redeem the fallen, corrupted humans” (p. 233).

[70] Consider the following remarks from Nerness as it pertains to our senses and knowledge of reality (Nerness, Theological Examination):

  • “We can know and participate in an external world using our senses which presupposes the intelligibility of reality. God created persons to be moving towards the world in a disposition of humble reception, and then the world offers itself to be indwelled in a Eucharistic union that reflects his Triunity. In the liturgy of the church, the senses are very important in the hearing of the word of God and by the seeing, touching, tasting, and eating of the bread and wine. The Eucharist and the eyewitness testimony of the incarnation (Luke 1:2; I John 1:1,2) are contrary to any anti-realist epistemologies that deny the veracity of the sense faculties or, to state it more simply, divorce our senses from the external world… Moreover, the created things of the world are the medium by which the non-believer knows God and suppresses this truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-20). So, even in unbelief, the senses play a role” (p. 5).
  • “The engagement of the senses in knowing physical and spiritual reality is found throughout the Bible… Secularism in its materialistic and monistic assumption does not allow for the senses to be a gateway to deeper metaphysical and spiritual reality” (p. 70).
  • “The senses are important for discovering reality in general and the incarnation and the Eucharist in specific. The senses are not degraded in Christianity but are seen as very important in the Scriptures. The senses connect human beings to the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos. The senses and their trustworthiness are the gateway to a proper philosophy and the gateway to a proper theology; the senses are the gateway to find the esse-essentia distinction in reality and participate in the elements of the Eucharist” (p. 76).

[71] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 2, § 1, p. 528.

[72] Nerness, Theological Examination, p. 233. Nerness explains that if Jesus’ humanity is not real, then one loses what he calls “sacramental realism” as it pertains to the Eucharist. Moreover, the entire quote from Irenaeus in this regard is the following: “But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 2, § 2, p. 528).

[73] If one were to study Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one would find that they also, indirectly, and directly, refuted the position of Docetism.

When Augustine writes a Treatise on Faith and the Creed, he states the following: “For by the gift of God, that is, by the Holy Spirit, there was granted to us so great humility on the part of so great a God, that He deemed it worthy of Him to assume the entire nature of man (totum hominem) in the womb of the Virgin, inhabiting the material body so that it sustained no detriment (integrum), and leaving it without detriment. This temporal dispensation is in many ways craftily assailed by the heretics. But if any one shall have grasped the catholic faith, so as to believe that the entire nature of man was assumed by the Word of God, that is to say, body, soul, and spirit, he has sufficient defense against those parties” (Augustine, A Treatise on Faith and the Creed, Chapter 4, § 8, In P. Schaff, ed. St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company], 325). Also, when Aquinas appeals to the authority of Augustine, he paraphrases Augustine who said that “If the body of Christ was a phantom, Christ deceived us, and if He deceived us, He is not the Truth. But Christ is the Truth. Therefore His body was not a phantom. Hence it is plain that He assumed a true body” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [The Aquinas Institute, ed., Green Bay, WI; Steubenville, OH: Aquinas Institute; Emmaus Academic], STh., III q.5 a.1 s.c.).

Aquinas goes on to provide three reasons why Jesus’ body was a real human body and not a body in appearance only: “First, from the essence of human nature to which it pertains to have a true body. Therefore granted, as already proved (Q. 4, A. 1), that it was fitting for the Son of God to assume human nature, He must consequently have assumed a real body. The second reason is taken from what was done in the mystery of the Incarnation. For if His body was not real but imaginary, He neither underwent a real death, nor of those things which the Evangelists recount of Him, did He do any in very truth, but only in appearance; and hence it would also follow that the real salvation of man has not taken place; since the effect must be proportionate to the cause. The third reason is taken from the dignity of the Person assuming, Whom it did not become to have anything fictitious in His work, since He is the Truth. Hence our Lord Himself deigned to refute this error (Luke 24:37, 39), when the disciples, troubled and frighted, supposed that they saw a spirit, and not a true body; wherefore He offered Himself to their touch, saying: Handle, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see Me to have” (Aquinas, STh., III q.5 a.1 resp.).

Aquinas also unpacks Philippians 2:7, explaining that the phrase the “likeness of men” refers to “the truth of the human nature in Christ—just as all that truly exist in human nature are said to be like in species—and not a mere imaginary likeness. In proof of this the Apostle subjoins (Phil 2:8) that He became obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross; which would have been impossible, had it been only an imaginary likeness… For the Son of God assumed a true body, not so as to become the form of a body, which is repugnant to the Divine simplicity and purity—for this would be to assume a body to the unity of the nature, which is impossible, as is plain from what has been stated above (Q. 2, A. 1): but, the natures remaining distinct, He assumed a body to the unity of Person… The figure ought to correspond to the reality as regards the likeness and not as regards the truth of the thing. For if they were alike in all points, it would no longer be a likeness but the reality itself, as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 26). Hence it was more fitting that the apparitions of the old Testament should be in appearance only, being figures; and that the apparition of the Son of God in the world should be in a real body, being the thing prefigured by these figures. Hence the Apostle says (Col 2:17): Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is Christ’s.” (STh., III q.5 a.1 ad 1-3).

[74] Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies, p. 62.

[75] Wyatt, The Principal Heresies, p. 22.

[76] Ibid., p. 23.



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