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Early Christian Docetism

I can now, at long last, start talking about the kinds of textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament that I covered in my 1993 book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (I did a second edition, updating the discussion with a new Afterword in 2011).   From the surviving documents of the period, there appear to have been five major competing Christologies (= understandings of who Christ was) throughout the Christian church, and I will devote a post or two to each of the first four.  Docetism, the subject of this post, understood Christ to be a fully divine being and therefore not human; Adoptionism understood him to be a fully human being and not actually divine; Separationism understood him to be two distinct beings, one human (the man Jesus) and the other divine (the divine Christ); Modalism understood him to be God the Father become flesh.   The fifth view is the one the “won out,” the Proto-orthodox view that Christ was both human and divine, at one and the same time, that he was nonetheless one person and not two persons, and that he was distinct from God the Father, both of them being God but there being only one God.

As you can tell, it was a complicated set of debate.  But by later theological standards rather basic.

Docetism, as I have indicated on the blog before, derives its name from the Greek word “DOKEO,” which means “to seem” or “to appear.”   It is not clear whether

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It is not clear whether the proponents of a docetic view called themselves this, but it seems rather unlikely.  It is more probably a term used *of* them by their theological enemies,  who mocked them for saying that Christ was not really a human being, but only “seemed” to be one.  He was, for them, instead, fully divine, a deity who came to the earth only in the “appearance” of human flesh.

There were probably some Gnostics who held some such views (I have described Gnostics on the blog before: if you need a refresher, just search for the term and you’ll see the posts).  And there were almost certainly some unnamed groups that held to it – including an unnamed group attacked already in the New Testament book of 1 John and another one attacked (assuming, as I do, that it was a different group) in the letters of Ignatius.  But it is a view possibly best known in the writings of the (in)famous teacher and theologian of the second century, Marcion.

Here is what I say about Marcion and his followers (Marcionites) in my brief introduction to their views in my textbook The New Testament.

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Consider another Christian group, this one scattered throughout much of the Mediterranean in the mid- to late second century, with large numbers of congregations flourishing especially in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Their opponents called them “Marcionites” because they subscribed to the form of Christianity advanced by the second-century scholar and evangelist Marcion, who himself claimed to have uncovered the true teachings of Christianity in the writings of Paul. In sharp contrast to the Jewish Christians east of the Jordan, Marcion maintained that Paul was the true apostle, to whom Christ had especially appeared after his resurrection to impart the truth of the gospel. Paul, according to Marcion, had begun as a good Jew intent on obeying the Law to the utmost, but the revelation of Christ showed him beyond doubt that the Jewish Law played no part in the divine plan of redemption. For him, Christ himself was the only way of salvation. Marcion argued that Paul’s writings effectively set the gospel of Christ over and against the Law of the Jews, and that the apostle had urged Christians to abandon the Jewish Law altogether.

For Marcion and his followers, the differences between the religion preached by Jesus (and his apostle Paul) and that found in the Jewish Scriptures were plain to see. Whereas the Jewish God punishes those who disobey, they claimed, the God of Jesus extends mercy and forgiveness; whereas the God of the Jews says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the God of Jesus says to “turn the other cheek”; and whereas the Old Testament God tells the Israelites to conquer Jericho by slaughtering its entire population—men, women, and children— the God of Jesus says to love your enemies. What do these two Gods have in common? According to the Marcionites, nothing. For them, there are two separate and unrelated Gods, the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus.

Marcionite Christians maintained that Jesus did not belong to the wrathful and just God of the Jews, the God who created the world and chose Israel to be his special people. In fact, Jesus came to save people from this God. Moreover, since Jesus had no part in the Creator, he could have no real ties to the material world that the Creator-God made. Jesus therefore was not actually born and did not have a real flesh-and-blood body. How, then, did Jesus get hungry and thirsty, how did he bleed and die? According to Marcionites, it was all an appearance: Jesus only seemed to be human. As the one true God himself, come to earth to deliver people from the vengeful God of the Jews, Jesus was never born, never got hungry or thirsty or tired, never bled or died. Jesus’ body was a phantasm.

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Some similar views about Jesus, as I’ve indicated, were found in other groups as well, both before and after Marcion.  My sense is that even today there are Christians who are sympathetic with such views, since in their judgment, at the end of the day, Christ is REALLY God.  Whether he was REALLY human is a bit harder to say.  Or rather, people say it, but don’t always buy it.  But the early proto-orthodox church fathers bought it.  If Christ wasn’t human he couldn’t die for the sake of other humans, and if he didn’t really have flesh and blood, he couldn’t shed his blood for the sake of others.  For the Proto-orthodox, this was a very important issue indeed.  And it came to affect scribes who were copying their manuscripts of the New Testament.

 

 

 

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Was Christ God? The View of Jewish-Christian Ebionites
Magic and Manuscripts

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Comments

  1. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  September 28, 2015

    Marcion’s theological views are seemingly alive and well in present-day America, though they have been ever-so-slightly repackaged. The repackaging goes something like this: Thanks to the new covenant, the old has passed and the vengeful God of the Old Testament has passed with it, replaced instead by the meek and ever-so-helpful God of Jesus, now chiefly interested in the forgiveness of sins and financial prosperity. Modern-day docetists turn the other cheek to the vengeful God of the OT, as well as any unpleasantness in the NT such as the concept of Hell or Revelations, etc. The OT has become essentially prologue for many modern Christians, especially outside of a few verses of Psalms and Proverbs.

    • Steefen  October 2, 2015

      The problem is that ignores what Dr. Ehrman has taught. There is more than one notion of God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Notions of God moved from God is powerful and vengeful and punishes his Chosen People to a Pessimistic view that, No, we’re not misbehaving that badly, a God who is still God but who isn’t making things better for us.

  2. Tom  September 28, 2015

    How is Docetism pronounced?

    Is the “c” hard as a “k” or soft as a “s”?

  3. Steefen  September 29, 2015

    “Marcionite Christians maintained that Jesus did not belong to the wrathful and just God of the Jews, the God who created the world and chose Israel to be his special people. In fact, Jesus came to save people from this God.”

    Reactions: 1) Jesus’ remembrance via Communion in light of Leviticus 17: 10 definitely has Jesus separating himself from the God of the Jews. 2) there probably was no “Our Father Prayer” for Marcion.

    Does Paul really speak so little of the Father?

    • Steefen  October 2, 2015

      Marcion also isn’t up on theological history. Jesus did not need to rescue the Jews from the wrathful God of Adam & Eve, Noah, and the exiles, Jesus needed to rescue the Jews from a God who wasn’t making things better.

  4. Stephen  September 29, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    Were there Jewish Christian docetists that we know of? Or was this viewpoint a product of the influx of Gentiles into the movement? I guess I’m wondering how far back this idea goes into the development of Christianity. I would assume you think that Marcion misinterprets Paul but do you find any of this tendency in Paul’s writings?

    thx

  5. dragonfly  September 29, 2015

    The orthodox christology seems to be a bit reactionist. Do you think it only developed the way it did because of these other groups or it would have gone that way anyway?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2015

      I think it developed in large measure because of whom it was directed *against* (on all sides).

  6. RonaldTaska  September 29, 2015

    This series of blogs reviewing the five Christologies is going to be very interesting. My main problem, so far, is that I don’t really understand how Modalism differs from what became the orthodox view. I look forward to learning this.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2015

      Ah, big difference. Orthodoxy was very intent on saying that Christ the son was not the Father.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  October 1, 2015

      The United Pentecostal Church (UPC) has a modalistic doctrine called Oneness. They believe God plays roles–Father, Son, Holy Sprit. You can be a father, a brother, and a son but Ronald is still just one person. I was in a UPC church for several years, so I know it well. Also, they never baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; they use the words “in Jesus’ name” instead. Anyone who is baptized the trinitarian way must be re-baptized correctly.
      The UPC is a very large organization. People who attend the churches belonging to it call themselves apostolic. Think of Kim Davis–lady who refuses to give marriage licenses to gay/lesbian couples. She’s apostolic.

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  September 29, 2015

    In general, are R. Bultmann’s ideas still accepted? I found a good copy of his “History of the Synoptic Tradition” on Amazon for a good price last night.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2015

      They were highly influential; he was arguably the most important NT scholar of the 20th century. But few scholars today would accept most of his views. Still that’s a *classic* (if very difficult) book!

  8. Wilusa  September 29, 2015

    I want to make clear that since all these theological debates really took place, I fully appreciate their *historical* importance. Yes, there is value in our learning about them!

    But the debates themselves? I find it appalling that grown men spent huge chunks of their lives fretting over such things. No better than the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” stuff. Didn’t any of them ever stop and think, “This is ridiculous”? Probably, all that mattered to the average layperson was Christianity’s promise of a blissful afterlife.

    For me, the greatest value in learning all this is that it makes me ever more sure I was right, a half-century ago, in becoming an agnostic.

  9. Mhamed Errifi  September 29, 2015

    hello bart

    Modalism understood him to be God the Father become flesh. do you mean the father became the son .

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2015

      He became a fleshly human being, known as the son, in this view.

  10. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  September 29, 2015

    Professor Ehrman,

    Did docetism essentially come in “second place” in the great Christology debate? I only recall Marion’s views being seriously considered at the First Council of Nicaea. How seriously were any of these other Christology’s considered during any of the fourth century ecumenical councils? Was the topic ever discussed at Constantinople in 381 or Chalcedon in the fifth century, or was the case closed after Nicaea?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2015

      No, docetism was shut down long before Nicea; it wasn’t discussed there.

  11. jbjbjbjbjb  October 19, 2015

    Hi Prof Ehrman,
    I have often thought that the hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2 could be used (or “misconstrued” in proto-orthodox eyes, to use the common expression in your Orthodox Corruption) by docetists to support their position. Did that occur? And is there any evidence of that in orthodox corruptions of this passage? [Sorry I may not have got to the relevant part of your book yet, but since this post concerns docetism I thought I’d go for it].

    If there is not evidence of this kind of protective tampering, then have you also noticed more generally a distinct lack of orthodox corruptions when a scribe can probably sense that the New Testament author is in fact quoting other material?
    Thanks for your views on these options.
    John

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2015

      There aren’t too many alterations of this passage, and none that radically change its meaning. And no, there is no discernible pattern with respect to quoted material (probably because scribes would not have realized that it is quoted material)

  12. Maurices5000  November 1, 2015

    So for the sake of clarity. Marcionite Christians believed in Docetism. Docetism being the more general, broader term.

    What do you mean by the God of Jesus? You juxtaposition it against “God of the Jews.” In Docetism are you saying that Jesus had a Father? In such case who or what is Jesus? An angel? Generic spirit? Or do you mean Jesus as God himself? Is it unknown?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2015

      Yes.

      Marcion thought there were two Gods, including the one related to Jesus.

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