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Does Luke Combat a Docetic Christology?

QUESTION:

There are some scholars who believe that the resurrection story found in Luke’s gospel is an antidocetic narrative ( Gerd Ludemann and Charles Talbert, for instance). According to these scholars when the risen Jesus performs acts designed to show his disciples that he has an actual body of flesh and isn’t some phantom or demon, the story is designed to refute the heresy of docetism that existed during the time that Luke wrote his gospel. I have never seen convincing evidence for this. What is your take on this? Do you agree with these scholars? If so, why? If not, what is your opinion?

RESPONSE:

Yeah, this is a tough one. I think I need to provide some background for some of the people reading the blog. The term “Docetism” comes from the Greek word dokeo which means “to seem” or “to appear.” The term came to be used in reference to certain Christians and Christian groups who maintained that Jesus was not a real flesh and blood being, but that he only “seemed” to be or “appeared” to be. The Docetic Christians we are best informed about took this position because they thought that Jesus was so divine (so much God) that he could not be human. God can’t be human any more than a human can be a rock. And so if Jesus was God, he was not a man.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Adam  September 25, 2012

    On a side note, I grew up in the evangelical church and probably went to 5 different churches during different periods growing up. Yet, I never heard about the belief found in the NT that believers would experience a physical “afterlife” or that they would be physically raised until I went on to Moody. All I heard about was heaven.

    • Avatar
      haoleboy26  September 25, 2012

      In a related experience, I was raised in a Roman Catholic family that attended mass regualarly and I continued to do so into my early 20’s. That means I have literally recited the following final lines from the Nicene Creed hundreds of times without truly appreciating their historic meaning: “We look for the resurrection of the dead,
      and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
      I’m confident I always took that to refer to a spiritual existence in Heavan, rather than a bodily resurrection into a life that would continue on Earth.

      Similarly, I know that I never truly appreciated the historical meaning of the final lne in the “Glory Be”, one of the many prayers recited during a saying of the rosary: “As it was in the begininng, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Don’t know how I missed that historically this statement was affirming a belief in an eaternal world here on Earth, not in some heavanly realm. Oddly, it was hearing TV preacher Jack Van Impe that woke me up to that one.

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  September 25, 2012

    Maybe docetism developed first, not in terms of how to understand Jesus’ earthly material existence, but in an attempt to understand the nature of Jesus’ (and eventually everyone’s) resurrected way of existing. We have a tendency to view docetism from the perspective of a well defined doctrine of the incarnation, ie, Jesus was truly God and truly human. But I don’t think that the origins of docetism should necessarily be so imagined. Obviously I’m being entirely speculative here.

  3. Avatar
    jasha  September 25, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,

    Would you say the same for john 20:27, that it is to show that Jesus was physically, not ‘merely’ spiritually raised? I always thought it was just pointlessly gross to have someone poking around in Jesus’ wounds, but if the author wanted to be sure there was no doubt about the nature of the Resurrection I guess it makes sense.

  4. Avatar
    glucab86  September 26, 2012

    What can be said with respect to the Thomas “incident” in john 20:24? There is a similar argument like the one on Luke or something more can be said? Could it be that john wanted to discredit some different theories about Jesus which spread at the time under the name of Thomas by claming the real and most ancient tradition about this apostle (maybe to protect his future community from heresy)? I find very hard to believe that there was around an oral tradition of this story or that Thomas was simply randomly chosen.

    Thanks Bart and sorry for my English, hope you will understand!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2012

      Yes, this is the argument that Elaine Pagels develops in her popular book, Beyond Belief, that John was responding to a kind of Thomasine Chrisitianity. As long as that is not taken to the extreme of saying that the Gospel of John is responding to the Gospel of Thomas, I think there can be some real merit in the view.

  5. Avatar
    bobnaumann  September 26, 2012

    I always been puzzled by the ascension account in Luke. One would the impression that the encounter on the road to Emaus, the eating with the travelers, the appearance to the Diciples, and the ascension all occurred on the same day, namely Easter Sunday. Yet in Acts the author of Luke states that Jesus remained on Earth for forty day and appeared to many. Did he forget what he said in his Gospel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 26, 2012

      Yeah, it’s a great question. And it involves a textcritical question. I’ll try to deal with it on the blog itself.

    • Avatar
      lfasel  October 3, 2012

      Lukes garnered information is not as accurate as many believe his account to be. Also, the number forty in antiquity was a conventional number used figuratively, especially in the TaNaK since a month was from one New Moon to the other , Forty just meant for a period of time.

  6. Avatar
    tcc  September 28, 2012

    2 John 1:7 sounds like it’s about docetism, though.

    “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

  7. John4
    John4  July 6, 2015

    Hello Wonderful Bart! 🙂

    Yesterday, writing in the comments section for your post of September 15, 2012, you stated the following:

    “For the ancients [soul] was almost always material. It was just a different kind of material. I suppose that shifted most significantly with Descartes.”

    In this post of September 24, 2012, you write of the view held by some ancients that Jesus “was not a material being. He was a spiritual being….”

    So, I gather, the ancients imagined the “soul” to be material. But, they imagined “spiritual beings” to be immaterial.

    Do I have this right?

    Many, many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      Sorry, I’m using “material” in two different senses here. I can see how that is confusing. Yes, soul and spirit were in some sense always material (my first point). Some ancients felt that he was not *bodily* material but *spiritual* material (my second point).

      • John4
        John4  July 6, 2015

        Super. Thanks for the clarification. That makes sense to me. 🙂

        So, for the ancients then, even the Jewish God (if I may shift the point of reference here a bit) was, in some sense, a *material* being, albeit the material was *spiritual* and not *bodily*. And at some point, presumably somewhere between, say, Augustine and Descartes, the conception changed: the *spiritual* God became *immaterial* and material souls became *immaterial* also, at least in the minds of most.

        Have I got it now?

        May God, material, immaterial, or merely metaphorical, bless you in every way, wonderful Bart! 😀

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2015

          Good question about “God.” I don’t know. But yes, it is with Descartes that the split between material and non-material (in our sense) happened.

          • John4
            John4  July 7, 2015

            Ah. Thanks so much.

            I do think, though, that the shift toward material/immaterial dualism began before Descatres. For example: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1088.htm

            Thank you so much for your help, Bart! 🙂

          • Bart
            Bart  July 8, 2015

            You may want to read Dale Martin’s book on Superstition.

  8. John4
    John4  July 6, 2015

    And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?

    31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

    Thank you so much, Bart, for offering us guidance. 😀

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