Just as there were “adoptionist” Christians in the second century, who maintained that Christ was not really a divine being, but a human being who had been “adopted” to be divine by God (so: not pre-existent; not born of a virgin; not “equal” with God; etc.), so too, on the other end of the spectrum, there were others who claimed that he was so *entirely* God that he was not actually human.
Here is how I talk about early representatives of that view in my book How Jesus Became God.
We have seen that those holding adoptionist views of Christ claimed to represent the earliest views of Jesus’ own apostles. Of course, every group representing every view of early Christianity claimed that its views were the original teachings of Jesus and his earthly followers – but in the case of the adoptionists, they may well have been right. The view we will consider now is in some ways the polar opposite: it maintained that rather than being completely human, and so not – by nature – divine, Christ instead was completely divine, and so not – by nature – human. Eventually this view came to be labeled “docetism,” from the Greek word DOKEŌ, which means “to seem” or “to appear.” According to this view Christ was not really a man, but only “appeared” to be. He in fact was completely God. And God, for these believers, could not be a human any more than a human can be a rock.
This understanding too can be traced back to early times, though not nearly as early as the adoptionist understanding rooted in exaltation Christologies. Docetic views, when first we meet them, appear to have emerged out of incarnation Christologies later in the first century – but still during the times of the New Testament. One would be hard pressed to see them as views adopted by the original followers of Jesus, however. As we have seen, there may be some reason to suspect that Paul held to some such views – but it is very difficult to say. Paul does speak about Christ coming in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) and to have been “in appearance” as a human (Phil 2:7); but he never spells out clearly his views about the humanity of Jesus. He does, however, say that Christ was actually “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), and that does not sound like the sort of thing most docetists would want to claim.
As a result, the first clear attestation of a docetic view comes only near the end of the New Testament period, in the book known as 1 John. The author of this anonymous work…
1 John is the only book of the Bible that uses the term “antichrist.” I bet you won’t know what it means by it! Want to see? Join the blog and you’ll get this post and four others every week.