The term “docetism” comes from the Greek word dokeo (I seem, I appear), and was first used by Serapion, bishop of Antioch (190-208), to refer to certain heretics of the early church. In its earliest expression, docetism apparently grew out of the difficulties of explaining how the Son of God could be subject to the vicissitudes of humanity, including suffering and death. The earliest Docetists would explain that Christ only seemed or appeared to suffer, for He only seemed to be mortal and fleshly as other humans. In reality, they would argue, He is God and, therefore, not truly subject to the problems of humanity.
It is generally assumed that the emphasis on the reality of Christ’s physical body in John 1:14, 1 John 1:1-4 and 4:1-3, and 2 John 7 is a refutation of this incipient heresy. During the second century, the positions of Docetists were multiplied and amplified into various gnostic systems, including some that denied the substantive reality of the incarnate Christ, and others that stated that the heavenly Christ descended upon the mortal Jesus at His baptism and departed when Jesus was before Pilate. The crucifixion scene described in the APOCALYPSE OF PETER is an example of the latter, portraying the spiritual Savior laughing above the cross while soldiers nail the mortal Jesus to the tree.
Among those especially charged with docetism were Cerinthus and Marcion. There is also a docetic portrayal of Jesus in some anti-Christian writings of the Mandaean Gnostics. Irenaeus and Tertullian, both writing in the late second century, attacked this heresy, and Tertullian claimed that some Valentinians were guilty of docetism. Photius (ninth century) charged CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA with docetism, but Clement rebuked the denial of Christ’s flesh in his own writings.
- Lidzbarski, M. Ginza. Der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandäer, pp. 181-204. Gottingen, 1925.