THEOSOPHY, Vol. 57, No. 11, September, 1969
(Pages 328-334; Size: 19K)


THE cornerstone of Christian theology, the awesome event upon which hinges the entire impact of Church doctrine, is the actual physical death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross of Calvary. Except for the passion and death of the Saviour, there could be no remission of sins for the wayward, no hope of salvation for the faithful, no promise of resurrection for the dead. In spite of the mystery that surrounded this fateful episode of religious history, the Master, say the authorities, actually experienced physical death, and in so doing conquered the very "sting of death" itself.

But few people, and Christians perhaps least of all, know that, beginning almost immediately after the crucifixion, a heated controversy arose over this very question, and raged for centuries. There was a large and influential body of early Christians who maintained that Christ did not die, nor could he actually suffer physical death, since his embodiment, these people held, was not of human flesh and blood in the way of ordinary man, but was "spiritual" in character; nor was Christ born of a human mother, for that divine nature could not be polluted by any contact with sinful flesh. Known under the general designation of Docetae, or Illusionists, the believers in this doctrine are now referred to as Gnostics -- the early philosophic Christians who included in their ranks such learned and saintly men as Valentinus, Marcion, Basilides, and Bardesanes.

Docetae comes from the Greek dokein, meaning "to appear," and is defined in Webster's as "an early heretical sect held that Christ's body was merely a phantom, or appearance, or that if real, its substance was spiritual."

It is difficult to trace the origin of Docetism. The term first appears in the writings of several of the early Church Fathers, among them Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Serapion of Antioch, and Theodoret. However, St. Jerome said that the teaching had even earlier origins. "The blood of Christ," he maintained, "was still fresh in Judea when His body was said to be a phantasm." In Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (IV, 832-40), Adrian Fortesque points to Simon Magus as "the reputed author of Docetism, as of all Gnostic theories." "His name," he says, "appears repeatedly as the inventor of this idea; but it is very doubtful how far he is not simply a type to whom all Gnostic developments are traced back." The Encyclopædia Britannica goes further, stating that "the origin of the heresy is to be sought in the Greek, Alexandrine and Oriental philosophizing about the imperfection or rather the essential impurity of matter." This latter view seems confirmed by the fact that both Brahman and Buddhist teachings reveal distinctly docetic conceptions.

Whatever its source, Docetism was certainly the first of the so-called Christian "heresies." Differences of opinion about the nature of Jesus' body brought the first major dispute and cleavage within the ranks of early Christians, and there seems to have been little or no ground for reconciliation. It is even possible that Docetism was an issue that set the apostles one against the other. Paul taught that there are several kinds of bodies, "celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial," bodies of the nature of the sun, moon, stars, etc. -- a view with docetic implications. And why should John have said (II John 1:7) that "many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh," unless some of his Christian contemporaries were espousing docetic views?

For the church-going believer of today, however, Docetism would almost certainly be a new and strange word; and for all those to whom the Bible, even in its present mutilated form, is still the veritable word of God, the testimony of John, that people holding such views are "deceivers," must settle the issue. Likewise, no doubt, with the majority of present-day priests and preachers, whose articles of faith were long ago formulated for them largely by Irenæus, Tertullian and Augustine. For all such, Docetism is no more than a completely forgotten "error." And the reader may well wonder why we do not leave it forgotten. What value can there be now, in wondering whether the body of someone who lived and died 2000 years ago was material or spiritual?

Yet knowledge of the issue of Docetism is important to the man of today for several reasons -- mainly because of its practical bearing on the possibility and means of survival after death. The Christian dogma of physical resurrection, based largely upon the supposed physicality of Jesus' body, both before and after the crucifixion, raises various nagging questions. Outraging common sense, this doctrine may have driven more people of perceptive mind away from the Church, and away from all religious belief, than any other Christian claim. It is prejudicial to any rational faith in immortality, and ought to be re-examined.

Investigation of Docetism is rendered difficult by the fact that few Christians know much about the history of either their Church or their Bible. How many, for example, have ever looked at, much less studied and meditated upon, the so-called apocryphal scriptures? Who except the religious antiquarian is aware of the fact that the rejected Christian gospels contain positive docetic teachings, and that these scriptures were declared uncanonical by certain Church Fathers for this very reason?

There is of course the broader question of how and when the Bible, in its presently accepted compilation, was formed. The curious story of how the early Fathers, unable to agree on which of the scriptures were genuine and which false, went about the business of selecting the canonical gospels is seldom reported. The Christian Church owes its present Bible to a practice known as sortilege, or the casting of lots, sanctified by the Church Fathers as Sortes Sanctorum. It is a form of lottery, authority for which is found in Proverbs 16:33, where it is said that "the lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord." By this method of divination, now decried by the clergy as an abomination, various weighty matters in the early Church were decided. One form of the Sortes, practiced even to this day by some, is to lay the Bible upon the altar or a table, and pray the Lord to make His will known, to disclose futurity in one of the verses of the book. The Bible is then opened at random. The first verse upon which the eye falls is considered to be God's will. The Sortes was practiced in the twelfth century in the election of bishops, and even Augustine himself did not "disapprove of this method of learning futurity, provided it be not used for worldly purposes." He confesses to having practiced it himself. (See The Life of St. Gregory of Tours.)

At the Council of Nicea, held 325 A.D., 318 bishops, including the Emperor Constantine, were convened. This body chose the books to be included in the Bible. Socrates Scholasticus (385-445) in his History of the Christian Church, quotes Sabinus, the Bishop of Heraclea, as saying that "except Constantine, the emperor, and Eusebius Pamphilus, these bishops were a set of illiterate, simple creatures, that understood nothing." (Eccles. History, Book 1, Ch. 9.) Such was probably also the opinion of Pappus, who relates that, having "promiscuously put all the books that were referred to the Council for determination under a communion-table in a church, they [the bishops] besought the Lord that the inspired writings might get upon the table, while the spurious ones remained underneath, and it happened accordingly." We are not told, of course, who held the keys to the chamber during the hours of the Lord's miraculous intervention!

For almost sixteen centuries, the resulting selection, commonly known as the Bible, has been regarded by the Christian world as the "unalterable Word of God." And now, in the present century, with publication of the Revised Standard Version in 1953, following earlier versions of 1611, 1881 and 1901, the Sacred Writ has again been re-translated, revised, corrected -- whole verses being occasionally clipped away, and in some cases entire chapters. Is this new "revelation" of the twentieth century, one wonders, again to be accepted as the authentic "Word of God" by all but those willing to be branded as infidels? Or should one continue to declare loyalty to the King James Version, or the Douay Version, despite knowing that these, too, are revisions of still earlier versions?

It is of more than incidental interest that neither Jesus nor his disciples -- and not even the Church Fathers -- ever used the term Bible in connection with the scriptures. Yet in later centuries the gold lettering of this word and the austere black binding have generated a sanctity quite immune to Paul's wise counsel to "prove all things." (I Thess. 5:21.)

The following from Hastings (Vol. IV, 833) gives the authority for Docetism in the apocryphal scriptures and also suggests the partisan sentiments that ruled the Council of Nicea:

There are traces of Docetism in several apocryphal books that circulated for a time among early Christians. We have seen that Serapion of Antioch forbade the reading of the Gospel of Peter because it had been corrupted by Docetes.... The Acts of John (early 2nd cent.; cf. Euseb. HE iii. 25) exhibits the most pronounced form. At the Last Supper, St. John, leaning on Christ's breast, found it non-resisting (89, Hennecke, NT Apokryphen, Tubingen, 1904, p. 451); at the entombment, the body of Christ was at one moment apparently solid, at another it was "immaterial and incorporeal and like nothing" (93 ib. 452). The Crucifixion was only an appearance; at the same moment Christ appeared to John on the Mount of Olives and explained this (97 ib. 454). The Acts of Peter (cf. Euseb. iii. 2) has the statement, characteristic of one school of Docetism, that God sent His Son "through the Virgin Mary" (7 Hennecke, 399) ... The Acts of Andrew is strongly Encratite; its Docetism appears in chapter 6 (Hennecke 466), where man is said to be "immaterial, holy, light," etc. In the Acts of Thomas, Docetism is less evident, but the usual Gnostic antithesis between matter and spirit is supposed throughout; Christ is spirit (Hennecke, 480-544). Only the Acts of Paul (ib. 369-383) seems free from any trace of this heresy.

In many cases the Docetism of these apocryphal scriptures is latent rather than manifest, or it shows itself only in one or two sentences. For the rest they speak of our Lord in much the same tone as in Canonical books. This explains how they could be read in orthodox circles often without suspicion. On the other hand, they were rejected by authority (cf. Euseb. iii. 25) because of their heretical tendency, shown chiefly in the form of Docetism.

It was chiefly, then, because of their docetic teachings that the apocryphal books were ruled unfit for inclusion in the Bible. Except for this "defect," these Scriptures, it is said, "speak of our Lord in much the same tone as in Canonical books." Yet "they were rejected by authority." By what authority? one must ask.

A few studious Christians of the intervening centuries have pressed such questions, concluding that the teachings of the Apocrypha, along with the views of their Gnostic authors and supporters, deserve equal respect with the canonical books. There is hardly a period in recorded history when these rejected scriptures, with their docetic teachings, have not found adherents. As the Britannica puts it:

Docetic tendencies have also been developed in later periods of ecclesiastical history, as for example by the Priscillianists (the followers of Priscillian, who lived in Spain in the 4th century, and the first Christian put to death for heresy) and the Bogomils (10th century), and also since the Reformation by Jacob Boehme (German theosophist and mystic of the 17th century), Menno Simons (the 16th century originator of the Mennonites), and a small fraction of the Anabaptists (16th century).
Contributors to Hastings' Encyclopedia, however, doubt that the Priscillianists were Docetae; for in Volume IV (p. 836) he says:
But the Cathari, Albigenses, and other medieval Manichaean sects adopted Docetism as part of their system. The Albigenses carried it so far that they taught that the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. John, as well as our Lord Himself, were all angels in the appearance of men. In the year 1017 a Synod at Orleans condemned a number of heretics who denied the reality of the body of Christ.

Pope Leo I. accuses the Monophysites of Docetism. There is something of this heresy in their system and in that of their predecessor Apollinaris, inasmuch as they taught that the body of Christ, absorbed in the Divinity, lost the natural qualities of human flesh. Julian of Halicarnassus and his followers, the Aphthartodoketai, held this view as their distinguishing theory. Muhammed adopted a Docetic view of the Crucifixion (Quran iii, 45). Some Anabaptists were Docetes. Lastly, various modern revivals of old heresies -- theosophy and such like -- have adopted Docetic ideas. Mrs. Eddy introduced a kind of Docetism as part of her "Christian Science."

Whether or not the Docetae were correct in their views respecting the nature of Jesus' body, there are certain reports concerning his life that deserve attention. Why, for example, has it been claimed that the Master did not gain birth in the usual way? Why was it, moreover, that when the women came to the sepulchre, "they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord"? (Luke 24:3.) Had he, as claimed by the Church, resurrected physically from death, or did some friends, perhaps, steal in and take the body away? Or could it have been, as maintained by the Docetae, that his body had been in fact an illusion, an appearance only seemingly real -- of such nature that it could be dispersed at will by the Master, and made to disappear from view, or to pass through closed doors, if he chose, or exhibit all the characteristics of solidity? Such phenomena actually occurred, the scriptures imply, during his visit with the assembled disciples. (John 20:19-27.)

It is mainly upon the supposition that Jesus was a physical being who died a physical death, and was resurrected, that the Christian promise of immortality is built. It is upon the doctrine of bodily resurrection that millions of human beings place their hopes for survival. No matter where or when they may have died, says the Church -- whether their bodies were buried, drowned, or cremated -- when Judgment Day comes, all good Christians will be gathered up whole into heaven, where they will live forever. The fact that most of these remains will have long ago decomposed, their atoms returned into the reservoir of nature, seems to make no difference.

Countless people of all religions, or of none, feel that death does not end all. This feeling, according to Theosophy, is an intuition of the Soul, and it needs to be sustained. But how can this occur for those weighted down by belief in the dogma of bodily resurrection, by a teaching that is illogical and not even supported by scripture? The tragic effects of this dogma can be seen in all Christian countries -- where men yearning for evidences of their immortality, but gaining no help from the Church, either develop intense fear of death or turn their backs on religion altogether. "The atheist," said H. P. Blavatsky, "is the bastard child of the Church."

The dogma of bodily resurrection, we repeat, is unsupported by scripture. Though Paul says that "the dead shall be raised incorruptible" (I Cor. 15:52), why should we imagine that he refers to the worn-out and decaying corpse? John likewise taught that "the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and come forth," but is it not senseless to suppose that anything can be heard by the dead carcasses of men long ago decomposed? The docetic teaching, however conceived or applied -- and it may have been applied by some of the early Christians with undue extravagance -- forces men to think of their true being in terms of an immortal Ego, or Soul, which once inhabited the body. The verse most frequently cited by the Church in support of bodily resurrection is in Job 19:26, where it is stated that "though ... the worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." The new Standard Revised Version, embodies some long-needed corrections, one of them being to this verse from Job. After comparison with the most ancient sources, it is now made to read: "... after my skin has been thus destroyed, then without my flesh I shall see God." (Italics ours.)

Next article:
(Compiler's note: More articles may be added.)

Back to
series complete list of articles.

Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.