Docetism in the Early Church

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Joseph Verheyden, Reimund Bieringer, Jens Schröter, Ines Jäger
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , March
     289 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Docetism in the Early Church: The Quest for An Elusive Phenomenon, a collection of twelve essays edited by Joseph Verheyden, Reimund Bieringer, Jens Schröter, and Ines Jäger, is the 402nd volume in Mohr Siebeck’s Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. Through these rigorous contributions, which are the fruit of two conferences, the editors have enlarged the discussion about the nature of docetism and the extent to which certain early Christian documents may have been influenced by docetic christologies.

Allen Brent asks “Can There Be Degrees of Docetism?” He rightly observes that “the culture of the European Enlightenment”—identifying Cartesian dualism and Lockean sense data—have affected our ability to understand the docetic premise that denies Christ flesh (σάρξ) while affirming that he lived in an order of reality. Brent places Tertullian’s Marcion of Sinope on the “more extreme” end of the docetic spectrum and Valentinus on the other. Readers will find some rather surprising candidates for docetic christologies, such as Ignatius of Antioch, who Brent argues puts forth a “qualified Docetism.”

Brent also argues that John’s gospel is docetic in Valentinian shades. He writes, “σὰρξ ἐγένετο lacks that precision of meaning,” that is, Irenaeus’s distinction between ἔνσαρκος and ἄσαρκος, “does it not mean that the λόγος existed at the level of the flesh but otherwise was unaffected by it?” (11). He later argues that John is “in Irenaeus’ third category of gnostic who asserted that Christ ‘was neither enfleshed nor suffered’ . . . At this point the Fourth Gospel appears more docetic than Valentinus” (15). Brent’s theory about the docetic tendencies of the fourth gospel stands in need of more evidence; it is difficult for the reader to see what Brent sees.

Even if Brent does not hold that First John is written by the evangelist (cf. ἐν σαρκὶ, 1 John 4:2), why not address the places in the gospel where the fleshly humanity of Jesus confronts his thesis (cf. Jn 11:33–36, 20:27, 21:15)? Within the volume, Bieringer provides a measured and helpful treatment of the Johannine text, and a sufficient response to Brent. Brent’s and Bieringer’s essays make for a vivid conversation. Bieringer finds true evidence for the humanity of Jesus in his being “in control, taking initiative, defiantly opposing powerful people, and courageously telling the truth.” He does not find that counterintuitive; rather it shows Christ as a true human being who is at the same time something more than human (117–119).

What does the Apostle to the Gentiles have to do with docetism? “For Paul as for later patristic theology, Christ becomes as we are so that we might become as he is,” Francis Watson writes. “Paul is no docetist” (51). Indeed. Watson frames the question of Paul’s relation to docetism as a question of reception history.

Framed in this light, readings of other early Christians take on a new light. For example, the so-called docetism of Ignatius is better understood as “derived from Paul,” Watson argues. He writes, “Viewing Ignatius’ anti-docetism from the perspective of Pauline reception sheds retrospective light on Paul himself” (57). He draws a compelling connection between Ignatius’ “mysteries of a cry” and various New Testament texts. Watson makes clear and helpful distinctions between Christian readings of Paul and docetic appropriations of his thought, as one finds, for example, in the case of Tertullian’s account of Marcion.

Maarten J.J. Menken offers a significant piece of scholarship in his look at those who departed the Johannine Christians, the secessionists referenced in the first and second epistles of John. Menken’s is a refreshing offering in this collection in both its style and achievement. He makes a very compelling case that the secessionists referenced in the epistles simply misread the emphasis upon the divinity of Christ in the Gospel of John.

The first and second letters of John then correct the Johannine Christians who departed from the community with a reading that overemphasized the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of his fleshly humanity. Menken asks the question whether the secessionists could have been docetists. Menken does not affirm that the secessionists were indeed docetists, but he does connect them with the larger category that confessed an “exclusively divine Christology.”

Several authors push against the terminology surrounding the study of docetism. Jörg Frey, who is also the WUNT series editor, cautions against terms such as “docetic” and “anti-docetic” and prefers something less loaded, such as “docetic-like” (30–33). In doing so, Frey attempts to reposition some of the resurrection narratives into the “docetic-like” category (37–38), and challenges the notion that one can speak of “heresiological” “docetic” christologies in the early second century (49). Some of the authors, such as Menken (136) and Alistair C. Stewart (173), resist applying the term “monophysite” to docetism.

In earliest Christianity, φύσις as a Christological term remains embryonic, and so “monophysite” is certainly an anachronism. At the same time, “monophysite” is a particularly useful term when the alternative is “exclusively divine Christology.” Only the most novice of learners—who are not to be found in the text’s intended audience—would “compound the confusion” by conflating the more scholastic post-Chalcedonian monophysitism and earlier docetic monophysitism.

In sum, the editors are to be praised highly in that they have brought together a fine collection of tightly argued essays, most of which fit together rather harmoniously in this volume, even in diversity of opinion. Readers will also appreciate two of the three indices in the back.

In praising the editors, however, I make two exceptions. First, a volume with four editors requires better proofreading. Second, there is an underwhelming and, frankly, quite nearly useless subject index with a mere twenty-two entries, some of which cite the page ranges of entire chapters. Fortunately, there is plenty of white space on the subject index page for readers to make their own notes.

But in a volume without a select bibliography, scholars will not find much research matter supplied by the editors. What scholars will find is a collection of consequential essays from the contributors, which will interest theologians and historians of the New Testament and early Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Clarke is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Verheyden is Professor of New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven.

Reimund Bieringer is Professor of New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven.

Jens Schröter is Professor of New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Theology at the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Ines Jäger is a doctoral student at KU Leuven and HU Berlin.


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