In Christianity, docetism (from the Greek δοκέω [dokeō], "to seem") is the belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die. This belief treats the sentence "the Word was made Flesh" (John 1:14) as merely figurative. Docetism has historically been regarded as heretical by most Christian theologians.
Christology and theological implications
This belief is most commonly attributed to the Gnostics, many of whom believed that matter was evil, and as a result God would not take on a material body. This statement is rooted in the idea that a divine spark is imprisoned within the material body, and that the material body is in itself an obstacle, deliberately created by an evil, lesser god (the demiurge) to prevent man from seeing his divine origin.
Docetism can be further explained as the view that since the human body is temporary and the spirit is eternal, the body of Jesus must have been an illusion and, likewise, his crucifixion. Even so, saying that the human body is temporary has a tendency to undercut the importance of the belief in resurrection of the dead and the goodness of created matter, and is in opposition to this orthodox view.
Docetism was a form of early Christianity, developing around 70 AD, which was most prominently espoused by Gnostic sects. Its origin within Christianity is obscure and it has been argued that its origins were in heterodox Judaism or Oriental and Grecian philosophies. Some of the books of the New Testament condemn docetic teachings and the early creeds developed to counter docetic beliefs. First century Gnostic Christian groups developed docetic interpretations partly as a way to make Christian teachings more acceptable to pagan ways of thinking of divinity. Docetism largely died out during the first millennium AD. Gnostic movements that survived past that time, such as Catharism, incorporated docetism into their beliefs, but such movements were destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229).
Ignatius of Antioch wrote against docetism around 110 AD in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In 7:1, he said, "They [the docetists] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes". Since one of the main beliefs of docetism was that the body of Jesus was an illusion, docetists could not accept that the bread and wine used in the Eucharist were (representationally or ontologically) the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. Other detailed criticisms were given by Irenaeus and Tertullian.
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