Docetism roughly refers to the extent of Jesus Christ’s humanity and whether he was 1 thing or 2 things. Docetism (and its predecessor – the idea that the Spirit descended onto Jesus, something like Adoptionism) came in several versions. My speculation is that the first version of Docetism dictated that practitioners believe the Christ spirit descended onto ordinary man Jesus…then the magic happened. In other words, there was no virgin birth, and Mary had no compelling insight into her son’s destiny.
This conclusion about early Christianity’s obliviousness to the virgin birth is obvious in the context of Mark 3:21:
Then Jesus went home, and once again a crowd gathered, so that He and His disciples could not even eat. When His family heard about this, they went out to take custody of Him, saying, “He is out of His mind.”
If his family was aware of Jesus’ divine origins, why on earth would anything he did seem insane? (I’ll leave that question to the apologists).
This early version of Christianity was implemented in various flavors. The major point of contention was whether Yahweh was the highest God, or whether Yahweh was an inferior angel – there were subsequent divergences about whether the most high created the Earth, or whether Yahweh (the inferior angel) did it. The Ebionites thought Yahweh was the highest God, while the Cerinthians and Carpocratians did not (Against Heresies i.25-26).
In Against Heresies iii.11.7, Irenaeus indicates that the Cerinthians were adherent to the Gospel of Mark (Epiphanius and other church fathers elaborated to say Cerinthus used a virgin-birth-less copy of Matthew), and in the same paragraph, as well as others, we learn the Ebionites used (a version of) the Gospel of Matthew, while the Carpocratians used Luke and Romans (perhaps other Pauline epistles, as well). This makes the Carpocratians likely proxies between the Cerinthians and the Marcionites.
Using this framework as a starting point, it becomes easy to understand the Basilidian view, and an idea within it which carried through into Islam; this view was that the Christ escaped Jesus’ body prior to crucifixion, and subsequently inhabited other bodies, advancing the agenda of whatever God it served. The Spirit which Jesus housed was transient – Jesus was simply a temporary vehicle, as was Simon of Cyrene, who bore Jesus’s cross.
One interesting sidenote is that this theological underpinning makes the trinity simpler and less obtuse. The father was the highest God, the Spirit was the “operating system” which directed the person encapsulating it, and the son was whoever the Spirit inhabited.
Consider Mark 3:28-30
Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.
When read through the lens of this Cerinthian theology, this curious passage makes more sense. Crimes up to and including blaspheming against the man who currently possesses the Spirit is allowed; blaspheming against the encapsulated Spirit is unforgivable. This is because the man is simply a dumb vehicle; the Spirit is the Earthly proxy to God. In the Gospel of John 14:6, this core tradition remains: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Echoes of this belief are carried into various canonical and apocryphal texts. For example, when the father of all heresies, Simon Magus, in Acts 8, attempts to buy “the spirit”, current owners of “the spirit”, John and Peter, rebuke Simon, and condemn Simon to perish with his money.
Takeaway: Simon Magus (*cough*, Paul, *cough*) does not have the spirit, despite the hint in the Gospel of Mark that it may have been a Simon of Cyrene (also see Acts 13:1) who inherited it.
According to the apocryphal Acts of John, the Apostle John later traveled to Ephesus (western Roman Asia) where he traversed the city and countryside, healing the sick and bringing Christ to the heathens there.
One encounter John had involved a young man who came to John complaining of his dead friend. The young man pleaded with John to raise his friend from the dead. John said “I say unto thee, child, go and raise the dead thyself…”.
Any early reader would have recognized the unnamed young man as Polycarp, who Irenaeus claimed inherited the spirit from John in Against Heresies iii.3.4.
It was through this apostolic inheritance that Irenaeus was authorized to put forth his own canon which combined the Yahweh friendly Gospel (Matthew), the anti-Yahweh Gospel (Mark), the Jesus-as-a-phantom Docetic Gospel (Luke), and the Gnostic Gospel (John).
Thus was born a New Testament brimming with inconsistency, full of sanitized versions of dissonant underlying Christianities, eventually giving rise to tens of thousands of denominations, all entirely convinced of their own correct theological interpretation of this hodgepodge of incompatible philosophies.
See also: The Christ Myth Theory
Last Updated: 20170530