An ancient heresy called docetism is making a come back - of sorts. There is a trend among the new atheist movement – primarily on the Internet – to recast Docetism as evidence that the earliest Christians never even believed in an actual historical Jesus. Proponents of this position misunderstand Docetism’s misunderstandings about the humanity of Jesus. They claim that Docetism was the (correct!) understanding that the story of Jesus was mythical.
I first became aware of this while witnessing to some local atheist activists from Arizona State University. One of them claimed there was evidence within the New Testament itself that the first version of Jesus was not a historical person but rather a mythical and strictly heavenly Christ-figure divorced from all time and space reality. This individual spouted some lines from I and II John as his evidence.
The leaders of this modern-day historical revisionism - such as Canadian atheist Earl Doherty, amatuer filmmaker Brian Fleming, and former fundamentalist Robert M. Price - would have us believe that the original version of Christianity held to a purely mythological Christ over and above the belief of an actual Jesus of history.
An element of this theory – that Jesus never even existed – hinges upon on a misapplication certain docetic claims. Therefore, in my future posts, I will explore Docetism’s appearance in the early church in some detail: its doctrine, its documents and its detractors. This should help us better understand the actual nature of the error.
Cf. Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus (Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Humanist Publications, 2001).
Cf. The God Who Wasn’t There DVD
Cf. Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition? (Minneapolis, MN: Prometheus Books, 2003).