Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Background Image


A heretical sect dating back to Apostolic times

Click to enlarge

Docetae (Greek Doketai), a heretical sect dating back to Apostolic times. Their name is derived from dokesis, “appearance” or “semblance”, because they taught that Christ only “appeared” or “seemed” to be a man, to have been born, to have lived and suffered. Some denied the reality of Christ’s human nature altogether, some only the reality of His human body or of His birth or death. The word Docetae, which is best rendered by “illusionists”, first occurs in a letter a Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (190-203) to the Church at Rhossos, where troubles had arisen about the public reading of the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. Serapion at first unsuspectingly allowed, but soon after forbade, this, saying that he had borrowed a copy from the sect who used it, “whom we call Docetae”. He suspected a connection with Marcionism and found in this Gospel “some additions to the right teaching of the Savior”. A fragment of this apocryphon was discovered in 1886 and contained three passages which savored strongly of Illusionism. The name further occurs in Clement Alex. (d. 216), Strom., III, xiii, VII, xvii, where these sectaries are mentioned together with the Haematites as instances of heretics being named after their own special error. The heresy itself, however, is much older, as it is combated in the New Testament. Clement mentions a certain Julius Cassianus as ho tes dokeseos exarchon, “the founder of Illusionism”. This name is known also to St. Jerome and Theodoret; and Cassianus is said to be a disciple of Valentinian, but nothing more is known of him. The idea of the unreality of Christ’s human nature was held by the oldest Gnostic sects and cannot therefore have originated with Cassianus. As Clement distinguished the Docetae from other Gnostic sects, he probably knew some sectaries the sum-total of whose errors consisted in this illusion theory; but Docetism, as far as at present known, was always an accompaniment of Gnosticism or later of Manichaeism. The Docetae described by Hippolytus (Philos., VIII, i-iv, X, xii) are likewise a Gnostic sect; these perhaps extended their illusion theory to all material substances.

Docetism is not properly a Christian heresy at all, as it did not arise in the Church from the misunderstanding of a dogma by the faithful, but rather came from without. Gnostics starting from the principle of antagonism between matter and spirit, and making all salvation consist in becoming free from the bondage of matter and returning as pure spirit to the Supreme Spirit, could not possibly accept the sentence, “the Word was made Flesh”, in a literal sense. In order to borrow from Christianity the doctrine of a Savior who was Son of the Good God, they were forced to modify the doctrine of the Incarnation. Their embarrassment with this dogma caused many vacillations and inconsistencies; some holding the indwelling of an Aeon in a body which was indeed real but was not his own; others denying the actual objective existence of any body or humanity at all; others allowing a “psychic”, but not a “hylic” or really material body; others believing in a real, yet not human but “sidereal” body; others again accepting the reality of the body but not the reality of the birth from a woman, or the reality of the passion and death on the cross. Christ only seemed to suffer, either because He ingeniously and miraculously substituted someone else to bear the pain, or because the whole occurrence on Calvary was a visual deception. Simon Magus first spoke of a “putative” passion of Christ and blasphemously asserted that it was really he, Simon himself, who underwent these apparent sufferings. “As the angels governed this world badly because each angel coveted the principality for himself, he [Simon] came to improve matters, and was transfigured and rendered like unto the Virtues and Powers and Angels, so that he appeared amongst men as man though he was no man and was believed to have suffered in Judaea though he had not suffered” (possum in Judaea putatum cum non esset passus—Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, xxiii sqq.). The mention of the demiurgic angels stamps this passage as a piece of Gnosticism. Soon after a Syrian Gnostic of Antioch, Saturninus or Saturnilus (about 125) made Christ the chief of the Aeons, but tried to show that the Savior was unborn (agenn?ton) and without body (asomaton) and without form (aneideon) and only apparently (phantasia) seen as man (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., XXIV, ii).

Another Syrian Gnostic, Cerdo, who came to Rome under Pope Hyginus (137) and became the master of Marcion, taught that “Christ, the Son of the Highest God, appeared without birth from the Virgin, yea without any birth on earth as man”. All this is natural enough; for matter not being the creation of the Highest God but of the Demiurge, Christ could have none of it. This is clearly brought out by Tertullian in his polemic against Marcion. According to this heresiarch (140) Christ, without passing through the womb of Mary and endowed with only a putative body, suddenly came from heaven to Capharnaum in the fifteenth year of Tiberius; and Tertullian remarks: “All these tricks about a putative corporeality Marcion has adopted lest the truth of Christ’s birth should be argued from the reality of his human nature, and thus Christ should be vindicated as the work of the Creator [Demiurge] and be shown to have human flesh even as he had human birth” (Adv. Marc., III, xi). Tertullian further states that Marcion’s chief disciple, Apelles, slightly modified his master’s system, accepting indeed the truth of Christ’s flesh, but strenuously denying the truth of His birth. He contended that Christ had an astral body made of superior substance, and he compared the Incarnation to the appearance of the angel to Abraham. This, Tertullian sarcastically remarks, is getting from the frying-pan into the fire, de calcaria in carbonariam. Valentinus the Egyptian attempted to accommodate his system still more closely to Christian doctrine by admitting not merely the reality of the Savior’s body but even a seeming birth, saying that the Savior’s body passed through Mary as through a channel (hos dia sol?nos) though he took nothing from her, but had a body from above. This approximation to orthodoxy, however, was only apparent, for Valentinus distinguished between Christ and Jesus. Christ and the Holy Ghost were emanations from the Aeon Nous; and from all Aeons together proceeded Jesus the Savior, who became united with the Messias of the Demiurge.

In the East, Marinus and the school of Bardesanes, though not Bardesanes himself, held similar views with regard to Christ’s astral body and seeming birth. In the West, Ptolemy reduced Docetism to a minimum by saying that Christ was indeed a real man, but His substance was a compound of the pneumatic and the psychic (spiritual and ethereal). The pneumatic He received from Achamoth or Wisdom, the psychic from the Demiurge; His psychic nature enabled him to suffer and feel pain, though He possessed nothing hulikon, i.e. nothing grossly material. (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, xii, II, iv). As the Docetae objected to the reality of the birth, so from the first they particularly objected to the reality of the passion. Hence the clumsy attempts at substitution of another victim by Basilides and others. According to Basilides, Christ seemed to men to be a man and to have performed miracles. It was not, however, Christ, who suffered but Simon of Cyrene, who was constrained to carry the cross and was mistakenly crucified in Christ’s stead. Simon having received Jesus’ form, Jesus assumed Simon’s and thus stood by and laughed. Simon was crucified and Jesus returned to his father (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, xxiv). According to some apocrypha it was Judas, not Simon the Cyrenean, who was thus substituted. Hippolytus describes a Gnostic sect who took the name of Docetae, though for what reason is not apparent, especially as their semblance theory was the least pronounced feature in their system. Their views were in close affinity to those of the Valentinians. The primal Being is, so to speak, the seed of a fib tree, small in size but infinite in power; from it proceed three Aeons, tree, leaves, fruit, which, multiplied with the perfect number ten, become thirty. These thirty Aeons together fructify one of themselves, from whom proceeds the Virgin-Savior, a perfect representation of the Highest God. The Savior’s task is to hinder further transference of souls from body to body, which is the work of the Great Archon, the Creator of the world. The Savior enters the world unnoticed, unknown, obscure. An angel announced the glad tidings to Mary. He was born and did all the things that are written of him in the Gospels. But in baptism he received the figure and seal of another body besides that born of the Virgin. The object of this was that when the Archon condemned his own peculiar figment of flesh to the death of the cross, the soul of Jesus—that soul which had been nourished in the body born of the Virgin—might strip off that body and nail it to the accursed tree. In the pneumatic body received at baptism Jesus could triumph over the Archon, whose evil intent he had eluded.

This heresy, which destroyed the very meaning and purpose of the Incarnation, was combated even by the Apostles. Possibly St. Paul’s statement that in Christ dwelt the fullness of the Godhead corporaliter (Col., i, 19, ii, 9) has some reference to Docetic errors. Beyond doubt St. John (I John, i, 1-3, iv, 1-3; II John, 7) refers to this heresy; so at least it seemed to Dionysius of Alexandria (Eusebius, H. E., VII, xxv) and Tertullian (De carne Christi, xxiv). In sub-Apostolic times this sect was vigorously combated by St. Ignatius and Polycarp. The former made a warning against Docetists the burden of his letters; he speaks of them as “monsters in human shape” (therion anthropomorphon) and bids the faithful not only not to receive them but even to avoid meeting them. Pathetically he exclaims: “If, as some godless men [atheoi], I mean unbelievers, say, He has suffered only in outward appearance, they themselves are nought but outward show. Why am I in bonds? Why should I pray to fight with wild beasts? Then I die for nothing, then I would only be lying against the Lord” (Ad Trail., x; Eph., vii, xviii; Smyrn., i-vi). In St. Ignatius’ day Docetism seems to have been closely connected with Judaism (cf. Magn., viii, 1, x, 3; Phil., vi, viii). Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians reechoes I John, iv, 2-4, to the same purpose. St. Justin nowhere expressly combats Docetic errors, but he mentions several Gnostics who were notorious for their Docetic aberrations, as Basilideans and Valentinians, and in his “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew” he strongly emphasizes the birth of Christ from the Virgin. Tertullian wrote a treatise “On the flesh of Christ” and attacked Docetic errors in his “Adversus Marcionem”. Hippolytus in his “Philosophoumena” refutes Docetism in the different Gnostic errors which he enumerates and twice gives the Docetic system as above referred to.

The earlier Docetism seemed destined to die with the death of Gnosticism, when it received a long lease of life as parasitic error to another great heresy, that of Manichaeism. Manichaean Gnostics started with a twofold eternal principle, good (spirit) and evil (matter). In order to add Christian soteriology to Iranian dualism, they were forced, as the Gnostics were, to tamper with the truth of the Incarnation. Manichees distinguished between a Jesus patibilis and a Jesus impatibilis or Christ. The latter was the light as dwelling in, or symbolized by, or personified under, the name of the Sun; the former was the light as imprisoned in matter and darkness; of which light each human soul was a spark. Jesus patibilis was therefore but a figure of speech, an abstraction for the Good in the world; Jesus impatibilis, the unalloyed Good, the pure light above. In the reign of Tiberius Christ appears in Judea, Son of the Eternal Light and also Son of Man; but in the latter expression “man” is a technical Manichaean term for the Logos or World-Soul; both anthropos and pneuma are emanations of the Deity. Though Christ is son of man He has only a seeming body, and only seemingly suffers, His passion being called the mystical fiction of the cross. It is obvious that this doctrine borrowed from that of the Incarnation nothing but a few names. Scattered instances of Manichaean Docetism are found as far West as Spain among the Priscillianists of the fourth and the fifth century. The Paulicians in Armenia and the Selicians in Constantinople fostered these errors. The Paulicians existed even in the tenth century, denying the reality of Christ’s birth and appealing to Luke, vii, 20. God, according to them, sent an angel to undergo the passion. Hence they worshipped not the cross but the Gospel, Christ’s word. Among the Slavs the Bogomilae; renewed the ancient fancy that Jesus entered Mary’s body by the right ear, and received from her but an apparent body. In the West a council of Orleans in 1022 condemned thirteen Catharist heretics for denying the reality of Christ’s life and death. In modern theosophic and spiritist circles this early heresy is being renewed by ideas scarcely less fantastic than the wildest vagaries of old.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!