Sunday, February 06, 2011

Thoughts on Docetism

I'm spasmodically writing a textbook on Evangelical Theology and tonight I was pondering the historical Jesus and docetism. I came up with this conclusion to the section: "We only believe in the incarnation if we can affirm that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth experienced a physical resurrection after his death and a normal male erection during his life."


Jason Sexton said...

But, Mike, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?'

stc said...

That made me laugh out loud!

I agree with your point about Jesus experiencing erections (presumably more than once in his 30 years on earth). It's the other part of the statement I'm puzzling over.

I agree that the incarnation necessarily involves real, bodily suffering on the cross. No easy escapes, as in the heretical claim that "the Christ" abandoned the man, Jesus of Nazareth, prior to the crucifixion.

But is a bodily resurrection also required? I agree, based on other theological premises, that Christians should affirm a bodily resurrection. But I'm not sure a belief in the incarnation is one of the theological premises which necessarily entails a bodily resurrection.

In fact, the logic would seem to point in the opposite direction. Jesus originally was a spirit. "Incarnation" implies that he took on a body; it was not natural to him, but a change in the way he was constituted. One might assume, therefore, that the body would be chucked off again after it had served its purpose.

So I'm interested in knowing how you arrived at your conclusion — there must be a link in the logical chain that isn't immediately apparent.

John Thomson said...

Interesting thought. Not sure whether to agree or not.

Depends what is stimulating the erection? Is it illicit desire (lust)?

If so I cannot possibly agree.

I find it interesting that the temptations that Satan seemed most likely to work with Christ were suggestions re his identity not sexual ones.

We must remember we are so affected by sin that what we think as human is not necessarily so. Our humanity is susceptible to sin, Christ's was not. In Adam there was an absence of sin; in us an attraction to sin; in Christ an abhorrence of sin. He was not attracted to sexual impropriety but repelled by it.

More speculatively,

In new creation - post resurrection do you anticipate sexual stimulation? My question is whether sexual inclinations are vital to true new creational humanity?

Richard Fellows said...

Shouldn't the "only" in this sentence precede "if" instead of "believe"? In British English, at least, the position of the "only" in a sentence is important.

stc said...

Men (at least, young men) have multiple erections every night in their sleep. It isn't connected with lustful thoughts. It's just the human body doing what bodies do.

Mr Veale said...

Dr Bird

As you know I admire your work; but I think your taking that 6th Former's pun rather too seriously.

The big question is "was Jesus fully human and yet not merely human?" Now incurring a physical injury that impeded normal physical functions would not prevent someone from being fully human.

Suppose that someone has lost normal sexual functions due to injury or illness. Are they less than fully human?

You may want to make a wider point - to be fully human is to be fully sexual. But is the male erection essential to male sexuality?

I'm not sure that a physical Resurrection is necessary for an Incarnation. (Although I believe passionately in both, I don't see the logical connection.)

It's a clever pun, but it raises several questions that it does not answer, and it does not answer the central questions about the incarnation.


Mr Veale said...

I think that St Francis called his body "Brother Ass". It is worth pointing out that Jesus became fully human; and that this means that he shared many of the physical attributes that we find base, embarrassing or humorous.

It turns out that all those embarrassing imperfections are good for us. Our bodies remind us that we are not gods; and that God loved us enough to tabernacle in a human body.


Karl Hand said...

So, only males are truly human. Got it.

John Thomson said...


It was with your point in mind that I made the proviso. Though I am not sure how unrelated these are to erotic dreams.

I kind of understand what Mike is driving at nevertheless this extremely personal intrusion into our Lord's life makes me uneasy. There is more than a hint of irreverence at work IMO.

Nazaroo said...

Angels are consistently portrayed in the Scriptures as wearing robes, with or without gold belts or breastplates.

There is no tradition at all concerning what was under Jesus' towel, even in the most intimate moments with His disciples. Talking to women alone, the subject of sex did not arise except in the context of past sins.

The Pharisees were more concerned about contamination by a woman than stimulation. Even Judas, led by the wrong spirit, was concerned about money, not libido. If physical interests were relevant, why was it only necessary to touch Jesus' hem to be healed of a complicated gynecological illness?

Nor did anyone assume Jesus "arose" during the Woman Taken in Adultery incident (Jn 7:53-8:11), in the sense suggested. Surely more would have been said, had there been an "issue" of any kind, even if the 'caught woman' was poorly clad.

Puns are harmless enough, but I have to ask if such conversation tells us more about 21st century high-pressure sex hype and our suggestability, than it can about the incarnation.

Why are lonely gay monks today inclined to think more about Jesus' bodily parts than His commandments? Is it a sign of a dysfunctionality so deep it passes as 'normal' in this culture? Have men lost all ability to even recognize abomination when it parades itself down main streets?

If we must "briefly" consider the "issue", shouldn't we assume that a normal functional man is one who doesn't have inappropriate or untimely and non-functional erections?

The Sodomites who were bi-curious about heavenly beings are dead. Can't we take a hint?

But more generally, perhaps someone could explain to a non-theologian what they think an 'incarnation' is, and why an ordinary Christian should actually care? Isn't the title "Lord" explicit enough for practical purposes?


stc said...

This conversation is getting interesting!

No one is suggesting that Jesus had impure thoughts. And no one is titillated by thoughts of Jesus' sexual functioning. If that's the spin you're putting on things, you're missing the point.

Because there's a fundamental theological issue at stake here. I think the blog post was meant to be funny, but I also recognize there's a serious point in back of the joke.

Do we believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being? Yes or no?

The reference to angels brings this point home. Angels are asexual. Human beings are not.

Jesus (if he was flesh and blood) was not asexual. He was celibate. There's a difference.

I have no interest in knowing about Jesus' bowel functions, but I assume he had them. Elimination of waste is part of the package if you're a human being.

Likewise, erections. It isn't true that a man has to indulge in lustful thoughts to have a sexual response. Sometimes they just happen (particularly in the case of teenaged males, and Jesus was a teenager once); it's purely physiological.

So the point isn't to snigger at Jesus' sexuality. (Please!) the point is, do we believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being? Yes or no?

Mr Veale said...

I'm not sure that "irreverence" is accurate or fair. As I have said, there is a comic and ridiculous element to our bodies, and an incarnation would involve God taking on a body that is, in part, comic and ridiculous.
However, most people would not be comfortable with their bodily functions being discussed online. If Jesus was fully human we can assume that he valued his privacy; and if the Son of God became incarnate as a 1st Century Jew we can assume that he would have had a strong sense of modesty.
I think that moderns are peculiarly uncomfortable with modesty; this seemed to be one of the clashes between Jewish and Hellenistic civilizations. So I think that there is substance to John's complaint.


Nazaroo said...

NTW: "Do we believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being?"

If so, wouldn't His (sinless) flesh be under His complete control and authority?

Can we conclude that the "Son of Man" who had "food we know not of", and ruled the waves could not rule Himself, regarding biological functions?

Wouldn't it be safer to conclude that some things (like our own inabilities to control our own biology easily) are simply not essential to being fully human?

There is some hint of this already in the NT: In OT times, disfigured, deformed, and disabled people were not allowed to serve functions requiring holiness and wholeness in terms of representing Godly functions in the temple.

But in NT times, (building on K.David's treatment of a cripple royal heir?) Jesus dropped walls of approach to God or at least approach to God's earthly representative.

What is my point? Merely this: under the NT revelation, not only are "Gentiles" allowed to approach, but full physical completeness was not required for an ordinary man to be fully human.

Let me say this again, because it is often missed: In OT times, men missing parts were not allowed to approach. In the NT revelation, we are actually encouraged to "cut off" physical appendages that hinder our entrance or approach. This is a radical and complete reversal of the Torah position, even though it creeps in from behind as it were, under the table.

If OT principles were still operative, cutting of anything, a hand, a foot, an eye, would be grounds for disqualification of entry into the temple (=body) and kingdom (community).

Jesus' teaching (if it is His) in Matthew is then revolutionary in nature, in categories wholly unsuspected by commentators.

What we have here are a new set of principles by which men are considered "whole", "complete", "fully human" etc. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

It is no shame for Jesus to have lost His blood, his very life, and even suffered disfigurement beyond recognition according to Scripture.

How then can we expect old or ordinary categories and definitions of "fully human" to hold?


Mr Veale said...


I'm not really sure what the difference between sinful and sinless flesh would be. You may be misreading Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians here.
There is absolutely no theological or historical reason to think that Jesus was born a "eunuch". I think that some odd ideas about human sexuality are operating behind your posts.
At the same time, there is absolutely no theological reason to assert that Jesus could not have suffered from, say, a shattered pelvis in his youth.
It does seem to be a little bizarre to be discussing these questions. It should suffice to say that there is definitely nothing sinful about the "mechanics" of human sexuality; but we do not learn this from the incarnation. Furthermore sexual desire is not to be confused with a lustful look; but this tells us nothing about the incarnation.


Mr Veale said...

Dr Bird

Are you sure the pun is worth all this?


Ashleigh B said...

"If so, wouldn't His (sinless) flesh be under His complete control and authority?"

That's ridiculous. Did Jesus also not experience a rapid heart-beat after being startled? Did he not experience the biochemical reactions we perceive as our emotions? Did he never throw up? I believe he experienced all of these things because he had a body, and because there is nothing wrong in his experiencing them. They are just part of being human.

Mr Veale said...

I have to agree with Ashleigh's sentiments here. Jesus was not merelyhuman - but he was not superhuman.

We can assume, safely, that things like phlegm and vomit, mucus and tears, and inconvenient bowel movements were all involved in the incarnation.


Mr Veale said...

(But it would be a stretch to say - "We only believe in the incarnation if we can affirm that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth experienced a physical resurrection after his death and vomited during his life.")

Joel Haas said...


We're still waiting for part 2.

Mr Veale said...

I second the motion

Nazaroo said...

Dear Graham:

I'm finding I must object to some items on your list:

(1) "I'm not really sure what the difference between sinful and sinless flesh would be."

I'm no expert, but we could start with the fact that sinful flesh is condemned to die. That is flesh tainted with sin has an expiry-date, as per basic Christian doctrine.

(2) "You may be misreading Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians here."

This seems to go both ways. Until you can demonstrate some kind of misreading, the vague claim is unsubstantiated and insubstantial.

(3) "There is absolutely no theological or historical reason to think that Jesus was born a "eunuch"."

There is plenty of theological reason to think he was a eunuch by choice, and that this destiny, his function was predetermined in the mind of God.

(4) "I think that some odd ideas about human sexuality are operating behind your posts."

Well the feeling's mutual. I'm glad you're concerned, but until this becomes more than just a vague innuendo and ad hominem, perhaps its best put to one side.

(5) "At the same time, there is absolutely no theological reason to assert that Jesus could not have suffered from, say, a shattered pelvis in his youth."

This sounds at the very least naive, or else you hold to far too liberal a version of Christianity for me to even grasp how you can call it Christianity.

The obvious theological reason is that this was prophecied. "Not a bone was broken." Ignorance of such a fundamental prophecy and accompanying doctrine can only be described as astounding in someone supposed to be familiar with the NT.

(6) "Furthermore sexual desire is not to be confused with a lustful look;"

This sounds just a little too much like having your cake and eating it too. Can you explain what the difference is between the two? Since "lust" and "desire" are simple English synonyms reflecting the same underlying Koine Greek, I'm currently at a loss in regards to a distinction I can't justify from the original text.


Matt Viney said...

Unless I missed something, Mr Bird hasn't posted something this provocative in a while. Interesting.

I think the point could be made without referencing Jesus' penis. If Mr Bird would feel uncomfortable discussing his own erections online, I suggest that discussing Jesus' penis might also be off limits. It's just good taste.

On the other hand, Mr Bird is a big boy. I suppose he can write whatever he wants.

Nazaroo said...

Ashleigh: "Did [Jesus] never throw up? I believe he experienced all of these things because he had a body, and because there is nothing wrong in his experiencing them. They are just part of being human."

Illogical nonsense.

Jesus was a Physician, not a patient.

If you believe he was a mere ordinary man, then yes he could have caught the flu.

If you hold to Christian doctrine which acknowledges that:

(1) Jesus was superior to us, had a pre-existence, and Godly powers,

(2) Jesus kept the food laws and laws of holiness perfectly,

(3) Jesus never sinned, or incurred God's wrath or punishment.

(4) Jesus had authority, over healing, forgiveness, and even the biosphere.

(5) Jesus was pure and clean 100%, and untouchable even by Satan. Even Satan had no power to make Jesus sick or injure him, without Jesus' permission.

(6) Jesus had miraculous powers, setting Him apart from humans. He could walk on water and walk through walls and crowds, even before His resurrection.

(7) Jesus fulfilled a rare principle, in which that which is Holy makes holy what it touches. This is a level of holiness orders of magnitude ABOVE ordinary holy men and holy objects.

This was discussed by one of the OT prophets. It was established back then that the 'holiness' of temple objects, food, and even the High Priest was a secondary and derivative holiness, incapable of making other things holy.

When a Holy object touches an unholy or unclean object, normally (the rule) the holy object becomes defiled and unclean, not the other way round.

Contrary to all expectation and normal laws of cleanliness and contamination, When Jesus touched an unclean or unholy person, they became clean and were healed.

This unique situation plainly suggests the overwhelming presence of the Source of ALL True Holiness, God Himself.

A 'cold' or sniffle could hardly survive in the proximity of Jesus, any more than a snowball could survive in the Lake of Fire.


Karl Hand said...

Nazaroo, I really disagree with your understanding of Jesus. In my view, he was like us "in every way except sin." That's number 3 on your list of seven. The other six are just wrong.

It's my view that Jesus didn't have miraculous "powers". He wasn't a magician or a show off... He prayed, and God performed the miracles. Or, God told him to act, and he moved in the spirit. He said in John's Gospel "I don't do anything unless the Father does it."

Your magical mr. J. Christ doesn't inspire worship in me. But the Jesus of Philippians 2, who emptied himself of everything but servanthood, causes me to fall down and worship - regardless of his male potency, and regardless of his miraculous powers.

pennoyer said...

Just reacting to the original post, I think this is a bizarre comment guaranteed to create more heat than light. There are better ways to help us grasp the human nature of Christ.

Unknown said...

Nazaroo... I think that some odd ideas about human sexuality are operating behind your posts.

Ya think?

Michael F. Bird said...

Okay peoples, this has gone on way too long. I've evidently hit a nerve with some folks. My point was to emphasize that Jesus had a raw and real humanity, complete with bodily functions. Jesus did not transcend the mundane elements of human existence. Rather "he was made every way like his brothers" (Heb 2:17). My concern is not that Christians get sucked into a "hard" docetism where Jesus is some kind of phantasm who only looks human or an earthly avatar of a heavenly being - few will be fooled by that. Rather, there is a "soft" docetism where Jesus' divinity eclipses his humanity and it becomes impossible or unthinkable to envisage Jesus as authentically human as we are with the same "bodiliness". If you cannot imagine a Jesus who has normal sexual and digestive functions then you cannot imagine an incarnated Jesus.

Mr Veale said...

Dr Bird
I wholeheartedly agree with what you have just said. You certainly did not hit any of my "nerves".I think that your comment was thought provoking, and a good conversation starter.
I do think the pun is more trouble than it's worth. It leads to all sorts of questions about human sexuality if it's taken too seriously. Some clot of an RE teacher might pick you up on a technical point about the Incarnation. And no-one needs that sort of irritation!
But you could say, very directly, that the incarnation involved normal digestive and sexual functions, including human waste and, presumably, erections.
That seems to be an important aspect of God's humility - that he would tabernacle in a frail, and slightly comical, human body.

(But that human body was "clean" - there is nothing shameful or sinful about human waste or erections!)


Mr Veale said...

So - for the very little that it's worth - IMHO you should make the same point in your systematic theology, but avoid the pun.

And I hope that I haven't annoyed or offended you. I've read two of your books, and a few of your papers, and I really admire and appreciate your work. (And I admire any man who can put up with Maurice Casey's condescension!)


Nazaroo said...

touched a nerve?

I think I touched a whole lot of "secular humanists mascarading as christians" -type nerves.

Your brand if liberal modernist/rationalist Christianity might seem the model of Christian theological thought to you, but to me it just looks like we've arrived at the age where men cannot listen to sound doctrine.

One of you, who calls himself a pastor, says this:

Karl Hand said: "Nazaroo, I really disagree with your understanding of Jesus. In my view, he was like us "in every way except sin." The other six [on your list] are just wrong.

It's my view that Jesus didn't have miraculous "powers"."

Everything in my "Jesus list" is based on Scriptural statements and scriptural observations.

(1) John 1:1

(2) Even skeptics believe Jesus followed Jewish laws and customs during his lifetime.

(3) The same 'Hebrews' you quote affirms Jesus never sinned.

(4) The whole point of the demonstration and debate about healing vs. forgiveness in Mark underlines Jesus' superior authority to that of even the greatest prophet. But I could just as easily have chosen Matthew's Sermon on the Mount to illustrate Jesus' own view of his authority: "You have heard it said...but I say unto you..."

(5) The Father left it up to Jesus. Jesus laid down his life freely and willingly. QED.

(6) Jesus' whole ministry is based on miracles and signs, and authoritative teaching surpassing that of mere men.

(7) is self-explanatory.


Nazaroo said...

Quest for the Historical Jesus Update:

From the school of "Everytime I reconstruct Jesus, he ends up looking like me", have of course had:

Jesus the Teacher
Jesus the Stoic
Jesus the Zealot
Jesus the Ironist
Jesus the Magician
Jesus the Secular Humanist
Jesus the Pacifist

and of course last year's (perenial) popular favourite,

Jesus the Liberal English Professor.

To this we may now add:

Jesus the farting, burping, vomiting Trailer-park guy.

I'm looking forward to next year's offerings already. Judging by current trends, my predictions are:

Jesus the Standup Comedian
Jesus the gay-parade Subway Clown
Jesus the Alzheimer's Guy (unfinished).


stc said...


There's nothing in your list, 1 through 7, that I disagree with. I don't think any of the other commenters here would disagree, either.

Nor do we follow a Trailer Park Boys version of Jesus.

But you do realize, don't you, that we're recapitulating an ancient theological debate here? Some believers thought Jesus was just a man. Other believers thought Jesus was just God, and not a flesh-and-blood human.

The early Church deliberated on the scriptural data and decided that we have to affirm both of these things about Jesus. He was fully God (without thereby diminishing his humanity) and fully human (without thereby diminishing his deity).

That's the theology we all affirm, but the emphasis in this thread is on Jesus' humanity.

Honestly, we're not spiritual adversaries. We're just responding to an admittedly provocative way of making the point that the incarnate Jesus was fully human.

Nazaroo said...

I don't object to exploring the issue of Christ's humanity, and what that might entail.

What is wrong here is the method: The automatic and even dogmatic assumption and insistence that what we imagine is essential to a definition of 'humanity' must apply to Jesus' obvious special case.

This is simply not a scientific or rational approach, but rather a kind of infectious hysteria.

Instead for instance demanding that "Jesus vomited", we should be asking,

"Did Jesus get sick, and if so, did he have symptoms like vomiting?"

That would be a rational historical question to scientifically and also scripturally explore, as opposed to dogmatically assert without evidence.

I would say that a lot of assumptions are being violently imposed here, such as what does and does not constitute essential human identity and experience.


sujomo said...

Perhaps we are grappling with Dr Bird's comment because it is difficult for us to imagine what it is like to a human being (male or female) prior to the Fall.


John Thomson said...


While I appreciate the sentiment you are expressing (that we find it hard to imagine what sinless humanity is, nevertheless we should note:

Jesus was not simply a human being like Adam was before the fall.

There was continuity but also discontinuity. Adam, for example had no knowledge of good and evil Jesus did. Adam was not sustained by the Spirit, Christ was. Adam was first creation humanity; Christ is new creation humanity. Adam was innocent; Christ was holy.

Adam was of the earth and earthy: Christ is from heaven.