Defining Mythicism: Mythical Jesus, Mythicist Jesus, and Tertullian on 1 John 4:3

Landon Hedrick has written an interesting blog post. Here is a snippet:

If you believe that Jesus walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, raised people from the dead, and was himself resurrected from the dead, then you don’t get to dismiss the “Jesus never existed” theory as too silly or crazy to take seriously.


I’m not arguing for mythicism here (I’m not a mythicist). That’s not what I’m up to. Nor am I arguing against it. My point is rather simple: as unbelievable a view as it is, you have no room to dismiss it so casually on the basis of its being totally bonkers if you believe in a magic Jesus yourself.

via Landon Hedrick Blogs: New Rule.

I think it is an interesting perspective. It is definitely worth the read. I can associate with Avalos on being an agnostic about the question, as I am also an agnostic. But I did find this additional comment from Hedrick quite interesting (it is the first comment listed under the blog itself):

According to Hector Avalos (article in preparation), 1 John 4:1-3 at the very leasts suggests that, even at the time of the New Testament writings, there were a group of self-described Christians who did not believe that Jesus had come in the flesh at all.

The passage (RSV) reads:
[1] Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
[2] By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
[3] and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already.

But how could there even be prophets saying that Jesus had not come in the flesh if everyone agreed that he was a blood and flesh person all along? So, for Avalos, 1 John 4 suggests that, even at the time of the New Testament writings, Christianity was already divided into what we might call “historical” (if that means a flesh and blood person) and “mythicist” (if that means not a flesh and blood person) views of Jesus.

This passage is noted by Earl Doherty (Jesus Puzzle, pp. 43 and 307).”

What is interesting specifically is that the interpretation of this passage. In the Greek (SBL NT):

Ἀγαπητοί, μὴ παντὶ πνεύματι πιστεύετε, ἀλλὰ δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα εἰ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, ὅτι πολλοὶ ψευδοπροφῆται ἐξεληλύθασιν εἰς τὸν κόσμον. ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκετε τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ· πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ ὁμολογεῖ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν· καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη.

The last verse in this group (bolded above), 1 John 4:3, is where this interpretation really rests. The RP (The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005, comp. and arr. by M. A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont [Southborough, Mass.: Chilton, 2005]) which is noted in the SBL NT, notes an additional section of Greek text:

Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα

Which fits into the verse as such (bolded):

καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα, ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστι· καὶ τοῦτό ἐστι τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη.

And the NA27 (another authority, as it were) also indicates that early witnesses (c. 4th century manuscripts) attest to the Greek with the inclusion of Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα. And if we follow this thinking to the early church fathers, Tertullian, in his De praescriptione hereticorum, ch. 34, he writes:

But in his [John – ed.] epistle he especially designates those “Antichrists” who “denied that Christ was come in the flesh,” and who refused to think that Jesus was the Son of God. The one dogma Marcion maintained; the other, Hebion.

This was written in the early third century, meaning that Tertullian was aware of a manuscript which probably incorporated the Greek addition above. So I have to agree that the rendering in English (from the AKJV):

And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

So Avalos’ point actually is quite interesting; indeed it would seem that in the third century, at least, and assuming this rendering dates back to the autographa (which we don’t have), in the second century, there had been at least one sect of Christians which did not believe in an earthly, fleshly, human Jesus. This verse is also quoted, to some small extent perhaps, by Polycarp (assuming the letter is authentic), in his Epistle to the Philippians, ch. 7. If the letter is indeed authentic, it would validate an early second century date for the passage.

h/t to James McGrath for posting this and bringing it to my attention.


8 Responses

  1. Isn’t it a bit misleading to associate mythicism with 2nd century docetism? The docetists believed that Jesus was actually walking around Judea in the 1st century, but he just didn’t have any flesh; he only appeared to have flesh. They didn’t believe he was crucified in a heavenly realm.

    If they didn’t believe that he came at all, it sort of renders the term “docetist” meaningless. How could he only “seem” (i.e. dokeo) to have flesh if he never even came in the first place?

  2. I don’t think I said it was mythicism.

  3. Sorry about the short reply earlier, Quinton. To answer your post, it is misleading to associate modern mythicism with ancient docetism and you are quite right to make the distinction. But I am not so sure that docetism is what the author of 1 John had in mind when he was writing that verse and I’m also not so sure that there wasn’t a movement which believed in a wholly spiritual figure of Jesus. I would argue, in fact, that the Gospel of Thomas is written about such a figure (vs. 24, “His disciples said, “Show us the place where you are, for we must seek it.” He said to them, “Whoever has ears should listen! There is light existing within a person of light. And it enlightens the whole world: if it does not enlighten, that person is darkness.”) and I think attempts to root this question and his answer in an earthly plain have actually failed to account for the similarities of this question with those found in Pistis Sophia:

    It came to pass then, when the disciples had heard this word, that they said: “Lord, if it be thou, withdraw thy light-glory into thyself that we may be able to stand; otherwise our eyes are darkened, and we are agitated, and the whole world also is in agitation because of the great light which is about thee.”

    Then Jesus drew to himself the glory of his light; and when this was done, all the disciples took courage, stepped forward to Jesus, fell down all together, adored him, rejoicing in great joy, and said unto him: “Rabbi, whither hast thou gone, or what was thy ministry on which thou hast gone, or wherefor rather were all these confusions and all the earth-quakings which have taken place?”

    There is something to be said about Jesus becoming here the luminous man, ascending into heaven and “returning”. This story is predicated upon a spiritual Jesus, not a fleshly one, and clearly the author did not think this historically occurred but is demonstrating for the reader the mystery of intiation at a certain order within that mystery. What this demonstrates for me is a type of understanding about the figure of Jesus which is not so much docetic as it is didactic. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be both, but it is unlikely that the Pistis Sophia, or the Gospel of Thomas, or 1 John are referring to an earthly figure when they talk about this spiritual Jesus, not of the flesh. I would personally like to see more work done on this sort of question; but I don’t think one can read this text and say definitely, nor even probably, that the author of 1 John was referring to a docetic interpretation and there is no reason to assume that Marcion or any of his followers believed that Jesus had been any more real, especially if they are arguing from a gnostic background wherein the demiurge has clouded the minds of everyone but the chosen and initiated (cf. the Hypostasis of the Archons).

  4. It is certainly possible, Tom, that they were Christian groups that thought Jesus was a solely heavenly being, though the bigger you imagine the group, the less likely that is to be so, since we have a greater expectation to know about large groups rather than small ones.

    I wonder though about your statement that it is unlikely that that 1 John’s Jesus not of the flesh is an earthly figure. One of the more popular (by popular I mean the masses, not popular among scholars) conceptions of Jesus is essentially as a god who is effectively just masquerading as a person, the subtleties of all human and all god go over most peoples heads. That being the case I doesn’t seem unlikely that someone back then would conceive of Jesus as a god in human appearance who interacted in history like a real person, had friends, debated with opponents, rode on boats, etc. Catholics now believe that the bread and wine are really the blood and flesh of Christ at communion, there beliefs on it are essentially unfalsifiable. One could presumably meet Jesus him self, but believe he is really a spirit appearing as a person. That appears to be how docetics interpreted Jesus. How do you make a determination that it is unlikely John had that scenario in mind, Bayes theorem?

  5. Mike, be careful when you assume. Before you claim there is little or no evidence to support my position, you would do wise to follow your own advice and remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are several problems with your suggestion overall. I’ll list them to be brief, though I could be more elaborate (maybe I will later).

    1. You assume that such a sect was unknown (there are indications that there were types of docetics who did not believe Jesus could be witnessed by anyone, and other sects of Christians who did not believe in many of the physical Gospel traditions–like a birth [aka: Marcionites])
    2. In a few hundred years there were probably hundreds of Christian denominations and clearly not all of them agreed. A read through any of the Gnostic texts reveals strands which are quite far removed from any Gospel tradition (like the concerns with creation, the demiurge, various aeons, and so forth). These strands of doctrine came from somewhere; where do you suppose they came from if not from interpretation?
    3. You wrongly assume that the sect we have the most apologetic works from is the oldest; you simply shouldn’t assume that, much less claim that with any certainty! And appeals to tradition don’t mean much, not when it comes to apologists from the ancient past. In one breadth Tertullian criticizes Marcion for calling himself an apostle, claiming that one cannot be an apostle without two witnesses bearing truth to the claim. But what sort of method of authority is that? Anyone then can claim authority so long as their sect had two witnesses proclaiming apostleship. There are perhaps hundreds of texts we no longer have from various Christian communities who opposed the universal movement. Unless we find them, we can’t know even if the Apologists were correct in their retrieval of Gnostic thought. Our best evidence for the beliefs of the Gnostics, those that were mentioned, come from works of disdain and arrogance and also a bias, all meshed in rhetoric and the language of persuasion. The Sethians probably predated Christianity, but they are treated the same as Gnostics and are not differentiated by ‘age’ or ‘authority’ as much as they are lumped in with other purported ‘heresies.’
    4. You cannot begin to speculate upon the size of any movement as the Apologists don’t elaborate on the details of the size of the movements.
    5. You do not fully grasp, it seems, an adequate understanding of the ancient mythic mind (something you should brush up on as a student; I suggest Emanuel Pfoh as a starting point for your research) and the implications of the mythic mind upon our understanding of ancient historiography and myth in general. Something can be both historical and a fiction to the ancient, as is seen with origin stories dating back to Lycurgus (see Plutarch’s history of the king, through the lens that most scholars doubt his historical existence).
    6. There is no mention of docetism in 1 John at all, and the claim that the author was warning against the docetics is one that comes later, from the words of Tertullian and perhaps Polycarp. Also, you have to place yourself into the mind of the ancient and try not to anachronistically apply modern perspectives about Jesus to them. Modern Christians are nothing at all like ancient docetics. And I certainly don’t think many Christians are confused about the nature of the flesh vs. the spirit. But that does raise some interesting questions about the docetics, doesn’t it? If they did not perceive Jesus as being of the flesh, but spiritual, then he was not an earthly figure at all. And you might claim that the docetics were just wrong and Jesus was flesh and blood and they are just interpreting the data in a different way, but that is a double-edged sword. And we really don’t have all the information we’d like to have about the docetics to know fully what their beliefs were; all we have are the snippets from the few Apologists who thought to write polemical tracts against them.

    In fact Tertullian and Hippolytus had differing perspectives on the docetics at points (that, or they weren’t concerned with explaining the details more than they had). Hippolytus remarks, for example (Refutation of all Heresies 10.12):

    And (they say) that these Aeons formed a design of simultaneously going together into one Aeon, and that from this the intermediate Aeon and from the Virgin Mary they begot a Saviour of all. [note the spiritual birth of Jesus, not the physical birth -ed.]
    And (the Docetae maintain) that Jesus arrayed Himself in that only-begotten power, and that for this reason He could not be seen by any, on account of the excessive magnitude of His glory. And they say that all the occurrences took place with Him as it has been written in the Gospels.

    Again, recognizing the difference between today’s rationalistic mind and the ancient mythic mind is quite important. After all, how can one be unseen yet do all that is described in the Gospels (which, we must wonder? Since the Gnostics had different Gospels from each other and from the universal movement). But returning to the mythic mind, in Marcion’s Gospel , per Tertullian, Jesus was a phantom, devoid of any physical form at all (he was able to move through crowds without being touched by guards, he could levitate, he wasn’t born but descended from heaven, etc…) but in his Gospel was able to commit all sorts of physical acts, like communicate, appear to eat, drink, walk, etc. From a modern, rationalistic perspective, it is easy to say ‘well, they just believed he was a phantom but in reality he was human.’ But to the ancient mythic mind, Jesus did everything that the Gospel portrays him doing, there was no distinction between history and myth for the reason that they were one and the same. That doesn’t make Jesus ‘historical’ in the sense that he was a physical human being who did or said some things and was then greatly exaggerated about (I’m not saying that wasn’t possible), but that he was a figure of a movement who was consistently portrayed differently by different people, doing conflicting things, because he was pliable to the will of the interpretation of the sects individually.

    Memes travel quickly, even in antiquity, and whatever the original Christian movement was, we will never know lest we find evidence in the future about it, and even then we probably wouldn’t recognize it. But what we have later, from Paul first, then others like 1 John, are new traditions based upon older ones which at that time were probably extinct or going away. Without the internet to remind us of memes of older generations, we would forget them and continue creating new ones. In the ancient world, that is precisely what happened, which is how fictional figures like Lycurgus became euhemerized into the past, historically, and why events like the Amazon invasion were dateable along with the journey of the Argos, the heroic age, the story of Adam and Eve (both historicized and spiritualized by the Gnostics, that is, both interpreted on an earthly plain and on a heavenly plain), etc…

    If you can keep this in mind, you’ll better understand the nature of the beast.

  6. Thank you for your full reply. I will have to have to address them later. If this is like your upcoming book, it sounds interesting. Your argument makes some sense, and I admit, that I tend to look at early heresy though later eyes, people who don’t seem to be very aware of their own traditions history. For instance the followers of Balaam or the Nicolatians of Revelation are unknown to us, except for later dubious commentary, so also Simon the Magus. Since we barely understand 1 John’s religion, it would be presumptive to comment on his foes.

  7. Tom, back to some of your points.
    1. I think my assumption is correct. “there are indications that there were types of docetics who did not believe Jesus could be witnessed by anyone…”doesn’t seem to indicate knowledge of such a sect, just possibilities that maybe there was one. If some work clearly presents a “wholly spiritual figure of Jesus”, please point it out. Neither Thomas nor the Pistis Sophia seems to have such a figure in mind, since make a number of references to his involvement in earthly events.
    2. On the number of Christian denominations, I wonder how you came to that number, “hundreds”. Your statement that not all them agreed makes me think may have different communities, but with more or less common beliefs in mind as opposed to different sects. Thus the Roman Catholic Church has a number of sub communities and factions within in it. Is this what you mean? I haven’t done full work on this, but I’m not getting more than a few dozen other christianities, even if we speculate that there were 2 that went unrecorded for every 1 that was.
    3. “You wrongly assume that the sect we have the most apologetic works from is the oldest” I’m not sure where I do that.
    4. “You cannot begin to speculate upon the size of any movement as the Apologists don’t elaborate on the details of the size of the movements.” I disagree, from internal and external(non-Christian and “heretic”) sources I think we can some idea of the relative size of different movements.
    5. “You do not fully grasp, it seems, an adequate understanding of the ancient mythic mind” no I don’t, I doubt you do either, but I could be wrong. “Something can be both historical and a fiction to the ancient” I am well aware of that.
    6. “If they did not perceive Jesus as being of the flesh, but spiritual, then he was not an earthly figure at all.” I don’t think that is true. Acts presents an angel a spiritual being rescuing Peter from jail, an earthly setting. It even specifies that Peter first thought he was seeing a vision but then, presumably, changes his mind. The angel is thus spiritual, not flesh, but an earthly figure. Also in Genesis, a book that is admittedly much before the time we are discussing, but probably influential on early Christianity, in chapter 18, we have God and a couple of angels eating food Abraham has prepared. Later audiences would identify God as a spirit being, but the setting as earthly. Presumably God could repeat the act.

    Don’t take this as hostility, I find your work intelligent and I am confident you are more familiar with early Christian writings than I am. I don’t discount that you could present a good case for your idea that the docetics imagined the supposed act of Jesus as not taking place in history. I would like to see it.

  8. Tom, you might be interested in reading through some of Mike Wilsons snarky, ignorant and condescending comments that he regularly posts regarding the historicity of Jesus (a subject he seems rather unlearned about) over at exploringourmatrix and vridar . You might reconsider wasting any of your time responding to anything he writes, but of course that is entirely your decision to make.

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