Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 3, “Docetism as a Way of Removing the ‘Folly’ of the Cross”)

Martin Hengel’s argument in chapter 3 of Crucifixion presents the obverse of his findings in chapter two: the hellenistic world of the ancient Mediterranean did influence Christianity’s understanding of the cross. But it did so in the opposite way some have claimed. In other words, the philosophical and religious ideas of Greco-Roman antiquity didn’t produce the Christian idea of the “crucified god”—they actually eroded it, softening and toning down the reality of the shame involved in the crucifixion by saying that the sufferings weren’t “real,” but only “appeared” (dokeô, hence “docetism”) to be so. Greek ideas about the nature of the divine being, both at the level of philosophical reflection and in mythology, actually demanded this: “the suffering of a god soon had to be shown to be mere simulation, rapidly followed by punishment for those humans who had been so wicked as to cause it” (107; Hengel mentions several stories about the god Dionysus to illustrate the point). It was axiomatic in the ancient world that God is, by his very nature, incapable of experiencing suffering. In the early centuries of the church, this axiom was applied to the incarnation itself to say that not only the sufferings of Jesus, but even his very humanity, were merely apparent, not real.

The way this played out both in paganism and in early Christian heretical circles was to speak of a deity’s experience of corporeal existence in terms of their “representations”: Hera and Helen of Troy, for example, are available to their human lovers (Ixion and Paris) only as phantoms “made out of heavenly ether;” Vesta snatches the real Caesar up so that his “phantom” is the one assassinated (cf. 108). Hengel notes that Celsus, the great opponent of early Christianity who wrote a treatise attempting to refute it, argues in this vein against the divinity of Jesus: “But if he was really so great he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross” (Cited by Origen in Contra Celsum 2.68; cf. 109).

This, in fact, was precisely how some later Christian sects, particularly the gnostics, presented Jesus. At this point, I was quite surprised that Hengel did not cite any actual examples, since this is well-attested in the surviving gnostic literature. I will provide three, the first of which focuses on the humanity of Christ in general, and the second and third of which focus on his “suffering.”

Acts of John 93:

[S]ometimes when I [John] meant to touch him [Christ] I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if he did not exist at all.

Apocalypse of Peter 81:

I saw him apparently being seized by them. And I said, “What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it really you whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is the one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?” The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness.”

Second Treatise of Seth 56:

It was another…who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height…over their error… And I was laughing at their ignorance.

Views such as these abounded in some circles of the early church, and later on would show their influence in Islamic accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, which present him as being saved from the shame of the cross and replaced by Judas (still appearing as though he were Jesus). This is what the influence of ancient pagan philosophy and mythology on the Christian faith really looks like. It is the softening of original Christianity’s shocking claim—that in Jesus Christ God suffered, and not only suffered in the physical experience of pain, but underwent the utmost shame and humiliation a human being could face, naked and bloody and nailed in public view to a wooden stake suffocating to death. The gravity of ancient culture moved Christians away from this conviction, not toward it.

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