Docetic Passion

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


Reading the Raggs Introduction to the Gospel of Barnabas (1907), I encountered the term “docetic passion” in the second to last paragraph from the end. Wondering what exactly that might mean. I came across your article on Docetism, which I must say provides excellent information on Docetism. I was aware of this heresy from several books where it was not the main topic but was mentioned incidentally. But your bullet-wise delineation of its main features, I think, is much better and more informative.

I would appreciate it if you could answer a few questions for me. Firstly, what do the Raggs mean by Docetic Passion?

Their statement is as follows. “But the most striking element of all in this connection is the ‘docetic passion,’ in which Judas is arrested, tried, and crucified in his Master’s place. Of this there are some but vague suggestions in the Qoran---derived, it may be, by Mohammed from some snatches of the Gnostic Barnabas overheard and scarcely comprehended: in our Barnabas the episode is drawn out with great fullness and remarkable dramatic power.”

I guess the identity switch with Simon the Cyrene would be another example of a docetic passion. Are there any other examples of it from the apocryphal?

Also what is the Gnostic Barnabas that the Raggs speculate might lay beneath some of the medieval Gospel of Barnabas that they translated? Any information on it?


Let’s start with the last question first: If there ever was a document called the “Gnostic Barnabas,” it is not currently available to scholars. There are only four books, known to scholars, bearing the name of Barnabas. These are “The Acts of Barnabas,” “The Epistle of Barnabas,” and two references to the “Gospel of Barnabas.” The Epistle was written first, probably dating from the first half of the second century; the Acts are probably from the fifth century. A document from a pope at the end of the fifth century mentions “the Gospel of Barnabas,” but only by its title and nothing else is said about it. Then, in the 15th-16th century, another “Gospel of Barnabas” surfaced. Whether anything from the second is based on the first is simply unknown, because all that exists of the first is its title in a document.

What scholars do know is that in the early Church dozens and dozens of Christian documents were floating around. Twenty-seven were canonized; the others were excluded for a variety of reasons. High on that list was always that they contained an “inaccurate version” of Jesus, Christianity, his teachings, etc. The people making the decisions determined what was accurate and what wasn’t.

At least one person studying the second Gospel of Barnabas thought that it was “of South Gallic origin and is dated in the sixth century.” 1 No copies survived, however, until the later ages. There appear to be both an Italian and a Spanish version. They, of course, are not the same. Both surfaced within 100+ years of each other. The Spanish version is thought to be based on an Italian copy that was stolen from the library of Pope Sixtus (1585-90). Then in 1734, George Sale, fluent in Arabic, translated The Koran into English, and made several references to the Gospel of Barnabas.

A pivotal statement is found in Section IV where Sale quotes John 16:7: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” KJV) The word, here meaning “comforter or advocate,” is Paraclete in Greek. Sale notes that the Gospel of Barnabas translates this word, Periclyte, meaning “the famous, or Illustrious.” This word just happens to be the name Ahmad, (another name for Mohammed) in Arabic, Jesus’ native language. In that case, Jesus is virtually saying, I will send “Ahmad” after I’m gone. That translation serves to vindicate Muslims and vex Christians. Arguments abound whether the Aramaic version is simply a mistaken transliteration of the Greek, but no one has any of those original documents. Arguments from silence are impossible to prove. Needless, to say, Muslims have embraced this Gospel, while Christians believe it is nothing but a false writing.

On to your question about the “docetic passion.” Docetism is derived from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem.” Docetists believed that Jesus, being wholly good, could not have had any contact with matter, because matter is evil. Therefore, Jesus only appeared or seemed to have a body. It was really an illusion. This teaching, in essence, refutes his incarnation and denies his humanity. And it follows that if Jesus had no body, he obviously could not die (or suffer) on the cross. His passion is called a mystical fiction of the cross. And in continuing the logic, if Jesus did not die, he did not need to rise from the dead, which, basically, refutes the entire premise of Christianity. It’s not hard to understand why this belief system was deemed to be heretical.

In a similar way, a “docetic passion” also refers to an illusion. The Gospel of Barnabas takes great pains to provide a different version of events from that fateful night. As Judas was bringing the soldiers, the angels were helping Jesus escape. As soon as Judas entered the room, his appearance was “transformed” to look exactly like Jesus, and the Romans arrested him. This transformation lasted throughout his arrest, trial, and execution. After being in the tomb for three days, his body was stolen, leading to the belief that Jesus had risen. The story continues that eventually Jesus returned to earth and was able to tell everyone the truth. It’s a docetic passion because it “seemed” to be Jesus’ passion, but it really was all about Judas.

Most of the Gnostic gospels have docetic texts: the Gospels of Judas, Peter, Philip; Apocalypse of Peter, Acts of John, to mention a few. Scholars also think some verses of the canonized books were intentionally included to push back against these views. One example would be Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after he had arisen. The disciple, Thomas, wasn’t there at the time and said he would never believe it until he would see “the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put his finger in it, and put his hand in his side.” Eight days later Jesus appears to the disciples again and asks Thomas to do exactly that, saying “do not doubt, but believe.” (See John 20:20-27) The Evangelist is making the point that the post-resurrection Jesus had a real body.

Scholars looking for docetic language have no trouble finding examples. Yet, it is only in recent years that many of them have given serious attention to these “heretical” books and the ideas contained within. It’s a burgeoning study, and more information might become available as these studies continue. For now, however, serious students of these texts must simply acknowledge there is much that is unknown and unknowable. That may, or may not, change even if more treasures come to light.

1 E. Hennecke, The New Testament Apocrypha, Lutterworth, London, 1963, Vol. 1, p. 46.

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