The belief Jesus was “pure spirit” was prevalent in early Christian history
- N. B.
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
2 John 1:7 (RSV)
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 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.”
1 John 4:2-3 (RSV)
In its article on the Second Epistle of John, even Wikipedia gets it right that, for some peculiar reason, the belief “that the human person of Jesus was actually pure spirit” was “prevalent quite early in the history of Christianity.” This sort of Gnostic lingo is a polite way of saying that early Christians perceived their savior as a non-corporeal, mystical, spiritual, allegorical and, ultimately, mythical figure. If Jesus has been a historical person and had done all manner of miracles and magic tricks widely seen “in the flesh,” there could be no logical reason for some of the earliest beliefs in him to be non-literal and spiritual.
A close scrutiny of the historical record reveals non-historical deities and saviors with numerous of essentially the same attributes and adventures. From this admission of early Christian “Gnosticism,” we can see how this non-historical mishmash of religious and mythological concepts included in the New Testament was increasingly historicized over the decades, during the second century AD/CE.
In any event, the Second Epistle of John provides evidence for this development, which means that the gospel story is myth historicized, not literal history or history mythologized.
Also significant is the clear warning against paying heed to those who say that Jesus was not a flesh-and-blood figure: “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” This establishes that, from the time the epistle was first written, there were those who had docetic Christologies, believing that the human person of Jesus was actually pure spirit.
Alternatively, the letter’s acknowledgment and rejection of gnostic theology may reveal a later date of authorship than orthodox Christianity claims. This can not be assured by a simple study of the context. Gnosticism’s beginnings and its relationship to Christianity is poorly dated, due to an insufficient corpus of literature relating the first interactions between the two religions. It vehemently condemns such anti-corporeal attitudes, which also indicates that those taking such unorthodox positions were either sufficiently vocal, persuasive, or numerous enough to warrant rebuttal in this form. Adherents of gnosticism were most numerous during the second and third centuries.
Thus, in regard to this matter and this document, either one of two explanations is commonly held:
- Docetic and/or gnostic teachings were prevalent quite early in the history of Christianity, and these views were considered heretical and dangerous by the proto-orthodox Christian church.
- A late date of the composition (which often accompanies assertions of pseudepigraphal attribution).
The best explanation for this warning against those who said Jesus was not flesh and blood – i.e., historical – is what I’ve stated above: To wit, Jesus Christ was a mythical compilation increasingly historicized, not the other way around. These epistles are undoubtedly later and pseudepigraphical writings, reflecting what was happening during the second century, which, in reality, is when Christianity began to take shape, because it was not based on a historical person who lived during the previous century. The Johannine epistles with their “warnings” against the “anti-Christs” who say Christ had not come in the flesh serve as evidence of this early mythical origin of Christianity.
This “pure spirit” or “celestial being,” as some are calling it, turns out to be a typical solar hero or sun god in significant part, as the sun in antiquity possessed many of the same attributes as claimed of Jesus in the gospel tale.