St Serapion, who was Bishop of Antioch from A.D. 199 to 211, provides us with the earliest mention of ‘the Docetæ.’ ‘For I myself, when I came among you, imagined that all of you clung to the true faith; and, without going through the Gospel put forward by them in the name of Peter, I said: If this is the only thing that seemingly causes captious feelings among you, let it be read … But we, brethern, gathering to what kind of heresy Marcianus [the person, presumably, who started the 'captious feelings'] belonged … were enabled by others who studied this very Gospel, that is, by the Docetae … to go through it and discover that the most part indeed was in accordance with the true teaching of the Saviour, but that some things were added …’ (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI, xii, 4–6, J.E.L. Oulton, trans., Loeb Classical Library ed., 1932, II, 41–43.)
A fragment of the lost noncanonical ‘Gospel of Peter,’ to which St Serapion was referring, was discovered at Akhmîm in Egypt in 1886 and provides an example of what was added: ‘… they brought two malefactors, and crucified the Lord between them. But he kept silence, as one feeling no pain …’
‘Docetism’ comes from the Greek dokeô, ‘to seem.’ It was the belief that Christ’s sufferings were not real but only an appearance. It was the result of a tendency to distance the divinity from what is human, and more generally to regard what is human and material as unworthy. If Christ was God, then he could not have been a human being—he must merely have seemed to be a human being.
Although Docetism was never significant as an independent heresy, docetic tendencies appeared in other heresies, in particular Marcionism and Gnosticism. More generally, the asceticism that is appropriate to the Christian life has sometimes tempted otherwise orthodox Christians to view the created order with contempt, a temptation the Church has always striven to counteract.