Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem and the Shapeshifting Jesus


There's a recent article with the following headline: Shape-Shifting Jesus Described in Ancient Egyptian Text. The report reads, in part:

A newly deciphered Egyptian text, dating back almost 1,200 years, tells part of the crucifixion story of Jesus with apocryphal plot twists, some of which have never been seen before.

Written in the Coptic language, the ancient text tells of Pontius Pilate, the judge who authorized Jesus' crucifixion, having dinner with Jesus before his crucifixion and offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus. It also explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus — because Jesus had the ability to change shape, according to the text — and it puts the day of the arrest of Jesus on Tuesday evening rather than Thursday evening, something that contravenes the Easter timeline.

Now what is this "Egyptian text" the article talks about? This is actually a Coptic homily written by an anonymous author claiming to be St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 313-386) - we'll call him pseudo-Cyril for short - entitled On the Life and the Passion of Christ, which was recently translated by Roelof van den Broek in his book Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem On the Life and the Passion of Christ: A Coptic Apocryphon. The text, which van den Broek dates to the 8th-9th century, survives in only two manuscripts (Pierpont Morgan Library M610 and the fragmentary Manuscript E16262 from the University of Pennsylvania).
MS M610, folio 1r, Homily delivered on Wednesday after Easter

The article explains:

The text is written in the name of St. Cyril of Jerusalem who lived during the fourth century. In the story Cyril tells the Easter story as part of a homily (a type of sermon). A number of texts in ancient times claim to be homilies by St. Cyril and they were probably not given by the saint in real life, van den Broek explained in his book.

Near the beginning of the text, Cyril, or the person writing in his name, claims that a book has been found in Jerusalem showing the writings of the apostles on the life and crucifixion of Jesus. "Listen to me, oh my honored children, and let me tell you something of what we found written in the house of Mary ..." reads part of the text.

Again, it's unlikely that such a book was found in real life. Van den Broek said that a claim like this would have been used by the writer "to enhance the credibility of the peculiar views and uncanonical facts he is about to present by ascribing them to an apostolic source," adding that examples of this plot device can be found "frequently" in Coptic literature.


Before we delve onto the text itself, let's do a little background on the whole shapeshifting Jesus thing first.

Some early Christians held the idea that Jesus could change His form at will, or at least that different people perceive Him differently. Origen, for instance (Against Celsus 2.64), believed that Jesus appeared to individuals differently according to their need or ability to understand Him. He appealed to certain details in Scripture which he thought supported the idea that Jesus could not always be recognized: Judas had to give a sign to those who came to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:48); though Jesus had always been preaching in the Temple, no one had arrested Him then (Matthew 26:5); and finally, Jesus was transformed before Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:2).

Although Jesus was only a single individual, He was nevertheless more things than one, according to the different standpoint from which He might be regarded; nor was He seen in the same way by all who beheld Him. Now, that He was more things than one, according to the varying point of view, is clear from this statement, I* am the way, and the truth, and the life*; and from this, I am the bread; and this, I am the door, and innumerable others. And that when seen He did not appear in like fashion to all those who saw Him, but according to their several ability to receive Him, will be clear to those who notice why, at the time when He was about to be transfigured on the high mountain, He did not admit all His apostles (to this sight), but only Peter, and James, and John, because they alone were capable of beholding His glory on that occasion, and of observing the glorified appearance of Moses and Elijah, and of listening to their conversation, and to the voice from the heavenly cloud. I am of opinion, too, that before He ascended the mountain where His disciples came to Him alone, and where He taught them the beatitudes, when He was somewhere in the lower part of the mountain, and when, as it became late, He healed those who were brought to Him, freeing them from all sickness and disease, He did not appear the same person to the sick, and to those who needed His healing aid, as to those who were able by reason of their strength to go up the mountain along with Him. Nay, even when He interpreted privately to His own disciples the parables which were delivered to the multitudes without, from whom the explanation was withheld, as they who heard them explained were endowed with higher organs of hearing than they who heard them without explanation, so was it altogether the same with the eyes of their soul, and, I think, also with those of their body. And the following statement shows that He had not always the same appearance, viz., that Judas, when about to betray Him, said to the multitudes who were setting out with him, as not being acquainted with Him, Whomsoever I shall kiss, the same is He. And I think that the Saviour Himself indicates the same thing by the words: I was daily with you, teaching in the temple, and you laid no hold on Me. Entertaining, then, such exalted views regarding Jesus, not only with respect to the Deity within, and which was hidden from the view of the multitude, but with respect to the transfiguration of His body, which took place when and to whom He would, we say, that before Jesus had put off the governments and powers, and while as yet He was not dead unto sin, all men were capable of seeing Him; but that, when He had put off the governments and powers, and had no longer anything which was capable of being seen by the multitude, all who had formerly seen Him were not now able to behold Him. And therefore, sparing them, He did not show Himself to all after His resurrection from the dead.

He was responding to the Platonist philosopher Celsus, who had claimed that if Jesus were truly divine, He would have looked different from other men: He would have looked handsome, but he (Celsus) had heard that Jesus was short and ugly. Origen countered that Celsus knew only Isaiah 53:2 ("without form or comeliness"), and proceeded to invoke Psalm 45:2 ("fairest among the sons of men"). For Origen, both passages are correct: Jesus' physical appearance has so many variations and is so capable of transformation, at one time possessing beauty, and at another time having an ignoble form. Thus He is both free and able to appear in different guises, including that of judge and mother, as we are free to envision Christ in these different ways. For Origen, the ability to assume another form was not limited to the incarnate or the resurrected Jesus: the Logos is polymorphous and transpersonal both prior to and after the incarnation and the resurrection. This changeability is a sign of Jesus' divinity, and is a mystery beyond mortal comprehension.


Oh my goodness. Where do you get this stuff?

The stuff you throw out sometimes feels like riding a rollercoaster.


[quote="InspiritCarol, post:3, topic:319677"]
Oh my goodness. Where do you get this stuff?

The stuff you throw out sometimes feels like riding a rollercoaster.


I was tipped off to this by an earlier thread. Incidentally, just a couple of days before that (I think) I had already found pseudo-Cyril as I was looking for citations about Jesus' appearance on yet another thread.


In another place (Commentary on Matthew, 12.36-37), Origen also writes:

Now after six days, according to Matthew and Mark, He takes with him Peter and James and John his brother, and leads them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them. Now, also, let it be granted, before the exposition that occurs to us in relation to these things, that this took place long ago, and according to the letter. But it seems to me, that those who are led up by Jesus into the high mountain, and are deemed worthy of beholding His transfiguration apart, are not without purpose led up six days after the discourses previously spoken. For since in six days— the perfect number— the whole world—this perfect work of art—was made, on this account I think that he who transcends all the things of the world by beholding no longer the things which are seen, for they are temporal, but already the things which not seen, and only the things which are not seen, because that they are eternal, is represented in the words, After six days Jesus took up with Him certain persons. If therefore any one of us wishes to be taken by Jesus, and led up by Him into the high mountain, and be deemed worthy of beholding His transfiguration apart, let him pass beyond the six days, because he no longer beholds the things which are seen, nor longer loves the world, nor the things in the world, (1 John 2:15) nor lusts after any worldly lust, which is the lust of bodies, and of the riches of the body, and of the glory which is after the flesh, and whatever things whose nature it is to distract and drag away the soul from the things which are better and diviner, and bring it down and fix it fast to the deceit of this age, in wealth and glory, and the rest of the lusts which are the foes of truth. For when he has passed through the six days, as we have said, he will keep a new Sabbath, rejoicing in the lofty mountain, because he sees Jesus transfigured before him; for the Word has different forms, as He appears to each as is expedient for the beholder, and is manifested to no one beyond the capacity of the beholder.

But you will ask if, when He was transfigured before those who were led up by Him into the lofty mountain, He appeared to them in the form of God, in which He formerly was, so that He had to those below the form of a servant, but to those who had followed Him after the six days to the lofty mountain, He had not that form, but the form of God. But hear these things, if you can, at the same time giving heed spiritually, that it is not said simply, He was transfigured, but with a certain necessary addition, which Matthew and Mark have recorded; for, according to both, He was transfigured before them. And according to this, indeed, you will say that it is possible for Jesus to be transfigured before some with this transfiguration, but before others at the same time not to be transfigured. But if you wish to see the transfiguration of Jesus before those who went up into the lofty mountain apart long with Him, behold with me the Jesus in the Gospels, as more simply apprehended, and as one might say, known according to the flesh, by those who do not go up, through works and words which are uplifting, to the lofty mountain of wisdom, but known no longer after the flesh, but known in His divinity by means of all the Gospels, and beholden in the form of God according to their knowledge; for before them is Jesus transfigured, and not to any one of those below. But when He is transfigured, His face also shines as the sun, that He may be manifested to the children of light, who have put off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light, (Romans 13:12) and are no longer the children of darkness or night, but have become the sons of day, and walk honestly as in the day; and being manifested, He will shine unto them not simply as the sun, but as demonstrated to be the sun of righteousness.


Origen had this view that the Incarnation was God’s way of adapting to the level of our human capacities. He saw the “flesh” of Christ as belonging to the world of sensory perceptions and therefore assigns it to the realm of “shadows” and images, as opposed to the ‘truth’ (Commentary on John 2.4). This explains why he held the view that people who look at Jesus see Him differently depending on their ability to recognize Him.

Now the Lord Jehovah, according to Moses, is Faithful and True. He is true also in respect of His relation to shadow, type, and image; for such is the Word who is in the opened heaven, for He is not on earth as He is in heaven; on earth He is made flesh and speaks through shadow, type, and image. The multitude, therefore, of those who are reputed to believe are disciples of the shadow of the Word, not of the true Word of God which is in the opened heaven. Hence Jeremiah says, “The Spirit of our face is Christ the Lord, of whom we said, In His shadow shall we live among the nations.”

A side effect of this thinking is the rather disturbing implication that the events in Jesus’ life would mean nothing more than representation of the first and most elementary step of initiation, of induction. This becomes even more disturbing if it considers the suffering of Christ as merely the lowest level of this initiation process, whose highest level would be the Transfiguration and Resurrection. For Origen, those who see Jesus as only being “without form or comeliness” (Isaiah 53:2) - such as his opponent Celsus - are caught in their earthly mentality and are thus unable to climb to the mountain of Transfiguration. In fact, he sees the message of the Cross as a “somatic gospel” intended for those “in the flesh,” distinct from the “spiritual gospel” which the perfected could understand (Commentary on John 1.9):

We must, therefore, be Christians both somatically and spiritually, and where there is a call for the somatic (bodily) Gospel, in which a man says to those who are carnal that he knows nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, so we must do. But should we find those who are perfected in the spirit, and bear fruit in it, and are enamoured of the heavenly wisdom, these must be made to partake of that Word which, after it was made flesh, rose again to what it was in the beginning, with God.

This text portrays the Incarnation as a simple transition, after which the Logos returns to His “original state.” For Origen, the aim of our knowledge of Christ is to behold the Logos “uncovered,” without the wrapping of the flesh.

True to the tradition of the Alexandrian school, Origen thus understands John the Baptist’s statement that he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal strap (John 1:27) allegorically as meaning that the Logos, by becoming flesh, went into hiding, as it were, and “strapped” down. The task, therefore, is to loosen the thong in order to see the Word as He truly is (Commentary on John 6.19):

We must not, however, omit to ask how it comes that Luke and John give the speech without the phrase to stoop down. He, perhaps, who stoops down may be held to unloose in the sense which we have stated. On the other hand, it may be that one who fixes his eyes on the height of the exaltation of the Logos, may find the loosing of those shoes which when one is seeking them seem to be bound, so that He also looses those shoes which are separable from the Logos, and beholds the Logos divested of inferior things, as He is, the Son of God.

In this perspective, the body of Jesus is but “the earthly image” of the “higher reality,” that is, of the Word, which “appears to us in Jesus.” He thus leaves something of a distance between the man Jesus and the Logos. For Origen, Jesus is not entirely identical with the Word; He is its instrument; the Word uses the man Jesus in order to avoid working in its “naked divinity.” Jesus is the manifestation of the Logos, but is not Himself the substance of revelation. Believing in the preexistence of souls (a teaching which would plunge him into controversy after his death), Origen thought that one human soul in particular was destined for Jesus. This soul was like all of the others, but is exceptional in that it is attached to the Logos with fervent devotion and love - whereas other souls use their free will in wrong ways and thus fall away from the Logos to whom they are supposed to be attached. This was a complete union - as complete as when a lump of iron is plunged into a fire and becomes red-hot (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:17 “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him”). This unique soul, says Origen, became the meeting place of the infinite Logos and finite human nature.

While this somewhat does come dangerously close to Docetism, Origen (unlike Docetists) did believe that the body of Jesus was real. However, due to his emphasis on the Logos as the mediator between God and the created order, at the same time he thought that this physical body could also be altered at will and was more divine than other bodies.


Around the same time that Origen was writing, some Christian sects outside the fold of orthodoxy (what we would call ‘gnostic’) are using the same concept of a shapeshifting Jesus. Some gnostics applied the concept in almost the same way as Origen did, in that the initiates who have gnosis comprehended Jesus differently than non-initiates did. Others used the concept the opposite way that Origen did: as a way to emphasize how Jesus’ body was only a sort of mirage or illusion.

The Sethian Gospel of Judas (ca. late 2nd century), for instance, notes:

When Jesus appeared on earth, he performed signs and great wonders for the salvation of humanity. And since some walked in the path of righteousness while others walked in their transgressions, the twelve disciples were called. He began to speak with them about the otherworldly mysteries beyond the cosmos and what would take place hereafter. Now often he would not reveal himself to his disciples, but among them you would find him as a child.*

The work here seems to be drawing from the popular image of a puer senex, a child with the wisdom of an old man. The ‘wise child’ trope points to an otherworldly, divine origin for Jesus. Now, one should note the fact that the Gospel of Judas has negative portrayal of the disciplesvery (including, arguably, Judas - despite what National Geographic said). Apparently, the implication is that while Jesus appeared as a child in their midst, the disciples, due to their ignorance and blindness, did not perceive the presence of the divine revelation in Jesus. Like Origen’s opponent Celsus, they could not get past His outward appearance to perceive His essential nature.

This description prepares the reader for what will come: the exposure of the disciples’ inability to grasp Jesus’ identity or to understand His teaching. The reader, on the other hand, is able to find Him in their midst, even as a child. This serves to disturb the image the readers may have had of the disciples as authoritative guides (the author of GoJ, in effect, was attacking apostolic Christianity by casting dirt on the disciples: because the disciples were ignorant and faithless, unwittingly worshipping a lower god, whatever information they passed on was bogus, and following their teachings actually leads people astray), but it also constructs the readers as people who have superior insight.

  • The text at this point is unclear; some choose to translate the passage as “among them you would find him in their midst.”

One day he came in Judea to his disciples, and found them seated, gathered together, practicing godliness. When he [saw] his disciples gathered together, seated, giving thanks over the bread, [he] laughed. But the disciples said to him, “Teacher, why are you laughing at [our] thanksgiving? What have we done? It is what’s right.” He responded to them saying, “I’m not laughing at you. Nor are you doing this by your will; but rather it is by this that your god [will be] praised.”
They said, “Teacher, you …] are the son of our god.” Jesus said to them, “How do [you] know me? Indeed I say to you, no race of people among you will know me.”
When the disciples heard this, [they] began to get contentious and angry, and were blaspheming against him in their hearts. But when Jesus saw their foolishness, [he said] to them, “Why has confusion brought forth anger? Your god who is within you and [his stars] have become contentious with your souls. Let the [stable] one among you people bring forth the perfect human and stand before my face.”


There is a collection of narratives and traditions concerning the apostle John from the late 2nd century known as the Acts of John, considered to be one of the most significant of the apocryphal apostolic Acts. The interesting thing about it is a portion which was apparently interpolated at a later time into the narrative which is overtly docetic in content, which led to its eventual rejection (although certain portions of it, as well as ‘clean’, docetic-free versions continued to circulate for some time afterwards).

The beginning of the ‘docetic portion’ of the Acts of John (chapters 87-90) go thus:

… Now those who were present inquired about the cause, and were especially perplexed because Drusiana has said, “The Lord appeared to me in the tomb in the form of John and in that of a young man.” So since they were perplexed and in some ways not yet established in the faith, John took it patiently and said,

“Men and brethren, you have experienced nothing strange or incredible in your perception of the , since even we whom he chose to be his apostles have suffered many temptations; and I cannot speak or write to you the things which I have seen and heard. Yet now I must adapt myself to your hearing and according to each man’s capacity I will communicate to you those things whereof you are able to become hearers, that you may see the glory that surrounds him that was and is both now and evermore.

“For when he had chosen Peter and Andrew, who were brothers, he came to me and to my brother James, saying, ‘I need you, come with me!’ And my brother said this to me, ‘John, what does he want, this child on the shore who called us?’ And I said, ‘Which child?’ And he answered me, ‘The one who is beckoning to us.’ And I said, “This is because of the long watch we kept at sea. You are not seeing straight, brother James. Do you not see the man standing there who is handsome, fair, and cheerful-looking?’ But he said to me, ‘I do not see that man, my brother. But let us go, and we will see what this means.’

“And when we had brought the boat to land we saw how he also helped us to beach the boat. And as we left the place, wishing to follow him, he appeared to me again as rather bald- but with a thick flowing beard, but to James as a young man whose beard was just beginning. So we wondered both of us about the meaning of the vision we had seen. Then as we both followed him we became gradually perplexed about this matter.

But then there appeared to me a yet more amazing sight; I tried to see him as he was, and I never saw his eyes closing, but always open. But he sometimes appeared to me as a small man with no good looks, and then again as looking up to heaven. And he had another strange (property); when I reclined at table he would take me to his own breast, and I held him (fast); and sometimes his breast felt to me smooth and soft, but sometimes hard like rock, so that I was perplexed in my (mind) and said, ‘Why do I find it so?’ And as I thought about it, he…”

“Another time he took me and James and Peter to the mountain where he used to pray, and we saw him a light such that a man, who uses mortal speech, cannot describe what it was like. Again he took us three likewise up the mountain, saying, ‘Come with me.’ And again we went; and we saw him at a distance praying. Then I, since he loved me, went quietly up to him, as if he could not see, and stood looking at his hinder parts; and I saw him not dressed in clothes at all, but stripped of those we (usually) saw (upon him), and not like a man at all. (And I saw that) his feet were whiter than snow, so that the ground there was lit up by his feet; and that his head stretched up to heaven, so that I was afraid and cried out; and he, turning about, appeared as a small man and caught hold of my beard and pulled it and said to me, ‘John, do not be faithless, but believing, and not inquisitive.’ And I said to him, ‘Why, Lord, what have I done?’ But I tell you, my brethren, that I suffered such pain for thirty days in the place where he touched my beard, that I said to him, ‘Lord, if your playful tug has caused such pain, what (would it be) if you had dealt me a blow?’ And he said to me, ‘Let it be your concern from now on not to tempt him that cannot be tempted.’”

Some have suggested that the differing forms of Jesus here could be interpreted as reflecting the growing spiritual maturity of John (a la Origen): as John learns more, he increasingly sees an older Jesus, although such an identification is problematic given the instantaneous shift in appearances during the Transfiguration scene. From that point of view, John’s faith could be seen as being unstable. It is probably more likely that the author presents an ephemeral Jesus, whose body is really only a mirage, appearing at the same time to different people in different forms. This immateriality is emphasized by John’s recounting how Jesus’ eyes never closed, how His breast felt differently at different times, and later (not in the above quote), how He levitated off the ground, such that He left no footprints when He walked (chapter 93).


The docetic tone of this part of the Act of John becomes much more overt (chapters 97-99, 101-102):

After the Lord had so danced with us, my beloved, he went out. And we were like men amazed or fast asleep, and we fled this way and that. And so I saw him suffer, and did not wait by his suffering, but fled to the Mount of Olives and wept at what had come to pass. And when he was hung (upon the Cross) on Friday, at the sixth hour of the day there came a darkness over the whole earth. And my Lord stood in the middle of the cave and gave light to it and said, “John, for the people below in Jerusalem I am being crucified and pierced with lances and reeds, and given vinegar and gall to drink. But to you I am speaking, and listen to what I speak. I put into your mind to come up to this mountain so that you may hear what a disciple should learn from his teacher and a man from God.”

And when he had said this he showed me a Cross of Light firmly fixed, and around the Cross a great crowd, which had no single form; and in it (the Cross) was one form and the same likeness. And I saw the Lord himself above the Cross, having no shape but only a kind of voice; yet not that voice which we knew, but one that was sweet and gentle and truly (the voice) of God, which said to me, “John, there must (be) one man (to) hear these things from me; for I need one who is ready to bear. This Cross of Light is sometimes called Logos by me for your sakes, sometimes mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes a door, sometimes a way, sometimes bread, sometimes seed, sometimes resurrection, sometimes Son, sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes life, sometimes truth, sometimes faith, sometimes grace; and so (it is called) for men’s sake.

“But what it truly is, as known in itself and spoken to us, (is this): it is the distinction of all things, and the strong uplifting of what is firmly fixed out of what is unstable, and the harmony of wisdom, being wisdom in harmony (?). there are on the right and on the left, powers, authorities, principalities and the demons, activities, threatening, passions, devils, Satan and the inferior root from which the nature of transient things proceeded.

“This Cross then (is that) which has united all things by the word and which has separated off what is transitory and inferior, which has also compacted all things into . But this is not that wooden Cross which you shall see when you go down from here; nor am I the (man) who is on the Cross, (I) whom you now do not see but only hear (my) voice. I was taken to be what I am not, I who am not what for many others I was; but what they will say of me is mean and unworthy of me. Since then the place of (my?) rest is neither (to be) seen nor told, much more shall I, the Lord of this (place), be neither seen .

…] “So then I suffered none of those things which they will say of me; even that suffering which I showed to you and to the rest in my dance, I will that it be called a mystery. For what you are, that I have shown you, (as) you see; but what I am is known to me alone, and no one else. Let me have what is mine; what is yours you must see through me; but me you must see truly—not I am, (as) I said, but that which you, as (my) kinsman, are able to know. You hear that I suffered, yet I suffered not; and that I suffered not, yet I did suffer; and that I was pierced, yet I was not wounded; that I was hanged, yet I was not hanged; that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow; and, in a word, that what they say of me, I did not endure, but what they do not say, those things I did suffer. Now what these are, I secretly show you; for I know that you will understand. You must know me, then, as the torment of the Logos, the piercing of the Logos, the blood of the Logos, the wounding of the Logos, the fastening of the Logos, the death of the Logos. And so I speak, discarding the man(hood). The first then (that) you must know (is) the Logos; then you shall know the Lord, and thirdly the man, and what he has suffered.”

When he had said these things to me, and others which I know not how to say as he wills, he was taken up, without any of the multitude seeing him. And going I laughed at them all, since he had told me what they had said about him; and I held this one thing fast in my (mind), that the Lord had performed everything as a symbol and a dispensation for the conversion and salvation of man.


Yet another gnostic work showing a shapeshifting Jesus is the 2nd century Apocryphon of John, which is also a Sethian text like the Gospel of Judas:

And it happened one day, when John, the brother of James - who are the sons of Zebedee - had come up to the temple, that a Pharisee named Arimanius approached him and said to him, "Where is your master whom you followed?" And he said to him, "He has gone to the place from which he came." The Pharisee said to him, "With deception did this Nazarene deceive you (pl.), and he filled your ears with lies, and closed your hearts (and) turned you from the traditions of your fathers."

When I, John, heard these things I turned away from the temple to a desert place. And I grieved greatly in my heart, saying, "How then was the savior appointed, and why was he sent into the world by his Father, and who is his Father who sent him, and of what sort is that aeon to which we shall go? For what did he mean when he said to us, 'This aeon to which you will go is of the type of the imperishable aeon, but he did not teach us concerning the latter, of what sort it is."

*Straightway, while I was contemplating these things, behold, the heavens opened and the whole creation which is below heaven shone, and the world was shaken. I was afraid, and behold I saw in the light a youth who stood by me. While I looked at him, he became like an old man. And he changed his likeness (again), becoming like a servant. There was not a plurality before me, but there was a likeness with multiple forms in the light, and the likenesses appeared through each other, and the likeness had three forms. *

He said to me, "John, John, why do you doubt, or why are you afraid? You are not unfamiliar with this image, are you? - that is, do not be timid! - I am the one who is with you (pl.) always. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son. I am the undefiled and incorruptible one. Now I have come to teach you what is and what was and what will come to pass, that you may know the things which are not revealed and those which are revealed, and to teach you concerning the unwavering race of the perfect Man. Now, therefore, lift up your face, that you may receive the things that I shall teach you today, and may tell them to your fellow spirits who are from the unwavering race of the perfect Man."

Visionary experiences of variable imagery were given a mythological explanation in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (3rd century), which shows an affinity to Basilidean gnosticism and the docetism expressed in the Acts of John.

For Adonaios knows me because of hope. And I was in the mouths of lions. And the plan which they devised about me to release their Error and their senselessness - I did not succumb to them as they had planned. But I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the 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 all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.

And I subjected all their powers. For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled. And I was speaking with them, mingling with them through those who are mine, and trampling on those who are harsh to them with zeal, and quenching the flame. And I was doing all these things because of my desire to accomplish what I desired by the will of the Father above.

The text presents the archons (the creators and rulers of the material world) as being engaged in a war against the true God. One particular power came out of "the house of the Father of Truth" and descended into "a bodily dwelling" as Jesus' soul. The shapeshifting aspect here is presented as an act of stealth by this divine spirit: it altered its shape, assuming the likeness of the beings encountered along the way so that its passage goes unnoticed by the archons, and the power remains undefiled by the descent. Because Jesus' soul remained uncorrupted by its descent, it meant that the archons who control this world have no claim or hold over it unlike other souls, and could freely ascend back to the Father beyond the universe.


That's some interesting information. I always enjoyed studying the gnostic writings. Neat images you found, too. :thumbsup:


The archons of course could not recognize the descent of this divine spirit, although they are aware that something is up. They are disturbed when this power incarnates and exchanges places with the original soul. In the ensuing chaos, the archons are at a loss about what trick the Father above was up to and appear confused about what action, if any, they should take. One of them, Adonaios, suggests seizing Jesus, while the others are adamant that the Father's plan will not work. In the end, the archons decided to act before the divine plan could be implemented completely and hastily crucified Jesus, but this act proves to be their downfall, because Jesus' spirit, being incorruptible and without error, did not succumb to them and die like the others. In fact, while they thought they were hurting Jesus, in reality they were actually dealing injury to themselves. At Jesus' death, the divine spirit leaves its bodily shell ("their [the archons'] man"), and rejoices "in the height" over the ignorance and error of the archons. As Jesus' spirit escapes the material universe and goes back to the Father, it brings with it the souls of the dead (cf. Matthew 27:52-53), who thanks to Jesus' spirit, were now free from the archons' tyranny and could now ascend to the world above.

We are back to slightly more familiar territory in another gnostic work from the 3rd century (this time a Valentinian text) known as the Gospel of Philip, which understands the shapeshifting trope the same way as Origen did: Jesus appears to different beings in a form comprehensible to each.

Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which they would be able to see him. He appeared to them all. He appeared to the great as great. He appeared to the small as small. He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this, his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking that they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mount, he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciples great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness.


You’re welcome! :slight_smile:

The final text we’ll look to before actually looking at pseudo-Cyril itself is another apostolic Acts, the late 2nd century Acts of Peter. Unlike the Acts of John (upon which this work seems to be based on) and its docetic section, the Acts of Peter is in more orthodox territory.

And Peter went into the dining-room and saw that the gospel was being read. So he rolled up (the book) and said, ‘You men who believe and hope in Christ, you must know how the holy scriptures of our Lord should be declared. What we have written by his grace, so far as we were able, although it seems weak to you as yet, yet (we have written) according to our powers, so far as it is endurable to be implanted in human flesh. We should therefore first learn to know the will of God, or (his) goodness; for when error was in full flood and many thousands of men were plunging to destruction, the Lord in his mercy was moved to show himself in another shape and to be seen in the form of a man, on whom neither the Jews nor we were worthy to be enlightened. For each one of us saw (him) as he was able, as he had power to see.

‘And now will I explain to you what has just been read to you. Our Lord, wished me to see his majesty in the holy mountain; but when I with the sons of Zebedee saw the brilliance of his light, I fell as one dead, and closed my eyes and heard his voice, such as I cannot describe, and thought that I had been blinded by his radiance. And recovering my breath a little I said to myself, “Perhaps my Lord willed to bring me here to deprieve me of my sight.” And I said, “If this be you will, Lord, I do not gainsay it.” And he gave me his hand and lifted me up. And when I stood up I saw him in such a form as I was able to take in.

‘So, my dearest brethren, as God as merciful, he has borne our weaknesses and carried our sins, as the prophet says, “He beareth our sins and is afflicted for us; yet we thought him to be afflicted and stricken with wounds.” For “he is in the Father and the Father in him”; he also is himself the fullness of all majesty, who has shown us all his goodness. He ate and drank for our sakes, though himself without hunger or thirst; he bore and suffered reproaches for our sakes; he died and rose again because of us. He who defended me also when I sinned and strengthened me with his greatness, will also comfort you that you may love him, this (God) who is both great and little, beautiful and ugly, young and old, appearing in time and yet in eternity wholly invisible; whom no human hand has grasped, yet is held by his servants, whom no flesh has seen, yet now he is seen; who no hearing has found yet now he is known as the word that is heard; whom no suffering can reach, yet now is (chastened) as we are; who was never chastened, yet now is chastened; who is before the world, yet now is comprehended in time; the beginning greater than all princedom, yet now delivered to the princes; beauteous, yet appearing among us as poor and ugly, yet foreseeing; this Jesus you have, brethren, the door, the light, the way, the bread, the water, the life, the resurrection, the refreshment, the pearl, the treasure, the seed, the abundance, the mustard-seed, the vine, the plough, the grace, the faith, the word: He is all things, and there is no other greater than he. To him be praise for ever and ever. Amen.’

Contrary to the Acts of John, the Acts of Peter is at pains to emphasize that Jesus’ physical body is real, and that Jesus really suffered and died for our sakes. Again, as in Origen’s idea, here each of the disciples perceive Jesus “as he was able, as he had power to see.”

As an aside, you might note the strange comment about Jesus “[eating] and [drinking] for our sakes, though himself without hunger or thirst.” This ties in with the belief espoused by the contemporaneous Clement of Alexandria (who, as his name implies, is of the same place of origin and school of thought as Origen ;)) that Jesus’ body was incapable of feeling any pleasure or pain. In fact, He never really needed to eat, but He did so anyway in order to keep appearances. Again, this ‘over-spiritualization’ of Jesus (note that Clement also compares the Incarnation to a dream or to a putting on of clothes; Stromata 5.105.4; 5.40.2-3) does seem to veer into docetic territory, but note that Clement argues that Jesus ate precisely so that people would not fall into docetism (Stromata 6.9).

The Gnostic is such, that he is subject only to the affections that exist for the maintenance of the body, such as hunger, thirst, and the like. But in the case of the Saviour, it were ludicrous [to suppose] that the body, as a body, demanded the necessary aids in order to its duration. For He ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with Him to entertain a different opinion of Him; in like manner as certainly some afterwards supposed that He appeared in a phantasmal shape. But He was entirely impassible; inaccessible to any movement of feeling— either pleasure or pain.


Now, go to to the Homily itself. In pseudo-Cyril, when Judas goes to the chief priests to sell information about Jesus, they say to him:

“How shall we arrest him, for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes? Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat-coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes an old man, sometimes his hair is straight and black, sometimes it is curled, sometimes he is tall, sometimes he is short. In one word, we have never seen him in one and the same appearance.”

Judas answered and said to the chief priests: “Come, pay me the rest of the money and I shall tell you everything. For you know that except for this man’s friend nobody is able to deliver him up to affliction, because no stranger knows his manner of life.” Then the Jews paid him the rest of the money and he told them the way he would deliver him to them, and he said: “Jesus will make preparations to eat the unleavened bread, too, like all of the people, and it is for this reason that he has come to the city. Therefore, prepare good weapons, for there are some among his disciples who are outstanding warriors, and prepare good torches. Since you said to me: ‘We have never seen him in a single shape,’ this is the sign which I shall give to those who will follow me: He whom I shall kiss on his mouth and embrace and to whom I shall say: ‘Hail rabbi!’ he is your man. Arrest him!” As he, then, had said this to the Jews, he took the rest of the money, went to his home and gave it to his wicked wife. He said to her: “Behold, the total of the price of my master!” Then she was very pleased and said to him: “Excellent that you came home today with a better result than on all (other) days. In truth, when you listen to me, I shall make you deliver Mary too, and Peter and John, and then all the apostles.”

Pseudo-Cyril shows an agreement with Origen here: Judas had to identify Jesus to the arrest party because He does not always appear the same to people.

I find the comment about Jesus’ hair sometimes being “straight and black” and at other times being “curled” particularly interesting due to the fact that in early iconography, Jesus could be shown as being either. Before the iconography of Christ became fixed, artists often did not agree on how to portray Him: some showed Him as a clean-shaven young man, others showed Him as having a close-cropped, curly hair and a short beard, while still others showed Him with long, flowing hair. It was only later that the third type (now with a full beard becoming mandatory) became the standard way of depicting Jesus.

The Semitic-looking Jesus with short, frizzy hair (which somewhat appropriately enough, could be traced to Syria and Palestine) was the main competitor for the depiction of Christ with long hair during the early Byzantine period. An early 6th-century Byzantine historian, Theodorus Lector, reports an anecdote from the time when St. Gennadius was patriarch of Constantinople (458-471), wherein he opines that the earlier depiction was “the more authentic.”

At the time of Gennadius was withered the hand of a painter who dared to pain the Saviour in the likeness of Zeus. Gennadius healed him by means of a prayer. The author [Theodorus Lector] says that the other form of Christ, viz. the one with short, frizzy hair, is the more authentic.

Theodore the historian of Constantinople, from his History of the Church, about Gennadius, archbishop of Constantinople:

[INDENT]I shall set down other things about him full of amazement. A certain painter, while painting an icon of Christ our Master, found that his hand shriveled up. And it was said that, as the work of the icon had been ordered by a certain pagan, in the adornment of the name of the Savior he had depicted his hair divided on his forehead, so that his eyes were not covered—for in such a way the children of the pagans depict Zeus—so that those who saw it would think that they were assigning veneration to the Savior.

  • Theodorus Lector as quoted by St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images (720s-30s), Treatise 3, 130[/INDENT]

The baptism of Christ from the canon tables of the Rabula Gospels (AD 586).
Note Jesus’ short hair compared with John the Baptist’s flowing locks.
Christ enthroned with four monks, from the same. Again, take note of the hair.
The crucifixion, from the same. Now notice that Jesus’ hair has become long and dark.
A group of Florentine scholars led by Massimo Bernabò of the University of Cremona had recently argued based on UV analysis that most of the miniatures were actually extensively repainted at a later time to ‘standardize’ the original depictions.

Despite Theodore’s opinions however, the long-haired Christ eventually won out over the ‘Syrian’ Jesus. There was a notable exception though: in his first reign (685-95), then Byzantine emperor Justinian II introduced a radical change in the gold coinage of the empire: the head of the reigning emperor was removed from the obverse (front) to the reverse (back) to allow a portrait bust of Christ to be displayed. What Justinian portrayed back then on his coins was the long-haired version. Around 695, he was deposed in a popular uprising (during which he lost his nose), only returning to the throne in 705 with the help of a Bulgar and Slav army. Somewhat mysteriously, by the time of his second reign, Justinian preferred the image of the frizzy, Syrian Christ.

While Justinian again fell from power in 711 (with his death marking the end of the Heraclian Dynasty), Christ disappeared once again from the currency. The act however had an effect in society as a whole: the depiction of Jesus on coinage is said to be one of the reasons the Iconoclast controversy started. The image of Jesus would only make a true comeback on Byzantine coins by the 9th century, after the whole fiasco had died down, and even then, He is now portrayed as the long-haired, heavily-bearded man of standard iconography.


Another homily also attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Homily on the Resurrection and the Passion) makes the same explanation as our text to why Judas was needed:

He had given them a sign, saying: ‘The one whom I shall embrace and kiss is your man.’ He, then, said this because they did not know him. For sometimes he is white, but another time he has the colour of wheat, sometimes he is a young man, another time he is a man of advanced age, sometimes his hair is curly, another time it is long, sometimes he speaks, another time he is silent, in short, he never permitted them to know him.

We’ll deal with the “color of wheat” feature later on. For now, let’s continue.

Pseudo-Cyril is no docetic: he understands Jesus’ suffering and death as being real. On the other hand, he emphasizes that this suffering man is actually God. This view of the “suffering God,” in itself an expression of popular ‘monophysitism’ (or more accurately, miaphysitism) allowed the author to insert some elements of a seemingly docetic character which in fact served to show the divine nature of Jesus.

Immediately after Judas’ wife congratulates Judas on his betraying Jesus, the scene abruptly shifts to Jesus and the other disciples (77-79).

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Oh my brethren, in truth, there is something in my heart which I want to tell you. But come, let me assure you that I am able to escape from everything which is about to befall me; and I know the things that will happen before they do happen. Arise, and let us pray to my Father.”

When we, then, prayed, the whole mountain shook beneath us. We were afraid and looked and saw the Saviour like a column of fire, and his feet were with us on the mountain, but his head reached to the sky, and he was entirely on fire. And we were like the dead, our whole body trembled and we did not know what happened. Afterwards the Saviour raised all of us, who were like the dead, and we saw him in the shape of his humanity, whereas his invisibility, which actually is his divinity, was hidden within him. Then our Saviour released us from our fear and spoke with us about what would happen to us and about how we would preach.

Again he began to be grieved and to be gloomy of heart and he said to them: “I have longed with desire to eat this passover with you before I die. Oh my brethren, I bid you farewell, for yet a little while I am with you and yet a little while you see me; yet a little while until you are grieved and weep, and again a little while until you laugh. For as to me, I am a stranger to this world, I have come to those who are mine, who are in the world until I redeem them.”

The thing about the scene is how it is crudely grafted into the narrative. The story, which until then has been told from the perspective of an uninvolved narrator, briefly switches into the first person plural, being told from the perspective of the disciples. While up to now Jesus and the disciples are said to be still in Jerusalem, the scene suddenly switches to an (unnamed) mountain (it couldn’t have been the Mount of Olives, since Jesus and the disciples have yet to leave for the Kidron brook in the narrative). This apocryphal transfiguration story may derive from some gnostic writing, though this is by no means certain. In its original setting, the passage apparently described a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to the disciples: this is suggested by Jesus “[speaking] with [the disciples] about what would happen to [them] and about how [they] would preach.”


As it is, the passage shows some resemblance with certain episodes from apocryphal and gnostic works, some of which we've already quoted before:

“Another time he took me and James and Peter to the mountain where he used to pray, and we saw him a light such that a man, who uses mortal speech, cannot describe what it was like. Again he took us three likewise up the mountain, saying, ‘Come with me.’ And again we went; and we saw him at a distance praying. Then I, since he loved me, went quietly up to him, as if he could not see, and stood looking at his hinder parts; and I saw him not dressed in clothes at all, but stripped of those we (usually) saw (upon him), and not like a man at all. (And I saw that) his feet were whiter than snow, so that the ground there was lit up by his feet; and that his head stretched up to heaven, so that I was afraid and cried out; and he, turning about, appeared as a small man and caught hold of my beard and pulled it and said to me, ‘John, do not be faithless, but believing, and not inquisitive.’”

  • Acts of John

Straightway, while I was contemplating these things, behold, the heavens opened and the whole creation which is below heaven shone, and the world was shaken. I was afraid, and behold I saw in the light a youth who stood by me. While I looked at him, he became like an old man. And he changed his likeness (again), becoming like a servant. There was not a plurality before me, but there was a likeness with multiple forms in the light, and the likenesses appeared through each other, and the likeness had three forms.

  • The Apocryphon of John

After he rose from the dead, his twelve disciples and seven women continued to be his followers, and went to Galilee onto the mountain called "Divination and Joy". When they gathered together and were perplexed about the underlying reality of the universe and the plan, and the holy providence, and the power of the authorities, and about everything the Savior is doing with them in the secret of the holy plan, the Savior appeared - not in his previous form, but in the invisible spirit. And his likeness resembles a great angel of light. But his resemblance I must not describe. No mortal flesh could endure it, but only pure, perfect flesh, like that which he taught us about on the mountain called "Of the Olives" in Galilee.

  • The Sophia of Jesus Christ

When Philip had received these (words), and when he had read them, he went to Peter rejoicing with gladness. Then Peter gathered the others also. They went upon the mountain which is called "the (mount) olives," the place where they used to gather with the blessed Christ when he was in the body.

Then, when the apostles had come together, and had thrown themselves upon their knees, they prayed thus saying, "Father, Father, Father of the light, who possesses the incorruptions, hear us just as thou hast taken pleasure in thy holy child Jesus Christ. For he became for us an illuminator in the darkness. Yea hear us!"

And they prayed again another time, saying, "Son of life, Son of immortality, who is in the light, Son, Christ of immortality, our Redeemer, give us power, for they seek to kill us!"

Then a great light appeared so that the mountains shone from the sight of him who had appeared. And a voice called out to them saying, "Listen to my words that I may speak to you. Why are you asking me? I am Jesus Christ who am with you forever."

  • The Letter of Peter to Philip

It came to pass then, when the disciples were sitting together on the Mount of Olives, speaking of these words and rejoicing in great joy, and exulting exceedingly and saying one to another: "Blessed are we before all men who are on the earth, because the Saviour hath revealed this unto us, and we have received the Fulness and the total completion,"—they said this to one another, while Jesus sat a little removed from them.

And it came to pass then, on the fifteenth day of the moon in the month Tybi, which is the day on which the moon is full, on that day then, when the sun had come forth in his going, that there came forth behind him a great light-power shining most exceedingly, and there was no measure to the light conjoined with it. ...] And that light-power came down over Jesus and surrounded him entirely, while he was seated removed from his disciples, and he had shone most exceedingly, and there was no measure for the light which was on him.

And the disciples had not seen Jesus because of the great light in which he was, or which was about him; for their eyes were darkened because of the great light in which he was. But they saw only the light, which shot forth many light-rays. ...] —And when the disciples saw that light, they fell into great fear and great agitation.

But the disciples sat together in fear and were in exceedingly great agitation and were afraid because of the great earthquake which took place, and they wept together, saying: "What will then be? Peradventure the Saviour will destroy all regions?" Thus saying, they wept together.

While they then said this and wept together, then, on the ninth hour of the morrow, the heavens opened, and they saw Jesus descend, shining most exceedingly, and there was no measure for his light in which he was. For he shone more [radiantly] than at the hour when he had ascended to the heavens, so that men in the world cannot describe the light which was on him ...] And it came to pass then, when the disciples saw this, that they feared exceedingly, and were in agitation. Then Jesus, the compassionate and tender-hearted, when he saw his disciples, that they were in great agitation, spake with them, saying: "Take courage. It is I, be not afraid."

  • Pistis Sophia


Just a comment to bump this up. In contrast to most of the other sources we’ve looked at before, the shapeshifting Jesus element in Pseudo-Cyril mainly serves to show Jesus’ divinity, and to emphasize how Jesus entered the Passion willingly. Since He is God, Jesus could have chosen to escape or reveal His divinity to everyone, but He still chose to die for the sake of man, and to fulfill what was said by the prophets. This somewhat paradoxical idea of the “God who suffered” (in a Miaphysite sort of way) is crucial to the work.


we need to be very careful of texts that are found outside of the Bible. We know that many fake accounts were served up.
Jesus came as we are. That means he limited himself. Judas identified Jesus close up in the dark. Those who arrested Jesus may only have seen Jesus from afar or not at all.

God bless.


[quote="Steve_Jay, post:19, topic:319677"]
we need to be very careful of texts that are found outside of the Bible. We know that many fake accounts were served up.
Jesus came as we are. That means he limited himself. Judas identified Jesus close up in the dark. Those who arrested Jesus may only have seen Jesus from afar or not at all.

God bless.


Have you read what I said earlier about Origen? I know this idea sounds a bit hokey to us nowadays, but it was a possibility some early Christians took seriously. I should note the following: the Alexandrian school had traditionally approached the question from the divine angle, on how God could become a human, while the Antiochian school focused on the human angle, on how the man Jesus could be divine.

I kindly suggest you read the whole thread. I know it's very long, I'm sorry. But it's gonna get even longer. :blush:

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