ShapeShifting-3This post originally appeared as part of Toy Adams’ Imaging Jesus Advent Series. Go check out the rest of the great submissions.

I’m not a huge fan of the gnostic Christian sects that existed in the early centuries–you know, the kind that were “silenced” by the rest of orthodox christianity. I say I’m not a fan largely because of the whole secret knowledge thing, and the gnostic emphasis on shunning the material world and embracing the spiritual one.

All that being said though, one gnostic depiction of Jesus that has always stuck with me is found in some ancient Coptic writings. It’s the notion that Jesus appeared to different people in different forms. That’s right. According to the gnostics, Jesus may have been a shape shifter. Here are some examples:

“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.” –Gospel of Philip 57:28-35 cf.

“Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him [Jesus], 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…”  –Gospel of St. Cyril of Jerusalem

So what’s going on here?

Well–among other things–I find these passages to be truly fascinating because they are, in fact, touching on some deep insights that have been explored in fields like social and evolutionary psychology.

Humans Beings are social animals. One of the ways we know this is because we cooperate and work well together to accomplish great things. However, there are times in life when we encounter people who “rub us the wrong way.” Because we feel these people maybe be resistant–or we perceive them as unwilling to work together–we essentially label them as threatening or not useful. To ease this, the tendency is to show sides of our personality that are more agreeable to the person/group in question. Interestingly, it was evolutionary godfather, Charles Darwin, who postulated that it was the feeling of sympathy, intensified by natural selection, that compelled a person to  have regard for the approval (and disapproval) of her peers, thus contributing to the evolution of conscience.

This theory certainly correlates with my experience, anyway. For example, when I go to work I become “Mr. Professional,” because I want to be taken seriously at my job, and I want to cooperate and work together with people to the best of my ability. But when I’m home playing with my two year old son, I turn into a large child who makes fart noises with my mouth in order elicit more and more of those intoxicating toddler laughs.

I’m both of these people–the fart guy and the serious guy. I want the admiration of my co-workers and my son. But if I constantly made fart noises at work, I would certainly be in danger of being labeled “not useful” or “uncooperative.”

This is how our society functions. We act differently towards certain friends, to our parents, spouses or significant others because they are always looking for that certain trait from us. We’re all shapeshifters in this sense. It reminds me a little bit of Mystique from the X-Men who, in the comics, takes advantage of this curious human characteristic by morphing into someone who is recognizable, friendly or familiar with the ultimate (and malicious) intent to manipulate and deceive her target.

So what’s the connection?

Integral Philosophers like Steve McIntosh talk about psycho-social evolution happening via a continual process of transcending current stages of development while, at the same time, including the essential parts of the stages that have come before. If we take seriously this and other psychological theories of human development, then we can begin to understand how certain stages of human development cannot be skipped. Children, for instance, usually need to follow rules, develop firm boundaries and see things in black-and-white during their early stages of life. Accordingly, it’s very difficult for one to skip entire stages of development, which could lead to serious regression.

What’s so interesting to me is that we see this very process happening in the narrative of scripture.

In the gnostic stories, Jesus is said to “not appear as he was, but in the manner in which [they would] be able to see him.” These stories are reminiscent of how some biblical scholars and theologians describe the God found in the canonical scriptures as one who “condescends.” In other words, the God of Israel is a God who meets God’s people where they are in order to help them transcend their current status. For example, to the warring tribes of ancient Israel, Yahweh looked very much like a supreme ancient Near Eastern war loving monarch king. It could be said that it was necessary for Yahweh to become that war god for this tribal people so that, over time, God could lure them to a place where they could, in effect, come to appreciate increased levels of extrinsic and intrinsic value.

So, during this time of Advent, while we wait, we may indeed ask: Who was Jesus? Even if we reject the gnostic shape shifting depictions, I think we can still say with confidence that Jesus was one who understood what it was like to be an “other.” And despite my reservations about the majority of gnostic philosophy, I do find real beauty in the idea that, in order to truly empathize with, be accepted by or “be seen” by the “other,” we must first have enough courage, self-knowledge, and self-acceptance, so that we can then, ultimately, become the other the way Jesus did.

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  1. jonathan perrodin December 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm


    This is so complicated because you have the hermeneutical shift, which is my interpreting of the other, but then you also have what might be called an ontological shift where we actually shift our being in response to the other.

    What’s interesting is Paul also called us to shift who we are for the sake of the gospel. Also he called for us to identify with a certain non-being which found it’s being in the other-as-Christ.

    It seems that most often we focus on one side of this coin, ignoring the other side. It’s about my interpretation or it’s about changing my identity, but they really need to be in conversation.

    Or maybe I’m just taking you thoughts slightly off the rails in a different direction.

    • Jesse Turri December 4, 2013 at 3:03 pm


      You’re right on the money there, Jonathan.

      I’m fascinated with this idea. We all know the stories. Ministers, Priests, Pastors whose churches are in rough, urban neighborhoods, becoming like the people they’re surrounded by. They talk different, they participate in the neighborhood customs, they eat and live the way their people do..same with missionaries. They become like the tribes they’re living with. Granted, ulterior evangelistic motives here can be unsettling, and rightly so. I guess it comes down to a question of value in the end.

      The postmodern tendency is to say there are no values, just customs. I’m grateful for the postmodernism revelation of value relativism, but that doesn’t mean we don’t put stakes in the ground (e.g. female circumcision = wrong). I think it is possible to appreciate greater levels of extrinsic, as well as intrinsic value.

      I do see God as a shapeshifter, being the thing we need her to be at the moment in order for us "to see her." Greg Boyd (not necessarily my favorite theologians) is working on a book attempting to reconcile the violent depictions of the OT God and the non-violent Jesus, and he seems to be going this direction too; the ontological shift, as you say.

      On top of that, it jives with my Evolutionary and Process perspectives quite nicely. Change is primary, but to avoid the mystic cop-out of emptying oneself into the whole–totally diminishing the individual–the individual, as I elude to at the end, must be extremely healthy, courageous, self-accepting (and dare I say "enlightened?") in order for this ontological type of empathy to occur.

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