Wikipedia on the Ebionites
The Saga Continues
About a year ago, I wrote an
article critical of the Wikipedia article on the Ebionites. I think
Wikipedia is a fascinating idea, and on many odd subjects I go right to
Wikipedia -- like bee-keeping, R-values, discrepancies between the movie
and book versions of The Da Vinci Code, that sort of thing.
However, on specialized topics, Wikipedia does less well, and in the
case of the Ebionites, it fails spectacularly.
I looked to see if theyíd improved anything since I wrote my first
article. I am sorry to say that not only has the article not gotten any
better, it has gone downhill significantly in the past year -- in fact disastrously so. I
am speaking of the version as of August 19, 2007, which
you can get to by clicking here, then going to "history,"
then clicking on one of the versions for August 19 (they're about the
I started by making a line-by-line commentary but soon gave up.
While there is some good material, there is also a lot of confused and
bizarre material, and you have to be an expert to sift out what is what
-- which exactly defeats the purpose of such an article. For anyone who wants to "improve" this article, I
have the following suggestion: delete it and start over.
Someone may say, "well, anyone can edit this article, why don't
you go in and correct it?" I did that several years ago,
spending countless hours editing it, sometimes for weeks at a
time. Almost everything has been edited out and replaced or
"enhanced" by confused or sometimes downright silly
Here is an overview of the main problems.
(1) Letís start with the sources. Sure, there are lots of references
cited, but the sources are obscure to begin with and are sometimes cited without
page numbers. (Primary sources are sometimes cited, in explicit
violation of Wikipedia's own standards.) There is one frequently cited reference cited here
which is in German. Another reference (to Klijn and Reinink) is
to a source which gives all the patristic references to the
Ebionites or other Jewish Christian groups. Get a grip, guys!
I'm pretty sure that more than one of these references are flat-out
wrong, but it's not worth my while to track it all down (especially
without the page numbers!).
Some of my remaining comments may seem dismissive, but the fact is
that the way the article is organized and the use of sources makes the
article impossible to check and impossible to establish exactly where
the controversies, if any, actually exist. The strength of an encyclopedia article
is that it can be easily checked. All I can do is indicate
the primary areas in which most of what they say is either flat out
wrong, or at best highly controversial.
(2) There is excessive attention paid to the "first century
Ebionites." Sure, the Ebionites may have existed (as
such, with that specific name) in the first century, and sure, I think
that even if they didn't, there were first-century groups (early Jewish
Christians) and even Jesus himself who were very much like the Ebionites
in some ways. But virtually all the scholarly discussion of the
Ebionites starts with
the second century -- since the earliest specific mention of the
Ebionites is from the late second century. Why are we even talking about
the first century, except to note that it is, uh, an area of
controversy? Everything they say about first century
Ebionites -- including the pompous assumption that first century
Ebionites are simply an historical fact -- should probably be eliminated
except for a general statement or two that the nature and existence of
such first century Ebionites is disputed.
(3) There is excessive attention paid to the significance of the term
"the poor." All that we actually know about the significance
of this term can be summarized in a sentence or two.
(4) There is excessive attention paid to the Essenes. It is doubtful
that there is any direct relationship at all between the Essenes
and the Ebionites, and this is not only my opinion but the opinion of
probably almost every scholar there is except Robert Eisenman.
While speculating on the motives and the ideas of the writers of this
Wikipedia article is pointless, I strongly suspect that most of the
statements here concerning Ebionites and Essenes constitute either (a)
original "research" by the Wikipedia authors, or (b) reliance
on one respectable but off-beat scholar, Robert Eisenman.
There is great
confusion and controversy, even among scholars, about who the Essenes
were; to throw material about the Essenes haphazardly in with equally
haphazardly cited information on the Ebionites lends a grotesque,
surrealistic air to the proceedings.
(5) No one seems to even be aware that the pseudo-Clementine
literature even exists. The Recognitions and Homilies
are actually mentioned in passing in a section which I (in a moment of
weakness) wrote for the Wikipedia article, several years ago (maybe they
forgot to delete it!). But all of the actual discussion of the Ebionites,
which goes on in agonizing detail, proceeds as if the pseudo-Clementine
literature did not exist. This literature is the most lengthy and
detailed source we have giving information about Jewish Christianity, by
scholarly consensus (going back to the nineteenth century) most likely
of Ebionite origin. There are plenty of secondary sources that provide
abundant commentary on this literature and its relationship to the
Ebionites, most notably Hans-Joachim Schoeps. Use it.
(6) There is no sense of proportion among the various theories.
Off-the-wall theories proposed by this obscure scholar or the other are
discussed at length, with pretentious ponderousness.
(7) There is seemingly little awareness among the overall editors
(the true Wikipedia people who have no particular axe to grind about the
Ebionites) that there is stunningly little modern scholarly material on
the Ebionites at all. They allow themselves to be dragged this way or
that by references that almost no one can check which seem to validate
the point being made. I think they are assuming that the various
people giving input on the article will provide a check on each other,
when in fact they are being carried along by tenacious
(8) I think many of the statements alleging agreement between James
Tabor and Robert Eisenman, as if they form a single point of view, are
seriously overstretched if not downright wrong, but it's not worth it to
go back and prove otherwise (since they don't cite page
(9) The only time I am mentioned, incidentally, is in a sentence in which
I am alleged to have found (with various others) a connection between
the Essenes and the Ebionites. This is false and illustrates
the sort of slip-shod material with which we are dealing. Nowhere do I
allege a direct connection between the Essenes and the Ebionites. What I
allege is a possible connection between the Essenes and Jesus,
and then Jesus in turn obviously influenced the Ebionites, whom I put in
the second century. See The Lost Religion of Jesus, chapter
Some of what I have written above may seem dismissive.
Sorry. A badly written article is harder to check than a
well-written, but wrong article. I appreciate those who oppose my
views but write clearly. This article does have some
insights and correct statement here, but it's all a muddle with the good
and bad mixed in together.
How did it get to be this bad?
I think I know how this mess has arrived on the scene. In the
first place, this is a specialized topic. It is not a hot topic
among scholars, in fact, it is sometimes hard to get them interested, to
my great annoyance. So there is a narrow knowledge base, even
among unbiased experts with no axe to grind.
In the second place, it is an emotional topic for people who identify
with the Ebionites -- and I am one, so I know the pull directly.
People are looking for spiritual knowledge, and not finding it in
accepted religions. But the Ebionites have been latched onto by
several groups which are at ideological loggerheads.
My guess is
that a key destabilizing influence is that there is more than one person who has an active interest in the
"ideological direction" of this article, and these people
have likely had an undue influence on the article.
One such group (followers of Hyam Maccoby or Shemayah
Phillips, I'm not sure which) seems to be particularly active in the
editing process. They are a sincere group, and on some points I
actually agree with them. Their distinguishing
characteristic is that they donít like any intimation that
the Ebionites were not orthodox Jews. They ruthlessly denigrate any suggestions to this effect -- it all becomes controversial,
disputed, etc, while what they put forward emerges as the
consensus view of mainstream scholars. Interestingly, except for
Maccoby, this point of view does not really have any support in the
scholarly community. And Maccoby, who has now passed on, doesn't
really view this as a controversy and cites the evidence on the
Ebionites rather casually and selectively to prove his own point of
view, almost as an afterthought.
I think there may be other ideological groups involved as well, based
on the references to Robert Eisenman, the Essenes, and other subjects,
but it's hard for me to tell. The net result is that references
and random bizarre and difficult statements are strewn everywhere, like
broken glass in a run-down neighborhood, an open invitation to more
And whatís lost in the shuffle? Any reference to the relatively
less controversial body of knowledge surrounding the Ebionites from the
second century on. This is what the article should be
This article, I am sad to say, is now beyond redemption. Some of the
material is accurate. But you have to be an
expert to sort this out, and even for an expert it is going to be tough
going. If you actually want a quick overview of the Ebionites, check
out this short article I wrote a year ago. Itís not perfect, but
it is in English. Compare the two, and draw your own
August 20, 2007 (slightly revised August 24, 2007)