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The Jesus Seminar Meets the Ebionites

Were the Ebionites a Legalistic Group?

The Jesus Seminar has finally noticed the Ebionites — in the form of Sakari Häkkinen’s article "The Ebionites," in the September/October 2005 issue of The Fourth R. Sakari Häkkinen’s article has a lot of good, solid information concerning the early Jewish Christians; in fact, I’d agree with about 95% of what he’s written. Because the Ebionites have been so long neglected by scholars, and because so much of his article is excellent, I’m a bit hesitant to criticize. He’s absolutely right about their commitment to poverty, their Christology, and their opposition to Paul.

The problem is, that what this article didn’t say about the Ebionites is of critical significance and substantially modifies — if it does not falsify — a key assertion he made. What he does not mention is that the Ebionites were vegetarian, that they objected to animal sacrifice (this is briefly alluded to in a sidebar, but not in the text of the article), that they rejected many of the Old Testament commands, and that there is a remarkable and extensive body of literature — The Recognitions of Clement and The Clementine Homilies — which bears the clear imprint of Jewish Christian ideas. All of this contradicts his assertion that the Ebionites were a conservative, law-observant Jewish sect. Häkkinen says: "They [the Ebionites] were conservative Jewish Christians. . . . The Ebionites criticized other Christians for ignoring the purity regulations of the Torah."

Certainly the Ebionites were Jewish Christian and in some sense "law-observant"; but they were not "conservative" in the sense of strictly observing the commands of the Old Testament as this article states, nor is their any record of their criticisms of other Christians for ignoring the purity regulations of the Torah. In this article I intend to defend my thesis by specifically giving a critique of what Häkkinen has to say, but the arguments could obviously be applied more generally to all who assert that the Ebionites were "legalistic."

Law-Observant Jewish Christians?

The idea of early Jewish Christians as a conservative group has a long history. It is present in Acts 15, where Paul has no little "dissension and debate" with some Jewish Christians who maintain that unless the gentiles in the movement (males, we presume) are circumcised, they cannot be saved. Such attention to Jewish ritual is, according to Acts, wisely rejected by James, Peter, and Paul. Acts never specifically applies their description of Jewish Christian legalists from the first century to the later Ebionites, who existed in second through fourth centuries. But this image of "legalists" is the one that most Christians and even most scholars carry unconsciously as the background information for all thinking about Jewish Christianity.

Häkkinen never invokes Acts in his article, but it is easy to see why many would accept his thesis as more or less self-evident: "It was not easy for Paul to communicate his vision of the gospel of Christ to Gentiles, because it meant the radical reinterpretation of many central points of Jewish tradition, for example Torah, circumcision, and the covenant between Yahweh and Israel." He then invokes Ireneaus in support: "According to Ireneaus, the Ebionites held fast to circumcision and observance of Torah and Jewish customs. Strict adherence to Judaism implies a conservative Jewish Christianity."

It is correct that the Ebionites were "law-observant," but only with an extremely important qualification: they did not consider the Old Testament or Pentateuch to be the law. They held that the Old Testament and the Pentateuch were shot through with falsifications. Thus, they were "law-observant" only in the sense that they observed their version of the law, which does not correspond at all with what the mainstream Judaism of the day observed. There were several categories of Old Testament texts which the Ebionites rejected: commands relating to animal sacrifice; commands to engage in warfare; and descriptions of God which were unworthy of God — that God lies, hardens hearts, and changes his mind. This is not rejection of an isolated passage or two, but a rethinking of the entire tradition.

Epiphanius says explicitly that the Ebionites rejected parts of the Pentateuch, especially that connected with meat-eating and animal sacrifice: "Nor do they accept Moses’ Pentateuch in its entirety; certain sayings they reject. When you say to them [here Epiphanius cites Old Testament passages favoring meat-eating and animal sacrifice] . . . then he [the Ebionite] will answer, ‘Christ has revealed this to me,’ and will blaspheme most of the legislation" (Panarion 30.18.7-9). The Ebionite view is underscored by the Ebionite gospel quoted by Epiphanius, where Jesus says, "I have come to destroy the sacrifices" (Panarion 30.16.5), and the Ebionite Jesus indignantly rejects eating meat at the Passover: "Have I desired meat with desire to eat this Passover with you?" (Panarion 30.22.4).

The Elchasaites, as well as the Ebionites, also reject some of the Pentateuch as false (Panarion 19.3.6), specifically the commands concerning animal sacrifice: "He [Elxai] bans burnt offerings and sacrifices as something foreign to God and never offered to him on the authority of the fathers and Law."

The Jewish Christians whom Epiphanius encounters, therefore, are hardly "Torah-observant" in the way that most ancient or modern people would think of that term. Any sect which rejects most of Leviticus outright can hardly be legalistic in its orientation. They did observe the law, but it is their own version of the law, a version which other Jews did not share. Epiphanius alludes in a single phrase to the similarities of the Ebionites with orthodox Jews: "Sabbath, circumcision, and all other Jewish and Samaritan observances" (Panarion 30.2.1); but then he spends a great deal of time explaining the highly significant differences between the Ebionite "law" and the orthodox Jewish "law." This should set off alarm bells in anyone’s mind who wants to consider objectively how "conservative" these Ebionites were.

Were Objections to Animal Sacrifice an Isolated Exception?

Was this objection to meat-eating and animal sacrifice perhaps an isolated instance of their rejection of the Jewish tradition, and they were conservative in other ways? Or was their rejection of animal sacrifice part of a thorough-going criticism of the entire tradition? There are several reasons why we should believe that, in fact, the Ebionite rejection of animal sacrifice was not an isolated exception to the "conservatism" of the Ebionites, which become evident when we consider the evidence of Epiphanius in connection with the pseudo-Clementine literature.

This raises the most significant omission in Häkkinen’s article: there is no mention of the pseudo-Clementine literature (most especially the Recognitions of Clement and the Clementine Homilies). These third-century works (found in volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers) are, by scholarly consensus going back to the nineteenth century, clearly related to the Ebionites. Hans-Joachim Schoeps, the most notable twentieth-century scholar on the Ebionites, assumes this, and F. Stanley Jones and Robert Van Voorst (two contemporary scholars) even get into a scholarly debate over whether the "Ascents of James" (a specific Ebionite document mentioned by Epiphanius) is embedded in the Recognitions — both assuming that the Recognitions 1 comes from a Jewish Christian source.

In the Recognitions and Homilies, Jewish Christianity speaks in its own voice, and at some length, rather than cryptically and briefly through the quotations and descriptions of hostile church fathers. Häkkinen may feel that the Recognitions and Homilies are not good sources on Jewish Christianity, but given the almost universal scholarly recognition of these as containing Jewish Christian ideas, we need at least some brief indication of why this is so.

The Recognitions of Clement and the Clementine Homilies show that there was a thorough-going Ebionite critique of their own (Jewish) tradition. Both the objections to animal sacrifice, and the objections to scripture, are echoed in the Recognitions and Homilies. Recognitions 1.54 describes Christ’s mission as to destroy the animal sacrifices; Homilies 2.38 says, "For the Scriptures have had joined to them many falsehoods against God on this account" (emphasis added); Homilies 3.45 declares that God never wanted animals to be killed by humans at all.

In Homilies 2, Peter (in summarizing the Ebionite view of the false texts in the Old Testament), gives a rather lengthy list of criticisms of the Old Testament — generally, that it pictures God as jealous, angry, lacking foreknowledge, as warlike, and as desiring animal sacrifice. The Ebionites reverenced Adam, specifically rejecting the idea that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden (Homilies 3.20), an idea which is confirmed by Epiphanius (Panarion 30.3.5). It is evident that their vegetarianism and rejection of animal sacrifice is not an isolated exception to an overall Jewish conservatism. It is part and parcel of a wholesale rejection of much of the Old Testament and reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition.

The Evidence of Epiphanius

Should we nevertheless disregard the evidence of Epiphanius, the Recognitions, and the Homilies, and maintain anyway that the Ebionites really were conservative and "law-observant" in the same way that orthodox Jews were? I will raise three types of questions, based on the evidence from Epiphanius, from Ireneaus, and from Paul (in reverse chronological order).

It may be said that the evidence of Epiphanius is not reliable. Häkkinen says, "It is not possible to construct a reliable description of the Ebionites from the data reported by Epiphanius, even though he is probably the only Father who had actually read Ebionite literature." With this statement he sweeps aside the views of a number of others, including Hans-Joachim Schoeps and myself, who evidently think that it is possible. What reasons does he give for this view? He gives two: (1) it is not possible to tell which Jewish Christian sources Epiphanius uses for particular passages, and (2) Epiphanius also uses the same sources when describing other sects. Neither of these objections is cogent.

If he is concerned about confusing such Ebionite texts as their Gospel, their Acts, the Journeys of Peter, and the Ascents of James with each other, this hardly matters. They are all Ebionite sources, and they all seem coherent with each other. The description of the Ebionites and their literature by Epiphanius, when laid against the Recognitions and Homilies, show a quite coherent set of views, some of which are acknowledged by Häkkinen as legitimate parts of Ebionism:

1. Vegetarianism,
2. Rejection of animal sacrifice,
3. Jesus is the true prophet,
4. Christ was in Adam, and appeared to the patriarchs,
5. Poverty is a virtue,
6. The Old Testament is filled with falsehood,
7. Rejection of Paul,
8. Abstinence from alcohol.

This is a remarkable congruity — much of this viewpoint is unique in all of early Christian literature, except in the pseudo-Clementine literature and Epiphanius’ description of the Ebionites. It seems impossible to resist the conclusion that this is a single Jewish Christian point of view here. This all seems pretty straightforward to me, and if anyone has a specific reason for doubting that the Ebionites held any of these views, I’d be interested in knowing why. At the very least, the question is arguable; and more likely, we can accept this description from Epiphanius as correct.

What about the use of the same sources for describing different sects? If Epiphanius also used the Gospel of the Ebionites as evidence on the Sethians (or whoever), this would be significant. But as long as all the sects described by the Jewish Christian sources are Jewish Christian, it’s hard to tell why this would matter. After all, the Jewish Christian groups were probably related to each other for a reason, and that reason might very well be that they held similar views. At most this might mean that we have a problem disentangling Jewish Christian groups from each other, but that we still have a pretty good idea of what Jewish Christianity was. Nowhere does Epiphanius try to use the Ebionite Acts or the Ebionite gospel to show something about the Marcionites, the Valentinians, or any of the many other heretical groups unrelated to Jewish Christianity.

There are two times when this confusion might matter. The first is in discussing the Book of Elxai. The Elchasaites really were something different from the Ebionites — in fact, one scholar (Gerard P. Luttikhuizen) questions whether they were not simply a Jewish sect (rather than a Jewish Christian sect). But the quotations from the book of Elxai seem to be pretty much separated out into Panarion 19. The quotations from the Ebionites in Panarion 30 nowhere seem to involve the book of Elxai, though Epiphanius does say that they accepted this book.

The second is when considering the Nazoraeans. According to Epiphanius, the Nazoraeans do not reject the law as do the Ebionites. However, except for this one fact, Epiphanius knows almost nothing about the Nazoraeans. He has not met them, has not read their gospel (Panarion 29.9.4), nor does he cite any of their literature; thus, there is no chance of Ebionite and Nazoraean literature being confused. Incidentally, Epiphanius also describes another similarly-named group, the Nasaraeans, who have straightforwardly "Ebionite" views: they are vegetarian, they reject animal sacrifice, they reject the false texts in the Old Testament. So Epiphanius may himself be confused about the Nazoraeans and Nasaraeans, but since he has not read any "Nazoraean" literature, their literature is not an issue.

Some of what Häkkinen says actually undercuts his statements dismissing Epiphanius. "The doctrines and practices of the Ebionites are most fully described by Epiphanius . . . he is probably the only Father who had actually read Ebionite literature." To this we should also mention that Epiphanius has not only read their literature, he has actually met some Ebionites and talked with them — conversations he describes in Panarion 30. Our conclusion should be, that Epiphanius is the single church Father who knows the most about the Ebionites; that there is a remarkable congruity between these Ebionites and the views in the Recognitions and Homilies; and that if we reject any of Epiphanius’ conclusions, we need some good reasons.

The Evidence of Ireneaus

Perhaps Ireneaus, as Häkkinen says, can be invoked in defense of the idea of the "conservative" Ebionites? This revolves around a single sentence, taken from Against Heresies 1.26: "As to the prophetical writings, they [the Ebionites] endeavor to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practice circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God." That’s it. One sentence, in a lengthy book which goes into all sorts of detail about numerous other "gnostic" sects.

What, specifically, does Ireneaus actually know about the Ebionites? He knows that they practice circumcision and they adore Jerusalem. Does the reference to "observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law," and "Judaic in their style of life," mean anything beyond that? I would be extremely skeptical about basing any grand theories about conservative Ebionites on a single sentence from a church father who doesn’t seem overly interested in the Ebionites in the first place. Does Ireneaus mean to deny that the Ebionites attacked animal sacrifice, for example? Or to deny that they thought there were falsehoods in the Old Testament? I seriously doubt it. In fact, Ireneaus tends to undercut the view of "conservative Ebionites" when he mentions that their exposition of the prophetical writings is written in "a somewhat singular manner." This indicates that Ireneaus was vaguely aware that the Ebionites were rather different in their approach to the Jewish law than other Jews, but that he doesn’t know precisely how.

Ireneaus is not attempting a detailed description of the Ebionites. He is obviously referring in very general way, and in passing, to the fact that the Ebionites exist at all — and to his very general impression of them. We can’t take the vague reference (in a single sentence in a lengthy book) to "observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law" is as solid evidence for the "conservatism" of the Ebionites. We can only take Ireneaus as evidence for the specific features he describes: circumcision, adoration of Jerusalem, and rejection of Paul.

The Evidence of Paul

What about the evidence of Paul? Doesn’t Paul, in his letters, give descriptions of Jewish Christians who are hung up about circumcision and exactly the kind of "conservatism" that the later Jewish Christians inherited? Isn’t this an ongoing dispute carried forward from apostolic times?

Paul does indeed give descriptions of Jewish Christians, including unflattering references to the leadership of the church, and (while I won’t argue the point here) it is quite correct that the Ebionites’ views reflect an ongoing dispute carried forward from apostolic times. However, it is not Paul who gives evidence for the conservatism of the Ebionites, but Paul as interpreted by Acts. Generations of Christians and scholars have filled in the empty spaces in Paul’s references to the law with reference to Acts. But Acts is quite unreliable in many respects, and we need to take anything in Acts not referenced by Paul as questionable, and anything in Acts contradicted by Paul as simply false.

The question of circumcision is an example. In Acts 15:1, circumcision is made a requirement by the Jewish Christians: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." But the letters of Paul, while they darkly refer to "the circumcision party," do not indicate that circumcision was the critical issue. Galatians 2:3 in fact indicates that it was not an issue at all — that the church leadership agreed, in fact, that circumcision was not required. The only time that the pseudo-Clementine literature refers to circumcision (Recognitions 5.34), it is to deny that circumcision is a requirement.

Neither the pseudo-Clementine literature, Paul, Epiphanius, or Ireneaus, indicates that the Jewish Christian leadership thought that circumcision was a requirement for salvation. They practiced circumcision, but did not require it, something made explicit at Galatians 2:3 and Recognitions 5.34. In fact, from Paul, it is not clear that there was even a minority of Jewish Christians who wanted to require circumcision, though the "false brethren secretly brought in" (Galatians 2:4) might be construed as such a faction.

When we look at what Paul does talk about, a very different picture emerges. Paul’s split with the Jewish Christian leadership (Galatians 2) comes over the refusal of Peter and James to share the same table with the gentiles; Paul elsewhere defends meat-eating and eating things offered to idols (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10). Paul is not arguing with legalistic Jewish Christians who want to observe the purity regulations and keep the kosher laws. He is talking with vegetarian Jewish Christians who are against the bloody sacrifices and come to regard even sharing a table with those who accept the vicious, immoral animal sacrifices (as the Ebionites clearly regarded this practice) as a compromise not worthy of a believer — as eating at the "table of demons," an idea explicitly discussed by both Paul and the Homilies (with different conclusions).

I believe that impartial examination of the evidence will force us to an even more radical conclusion: that Paul is arguing against the key elements of the apostolic creed (Acts 15:20, 29) in his letters. "Blood" and "things sacrificed to idols," for the Ebionites — as reflected in Homilies 7.4 and 7.8 — meant meat-eating and animals sacrificed on pagan altars. Paul argues against the necessity of abstaining from blood in Romans 14 ("the weak man eats only vegetables"), and against the necessity of abstaining from things sacrificed to idols in I Corinthians 8-10 ("eat anything in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience"). For the Ebionites, even the altar in Jerusalem (see Recognitions 1 and Stephen’s speech in Acts 7) is hardly better than the pagan altars to their gods in this respect. We may regard the Ebionite attack on animal sacrifice as a "conservative" view if we wish, but it is certainly conservative in a very different way than the picture which Acts draws of followers of the literal letter of the Old Testament.

Ritual Jewish Observance in Jewish Christianity

What about other Jewish observances?  The Ebionites observed the Sabbath, though according to Eusebius they also hedged their bets by observing Sunday, the Lord's Day, thus becoming the first people to formally observe what we know today as the "weekend."  

They may have observed some specific Jewish festivals -- although evidence for any specific Jewish festival seems to be absent.  It is unclear to what extent and in what way (if at all) they even observed the Passover -- an extremely interesting point, given their objections to animal sacrifice.  It is possible, of course, that the Lord's Supper (bread and a drink, according to the gospels and early tradition) was precisely this Passover observance, as the synoptic gospels assert.  In this case the Passover ritual has been so completely "cleansed" that it is hardly Jewish at all.  Gone is the lamb, gone is most of what Jews then or now would recognize as part of the Passover Seder. 

In fact, the only specific evidence that I can find for any other Jewish ritual ever being observed by Jewish Christians is a passing reference in Homilies 7.8 urging that we should " wash after intercourse; that the women on their part should keep the law of purification."  The Recognitions and Homilies do indicate that the Jewish Christians were very much concerned about other rituals: they repeatedly emphasized the need for baptism.  But this is a Christian ritual, and therefore proves Christian legalism, rather than Jewish legalism.  

The Ebionites also emphasized the need to avoid the "table of devils" -- any table at which meat or unbaptized meat-eaters are present, but this is less a ritual concern as it is a technique to avoid demon possession.  It is certainly not a ritual Jewish concern, since there is no Jewish ritual objection to meat as such.  Therefore, the objections to the table of devils is neither a Jewish objection nor a ritual objection.  

Moderns may view the idea of being possessed by demons due to the eating of meat to be quaint and superstitious.  I do not personally agree with the Ebionite point of view: though I am vegetarian, I eat with meat-eaters often.  But given the 2000 years of slander of the teachings of Jesus and bloodshed and violence against humans, animals, and the earth in his name, I think the idea of demon possession has more cogency than most moderns would recognize. 

Conclusions

Everyone has their own view of what "conservative" means, so describing the Ebionites as "conservative" is not a fundamental problem. But when it is given the connotation of strictly observing the texts of the Old Testament, this description is highly misleading if not simply wrong. Epiphanius, the Recognitions, and the Homilies, all indicate that the Ebionites actually intended to give a sweeping critique of the Old Testament and its laws: they didn’t like animal sacrifice, they didn’t like the advocacy of warfare, they didn’t like the depiction of Adam as a sinner, they didn’t like describing God as lying, changing his purposes, envious, and unjust. This is not just tweaking the Old Testament texts here and there. There is substantial, if not overwhelming, evidence for Ebionite unhappiness with the Old Testament, and we should not sweep this unhappiness aside in favor of scanty and vague references elsewhere from the church Fathers.

We cannot underestimate the influence of the book of Acts, probably written in the second century, on Christianity’s understanding of itself. Acts pictures "Jewish Christians" as bent on enforcing the minutiae of the Jewish law on gentile converts. The account in Acts has had a profound influence not only on Christian thinking, but on scholarly thinking as well. Acts is the implied background of most assumptions about a "conservative" Jewish Christianity. If we want to argue the historicity of Acts, then by all means let us bring forward the question of to what extent Acts is reliable as history and examine all the discrepancies between Acts and the letters of Paul. Once Acts is kept out of the picture, though, the evidence indicates that the Jewish Christianity was not "legalistic" at all, and in fact rejected both the Old Testament texts and the Jewish traditions in favor of the true prophet who revealed the true law — the law given by God at the creation (Homilies 8.10) — a law which declared an end to animal sacrifice and violence.

— Keith Akers