About Shemayah Phillips and Ebionite.org
From time to time I get questions about a negative review of my book,
"The Lost Religion of Jesus," posted
on Amazon.com by Shemayah Phillips, as well as about his web site, Ebionite.org.
Phillips says that my book is terrible, suggests that the Ebionites were not
vegetarian, and that I’m advocating gnostic views!
Phillips' review is
cast as a response to the vegetarian issue: "Firstly, it is an
apologetic book for vegetarianism with a religious 'seal of approval'
applied . . . the author's previous loyalty to vegetarianism and
non-violence (not bad things in themselves which need no biblical
coercion) makes him jump at questionable sources identified as
'Jewish-Christian' which he lumps all together as 'ebionite.'"
What is going on here? Have I got the Ebionites completely wrong?
Were the Ebionites really vegetarian? (And, worse yet, am I really
"gnostic"? Are my parents reading this?)
I find polemics distressing and for several years I have just let
this review pass in silence. Someone (not necessarily Phillips, by the
way) then circulated this review by way of e-mail. I hope that this
response is not unnecessarily harsh, and my comments are intended just
to answer first, any historical questions that people may have about the
Ebionites, and second, to provoke those "Old Testament
Christians" (my designation) to think more closely about
vegetarianism and ethics. I’m thinking of the Sacred Name movement
from which I believe Phillips himself once belonged, and I would note
that there are people in the Sacred Name movement who are committed,
The quick response is that Shemayah Phillips’ views are completely
without support among scholars and that the evidence for Ebionite
vegetarianism is overwhelming. Without getting into the particulars I
would quickly mention just F. Stanley Jones ("An Ancient Jewish
Christian Source"), James Tabor ("The Jesus Dynasty" and
views at his web site), Hans-Joachim Schoeps ("Jewish
Christianity") and Robert Eisenman ("James the Brother of
Jesus"). They all come from COMPLETELY different points of view but
all agree on or presuppose Ebionite vegetarianism. There is also a
scholarly consensus going back to the 19th century that the Recognitions
and Homilies (part of the "pseudo-Clementine
literature"), which attack animal sacrifice and recommend
vegetarianism, are Jewish Christian and Ebionite.
The ancient sources are pretty explicit about the Ebionites being
vegetarian. Homilies 7.4 warns us "not to taste dead
flesh," Homilies 3.45 says that God "at the first was
displeased with the slaughtering of animals, not wishing them to be
slain, [and] did not ordain [animal] sacrifices." Epiphanius has
talked to individual Ebionites; he quotes verbatim from their gospel.
Jesus at one point explicitly rejects the Passover meat and further says
"I have come to destroy the sacrifices." Moreover, this
clearly comes from the earliest layer of Christianity, as Paul objects
to those who have an Ebionite program (for vegetarianism, against animal
sacrifices) in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10. So clearly proto-Ebionites
(at least in regard to vegetarianism) existed even before the gospels
Phillips’ argument in response relies on three points:
1. He denigrates the fourth-century Epiphanius as unreliable.
"What he [Akers] fails to understand is that over a period of
300 odd years the Pauline Christian Fathers did the same thing [that I
do in Lost Religion of Jesus], progressively throwing any
non-Pauline, Yeshuine Jewish group into a heretic stew they came to call
Ebionite. To go into this stew one only had to be anti-Pauline, believe
something positive about Yahshua bar Yosef (Jesus), maintain biblical (‘Jewish’)
observances such as dietary prohibitions and covenantal circumcision,
and resist the high christology of the gentile church."
What he is talking about, though it’s not clear in this quotation,
is my use of Epiphanius. Epiphanius supports my conclusions on every
count, and he is saying that "the church fathers" (namely,
Epiphanius and those other "fathers" who copied from
Epiphanius) were unreliable.
I think there is ample reason to say that
Epiphanius is often confused and contradictory in his descriptions. I
myself criticize Epiphanius in The
Lost Religion of Jesus, specifically that he attributes the
founding of the Ebionites to a fictitious heretic named "Ebion."
the job of the scholar and serious student to critically evalute what is
reliable and what is not. However, Ebionite vegetarianism does not
appear to be one of these points. Epiphanius has actually talked
to Ebionites, and he has copies of their gospel in front of him,
and he actually supplies us some quotes. All of this material explicitly
supports vegetarianism. There is a scholarly consensus that these quotes
are genuinely from the Ebionite gospel (see for example The
Apocryphal New Testament, translated by M. R. James, and
Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition by A. F. J. Klijn). Moreover, it is
consistent with the Recognitions and Homilies, which
parallels in many remarkable ways everything that Epiphanius says about
2. He relies on Ireneaus.
"In contrast, the actual Ebionites, also as reflected in earlier
Pauline church fathers, were simply Jews following Yahshua's call for a
spiritual and socio-economic reform as he interpreted Yahwistic justice
in the Torah."
Again, Phillips is being obscure. The "earlier Pauline
church fathers" to which he refers are basically one church father,
namely Ireneaus, and there are a few others who copy from Ireneaus.
Ireneaus has a very brief description of the Ebionites. Phillips (while he won’t say so explicitly) is trying to rely on
the fact that Ireneaus -- in the three sentences Ireneaus spends on the
Ebionites at Against Heresies 1.26.2 -- doesn’t mention
But this doesn’t contradict Ebionite vegetarianism, and the
evidence from the other sources is just too overwhelming. Epiphanius has
much, much more than Ireneaus’ three sentences: he has 20 plus pages,
in a modern translation, on the subject. And the Recognitions and
Homilies extend to several hundred pages.
Moreover, vegetarianism clearly comes from the earliest layer of
Christianity. Paul objects to those who have an Ebionite program (for
vegetarianism, against animal sacrifices) in Romans 14 and I Corinthians
8-10. Paul says, for example, "eat anything sold in the meat-market
without raising questions of conscience," and "one thinks he
may eat anything, but the weak man eats only vegetables." So
clearly proto-Ebionites (at least in regard to vegetarianism) existed
even before the gospels were written. And they were opponents of Paul,
too! Doesn’t this vegetarian opposition to Paul count for anything in
Phillips’ way of thinking, since Phillips is so opposed to Paul?
3. In an absolutely unique way, he attributes the Recognitions
and Homilies to the gnostics:
"The gnostic Essenic Ebionites, or Elchasites, are fleshed out
by Epiphanius and the Pseudo-Clementine literature [most significantly,
the Recognitions and Homilies]. This is the source of Mr.
Akers' vegetarian, anti-Temple, anti-sacrifice, gnostic, so called
Ebionite ‘Lost Religion’ of Jesus. It is from such a fabric that he
cuts a very ‘new age’ garment he hangs on ‘Jesus.’"
Again, this is a view which has absolutely no scholarly support, or
as far as I can tell, support from anywhere else either.
"Gnosticism" as conventionally understood (and as I use the
term here, and in The Lost Religion of Jesus) means an inferior
Creator God or polytheism, rejection of the physical world as
"sinful," and the idea that Jesus never incarnates
physically, as we see in the second-century heretics Marcion and
Valentinus. The Recognitions and Homilies are marked by attacks
on gnosticism. There are no characteristic gnostic views attributed by
Epiphanius to the Ebionites, nor found in the Recognitions, or the Homilies -- indeed,
gnosticism is clearly attacked in the Recognitions
and Homilies. There is no way that you can get from these views
to support for "gnosticism."
The discussion of the Elchasaites is also misleading. None of
the distinctive views of the Elchasaites -- those views attributed by
Epiphanius to the Elchasaites, but not attributed to the Ebionites --
are found in the Recognitions and Homilies (the gigantic
96-mile high Christ, the acceptance of apostasy, etc.), so there is no
warrant for making these Elchasaite documents.
Finally, contrary to what Phillips leads us to believe, I do not
advocate these "gnostic" views myself, nor do I attribute them
to Jesus in The Lost Religion of Jesus. In fact, I devote quite a
bit of space to showing how the Ebionites were in opposition to
the "gnostics" (see my chapter 13, "The Gospel of the Stranger
People (especially Christians!) should be encouraged to act as the
early Christians did. The early Christians were undoubtedly Jews, and
much of the best of the Christian tradition was inherited from Judaism.
Shemayah Phillips should be commended, also, for his attention to the
prophetic attacks on injustice and violence. It is distressing to me be
drawn into this sort of controversy over what, to most people, is a
fairly obscure topic in the history of early Christianity.
I would ask Phillips to consider, from his own tradition and not
considering the intricacies of Ebionite scholarship, what Isaiah 11:1-9
means, that the wolf, lamb, cow, ox, and little child, will all lie down
together in peace? Is this not a prophetic indication of a coming vegetarian
world of peace? What about Hosea 2:18, that all animals will lie down
without fear? How can factory farms exist, without fear and slaughter of
animals? Wasn’t the world created vegetarian in the beginning, and was
it not "very good" (Genesis 1:29-31)? Would not Isaiah say that
the temple had been desecrated by blood? Didn’t he say "I do not
delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats; when you
come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my
courts? . . . your hands are full of blood, wash yourselves and be
clean" (Isaiah 1:11, 12, 15, 16)? And wouldn't Jesus be
likely to have been in this very prophetic tradition?
What needs to be learned on a large scale, must first be rehearsed on
a small scale. If we are kind to the animals who are
totally within our power, this sets a precedent for our relations with
each other, with all of nature, and with the Divine Power.
April 27, 2007 (slightly modified July 15, 2007)