Who Were the Ebionites?
The Ebionites (from Hebrew ebionim, "the poor") were
a sect of early followers of Jesus. They were one of several
"Jewish Christian" groups, early followers of Jesus who considered
They thought of themselves as the true followers of Jesus, but were
described as heretics by many early orthodox Christian writers.
Some modern writers and groups, including a number of scholars, argue
that the Ebionites represented the views of Jesus and of early
Christianity better than other early Christian groups.
There are two chief sources for our knowledge of the literature and
ideas of the Ebionites:
1. Descriptions of the Ebionites and brief quotations from their
writings by the church fathers, most importantly Irenaeus, Hippolytus,
and Epiphanius of Salamis, all of whom considered the Ebionites to be
heretics. The lengthiest and most complete of these comes from
Epiphanius, who wrote his Panarion in the fourth century,
describing and denouncing 80 heretical sects, among them the Ebionites (Panarion
30) and various other "Jewish Christian" and allied groups (Panarion
18, 19, 29, 53).
2. The pseudo-Clementine literature, especially the Recognitions
of Clement and The Clementine Homilies, two third-century
Christian works, are regarded by general scholarly consensus as largely
or entirely Jewish-Christian and specifically Ebionite in origin. This
can be found in volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
History of the Ebionites
The Ebionites were a group in the early Christian church which was
"Jewish Christian" in orientation, claiming to be the
descendants of the original church, observing the Jewish law as they
interpreted it but also following Jesus. All of the sources specifically
mentioned above agree that the Ebionites denied the divinity of Jesus
and accepted the Jewish law. There is general agreement also that they
believed in one God, the creator, thus rejecting the views of Marcion;
and further that they rejected Paul.
According to Epiphanius, they rejected orthodox Christian beliefs
about the divinity of Jesus, were vegetarians, opposed animal sacrifice,
and rejected certain texts in the Jewish scriptures (most especially,
those pertaining to animal sacrifice). They were loyal to the Mosaic
law, but had an idiosyncratic view of that law. They called themselves Ebionites
(based on ebionim, "the poor") because, they said, at the time
of the apostles they gave all their possessions to the early church
(Acts 4:32-35). The Ebionites claimed to have the biological relatives
of Jesus among their own number, described by ancient writers as the
"desposynoi" ("those who belong to the master").
Epiphanius describes a group which holds views remarkably similar to
those in the Recognitions and Homilies. They accepted
Jesus as the "true prophet," believe that Christ was in Adam,
in the virtue of poverty, reject animal sacrifices, reject the false
texts in the (Old Testament) scripture, are vegetarians, and practice
daily baptism. Epiphanius says that the "false texts" that the
Ebionites reject have to do with commands to offer animal sacrifice; the
Homilies go on to describe a number of other passages considered
unworthy of God, such as those the Ebionites considered to be
questioning God’s omnipotence, knowledge, love, peaceful nature, and
righteousness. Epiphanius quotes their gospel as ascribing the words to
Jesus, "I have come to destroy the sacrifices" (Panarion
30.16.5), and as ascribing to Jesus rejection of the Passover meat (Panarion
30.22.4), analogous to numerous passages found in the Recognitions and
Homilies (e.g. Recognitions 1.36, 1.54, Homilies 3.45,
They existed just outside of Judea, in Galilee and present-day Syria
and Jordan (the Decapolis, Gaulanitis, Perea, and Nabatea, and nearby
regions). The exact origin of the Ebionites is debated, but those who
held views characteristic of the Ebionites existed in the first century.
The Ebionites originated no later than the second century (when they are
mentioned by Ireneaus) and continued to exist at least down through the
late fourth century (when Epiphanius describes conversations he had with
them), and probably continued into the fifth century and perhaps beyond.
There are no known modern groups which are direct lineal descendants of
the ancient Ebionites.
Writings of the Ebionites
No independent writings of the Ebionites are known to have survived
to the present day. We know of such writings only because the church fathers
refer to them and occasionally quote from them. Epiphanius describes a
gospel of the Ebionites, an Ebionite "acts of the apostles,"
the "travels of Peter," and "the Ascents of James."
Other church fathers, such as Jerome, sometimes quote from one or
another of the gospels attributed to the Ebionites.
Relationship of the Ebionites to other Jewish Christian groups
A number of other groups are described by ancient writers or modern
scholars as "Jewish Christian." Among these are the Nazoraeans
(the spelling is uncertain), Cerinthians, Symmachians (followers of the
Ebionite scribe Symmachus), Elkasaites (the spelling is uncertain),
Sampsaeans, and Ossaeans. Much less is known about these other groups
than about the Ebionites. The relationship of these other groups to each
other, whether they existed independently of each other, and what their
views are, is debated by modern scholars and ancient writers. Epiphanius
clearly distinguishes between "Ebionites" and the "Nazoraeans,"
but Jerome evidently believes (Letter 112) that they are both the
It is generally agreed that the Cerinthians were not "Jewish
Christian" at all, but only mistakenly described as "Jewish
Christian" by the church fathers, and that the Elkasaites, the
Sampsaeans, and Ossaeans — the latter two groups mentioned only by Epiphanius
in ancient writings — are different names, as Epiphanius says, for the
There are some problems with the Wikipedia articles on the above
subjects, but the subjects themselves are relevant.
* Evidence of
the Ebionites by Hyam Maccoby
and Ebionites by Dr. James Tabor, University of North Carolina
* Review of literature on the Ebionites
of Recognitions and Homilies
* Ebionites from
the Catholic Encyclopedia
* Akers, Keith. The Lost Religion of Jesus : Simple Living and
Nonviolence in Early Christianity. New York: Lantern Books, 2000.
* Danielou, Jean. The Theology of Jewish Christianity. Chicago:
The Henry Regnery Company, 1964.
* Eisenman, Robert. James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to
Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
New York: Viking, 1996.
* Lüdemann, Gerd. Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.
* Maccoby, Hyam. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of
Christianity. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
* Schoeps, Hans-Joachim. Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes
in the Early Church. Trans. Douglas R. A. Hare. Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1969.
* Skriver, Carl Anders. The Forgotten Beginnings of Creation and
Christianity. Denver: Vegetarian Press, 1990.
* Tabor, James. The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus,
His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. New York: Simon and
* Vaclavik, Charles. The Origin of Christianity: The Pacifism,
Communalism, and Vegetarianism of Primitive Christianity.
Platteville, Wisconsin: Kaweah Publishing Company, 2004.
-- Keith Akers
August 20, 2006
[See also Wikipedia
on the Ebionites]