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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 themselves Jews.  

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, 7.4, 7.8).

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 same group.

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 same group.

See also

* Judaizers

* Jewish Christians

* Nazarene

* Elkasaites

There are some problems with the Wikipedia articles on the above subjects, but the subjects themselves are relevant.  

External links

* Evidence of the Ebionites by Hyam Maccoby

* Nazarenes and Ebionites by Dr. James Tabor, University of North Carolina

* Review of literature on the Ebionites

* Text of Recognitions and Homilies

* Jewish Encyclopedia: Ebionites

* Ebionites from the Catholic Encyclopedia

Further reading

* 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 Schuster, 2006.

* 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]