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Literature on the Ebionites

by Keith Akers

(updated July 5, 2005)

Here is my review of the existing literature on the subject of the Ebionites. Anyone interested in my own views can look at my book, The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity (New York: Lantern Books, 2000), which is primarily about Jewish Christianity, and which contains a somewhat more extensive bibliography, but without my commentary. Any correspondence with me on this subject can be addressed to P. O. Box 11240, Englewood, Colorado 80151, U. S. A., or send me an e-mail at this address:

The reason that the Ebionites are so important for Christian vegetarianism is that they are one group of early Christians who are quite clearly vegetarian. Their claim to have understood Jesus better than the gentile Christians, therefore, demands our close attention.

1. Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, by Hans-Joachim Schoeps (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969). Schoeps is the seminal thinker in all the vegetarian attempts to understand the Ebionites. (Vaclavik, Skriver, and myself all independently read Schoeps, and drew a lot of our material from him.) The good news is that Schoeps is an objective scholar who is neither a vegetarian nor a Christian; he was a Jewish historian of religion who escaped Hitler. Therefore, he cannot be accused of having a vegetarian axe to grind (or a Christian axe, either). However, this book is quite difficult even for scholars. He does not make the argument completely clear and does not cite all his sources, referring readers to his much longer book only available in German, "The Theology and History of Jewish Christianity." Both books (German and English) are long out of print and only available in libraries.

2. The Origin of Christianity: The Pacifism, Communalism, and Vegetarianism of Primitive Christianity, by Charles Vaclavik (Three Rivers, California: Kaweah Press, 2004).  This book is a major revision of The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ, originally written in 1986.  Vaclavik has added about 100 pages and substantially improved his argument.  I have reviewed this book on this web site.  Charles Vaclavik is a friend of mine whom I have met often at conferences. His talks are always interesting, and (until my book was written, at least) his book is probably the best book on the Ebionites for vegetarians. He is also a vegetarian and a Christian, but had not read Skriver when he wrote his book. He has a lot of solid material, his research is excellent, and his story compelling. Some of his conclusions, in my opinion, are rather strongly speculative — for example, that Paul was the originator of Christian gnosticism, John the Priest was the true founder of the Catholic Church. His argument also sometimes takes long detours; he devotes an entire chapter to discussing the date of Jesus’ birth (he argues it was around 19 BCE), in order to defend the validity of a single passage from the Slavonic Josephus about John the Baptist. He strongly connects Pythagoreanism with the Essenes and the Ebionites.  This book is available from the author; to order this book, send a check for $26.95 to The Kaweah Publishing Company, 52 Means Drive, Suite 109, Platteville, WI 53818.

3. The Forgotten Beginnings of Creation and Christianity, by Carl Anders Skriver (Denver: Vegetarian Press, 1990). I published this book myself after arranging for its translation from the German. This is philosophical and psychological more than historical, but it does have some interesting historical material. It is written by a vegetarian Christian who wanted to make sense out of ethical vegetarianism in early Christianity. To Skriver I owe one critical point which no one had made before: that the doctrine of the atonement was connected to animal sacrifice, and therefore that approval of the idea of atonement also meant approval of the idea that God really did command animal sacrifices. Skriver’s main point is to connect the myth of Genesis with the vegetarianism of Jesus -- the return to the "forgotten beginnings" to which he refers. It is generally easy to read though some sections are tough going. This book is available from me or from the American Vegan Society.

4. The Theology of Jewish Christianity by Jean Danielou (Chicago: The Henry Regnery Company, 1964). This is out of print and only available in libraries. This is a scholarly approach written by someone who is (I presume) not a vegetarian, though that never seems to influence his opinions. It has a lot of interesting material — not quite as good as Schoeps, but still interesting. The main problem is that Danielou does not have a clear idea of what "Jewish Christianity" is and thus introduces a lot of extraneous stuff. Anything in early Christianity that shows any sort of Jewish influence comes under his discussion of Jewish Christianity. This of course includes almost everything in early Christianity or modern Christianity either, if you take the analogy far enough.

5. Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity by Gerd Lüdemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989). This is also a very good scholarly book. It is primarily about Paul, not about Jewish Christianity, and I do not agree with all of the conclusions, but it is still very interesting reading. One of his most daring conclusions is that the collection which Paul was taking up to present to the "saints" in Jerusalem was refused by the Jewish Christian leadership! (This collection is referred to in Romans 15:25-29 and a few other places in Paul’s letters.) This would show that the disputes between Paul and the Jerusalem church of James and Peter was much more serious than is commonly supposed — having degenerated to the point of outright full-blown sectarian opposition. Lüdemann is also known for his books on the resurrection of Jesus which are also quite interesting.

6. An Ancient Jewish Christian Source on the History of Christianity by F. Stanley Jones (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995). This is scholarly and your best bet on finding it is in a library. It focuses on Recognitions 1, and is quite detailed.

7. James the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman (New York: Viking Penguin, 1996). This has extensive discussion of Jewish Christian texts, but it is very difficult reading. It is even more obscure than Schoeps. The New York Times Review of Books published a highly critical review of this book which commented especially harshly on the style of the book, and having struggled through the book myself I have to say that there is a certain element of truth in the review. The apparent thesis is that the Jesus-movement was nationalist, anti-Roman and oriented toward violent revolution. He also thinks that James was a vegetarian and while he does not say so in so many words, he evidently thinks that Jesus was a vegetarian as well, since he concludes that "whatever James was, Jesus was as well." During a visit to Winnipeg, when asked in person, "since James was a vegetarian, wasn’t Jesus a vegetarian as well?" — he responded, "almost certainly."

But this is the only good news I can find in this book, and I think even highly motivated and scholarly vegetarians will have a tough time going through this book. First of all, what is the exact relationship between James and animal sacrifices?  On p. 382 of the Viking (American) edition, he says:

Their [non-establishment Sadducees] orientation was consistent: they would never compromise with foreign power, would not accept foreign gifts or sacrifices in the Temple (considered a form of 'pollution' or 'idolatry' by James and at Qumran) . . . 

The Qumran argument (here associated with James) would approve of animal sacrifices correctly done without foreign pollution, whereas the Ebionites thought that any animal sacrifices were wrong no matter who offered them or how. Eisenman seems bent on using the Qumran documents -- which clearly approve of animal sacrifices in the Temple Scroll -- as heretical Christian documents.  His argument thus seems to imply that James approved of animal sacrifices, but was also vegetarian.  What's going on here?  Did he kill them without eating them?  How could James approve of sacrifices in the temple while being a vegetarian -- isn't this an existential contradiction?  It's clear that the Jewish Christian Ebionites vehemently despised the animal sacrifices of all sort, no matter how offered; how can this sect emerge out of Qumran?  This would seem to require a lengthy explanation but I can't find it in his text.  

I also am puzzled with his suggestion that Jesus was a nationalist and actually favored violent revolution. This makes nonsense out of the history of early Christianity; there are all kinds of other heretical sects in early Christianity, but none of them advocated military force in any form. Virtually everyone in early Christianity, both "heretics" and "orthodox," were pacifist as a matter of course. How does the presumed violent nature of the Jewish Christians square with the pacifism of the later Jewish Christian writings (and the pacifism even of gentile Christianity)? 

8. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), by John Shelby Spong. Bishop Spong has done Christianity a great service through his books challenging Christianity to reexamine its old assumptions. This is the one book where Spong deals with Jewish Christianity, but there are some problems with his approach. In the first place, anyone looking for an extended discussion of Jewish Christianity will be disappointed; he only spends about six pages on Jewish Christianity. And one of the major assumptions in those six pages — that Paul was part of Jewish Christianity — is in my view incorrect. Jewish Christianity was "Jewish" because it accepted the idea that God had revealed an eternal law to Moses, which is binding on us. Paul, however, clearly rejects the law altogether. Paul may be an ethnic Jew, but is obviously not a religious Jew. The Jewish Christians detested Paul and considered him an apostate from the law.  We, of course, from a vantage point nearly two millennia later, do not have to have the same opinion of Paul that Jewish Christianity did, but we should be aware of this bitter dispute.

9. The Gospel of Jesus by John Davidson (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1995). The good news: he thinks that Jesus was a vegetarian, and puts together some of the evidence in defense of this thesis. More good news: Davidson is intelligent and has read a lot of the material from early Christianity. However, the vegetarianism of Jesus is a small part of this 1068-page book. Davidson’s primary task is to show that Jesus was on the mystic path. Vegetarianism is a sideshow in this process. Also, Davidson does not really consider alternative interpretations; he introduces some evidence that supports his views, but does not really try to construct a history of early Christianity, as does Vaclavik, nor does he consider opposing viewpoints. He is a follower of some Indian guru (a friend of mine told me his name, which escapes me) and I understand that his teacher asked him to write this book so that Christians would have an insight, based on their own tradition, into the mystic path.

10. Nazarene Jewish Christianity by Ray Pritz (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988). This is another obscure scholarly book, mostly devoted to trying to show that the Nazarenes (a. k. a. "Nazoraeans," "Nazoreans," rather than residents of Nazareth) were different from the Ebionites in crucial ways. Mostly, I believe that he wants to show that they accepted animal sacrifice. However, as I have discussed on pages 181-184 of my own book, I do not agree with this conclusion. We don’t know very much about the Nazoraeans, and what the author says relies on known features of the Ebionites in establishing that an Arabic manuscript refers to the Nazoraeans. "Following the whole law," which is what the Nazoraeans did according to Epiphanius, could also mean that the sacrifices were commanded by God but only as a concession, just as much as it might mean that they actually practiced and favored animal sacrifice. In fact, this is precisely what the Recognitions 1.36 says: the animal sacrifices did come from Moses, but only because Moses wisely saw that it would take time to wean the people from the ways of Egypt.

11. The Ascents of James: History and Theology of a Jewish-Christian Community by Robert E. Van Voorst. Another scholarly enterprise. Stanley Jones’ dissertation, on which his book cited above is based, argues that the main thesis of this book is wrong and that the Ascents of James are NOT embedded in the Recognitions. The basis of this argument is an obscure one: Epiphanius refers to a Jewish-Christian work called "The Ascents of James." Van Voorst argues that parts of this can be found in the Recognitions; Jones argues that it is not. My opinion is that Jones is right. But regardless of who is right, it does not affect who the Jewish Christian Ebionites were or what they believed.

The ancient texts of most relevance to Ebionite Jewish Christianity can be found in the following books. They are often hard going for vegetarians interested in the history of vegetarianism in Christianity. You may find yourself wondering, "why am I reading this, anyway?" and "where’s the stuff about vegetarianism?" — because so much of it does not directly relate to vegetarianism at all.

12. Klijn, A. F. J. Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992). A collection of texts said to be from Jewish Christian gospels. Quotes Epiphanius, Iraeneus, etc., whenever they refer to a Jewish Christian gospel.

13. Klijn, A. F. J. and Reinink, G. J. Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973). This is like the book preceding, except that it deals with all the texts relating to Jewish Christianity, whether or not they are quotations from a Jewish Christian gospel.

14. The Recognitions of Clement and The Clementine Homilies, both included in Vol. 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Roberts and Donaldson, editors (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905).  This is all in the public domain and I have posted these early texts here.  I got them from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library which has this and more: it contains the text of the entire Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Post-Nicene Fathers and more besides.  

15. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, volume 1, translated by Frank Williams (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987). This has the famous description of the Ebionites in chapter 30, as well as various other early Jewish Christian groups such as Nazoraeans, Nasaraeans (ostensibly Jewish but in fact, as I argue elsewhere, Jewish Christian), Elkesaites, Sampsaeans, and Ossaeans.