Did the First Followers of Jesus have a Bible?

Jesus in the temple (Greco)

               Jesus in the temple (Greco)

There is a marvelous passage relating to scripture, reflecting Ebionite views, in Homilies 8.10:

“The only good God having made all things well . . . appointed a perpetual law to all, which neither can be abrogated by enemies, nor is vitiated by any impious one, nor is concealed in any place, but which can be read by all.”

The ellipsis is actually quite lengthy, but doesn’t seem to change the meaning. Homilies 8.10 to 8.20 is a retelling, with significant variations, of the first chapters of Genesis.

The Ebionites rejected the Hebrew scriptures as scripture because it contained “false texts.” Prominent among these were the commands in the scripture to offer animal sacrifices, which the Ebionites viewed as immoral (Homilies 3.45): “He [God] then who at the first was displeased with the slaughtering of animals, not wishing them to be slain, did not ordain sacrifices as desiring them; nor from the beginning did He require them.” Peter makes this explicit at Homilies 2.38, where Peter says, “For the Scriptures have had joined to them many falsehoods against God on this account,” and is followed by lengthy description of all the bad things in the scripture that they didn’t like.

So did the Ebionites follow the scriptures? Did they even have scripture? One possibility is that they interpreted these passages allegorically, but there’s no indication that they were particularly eager to follow this line of thought. Rather, they seem to interpret them literally, and then denounce them. It’s also possible that an “Ebionite Old Testament” existed out there somewhere, sort of like the Jefferson Bible, with all the false texts cut out.

But another possibility is that they rejected scripture altogether. From a logistical point of view, this would be a much easier view to maintain than their own massive version of the scripture. There would be no need to go through the arduous effort to agree on such a text and then maintain it, which would have been a massive effort for a small struggling sect in the first century, requiring scribes, scholars, and supporting cast of intelligentsia to explain it.

This seems to be what Homilies 8.10 is pointing towards, because the true law does not reside in the written text. The “law” can be “read” by anyone in any place: thus, anything written would be superfluous. Homilies 3.47 adds the “historical criticism” that Moses did not write the books of Moses, and indeed did not write anything at all, but that someone else (not Moses) wrote things down later.

Did the first followers of Jesus share similar views to the Ebionites? For help, we turn to the letters of Paul. Paul says two things of interest here: first, that the law came 430 years after Abraham (Galatians 3:17) and that “we serve not under the old written code” (Romans 7:6).

For a long time I was determined to see in all of this a conflict between Paul and Jewish Christianity, but after looking at the Ebionites, I think that Paul was likely reflecting something actually in the early movement, and was just confused about the terminology. What’s this about the law coming 430 years after Abraham? Paul equated the “law” with “the written text,” unlike the Ebionites, who saw a sharp distinction between the true law and the corrupt text.

But this also throws light on Paul’s “rejection” of the law. In reality, what Paul rejected was not the true law revealed at the creation; he is just rejecting the written code, the corrupt law written down 430 years after Abraham. So, he actually got it right, from the Ebionite point of view, when he said “we serve not under the old written code.” In the later Jewish Christian view, this rejection of the written code would be a result of their loyalty to the (true) law.

Paul and the later Jewish Christian Ebionites, living in the second, third, and fourth centuries, were otherwise bitter ideological opponents; so anything they actually agree on, is very likely from the first century. Obviously the first followers of Jesus would have been uncomfortable with the scriptural texts which clearly contradict their position, such as texts commanding animal sacrifice or going to war and killing women and children civilians. Even in the heavily edited gospels, Jesus is clearly antagonistic to conventional scriptural interpretations and texts: “For the sake of your tradition [your scripture?], you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6). And for decades no early Christians had a New Testament or gospels. The idea that the first Jewish followers of Jesus had scripture as their authority is alien to the spirit of early Christianity. It makes them into first-century Pharisees, or first-century Protestants, and Jesus into the head of a Biblical studies department.

It is more likely that they had one authority only: the Christ. At this time there were no exclusive claims for Jesus or belief in his divinity. They likely believed that Jesus (as well as John and probably others) possessed the Christ-spirit, but this was something in principle available to all believers. At the Pentecost, this spirit descended on five hundred people at once (I Corinthians 15:6). This spirit is the moving force in early Christianity. Scriptural exegesis was not only far from their mind; it was the antithesis of the gospel message.


2 thoughts on “Did the First Followers of Jesus have a Bible?

  1. Sarah Howell

    Hi Keith, I have just discovered this website. Have you read Robert Eisenman’s “James the brother of Jesus”? I am ploughing my way through it. (It is nearly 1000 pages!) I think you will find much of what he says about James and early Jewish Christianity interesting.
    Best wishes.

    1. Keith Akers Post author

      Yes, I’ve read Eisenman’s book. Good luck getting through it! It’s very interesting but also very dense; I often had trouble following the argument. For various reasons I think the Dead Sea Scrolls are unconnected to Jewish Christianity; I’ll discuss this at length in Disciples.


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