A book about the disciples of Jesus would typically start with Jesus himself: first there was Jesus, then he had disciples. This book suggests a fundamentally different story: first there was a movement, then Jesus emerged as its leader. This movement is known to history as “Jewish Christianity” — Jews who followed both the Jewish law, as they understood it, and also followed Jesus, as they understood him, and persisted in this even after the rest of Christianity became a gentile religion.
Vegetarianism is an integral part of this story. One key belief of Jewish Christianity, dropped by the later church, was its objections to the Jerusalem temple. They saw the practice of animal sacrifice in the temple as a bloody and barbaric business. In their view, Jesus gave his life when he disrupted the temple business during Passover week. Instead of animal sacrifice, they practiced an alternative ritual, baptism in flowing water, and were vegetarians.
However, it was just this issue which was the most divisive in the early church. The upshot was that there was a split in the church between Paul and gentile Christianity on the one hand, and the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of James on the other. The church has essentially never recovered from this split.
Jewish Christianity interacted with a number of different groups in the ancient world, and took a variety of different forms. Some of these groups are well known to the public, like the Essenes, but some of them are quite obscure, like the Elkasaites and Mandaeans. The chief Jewish Christian group was known as “Ebionites,” derived from the Hebrew ebionim, meaning “the poor,” and much of the book concerns the Ebionites and their history and literature. One of the most fascinating sub-plots of Jewish Christianity concerns tracing the influence of Jewish Christianity in gnosticism, Islam, and in Eastern religion.
There are many things about Jewish Christianity that we do not know. But Disciples shows that we can know a great deal about this group so critical in the formation of Christianity: its origins, its key ideas, and its most palpable influences. In short, we can know its history, a history which Disciples tells in an accessible way for the first time.
Here’s the outline:
Part I. The Problem of Jewish Christianity
1. What is Jewish Christianity?
2. How Other Christians saw Jewish Christianity
3. How the Jewish Christians Saw Themselves
Part II. Jewish Christianity Before Jesus
4. The Prophets, the Lost Tribes, and Galilee
5. Ebionite Mythology
6. The Pythagoreans
7. The Essenes
Part III. The Coming of the Christ
8. The Nazoraeans
9. John the Baptist
Part IV. The Apostolic Age
12. The Family of Jesus
13. Paul and the Table of Demons
14. Paul and the Poor
15. Paul’s Visits to Jerusalem
16. The Apostolic Council
17. The Church Divides
18. The Destruction of the Temple
Part V. The History of the Ebionites
19. The Origin and Geography of the Ebionites
20. Our Knowledge of the Ebionites
21. Ebionite Theology in a Nutshell
22. Ebionite Demonology and the Problem of Evil
Part VI. The Influence of Jewish Christianity
23. Gnosis and Christ
24. The Revelation of Elxai
25. The Mystery of the Mandaeans
26. Into the East
27. Significance of the Ebionites