From time to time I get questions about a negative review of my book, The Lost Religion of Jesus, posted on Amazon.com by Shemayah Phillips, as well as about his web site, Ebionite.org. [UPDATE 2018: the web site “Ebionite.org” has ceased existence, it was last functioning during 2016.] Phillips says that my book is terrible, suggests that the Ebionites were not vegetarian, and that I’m advocating gnostic views!
Phillips’ review is cast as a response to the vegetarian issue: “Firstly, it is an apologetic book for vegetarianism with a religious ‘seal of approval’ applied . . . the author’s previous loyalty to vegetarianism and non-violence . . . makes him jump at questionable sources identified as ‘Jewish-Christian’ which he lumps all together as ‘ebionite.'”
What is going on here? Have I got the Ebionites completely wrong? Were the Ebionites really vegetarian? (And, worse yet, am I really “gnostic”? Are my parents reading this?)
I find polemics distressing and for several years I have just let this review pass in silence. Someone (not necessarily Phillips, by the way) then circulated this review by way of e-mail. I hope that this response is not unnecessarily harsh, and my comments are intended just to answer first, any historical questions that people may have about the Ebionites, and second, to provoke those “Old Testament Christians” (my designation) to think more closely about vegetarianism and ethics. I’m thinking of the Sacred Name movement to which I believe Phillips himself once belonged, and I would note that there are people in the Sacred Name movement who are committed, ethical vegetarians.
The quick response is that Shemayah Phillips’ views are completely without support among scholars and that the evidence for Ebionite vegetarianism is overwhelming. Without getting into the particulars I would quickly mention just F. Stanley Jones (“An Ancient Jewish Christian Source”), James Tabor (“The Jesus Dynasty” and see his views at his web site), Hans-Joachim Schoeps (“Jewish Christianity”) and Robert Eisenman (“James the Brother of Jesus”). They all come from COMPLETELY different points of view but all agree on or presuppose Ebionite vegetarianism. There is also a scholarly consensus going back to the 19th century that the Recognitions and Homilies (part of the “pseudo-Clementine literature”), which attack animal sacrifice and recommend vegetarianism, are Jewish Christian and Ebionite.
The ancient sources are pretty explicit about the Ebionites being vegetarian. Homilies 7.4 warns us “not to taste dead flesh,” Homilies 3.45 says that God “at the first was displeased with the slaughtering of animals, not wishing them to be slain, [and] did not ordain [animal] sacrifices.” Epiphanius has talked to individual Ebionites; he quotes verbatim from their gospel. Jesus at one point explicitly rejects the Passover meat and further says “I have come to destroy the sacrifices.” Moreover, this clearly comes from the earliest layer of Christianity, as Paul objects to those who have an Ebionite program (for vegetarianism, against animal sacrifices) in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10. So clearly proto-Ebionites (at least in regard to vegetarianism) existed even before the gospels were written.
Phillips’ argument in response relies on three points:
1. He denigrates the fourth-century Epiphanius as unreliable.
“What he [Akers] fails to understand is that over a period of 300 odd years the Pauline Christian Fathers did the same thing [that I do in The Lost Religion of Jesus], progressively throwing any non-Pauline, Yeshuine Jewish group into a heretic stew they came to call Ebionite. To go into this stew one only had to be anti-Pauline, believe something positive about Yahshua bar Yosef (Jesus), maintain biblical (‘Jewish’) observances such as dietary prohibitions and covenantal circumcision, and resist the high christology of the gentile church.”
What he is talking about, though it’s not clear in this quotation, is my use of Epiphanius. Epiphanius supports my conclusions on every count, and he is saying that “the church fathers” (namely, Epiphanius and those other “fathers” who copied from Epiphanius) were unreliable.
I think there is ample reason to say that Epiphanius is often confused and contradictory in his descriptions. I myself criticize Epiphanius in The Lost Religion of Jesus, specifically that he attributes the founding of the Ebionites to a fictitious heretic named “Ebion.” It’s the job of the scholar and serious student to critically evaluate what is reliable and what is not. However, Ebionite vegetarianism does not appear to be one of these points. Epiphanius has actually talked to Ebionites, and he has copies of their gospel in front of him, and he actually supplies us some quotes. All of this material explicitly supports vegetarianism. There is a scholarly consensus that these quotes are genuinely from the Ebionite gospel (see for example The Apocryphal New Testament, translated by M. R. James, and Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition by A. F. J. Klijn). Moreover, it is consistent with the Recognitions and Homilies, which parallels in many remarkable ways everything that Epiphanius says about the Ebionites.
2. He relies on Irenaeus.
“In contrast, the actual Ebionites, also as reflected in earlier Pauline church fathers, were simply Jews following Yahshua’s call for a spiritual and socio-economic reform as he interpreted Yahwistic justice in the Torah.”
Again, Phillips is being obscure. The “earlier Pauline church fathers” to which he refers are basically one church father, namely Irenaeus, and there are a few others who copy from Irenaeus. Irenaeus has a very brief description of the Ebionites. Phillips (while he won’t say so explicitly) is trying to rely on the fact that Irenaeus — in the three sentences Irenaeus spends on the Ebionites at Against Heresies 1.26.2 — doesn’t mention vegetarianism.
But this doesn’t contradict Ebionite vegetarianism, and the evidence from the other sources is just too overwhelming. Epiphanius has much, much more than Irenaeus’ three sentences: he has 20 plus pages, in a modern translation, on the subject. And the Recognitions and Homilies extend to several hundred pages.
Moreover, vegetarianism clearly comes from the earliest layer of Christianity. Paul objects to those who have an Ebionite program (for vegetarianism, against animal sacrifices) in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10. Paul says, for example, “eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience,” and “one thinks he may eat anything, but the weak man eats only vegetables.” So clearly proto-Ebionites (at least in regard to vegetarianism) existed even before the gospels were written. And they were opponents of Paul, too! Doesn’t this vegetarian opposition to Paul count for anything in Phillips’ way of thinking, since Phillips is so opposed to Paul?
3. In an absolutely unique way, he attributes the Recognitions and Homilies to the gnostics:
“The gnostic Essenic Ebionites, or Elchasites [sic], are fleshed out by Epiphanius and the Pseudo-Clementine literature [most significantly, the Recognitions and Homilies]. This is the source of Mr. Akers’ vegetarian, anti-Temple, anti-sacrifice, gnostic, so called Ebionite ‘Lost Religion’ of Jesus. It is from such a fabric that he cuts a very ‘new age’ garment he hangs on ‘Jesus.’”
Again, this is a view which has absolutely no scholarly support, or as far as I can tell, support from anywhere else either. “Gnosticism” as conventionally understood (and as I use the term here, and in The Lost Religion of Jesus) means an inferior Creator God or polytheism, rejection of the physical world as “sinful,” and the idea that Jesus never incarnates physically, as we see in the second-century heretics Marcion and Valentinus. The Recognitions and Homilies are marked by attacks on gnosticism. There are no characteristic gnostic views attributed by Epiphanius to the Ebionites, nor found in the Recognitions, or the Homilies — indeed, gnosticism is clearly attacked in the Recognitions and Homilies. There is no way that you can get from these views to support for “gnosticism.”
The discussion of the Elchasaites is also misleading. None of the distinctive views of the Elchasaites — those views attributed by Epiphanius to the Elchasaites, but not attributed to the Ebionites — are found in the Recognitions and Homilies (the gigantic 96-mile high Christ, the acceptance of apostasy, etc.), so there is no warrant for making these Elchasaite documents.
Finally, contrary to what Phillips leads us to believe, I do not advocate these “gnostic” views myself, nor do I attribute them to Jesus in The Lost Religion of Jesus. In fact, I devote quite a bit of space to showing how the Ebionites were in opposition to the “gnostics” (see my chapter 13, “The Gospel of the Stranger God”).
People (especially Christians!) should be encouraged to act as the early Christians did. The early Christians were undoubtedly Jews, and much of the best of the Christian tradition was inherited from Judaism. Shemayah Phillips should be commended, also, for his attention to the prophetic attacks on injustice and violence. It is distressing to me be drawn into this sort of controversy over what, to most people, is a fairly obscure topic in the history of early Christianity.
I would ask Phillips to consider, from his own tradition and not considering the intricacies of Ebionite scholarship, what Isaiah 11:1-9 means, that the wolf, lamb, cow, ox, and little child, will all lie down together in peace? Is this not a prophetic indication of a coming vegetarian world of peace? What about Hosea 2:18, that all animals will lie down without fear? How can factory farms exist, without fear and slaughter of animals? Wasn’t the world created vegetarian in the beginning, and was it not “very good” (Genesis 1:29-31)? Would not Isaiah say that the temple had been desecrated by blood? Didn’t he say “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats; when you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? . . . your hands are full of blood, wash yourselves and be clean” (Isaiah 1:11, 12, 15, 16)? And wouldn’t Jesus be likely to have been in this very prophetic tradition?
What needs to be learned on a large scale, must first be rehearsed on a small scale. If we are kind to the animals who are totally within our power, this sets a precedent for our relations with each other, with all of nature, and with the Divine Power.