The Ebionites

Sami Zaatari


Many people may be under the false assumption that Christianity has always been a fixed and organized faith with a set of fixed beliefs, for instance the belief in Jesus' deity, and the Trinity have always been a firm and established belief. Off course modern day Christians will perhaps be the majority of the people who follow this line of thinking, as it would be natural for them to do so, yet the reality is that if one were to study the history of early Christianity, one would find several different forms of Christianity. Early Christianity had no fixed official doctrine, it had no fixed official belief, what it did have was a whole range of competing and different factions of groups calling themselves Christian, each with their own central doctrine.

In fact it wasn't until the council of Nicaea, in the fourth century, 325, that Christians gathered together to establish and official supposed doctrine, and yet still there are many modern day Christians who reject the Nicaea creed.

One early Christian group that certainly didn't fit into what we now consider the official Christian doctrine were the Ebionites. Bart Ehrman discusses their beliefs in his book Lost Christianities:

Proto-orthodox authors clearly agree that the Ebionites were and understood themselves to be Jewish followers of Jesus. They were not the only group of Jewish-Christians known to have existed at the time, but they were the group that generated some of the greatest opposition. The Ebionite Christians that we are best informed about believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. They also believed that to belong to the people of God, one needed to be Jewish. As a reult, they insisted on observing the Sabbath, keeping the kosher, and circumcising all males. That sounds very much like the position taken by the opponents of Paul in Galatia. It may be that the Ebionite Christians were their descendants, physical and spiritual. An early source, Irenaeus, also reports that the Ebionites continued to reverence Jerusalem, evidently by praying in its direction during their daily acts of worship. (Bart, Ehrman, Lost Christianities. Oxford University Press, 2003. PP. 100)

What we read from the above is very important, the reason being is that modern day Christians try to discredit the Ebionites since the Ebionites were a group that seem to have been founded in the second century, hence Christians brush them off and say oh well since they came all the way in the second century after Christ, they're not all that important and their not that early right after the time of Jesus!

Yet as Ehrman rightly points out, the Ebionites do have a foundation even during the time of Paul, such as in the book of Galatians, we see Paul arguing and writing against people who held similar to beliefs to the Ebionites. So the Ebionites may not be as late as modern day Christians try to make them seem, rather Ebionites could very well be the very same descended followers mentioned in the book of Galatians, a fist century group, and not only a first century group, but a group 30-50 years after Jesus' supposed death!

We will get into this topic in another article, where we will look into the very writings of Paul and see the opponents he was facing, Jewish Christians who shared many of the Ebionites belief, and opponents who were preaching a DIFFERENT GOSPEL and message to that of Paul.

The point is clear however, although we know of a group known as Ebionites coming from the second century, their origins do not lie as far as the second century, but the foundations lie in the first century and around 30-60 years after Jesus.

Ehrman continues to write:

Their instance on staying (or becoming) Jewish should not seem especially peculiar from a historical perspective, since Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. But Ebionites' Jewishness did not endear them to most other Christians, who believed that Jesus allowed them to bypass the requirements of the Law for salvation. The Ebionites, however, maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples, especially by Peter and Jesus' own brother, James, head of the Jerusalem church after the resurrection.

One other aspect of the Ebionites' Christianity that set it apart from that of most other Christian groups was their understanding of who Jesus was. The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus' pre-existence or his virgin birth. These ideas were originally distinct from each other. The Two New Testament Gospels that speak of Jesus being conceived of a virgin (Matthew and Luke) do not indicate that he existed prior to his birth...For them, Jesus was the Son of God not because of his divine nature or virgin birth but because of his ?adoption' by God to be his son. This kind of Christology is, accordingly, sometimes called ?adoptionist'. To express the matter more fully, the Ebionites believed that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human like the rest of us, born as the eldest son of the sexual union of his parents, Joseph and Mary. What set Jesus apart from all other people was that he kept God's law perfectly and so was the most righteous man on earth.

To what scriptures did these Ebionites appeal in support of their views? What books did they revere and study and read as part of their services of worship? Obviously they retained the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) as the scripture par excellence. These people were Jews, or converts to Judaism, who understood that the ancient Jewish traditions revealed God's ongoing interactions with his people and his Law for their lives. Almost as obviously, they did not accept any of the writings of Paul. Indeed, for them, Paul was not just wrong about a few minor points. He was the archenemy, the heretic who had led so many astray by insisting that a person is made right with God apart from keeping the Law and who forbade circumcision, the ?sign of the covenant,' for his followers. (Ibid., p.100-101)

So according to the Ebionites, Jesus was not divine, he was a man like everyone else, yet what made him special and set him apart was that he was the Jewish Messiah, and that he perfectly followed God's Law. More interesting is that the Ebionites completely rejected Paul; they rejected his writings, his teachings, and considered him an apostate of the Law, and a major heretic! These were not Muslims! No, these were a second century early Christian sect!

What sets the Ebionites apart from the Muslims is that the Ebionites believed that Jesus was not born from a virgin birth, although as we shall shortly see from another source, it seems that the rejection of the virgin birth was not a unanimous belief, furthermore they still affirmed his death on the cross, as a salvation for mankind.

The Catholic encyclopaedia, New Advent, writes the following about this group:

The word Ebionites, or rather, more correctly, EbionŠans (Ebionaioi), is a transliteration of an Aramean word meaning "poor men". It first occurs in Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2, but without designation of meaning. Origen (Against Celsus II.1; De Princ., IV, i, 22) and Eusebius (Church History III.27) refer the name of these sectaries either to the poverty of their understanding, or to the poverty of the Law to which they clung, or to the poor opinions they held concerning Christ. This, however, is obviously not the historic origin of the name. Other writers, such as Tertullian (De Praescr., xxxiii; De Carne Chr., xiv, 18), Hippolytus (cfr. Pseudo-Tert., Adv. Haer., III, as reflecting Hippolytus's lost "Syntagma"), and Epiphanius (Haeres., xxx) derive the name of the sect from a certain Ebion, its supposed founder. Epiphanius even mentions the place of his birth, a hamlet called Cochabe in the district of Bashan, and relates that he travelled through Asia and even came to Rome. Of modern scholars Hilgenfeld has maintained the historical existence of this Ebion, mainly on the ground of some passages ascribed to Ebion by St. Jerome (Comm. in Gal., iii, 14) and by the author of a compilation of patristic texts against the Monothelites. But these passages are not likely to be genuine, and Ebion, otherwise unknown to history, is probably only an invention to account for the name Ebionites. The name may have been self-imposed by those who gladly claimed the beatitude of being poor in spirit, or who claimed to live after the pattern of the first Christians in Jerusalem, who laid their goods at the feet of the Apostles. Perhaps, however, it was first imposed by others and is to be connected with the notorious poverty of the Christians in Palestine (cf. Galatians 2:10). Recent scholars have plausibly maintained that the term did not originally designate any heretical sect, but merely the orthodox Jewish Christians of Palestine who continued to observe the Mosaic Law. These, ceasing to be in touch with the bulk of the Christian world, would gradually have drifted away from the standard of orthodoxy and become formal heretics. A stage in this development is seen in St. Justin's "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew", chapter xlvii (about A.D. 140), where he speaks of two sects of Jewish Christians estranged from the Church: those who observe the Mosaic Law for themselves, but do not require observance thereof from others; and those who hold it of universal obligation. The latter are considered heretical by all; but with the former St. Justin would hold communion, though not all Christians would show them the same indulgence. St. Justin, however, does not use the term Ebionites, and when this term first occurs (about A.D. 175) it designates a distinctly heretical sect.

The doctrines of this sect are said by Irenaeus to be like those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They denied the Divinity and the virginal birth of Christ; they clung to the observance of the Jewish Law; they regarded St. Paul as an apostate, and used only a Gospel according to St. Matthew (Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2; III, xxi, 2; IV, xxxiii, 4; V, i, 3). Their doctrines are similarly described by Hippolytus (Philos., VIII, xxii, X, xviii) and Tertullian (De carne Chr., xiv, 18), but their observance of the Law seems no longer so prominent a feature of their system as in the account given by Irenaeus. Origen is the first (Against Celsus V.61) to mark a distinction between two classes of Ebionites, a distinction which Eusebius also gives (Church History III.27). Some Ebionites accept, but others reject, the virginal birth of Christ, though all reject His pre-existence and His Divinity. Those who accepted the virginal birth seem to have had more exalted views concerning Christ and, besides observing the Sabbath, to have kept the Sunday as a memorial of His Resurrection. The milder sort of Ebionites were probably fewer and less important than their stricter brethren, because the denial of the virgin birth was commonly attributed to all. (Origen, Hom. in Luc., xvii) St. Epiphanius calls the more heretical section Ebionites, and the more Catholic-minded, Nazarenes. But we do not know whence St. Epiphanius obtained his information or or how far it is reliable. It is very hazardous, therefore, to maintain, as is sometimes done, that the distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.

Besides these merely Judaistic Ebionites, there existed a later Gnostic development of the same heresy. These Ebionite Gnostics differed widely from the main schools of Gnosticism, in that they absolutely rejected any distinction between Jehovah the Demiurge, and the Supreme Good God. Those who regard this distinction as essential to Gnosticism would even object to classing Ebionites as Gnostics. But on the other hand the general character of their teaching is unmistakably Gnostic. This can be gathered from the Pseudo-Clementines and may be summed up as follows: Matter is eternal, and an emanation of the Deity; nay it constitutes, as it were, God's body. Creation, therefore, is but the transformation of pre-existing material. God thus "creates" the universe by the instrumentality of His wisdom which is described as a "demiurgic hand" (cheir demiourgousa) producing the world. But this Logos, or Sophia, does not constitute a different person, as in Christian theology. Sophia produces the world by a successive evolution of syzygies, the female in each case preceding the male but being finally overcome by him. This universe is, moreover, divided into two realms, that of good and that of evil. The Son of God rules over the realm of the good, and to him is given the world to come, but the Prince of Evil is the prince of this world (cf. John 14:30; Ephesians 1:21; 6:12). This Son of God is the Christ, a middle-being between God and creation, not a creature, yet not equal to, nor even to be compared with, the Father (autogenneto ou sygkrinetai ? "Hom.", xvi, 16). Adam was the bearer of the first revelation, Moses of the second, Christ of the third and perfect one. The union of Christ with Jesus is involved in obscurity. Man is saved by knowledge (gnosis), by believing in God the Teacher, and by being baptized unto remission of sins. Thus he receives knowledge and strength to observe all the precepts of the law. Christ shall come again to triumph over Antichrist as light dispels darkness. The system is Pantheism, Persian Dualism, Judaism, and Christianity fused together, and here and there reminds one of Mandaistic literature. The "Recognitions", as given us in Rufinus's translation (revision?), come nearer to Catholic teaching than do the "Homilies". (

So according to the above we see that there were some Ebionites who did not reject the virgin birth, more interestingly is the point that the term ?Ebionite' did not originally refer to some group or sect, rather these Jewish Christians were simply followers who clung on to the Jewish Law! And this goes back to the earlier points I was making, that these Christians were simply a carry on of early Christians from the first century who held the same beliefs, the Ebionites were a simple continuation of that group.

So in conclusion let us summarize what we have about this group of early Christians:

1-They rejected the Trinity

2-They rejected the divinity of Jesus

3-They regarded Paul as an apostate and rejected his writings

4-They strictly observed the Jewish law, they did not believe in faith alone

5-Some of them rejected the virgin birth, while others did not

6-They are a simple continuation of Jewish Christians from the first century, hence their foundation really comes much earlier than the second century

And Allah Knows Best!