Definitions

Inaugurated eschatology

Ebionites

The Ebionites (Greek: Ἐβιωναῖοι Ebionaioi from Hebrew; אביונים, Ebyonim, "the Poor Ones") were an early Jewish Christian sect that lived in and around Judea and Palestine from the 1st to the 4th century.

To throw light on the views, practices and history of the Ebionites, modern scholars attempt to reconstruct information from the available sources. Much of what is known about the Ebionites derives from the Church Fathers, who wrote polemics against the Ebionites, whom they deemed heretical Judaizers. Some scholars agree with the substance of the traditional portrayal as an offshoot of mainstream Christianity attempting to reestablish Jewish Law. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Ebionite movement may have arisen about the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70). Others have argued that the Ebionites were more faithful to the authentic teachings of Jesus and constituted the mainstream of the Jerusalem church before being gradually marginalized by the followers of Paul of Tarsus.

In contrast to mainstream Christianity, the Ebionites insisted on a universal necessity of following Jewish religious law and rites, which they interpreted in light of Jesus' expounding of the Law. They regarded Jesus as a mortal human messianic prophet but not as divine, revered his brother James as the head of the Jerusalem Church and rejected Paul of Tarsus as an "apostate of the Law". Their name suggests that they placed a special value on religious poverty.

Some scholars distinguish the Ebionites from other Jewish Christian groups, e.g. the Nazarenes, while others believe the two names refer to the same sect and that noted disagreements among Jewish Christians do not correspond with these names. Still others contend that the term was not used to describe a single group at all, but rather denoted any group of Christians of that time who sought to adhere both to Jesus and the Jewish law.

Name

The term Ebionites derives from the Hebrew Evyonim, meaning "the Poor Ones", which has parallels in the Psalms and the self-given term of pious Jewish circles. The term "the poor" was at first a common designation for all Christians - a reference to their material as well their religious poverty. Following schisms within the early Church, the graecized Hebrew term "Ebionite" was applied exclusively to Jewish Christians separated from the developing Pauline Christianity, and later in the fourth century a specific group of Jewish Christians or to a Jewish Christian sect distinct from the Nazarenes. All the while, the designation "the Poor" in other languages was still used in its original, more general sense. Origen says "for Ebion signifies “poor” among the Jews, and those Jews who have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites. Tertullian inaccurately derived the name from a fictional heresiarch called Ebion.

The divergent application of "Ebionite" persists today, as some authors choose to label all Jewish Christians, even before the mentioned schism, as Ebionites, while others, though agreeing about the historical events, use it in a more restricted sense. Mainstream scholarship commonly uses the term in the restricted sense.

History

Without authenticated archaeological evidence, attempts to reconstruct their history have been based on textual references, mainly the writings of the Church Fathers. The earliest reference to a group that might fit the description of the Ebionites appears in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (c. 140). Justin distinguishes between Jewish Christians who observe the Law of Moses but does not require its observance upon others, and those who believe the Mosaic Law to be obligatory on all. Irenaeus (c. 180) was the first to use the term "Ebionites" to describe a heretical judaizing sect, which he regarded as stubbornly clinging to the Law. Origen (c. 212) remarks that the name derives from the Hebrew word "evyon," meaning "poor. Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century gives the most complete but also questionable account in his heresiology called Panarion, denouncing eighty heretical sects, among them the Ebionites. Epiphanius mostly gives general descriptions of their religious beliefs and includes quotations from their gospels, which have not survived.

The actual number of groups described as Ebionites is difficult to ascertain, as the contradictory patristic accounts in their attempt to distinguish various sects, sometimes confuse them with each other. Other groups mentioned are the Carpocratians, the Cerinthians, the Elcesaites, the Nazarenes, the Nazoraeans, and the Sampsaeans, most of whom were Jewish Christian sects who held gnostic or other views rejected by the Ebionites. Epiphanius, however, mentions that a group of Ebionites came to embrace some of these views despite keeping their name.

As the Ebionites are first mentioned as such in the 2nd century, their earlier history and their relation to the first Jerusalem church remains obscure and a matter of contention. Many scholars link the origin of the Ebionites with the First Jewish-Roman War. Prior to this, they are considered to be part of the Jerusalem church led by the Apostle Peter and later by Jesus' brother James. Eusebius relates a tradition, probably based on Aristo of Pella, that the early Christians left Jerusalem just prior to the war and fled to Pella beyond the Jordan River. They were led by Simeon of Jerusalem (d. 107) and during the Second Jewish-Roman War, they were persecuted by the Jewish followers of Bar Kochba for refusing to recognize his messianic claims.

According to these scholars, it was beyond the Jordan, that the Nazarenes/Ebionites were first recognized as a distinct group when some Jewish Christians receded farther from mainstream Christianity, and approximated more and more closely to Rabbinical Judaism, resulting in a "degeneration" into an exclusively Jewish sect. Some from these groups later opened themselves to either Jewish Gnostic (and possibly Essene) or syncretic influences, such as the book of Elchasai. The latter influence places some Ebionites in the context of the gnostic movements widespread in Syria and the lands to the east.

After the end of the First Jewish-Roman War, the importance of the Jerusalem church began to fade. Jewish Christianity became dispersed throughout the Jewish diaspora in the Levant, where it was slowly eclipsed by gentile Christianity, which then spread throughout the Roman Empire without competition from "judaizing" Christian groups. Once the Jerusalem church, still headed by Jesus' relatives, was eliminated during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, the Ebionites gradually lost influence and followers. According to one writer their decline was due to marginalization and "persecution" by both Jews and Christians. Following the defeat of the rebellion and the expulsion of all Jews from Judea, Jerusalem became the Gentile city of Aelia Capitolina. Many of the Jewish Christians residing at Pella renounced their Jewish practices at this time and joined to the mainstream Christian church. Those who remained at Pella and continued in obedience to the Law were deemed heretics. In 375, Epiphanius records the settlement of Ebionites on Cyprus, but by the mid-5th century, Theodoret of Cyrrhus reported that they were no longer present in the region.

Some scholars argue that the Ebionites survived much longer and identify them with a sect encountered by the historian Abd al-Jabbar around the year 1000. Another possible reference to surviving Ebionite communities in northwestern Arabia, specifically the cities of Tayma and Tilmas, around the 11th century, appears in Sefer Ha'masaot, the "Book of the Travels" of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from Spain. 12th century Muslim historian Muhammad al-Shahrastani mentions Jews living in nearby Medina and Hejaz who accepted Jesus as a prophetic figure and followed traditional Judaism, rejecting mainstream Christian views. Some scholars argue that they contributed to the development of the Islamic view of Jesus due to exchanges of Ebionite remnants with the first Muslims.

Legacy

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, several small yet competing new religious movements, such as the Ebionite Jewish Community and others, have emerged claiming to be revivalists of the views and practices of early Ebionites, although their idiosyncratic claims to authenticity cannot be verified.

The counter-missionary group Jews for Judaism favorably mentions the historical Ebionites in their literature in order to argue that "Messianic Judaism", as promoted by missionary groups such as Jews for Jesus, is Pauline Christianity misrepresenting itself as Judaism. Some Messianic groups have expressed concern over leaders in Israel that deny Jesus' divinity and the possible collapse of the Messianic movement due to a resurgence of Ebionitism. In a recent polemic, a Messianic leader asked whether Christians should imitate the Torah-observance of "neo-Ebionites".

Views and practices

Judaic and Gnostic Ebionitism

Most patristic sources portray the Ebionites as traditional yet ascetic Jews, who zealously followed the Law of Moses, revered Jerusalem as the holiest city, and restricted table fellowship only to Gentiles who converted to Judaism. They celebrated a commemorative meal annually, on or around Passover, with unleavened bread and water only, in contrast to the daily Christian Eucharist.

Epiphanius of Salamis is the only Church Father who describes some Ebionites as departing from traditional Jewish principles of faith and practice; specifically by engaging in excessive ritual bathing, possessing an angelology which claimed that the Christ is a great archangel who was incarnated in Jesus and adopted as the son of God, opposing animal sacrifice, denying parts or most of the Law, and practicing religious vegetarianism

The reliability of Epiphanius' account of the Ebionites is questioned by some scholars. Shlomo Pines, for example, argues that the heterodox views and practices he ascribes to some Ebionites originated in Gnostic Christianity rather than Jewish Christianity, and are characteristics of the Elcesaite sect, which Epiphanius mistakenly attributed to the Ebionites.

While mainstream biblical scholars do suppose some Essene influence on the nascent Jewish-Christian Church in some organizational, administrative and cultic respects, some scholars go beyond that assumption. Among them, some hold theories which have been discredited and others which remain controversial.

Regarding the Ebionites specifically, a number of scholars have different theories on how the Ebionites may have developed from an Essene Jewish messianic sect. Hans-Joachim Schoeps argues that the conversion of some Essenes to Jewish Christianity after the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE may be the source of some Ebionites adopting Essene views and practices; while some conclude that the Essenes did not become Jewish Christians but still had an influence on the Ebionites.

Jesus

The majority of Church Fathers agree that the Ebionites rejected many of the central Christian views of Jesus such as the pre-existence, divinity, virgin birth, atoning death, and physical resurrection of Jesus. The Ebionites are described as emphasizing the oneness of God and the humanity of Jesus as the biological son of both Mary and Joseph, who by virtue of his righteousness, was chosen by God to be the messianic "prophet like Moses" (foretold in Deuteronomy 18:14–22) when he was anointed with the holy spirit at his baptism.

Of the books of the New Testament, the Ebionites are said to have accepted only a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew, referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews, as additional scripture to the Hebrew Bible. This version of Matthew, Irenaeus reports, omitted the first two chapters (on the nativity of Jesus), and started with the baptism of Jesus by John.

The Ebionites believed that all Jews and Gentiles must observe the commandments in the Law of Moses, in order to become righteous and seek communion with God, but these commandments must be understood in the light of Jesus' expounding of the Law, revealed during his sermon on the mount. The Ebionites may have held a form of "inaugurated eschatology" positing that the ministry of Jesus had ushered in the Messianic Age so that the kingdom of God might be understood as present in an incipient fashion, while at the same time awaiting consummation in the future age.

James vs. Paul

James, the brother of the Lord, presided over the Jerusalem church after the other apostles dispersed. Paul, self appointed Apostle to the Gentiles, established many churches and founded a Christian theology, see Pauline Christianity. At the Council of Jerusalem (c 49), Paul argued to abrogate Mosaic observances for his non-Jewish converts, but Paul's arguments were rejected, and Jewish Law and tradition concerning non-Jewish followers were asserted by refrence to Noahide Law. For the parallel in Judaism, see Noachide law.

Some scholars argue that the Ebionites regarded James, brother of Jesus, the first bishop of Jerusalem, the rightful leader of the Church rather than Peter. James Tabor argues that the Ebionites claimed a unique dynastic apostolic succession for the relatives of Jesus. They opposed the Apostle Paul, who established that gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or otherwise follow the Law of Moses, and named him an apostate. Epiphanius relates that some Ebionites alleged that Paul was a Greek who converted to Judaism in order to marry the daughter of a high priest of Israel but apostasized when she rejected him.

Writings

Few writings of the Ebionites have survived, and these are in uncertain form. The Recognitions of Clement and the Clementine Homilies, two 3rd century Christian works, are regarded by general scholarly consensus as largely or entirely Jewish Christian in origin and reflect Jewish Christian beliefs. The exact relationship between the Ebionites and these writings is debated, but Epiphanius's description of some Ebionites in Panarion 30 bears a striking similarity to the ideas in the Recognitions and Homilies. Scholar Glenn Alan Koch speculates that Epiphanius likely relied upon a version of the Homilies as a source document.

The Catholic Encyclopedia classifies the Ebionite writings into four groups:

  • The Gospel of the Ebionites: According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions a Gospel of the Hebrews, often identified as the slightly modified Aramaic original of Matthew, written with Hebrew letters. Such a work was known to Hegesippus, Origen and to Clement of Alexandria. Epiphanius of Salamis attributes this gospel to Nazarenes, and claims that Ebionites only possessed an incomplete, falsified, and truncated copy. The question remains whether Epiphanius was able to accurately distinguish between Nazarenes and Ebionites.
  • Apocrypha of the New Testament: The Circuits of Peter and Acts of the Apostles, including the work usually titled the Ascents of James. The first-named books are substantially contained in the Homilies of Clement under the title of Clement's Compendium of Peter's itinerary sermons, and also in the Recognitions attributed to Clement. They form an early Christian didactic fiction to express Jewish Christian views, i.e. the primacy of James the Just, their connection with the episcopal see of Rome, and their antagonism to Simon Magus, as well as gnostic doctrines. Scholar Robert E. Van Voorst opines of the Ascents of James (R 1.33–71), "There is, in fact, no section of the Clementine literature about whose origin in Jewish Christianity one may be more certain". Despite this assertion, he expresses reservations that the material is genuinely Ebionite in origin.
  • The Works of Symmachus the Ebionite: Symmachus produced a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, which was used by Jerome and is still extant in fragments, and Hypomnemata written to counter the canonical Gospel of Matthew. The latter work, which is totally lost is probably identical with De distinctione præceptorum mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or., III, 1).
  • The Book of Elchesai claimed to have been written about 100 CE and brought to Rome in c. 217 CE by Alcibiades of Apamea. Ebionites deemed those who accepted its gnostic doctrines apostates.

Some also speculate that the core of the Gospel of Barnabas, beneath a polemical medieval Muslim overlay, may have been based upon an Ebionite or gnostic document. The existence and origin of this source continues to be debated by scholars.

Religious perspectives

The mainstream Christian view of the Ebionites is based on the polemical views of the Church Fathers who portrayed them as heretics for rejecting many of the central Christian views of Jesus, and allegedly having an improper fixation on the Law of Moses at the expense of the grace of God. In this view, the Ebionites may have been the descendants of a Jewish Christian sect within the early Jerusalem church which broke away from its mainstream theology.

Some Christian apologists have criticized the quest for the historical Jesus as having resulted in a "revival of the Ebionite heresy". Some scholars with mainstream Christian beliefs are acknowledging the recent emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers, and commenting on how they reconciled the Jewish Jesus with the Christ of faith.

The mainstream Jewish view of the Ebionites is that they were Jewish heretics due to their refusal to see Jesus as a false prophet and failed Jewish Messiah claimant but also for wanting to include their gospel into the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

Some Muslims who charge Christians with having corrupted the Bible, believe that the Ebionites (as opposed to Christians they encountered) were faithful to the original teachings of Jesus with shared views about Jesus' humanity, though the Islamic view of Jesus conflicts with the Ebionites' views regarding the virgin birth and the crucifixion.

References

Literature

Primary sources

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