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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
The Catholic Encyclopedia classifies the Ebionite writings into four groups:
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.
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.