Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
e'-bi-o-niz'-m, e'-bio-nits (Ebionaioi, from 'ebhyonim, "poor people"):
I. ORIGIN OF THE NAME
1. The Poor Ones
2. Origin of the Name
II. AUTHORITIES FOR THE OPINIONS OF THE EBIONITES
1. Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus
2. Origen and Jerome
3. Epiphanius' Description
4. Justin Martyr
III. LITERATURE OF THE EBIONITES
1. The Gospel According to the Hebrews
2. The Clementines
3. Apocalyptic Literature
IV. HISTORY OF EBIONISM
1. Ebionites and Essenes
2. Organization of Ebionites
V. EVIDENCE FROM EBIONISM FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH
1. Christology of the Early Church
2. Paulinism of the Early Church
The Ebionites were a sect of heretics frequently mentioned by the early Fathers. In regard to their opinions, as in regard to those of most early heretical sects, there is the difficulty that to a large extent we are dependent for our information on their opponents. These opponents were not generally very careful to apprehend exactly the views of those whose opinions they undertook to refute. It adds to the difficulty in the present case that there is a dubiety as to the persons designated by the title. Sometimes, it is admitted, the name was used to designate all Jewish Christians irrespective of their opinions; at other times it denotes a sect akin to the Gnostics, who ascribed a purely human origin to our Lord. There are, however, certain works, the Clementine writings, which from statements of the Fathers may be assumed to represent the views of this sect, but as these represent views to some extent divergent, it is difficult to decide which is the truly Ebionitic. There are also certain apocalyptic books which present affinities with Ebionism. The quotations from the Gospel according to the Hebrews--the only gospel the Ebionites received--likewise afford means of appreciating their views. This gospel has come down to us only in isolated quotations, for the accuracy of which we have no guarantee. Finally, it has to be borne in mind that no sect can persist through centuries of changing circumstances, and not in turn undergo change.
I. Origin of the Name.
1. The Poor Ones:
Tertullian and Epiphanius assume the sect to have received its name from a certain Ebion or Hebion. Others of the Fathers, without affirming it, use language which seems to imply the belief in a person called Ebion. This, however, is generally now regarded as a mistake. No trace of the existence of such a person is to be found. The sect in question seems to have assumed the name Ebionites, "the poor ones," from the first Beatitude (Mt 5:3), claiming to be the continuation into the new dispensation of the "poor and needy" of the Psalms, e.g. 69:33; 70:5; 74:21.
It has been mooted that the sect may have had a leader who assumed the title "the poor man." Besides that we have no trace of his existence, the name would almost certainly have been treated as an Aramaic word and put in the status emphaticus as Ebiona, which in Greek would have become Ebionas.
2. Origin of the Name:
The ordinary view of the origin of the name has the advantage of analogy in its favor. The pre-Reformation Protestants of the 12th and 13th centuries in France called themselves "the poor men" (of Lyons). The fact that the apostle James in his Epistle implies a natural union between poverty and piety (2:5), "Did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith ....?" would confirm the Jewish Christians in their use of the name.
Some have been inclined to press unduly a play on the name in which some of the Fathers indulge, as if the poor views of this sect as to the person of Christ had led to their receiving this name from without.
II. Authorities for the Opinions of the Ebionites.
1. Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus:
As indicated above, the main authorities for these are Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. The characteristics of the Ebionites noted by them were, first, the negative one that they did not, like the other Gnostics, distinguish between the Supreme God and the Creator of the world--the demiurge--who was identified with the God of the Jews. With them Yahweh was the Supreme God--the God of Israel and the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The second characteristic, also negative, was that they denied the supernatural birth of our Lord. He was the son of Joseph and Mary in the ordinary sense of the word. The third was that they, along with the Cerinthians and Carpocratians, affirmed that a Divine power came down on Jesus at His baptism--the reward of His perfect holiness. According to one form of theory, the Holy Ghost was the eternal Son of God. Another view was that the power which descended upon Him was the Divine wisdom, the Logos. By the influence of this Divine power He performed miracles and taught with superhuman wisdom. But this Divine influence deserted Jesus on the Cross, hence, the cry of being forsaken (Mt 27:46). The Divine power, however, raised Him from the dead and caused Him to ascend on high. Hippolytus brings the Ebionites into close connection with the Elkasaites and with a certain Alcibiades, whose views he had to combat in Rome. The last claimed to found his views on a work of Elkasai.
2. Origen and Jerome:
From two other sources we derive further information: Origen and Jerome both notify the fact that the Ebionites translated `almah "young woman" (it is rendered "virgin" in our the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American)). This translation, so far as the mere word is concerned, is indubitably correct. There is another point in which both afford us information. The first says (Contra Celsum, v.61) that there are two classes of Ebionites, one of which denies the miraculous conception and birth of our Lord, the other of which affirms it. Jerome, in his letter to Augustine, not only asserts the same thing but calls the one class, those affirming the miraculous birth, Nazareans, and the other Ebionites. Origen in his second book against Celsus speaks as if the only distinction between the Ebionites and other Christians was their obedience to the Mosaic law, and by their example rebuts the assertion that the Jews in becoming Christians deserted the law of their fathers. Another feature of Ebionism presented to us by Jerome (In Jesaiam, lxvi.24) is their chiliastic view--the personal reign of our Lord for 1,000 years as the Jewish Messiah.
3. Epiphanius' Description:
The writer who gives the most voluminous account of the Ebionites--"Ebionaeans" as he calls them--is Epiphanius. With him it is at once heresy No. X and heresy No. XXX. Before discussing the Ebionites he takes up the closely related sect of the Nazareans as heresy No. XXIX. He had already in a more compendious way considered a similarly named sect, numbering it No. XVIII. It, however, is Jewish while this is Christian. The Jewish sect is distinguished by eating no animal food and offering no sacrifices. They have thus an affinity with the Essenes. They have a peculiarity that, while they honored the patriarchs, they rejected the Pentateuch which related their history. These Nazareans dwelt East of the Jordan in Gilead and Bashan. Heresy No. XXIX is the Christian Nazareans. This name had been at first applied to all Christians. Epiphanius identifies them with the Essenes and declares their distinguishing peculiarity to be the retention of circumcision and the ceremonial law. They use the Gospel of Matthew but without the genealogies. As Heresy No. XXX he proceeds to consider the Ebionites. Ebion, Epiphanius assumes to have been a man, and calls him a "polymorphic portent," and asserts that he was connected with the Samaritans, the Essenes, the Cerinthians and Carpocratians, yet desired to be regarded a Christian. The heresy originated after the flight of the church to Pella. They denied the miraculous birth of our Lord, but maintained that a Divine influence came down upon Him at His baptism. This Divine wisdom had inspired, and in a sense dwelt, in all the patriarchs. In some sense the body of Jesus was regarded as that of Adam revived. This body was crucified and rose again. They receive only the Gospel of Matthew in the form the Cerinthians use it, i.e. the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Epiphanius gives some account of this gospel and its defects. They use also other books; one which he especially describes, The Journeyings of Peter, appears to be in the main identical with the Clementine Homilies. He connects the Ebionites, as does Hippolytus, with Elkasai; from him they learned that the heavenly Christ was 96 miles high and 24 broad, and that the Holy Ghost had a female form of similar dimensions, only invisible. Although he connects the Ebionites with the Essenes he mentions that, unlike the Essenes of Josephus and Philo, the Ebionites not only permitted but enjoined matrimony on young men. Epiphanius adds as an especial enormity that the Ebionites permit second, third and even seventh marriages. Although they enjoin marriage they have a low opinion of women, crediting Eve with originating heathenism, in this agreeing with the Essenian opinion of the sex. Mysteriously Epiphanius represents, the Ebionites as not only rejecting the prophets in a body but deriding them. He also mentions the rejection of Paul by the Ebionites. It is exceedingly difficult to form a clear, self-consistent view of the doctrines of the Ebionites from the statements of Epiphanius, yet there are points in which his information is of value.
4. Justin Martyr:
Though Justin Martyr does not name the Ebionites in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew (47), he mentions two classes of Jewish Christians: (a) those who not only themselves observe the law but would compel the Gentilebelievers also to be circumcised and keep the whole law, and will hold no communion with those who refuse to become Jews; (b) those who, observing the Mosaic law themselves, enter into communion with uncircumcised Gentilebelievers. The former appear to be an early form of Ebionites. It is to be noted that Justin does not ascribe to them any doctrinal divergence from the orthodox views. In the following chapter he mentions some that denied the divinity of our Lord, but these were Gentiles (hemeterou genous) "of our race."
III. Literature of the Ebionites.
One thing of importance we do owe to Epiphanius--the indication of the literature produced by the Ebionites, from which we may get their views at first hand. This includes the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Clementines (Homilies and Recognitions); to which we would add the Ascension of Isaiah and the Odes of Solomon. It may be remarked that this literature appears to represent the opinion of different classes of the Ebionites. We shall merely consider here the bearing these works have on the Ebionites.
1. The Gospel According to the Hebrews:
The Gospel according to the Hebrews we know only through quotations. We can have no certainty that these quotations are accurate. The quotations may have been interpolated, and further the book from which the quotations have been made has probably passed through several recensions. The discussion of the question of the relation of this book to the canonical Gospel of Mt is considered elsewhere (see APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS). One thing is clear, there were at least two recensions of this gospel, one nearer and the other farther from the canonical Gospel; the former, the Nazarean, differed only by omitting the genealogy from the First Gospel of the Canon. The other was more strictly Ebionite and omitted all mention of the miraculous birth. The Ebionite recension began, as Epiphanius tells us, abruptly with the calling of the Apostles. The assertion of Epiphanius that the Ebionites rejected the prophets is supported by a quotation from the Gospel according to the Hebrews in Jerome (Adv. Pelag., iii.2): "In the prophets, after they were anointed by the Spirit, sin was found." The change from akridas ("locusts") to egkridas (literally, "cakes of honey and oil"; compare Ex 16:31; Nu 11:8) in the account of the food of John may be due to the avoidance of animal food attributed to this sect. One passage, which appears to be a denunciation of wealth in itself, is an addition of a second rich man to the story of the young ruler of the synagogue. A singular verse, quoted from this gospel both by Origen and Jerome, deserves special notice for several reasons: "My mother, the Holy Ghost, took me by one of my hairs and bore me to the great mountain Tabor." The designation of the Holy Ghost as "my mother" is unexampled. It implies a materialistic view of the doctrine of the Trinity after the form of a human family. It is a note of geographical ignorance to call Tabor a "great" mountain. It is only some 2,000 ft. high and behind it are the mountains of the hill country of Galilee rising up to 4,000 ft. in Jebel Jermuk, and behind that the white top of Hermon, 10,000 ft. It is difficult to understand anyone resident in Israel calling Tabor a "great" mountain. Rising from the plain of Esdraelon it is prominent, but with the higher mountains behind it, it could not even seem great. In a quotation by Jerome (Adv. Pelag., iii.2) our Lord declares Himself unwilling to be baptized by John as unconscious of sin. This suits the representation of Ebionite views which we find in Irenaeus that it was His sinlessness that made Jesus capable of receiving the Holy Ghost.
2. The Clementines:
The Clementine literature attributed by Epiphanius to the Ebionites is a more important source of information for their opinions. It has come down to us complete in three or four forms, the Homilies, the Recognitions, and two Epitomes which, however, differ less than the two larger works. They all seem to be recensions of an earlier work which has disappeared. The foundation of all of these is a species of religious novel on which are grafted sermons of Peter and his discussions with Simon Magus. Clement, a young Roman orphan of rank in search of a religion, meets Barnabas, who tells him of Christ, describing Him as the "Son of God," and says that He had appeared in Judea. To learn more about Jesus, Clement proceeds to Caesarea, where he meets Peter. He thereafter accompanies Peter to the various places whither the apostle pursues Simon Magus, and in course of his journeyings he meets and recognizes his father, his brother and his mother; hence, the title Recognitions. It is in the discourses of Peter that the Ebionism appears. Its theology is fundamentally Jewish and Essenian. That it is Judaizing is evidenced by the covert hostility to the apostle Paul. There are elements that are not those of orthodox Judaism. The Messiah is coequal, or nearly so, with the devil; in other words, the position is a modification of Parseeism (Hom., III, 5). If the discourse of Barnabas is excluded, our Lord is always called the "prophet" (Hom.), the "Teacher" (Recog.). He is never asserted nor assumed to be Divine. Nothing is said of His miraculous birth. At the same time in the Recognitions He is regarded as not merely man. It is said He "assumed a Jewish body" (Recog, I, 60). This agrees with what Epiphanius says of the Ebionite idea that it was as the body of Adam that the Christ appeared. The apostle Peter, who is represented as the model Christian, eats only herbs and practices frequent ablutions, quite in the manner of the Essenes. In his discourses Peter declares that the true prophet "quenches the fire of altars and represses war." These are Essenian peculiarities, but he "sanctions marriage," against Essenism as we find it in Philo and Josephus The phrase implies an opposition to some who not only did not sanction, but forbade, marriage (Hom., III, 26).
3. Apocalyptic Literature:
If the ignoring of the work and apostleship of Paul be regarded as the criterion of the Judaizers, that is to say, the Ebionites, then in apocalyptic literature we find works from which we can draw information as to views. The Ascension of Isaiah was one of the earliest of these books to be recovered in modern times. The writer refers to the martyrdom of Peter in Rome, but makes no mention of Paul (IV, 3). The description of elders and shepherds hating one another (III, 29), "lawless elders and unjust shepherds who will ravage their sheep" (III, 24), seems a view of the church's state as it appeared to a Judaizer when the Pauline view was prevailing. Notwithstanding this not only is the Divine dignity maintained, but the doctrine of the Trinity, "They all glorified the Father of all and His beloved Son and the Holy Spirit" (VIII, 18), is affirmed. As to the person of Christ, He descended through the successive heavens to the earth to be born (IX, 13; X, 8-31). The virginity of Mary is affirmed (X, 12), and the child is born without pain, miraculously (XI, 8-14). A similar view of the birth of Christ is to be found in the Odes of Solomon (XIX, 7).
IV. History of Ebionism.
1. Ebionites and Essenes:
All authorities combine in asserting a close connection between the Ebionites and the Essenes. At first sight there are serious points of difference, principally these, the Ebionites enjoined marriage, while the Essenes, if we may believe Philo and Josephus, forbade it. This forbiddal, however, appears to have been true only of the Coenobites of Engedi. Moreover, some of the Judaizers, that is Ebionites, are charged with forbidding to marry (1 Tim 4:3). The Essenes in all their varieties seem to have come over to Christianity on the fall of the Jewish state and the retreat of the church to Pella. When they joined the believers in their exile the Parsee elements began a ferment in the church and Ebionism was one of the products. This probably is the meaning of the statement that Ebion began to teach his doctrines at Pella. If we may judge from the statements of Scripture and from the earliest of the noncanonical apocalypses, the Ebionites were not at first heretical in their Christology. Only they maintained the universal obligation of the ceremonial law, holding that believers of Gentiledescent could be received into the church only if they were first circumcised. The keen dialectic of Paul forced them from this position. The abrogation of the Law was closely connected in Paul's reasonings with the Divinity of our Lord; consequently some of them may have felt that they could maintain their views more easily by denying His supreme Divinity and the reality of the incarnation. The phenomena of His life rendered it impossible for anyone to declare Him to be merely man. Hence, the complex notion of a Divine influence--an eon, coming down upon Him. If, however, His birth were miraculous, then the supreme greatness of Moses would be impugned, consequently they were led to deny the virgin birth.
Not till Theodotus appeared was the purely humanitarian view of our Lord's person maintained. All the Hebrew Christians, however, did not pursue the above course. A large section remained at each general stage, and to the end one portion, the Nazareans, maintained their orthodox doctrinal position, and at the same time obeyed the requirements of the Law. The dualism which is found in the Clementines is an endeavor to explain the power of evil in the world and the function of Satan. The Clementines confirm the statement of the Fathers that the Ebionites used only the Gospel of Mark, for there are more quotations from Mt than from all the other books of the New Testament put together: These quotations are, however, all from chapters after the 3rd chapter. There are, it is to be noted, several unmistakable quotations from the Fourth Gospel. In the Clementines as noticed above there is an avoidance of attributing Divinity to our Lord. He is the Teacher, the Prophet; only in the discourse ascribed to Barnabas is He called the Son of God. This, we are aware, is the reverse of the ordinarily received idea of the historic succession of beliefs. It is thought that, beginning with the belief in the purely ordinary nature of our Lord's birth, these Jewish believers gradually added feature after feature until He was regarded as a Divine person, the Divine Logos made flesh by miraculous conception and birth. The abstract possibility of such being the course of events is not denied, but we do say that what evidence we have tends in the direction we have taken. There are elements kindred to Ebionism in the Epistle of James, the prominence given to the poor, the little prominence given to the Divinity of Our Lord or to the doctrines of grace all tend in that direction. Yet there is no developed Ebionism; the Divinity of Christ, if not stated in terms, is implied. Schwegler, followed in more recent times by Dr. Campbell of Dundee, finds a strong Ebionite bias in the Gospel of Luke, in which certainly there is no lessening of our Lord's supreme Divinity. All that it amounts to is a prominence given to the poor. The identification of the poor with the righteous has not come down to us as a tenet of the Ebionites; it has been ascribed to them from their name. As already stated in the Ascension of Isaiah, the Divinity of the Messiah is strongly asserted. The farther down the stream of history we go more and more clearly do the Ebionite features appear, till by the time when Alcibiades, the follower of Elkasai, appeared in Rome, we have something widely removed from the Ebionism of the Clementines, far as that is from the simple position occupied by the Nazareans.
2. Organization of Ebionites:
The Jewish Christians appear to have formed an organization of their own, separate from the church Catholic. The places where they assembled they did not call ekklesiai, "churches," but sunagogai, "synagogues." If we may believe the Clementine Homilies they had evolved a complete episcopal system for themselves. We, however, must not think that every variation of faith had a separate organization for itself. Strict Jewish ceremonial allowed no Jew to eat with any other not a Jew. The "love-feasts" of the early church implied this eating in common. If GentileChristians were present, the Ebionites could not join, hence, the need of a separate church. All Jewish Christians who reverenced the law could meet together and partake of the "love-feast," whatever their belief as to the person of Christ. In short, Ebionism was a thing of individuals, whose opinion ran through the whole gamut of faith, from the Nazareans, who differed from the orthodox simply in remaining Jews, to those whose Judaism alone prevented them from becoming followers of Theodotus of Byzantium, and who therefore sank back into pure Judaism.
V. Evidence from Ebionism for the Doctrine of the Primitive Church.
1. Christology of the Early Church:
In dealing with this branch of our subject we have to consider that the tendency of those who in the early days wrote against heresy was to exaggerate the difference between the heretics and the orthodox. On the other hand we have to consider the psychological difficulty involved in a person recognizing that anyone whom he daily met, whom he saw eating and sleeping like other men, was more than man, was Divine. This difficulty, great to all, was doubly so to the Jew. Yet again we have to consider what the origin of Christian theology was. It was an attempt to give a reasoned and systematic explanation of the phenomenon of Jesus Christ. Christ's character, His deeds and His claims had to be explained. The orthodox explanation which gradually became more definite as time rolled on was that He was the second person of the Trinity become incarnate, and the purpose of this incarnation that He might save many from their sins. This purpose He accomplished by dying on the cross and rising again. The primitive church owed its theology to Paul and John. Repugnant as much of this was to the Jews, yet the Ebionites, earnest, prejudiced Jews as they were, could not affirm in the presence of the facts of His career that Jesus was merely a man. They had to imagine a Divine influence coming down upon Him at His baptism, setting Him apart from all others. We have no trace of this at first: it stands at the end of a process of degradation of the ideal concerning the person of Christ. It was only when the effect of His personality had somewhat faded that men began to doubt His Divinity. The division of the personality seems to emerge at the same time. The earlier Ebionites, like the rest of the 1st-century believers, regarded Christ as one person; only later do they reach the notion of a heavenly eon separate from Jesus. The Ebionites seem to have held under varying forms a doctrine of the Trinity, and their holding it is an evidence that the church at large held it, not of course in that definiteness it assumed later, but essentially.
2. Paulinism of the Early Church:
To some extent the same may be said in regard to the Pauline doctrine of redemption. It is to be observed that both writers, he of the Homilies as well as the writer of the Recognitions, dislike and ignore Paul, even if they do not attempt to pillory him under the image of Simon Magus, as many have thought that they do. What, however, is also to be observed, is that they do not venture to denounce him by name. Paul and his teachings must have been, in the early part of the 2nd century, held in such deep reverence that no one could hope to destroy them by direct assault; the only hope was a flank attack. This reverence for Paul implies the reception of all he taught. All the specially Pauline doctrines of original sin, of redemption through the sacrificial death of Christ, and all the cognate ideas must have been held strongly by the early church or the Ebionites would have denounced Paul in the Clementines by name. Schwegler would argue that Justin Martyr was an Ebionite because he neither mentions nor quotes Paul. To this it may be answered that as the emperors to whom he addressed his apologies were heathens, and Trypho, with whom he had his dialogue, was a Jew, he naturally did not name one whose authority would be valueless to those he was addressing. He is equally silent as to Peter, James and John. If he does not quote Paul there are several indubitable echoes of his phrases and his thoughts.
In the face of the recent discoveries made in Egypt one cannot despair of manuscripts turning up which may throw needed light on this heresy. Were the Gospel according to the Hebrews to be found, or a manuscript of Hegesippus, we should be in a better position to decide a number of questions.
Contemporary writers on Ebionites: Irenaeus; Tertullian; Hippolytus; Origen; Eusebius, III, 27; Epiphanius; Jerome; Justin Martyr (Trypho, 47, 48) refers to the Ebionites without naming them.
Ebionite writings: Clementine Homilies; Clementine Recognitions; Clementine Epitomes; Asc Isa; Odes of Solomon.
Modern church historians: Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church; Schrock, Kirchengeschichte; Walch, Historic der Ketzereien, I, 95-124; Baur, Kirchengeschichte, I, 172-74, and Dogmengeschichte, 140-61, and Christliche Gnosis; Schwegler, Nachapostolisches Zeitalter, 17-198; Ritschl, Altkatholische Kirche, 107-271; Matter, Gnosticisme, III, 11-28; Harnack, History of Dogma, 1-89 ff; Reuss, Hist. de la Theologie, I, 115-25; Donaldson, Christian Literature and Doctrine from the Death of the Apostles to the Nicene Council, I, 39 ff; Mansel, Gnostic Heresies, 123-26; Helgenfeld, Ketzergeschichte, 421-46, and Clementines.
Articles in theological dictionaries: Smith and Wace; RE, 1st, 2nd and 3rd eds; Jewish Encyclopedia;Holtzman u. Zopffel; Lightfoot, Galatians, Disc. III; Colin Campbell, Studies in Luke.
J. E. H. Thomson
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'ebionism; ebionites'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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