Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 1

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 1 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. 🙂

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There probably is more truth to the early heresy than we realize.

—Dr. Fred Shively, October 4, 2010

I.  Introduction

In response to the ministry of Jesus, it seems that some Jews came to identify him as the Messiah while maintaining their distinctly Jewish beliefs. For almost two centuries, scholars have found these early Jewish Jesus followers—Jewish Christians, if you will—“theologically interesting,” if for no other reason than their chronological proximity to Jesus himself.[1] After all, despite the sense of a personal relationship with Jesus said to be attainable through prayer, a fact that all must admit is that historically speaking, we know of Jesus’ actual identity “only indirectly, through his effects.”[2] Certainly, the gospel accounts of Jesus and his sayings can get us closer to the historical Jesus, but given that they were written some three, four, five or six decades after his death, these, too, are part of Jesus’ “effects.” Additionally, when confronted with the contents of these gospels, it must be conceded that Jesus was incredibly hard to understand at times. His primary mode of public teaching appeared to be parables. As intentionally ambiguous forms of dialogue—or rather, labyrinth-like stories that were apparently meant to have several possible endpoints on purpose—these parables strengthen the supposition that Jesus traveled from place to place communicating predominantly in riddles.[3] With this in mind, the plurality of viewpoints about both the message and the person of Jesus seems not only excusable, but also completely understandable.

“But it was, [Jesus] said, in his life and in ones like it that the Kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish god of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of injustice and unrighteousness.”[4] In terms of the theologically interesting Jesus followers of antiquity, can we regain the kingdom orientation that has, for many centuries, been lost? In light of Dr. Shively’s epigraph[5], is it furthermore possible to recover the truth in the named heresy of early Jewish Christianity, and the Ebionites in particular? The probability of success for such an effort is reduced significantly in that scholars have no extant firsthand knowledge of the Ebionites after the conclusion of the third century.[6] However, I agree with other scholars who are less discouraged by these roadblocks than they are encouraged by the possibilities of uncovering fresh perspectives of truth and genuinely authentic faith constructs. In accordance, this essay will strive to define the proper context for Jewish Christianity, both in general and, more importantly, as it relates to the Ebionites. I will attempt to positively identify those ideas and practices that were assuredly Ebionite by considering the sources preserving their origin, legacy of beliefs and ideological and theological development before finally offering my personal insights and reflections on this significant group of early Jewish Christians. In short, I hope to give the Ebionites an objective and subjective voice pertinent for modern scholars and laypersons alike.

II.  Defining and Identifying Jewish Christianity

As scholars seeking to gain and produce insights on post-biblical times, it is unavoidable that we are like motorists attempting to drive a truck forward while looking solely at a rear-view mirror. While occasionally we gain an insightful perspective from a new or undiscovered source, we must admit that, like a driver scanning to his side-view mirrors, we are still looking backwards. And though our lives might not be at stake in this pursuit, we must be cautious not to cause scholarly wrecks, whether intentionally or by accident. It is through this vehicular metaphor that the term “Jewish Christianity,” with its adjectival partner “Jewish Christian,” developed in the academic lexicon. Certainly devised with innocuous intentions, the category was meant to designate Jewish believers in Jesus who continued to live an otherwise Jewish way of life.[7] However, such a broad scope proves confusing when one considers the different sets of beliefs that could qualify as “Jewish Christian.” How many Old Testament laws, exactly, would a community of believers have to follow to be regarded as Jewish Christians? Would Paul, the top Christian thought leader of the first century, also be a Jewish Christian? Does not the reverence for Hebrew Scriptures and the worship of the one and only true God—the Jewish God—make even today’s believers Jewish Christians? Or does a Jewish Christian need to follow every last law in the Mosaic purity code?

In this regard, it may be more beneficial to speak of Jewish Christianities in the plural form, because just as variant beliefs fostered numerous Christianities in the first centuries after Christ’s death, many Judaisms also existed during the time of Paul.[8] In a manner reminiscent of the quintessential handshake problem from middle school mathematics, we can determine that the faith possibilities are nearly endless when considering the numerous theological questions resulting in dissent. To illustrate, think of this plurality of perspectives in terms of Jewish sects of antiquity and modern Christian denominations. In this example, Jewish believers in Jesus could develop as Pharisaic Wesleyans, Catholic Zealots, Pharisaic Calvinists, Sadducean Evangelicals, Pharisaic Methodists, Lutheran Essenes, and so forth. All such groups would fall under the construct of Jewish Christianity, thereby necessitating the need for more specificity.

Finally, in coining this Jewish Christianity, scholars created a designation with which no one—neither present-day followers of either religion nor those Jewish believers in Jesus of antiquity—would readily identify.[9] In that sense, it is nothing more than a “rubber bag term,” one that is as offensive as it is meritless.[10] The term also induces divisiveness from people of other ethnic backgrounds who would come to believe in Christ. We might call these converts Gentile Christians—though in some communities, such as that of the Ebionites, these people were required to be circumcised and follow Hebrew law.[11] Therefore, the term is not inclusive to Jewish Christians by ideology, but rather, by ethnicity.[12] Though I use the term sparingly, I also do so regretfully.

With these limitations in mind, it becomes necessary to elucidate reasons that an examination of early Jewish believers in Jesus focuses so narrowly on the Ebionites. Notably, the Ebionites are especially intriguing for scholars given that they “maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples, especially by Peter and Jesus’ own brother, James.”[13] If this assertion is true, the earliest Ebionites are only one step removed from Jesus, essentially placing them on par with Paul and the canonical gospel accounts. Additionally, the application of Jesus’ life and message appeared to have been the chief concern of the Ebionites, whose name derived from their willingness to intentionally accept lives of poverty.[14] As described by Luke, the early church in Jerusalem is revered not for its specific theological convictions, but rather for its adherence to the commands of Jesus and apostolic teaching: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. . . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47 NIV). Though this account is most certainly exaggerated with nostalgia and romanticism[15], with a little bit of imagination, such actions could also quite easily be attributed to the Ebionites. But with more space, I would surely prefer to undertake a thorough exploration of multiple groups who existed around the time of the Ebionites, such as the Marcionites, Nazoreans, and various Gnostic factions. Perhaps this will develop into the subject of my graduate thesis in the semesters to come.


[1] Oskar Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity—Problems of Definition, Method, and Sources,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, eds. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 7.

[2] Craig C. Hill, “The Jerusalem Church,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 42.

[3] Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), xxi; 76-77.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, “Historical Jesus as Risen Lord,” in The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict, also by Luke Timothy Johnson and Werner H. Kelber (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 45.

[5] Dr. Fred Shively, interview by author, Anderson, IN, October 4, 2010.

[6] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 462.

[7] Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 5.

[8] Donald A. Hagner, “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 99.

[9] Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 4.

[10] Ibid.; Jackson-McCabe, introduction to Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, 3.

[11] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 100.

[12] Hill, “The Jerusalem Church,” in Jackson-McCabe, 41.

[13] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[14] I will elaborate on the origin of the Ebionites’ name on pages 5 and 6 of this essay.

[15] Richard A. Horsley, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 107.

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