Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 2

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 2 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. 🙂

—————————————————————-

III(a).  The Ebionites: Sources, Origins, and Scriptures

Regretfully, though some church fathers attempted to characterize individual letters as reflective of Ebionite beliefs, no primary source material from self-proclaimed Ebionites survives today, if such writings were ever made.[1] Therefore, the only sources available for consideration are the writings of early church fathers who sought to identify the Ebionites as heretics. That these heresiological writings are significantly biased should be understood, but unfortunately, “the character of these sources has not been taken sufficiently into consideration when it comes to evaluating the information they contain.”[2] In some cases, obvious fabrications are purported to portray the Ebionites in a negative light, especially by the wildly imaginative heresy hunter Epiphanius. In other cases, biases are more subtle and stem from theological differences. Regardless, the writings of four church fathers—Iraneus, Origen, Eusebius and Epiphanius—comprise our pool of information most relevant to the Ebionites.[3] Each successive writer adds new (and possibly original) information about the sect, but all are dependent primarily upon Iraneus, who seemingly had the most direct contact with Ebionite groups or literature about them. But even with this approximation of source material taken into account, it is inescapable that all four church fathers wrote from the perspective that the Ebionites, as heretics who did not wish to truly understand Jesus[4], intentionally chose to falsify truths available to them in the gospels and the epistles of Paul.[5]

The common perception among proto-orthodox believers was also that heretical groups always derived from a heretical person after whom the sect was named. After all, such is the case with Marcionites (Marcion), Valentinians (Valentinus) and Basilidians (Basilides).[6] Therefore, it is understandable that several sources presupposed the existence of an “Ebion.”[7] However, even after this was known to be untrue, later writers—Epiphanius especially—still considered “Ebion” a key figure through which to disprove the heretical theology of the Ebionites. In reality, the Hebrew term ebionim and its Aramaic equivalent, ebionaye, are found in the Bible to essentially mean “poor ones.”[8] Furthermore, the terms connote or “refer to those in Israel who are looked down upon by the rich and powerful, and who expect to be delivered by the God of Israel in the present time or in the eschaton.”[9] In that sense, ebionim is a positive, even “honorific” term that would be willingly embraced to describe oneself in the same vein that the Pharisees (from Hebrew perushim, or “set apart”) and Sadducees (from Hebrew saddiqim, or “righteous”) chose their own monikers.[10] This designation paints an appreciable picture of the Ebionites: they valued their willful poverty to such an extent that it became the main quality by which they chose to become identified. Or rather, that “it was not so much the possession of goods itself which was sinful but rather the greed for ever new possessions and for becoming rich.”[11]

Not all heresiologists writing about the Ebionites were completely in the dark about the origin of their name, however. With his obvious understanding of the biblical Hebrew, Origen was the first to create a clever play on words, insinuating that the Ebionites were “poor in understanding” of both Jesus and Scripture—so much so, in fact, that their theology deliberately “makes others poor.”[12] Writers following Origen also enjoyed the puns on the Ebionites’ poverty while insisting that Ebion still existed through the Greek word Έβιωναιοι, meaning “followers of Ebion.”[13] Origen is also the first writer to suggest that multiple groups of Ebionites exist, since his own interactions with Ebionites did not always agree with the writings of Iraneus. For example, while the bulk of Ebionites are said to understand Jesus only as a human (not divine), Origen is aware that some “seem to embrace a different type of Christology.”[14] And given that ebionim is such a positive term, the possibility exists that several groups self-identified by this name, especially when Epiphanius describes Ebionite beliefs divergent from Iraneus’ norm.[15] Therefore, it must be asked: “Did everyone who held some, or even all, the doctrines classified as Ebionite really belong to a definable party or sect?”[16] The question is largely rhetorical; without primary source material, scholars are left to estimation. It seems, however, that Ebionite beliefs developed naturally from the life of Jesus himself, perhaps even around the same time that proto-orthodox writers and communities took shape. It is not out of the question that the beliefs of individuals and families could have been characteristically Ebionite outside of an Ebionite community.

With an understanding of the sources concerned with the Ebionites and the origin of their name in hand, it is possible to delve deeper into Ebionite beliefs, starting with the texts they predominantly ascribed as authoritative. First and foremost, as Jewish Christians, the Ebionites especially revered the Hebrew Bible[17], and in doing so, did “their best to expound [on the prophetical writings] diligently,” per Origen.[18] Earliest attestation from Iraneus also holds that the Ebionites used a form of Matthew as their only gospel, portions of which may have been translated into Aramaic.[19] Interestingly enough, Iraneus also comments on the Marcionites in his chief writing about the Ebionites; in doing so, he alleges that Marcion’s followers have “mutilated” the gospel of Luke. Significantly, Iraneus includes no similar claim about the Ebionites’ treatment of Matthew.[20] However, he notes that the Ebionites accept neither the other three gospels nor Paul, given that they disagree with his stance on Gentile observance of the Torah and that they are partial to the Jewish portrayal of Jesus in Matthew alone.[21]

Writing more than a century after Iraneus, Eusebius affirms that the Ebionites rejected every Pauline epistle, but curiously claims that “they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.”[22] Whether Eusebius possesses firsthand knowledge of a different gospel used by the Ebionites or he is linguistically making a veiled reference to the well-known Jewishness of Matthew is uncertain, but this is the first instance where “a patristic writer attributes a non-canonical, ‘special’ Jewish-Christian Gospel to the Ebionites.”[23] Epiphanius would later harmonize the accounts of Iraneus and Eusebius, explaining that the Ebionite gospel was really just Matthew with the significant omission of the first two chapters, which includes both the birth narrative and the genealogy of Jesus.[24] However, Epiphanius apparently did not know what the Ebionites called their gospel. For the sake of clarity, modern scholars often refer to it unofficially as the Gospel of the Ebionites, though it most likely did not originally take on such a name.[25] Perhaps the most interesting quality of the Ebionite gospel, however, is that it harmonized parts of the baptism of Jesus, which would take on special significance for the sect:

As careful readers have long noticed, the three Synoptic Gospels all record the words spoken by a voice from heaven as Jesus emerges from the water; but the voice says something different in all three accounts: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17); “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11); and, in the oldest witnesses to Luke’s Gospel, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:23). What did the voice actually say? In the Gospel of the Ebionites, the matter is resolved easily enough. For here the voice speaks three times, saying something different on each occasion.[26]

Only in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures are we able to conclude, therefore, that the Ebionites used their accepted writings to inform their beliefs. Given their disregard for Paul and their well attested revisions to Matthew—removing the first two chapters, possibly rendering the rest into Hebrew or Aramaic and revising the baptismal story—it is unavoidable that they used their accepted beliefs instead to inform Scripture.


[1] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[2] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 419.

[3] Ibid., 427. A number of writers, including Tertullian and Hippolytus, based their knowledge of Ebionites solely from information taken from Iraneus without adding new claims; because of space considerations, they are regrettably excluded from this study.

[4] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 431.

[5] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 164.

[6] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 420.

[7] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 99.

[8] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 421.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, trans. Douglas R. A. Hare (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 11.

[11] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[12] Ibid., 99-100; Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 444.

[13] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 425.

[14] Ibid., 422.

[15] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[16] Robert M. Grant, Jesus After the Gospels: The Christ of the Second Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 80.

[17] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 101.

[18] Origen, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 428.

[19] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[20] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 435.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Eusebius, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 446.

[23] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 446.

[24] Ibid., 458.

[25] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[26] Ibid.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 2

  1. You call these things heresies, and yet you think that voices come out of heaven to make announcements, that the great god of the universe is born from between the legs of a peasant girl and then allows thugs to nail him to across, and then is snatched up into heaven, flying through the sky. You call this “reasonable.” Are you watching for Santa Clause to fly through the sky on Christmas Eve, because that is at least as reasonable as Christianity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s