Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 3 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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III(b).  The Ebionites: Beliefs

This essay will regard the remainder of Ebionite beliefs chronologically by their first instance of attestation by early church fathers. Accordingly, I will first consider those beliefs and practices described by Iraneus, a bishop of Lyons from 177 CE until his death around 202 CE.  Writing around the beginning of his term as bishop, Iraneus correctly identified the most significant of Ebionite beliefs as their insistence that Jesus was conceived through intercourse between Joseph and Mary, and therefore not born as God’s son via the virginal Madonna.[1] However, Ebionites continued to hold that Jesus was God’s adopted son, elevating Jesus’ immersion by John the Baptist as an event of primary significance. Indeed, “at his baptism, God’s Spirit descended upon Jesus, making him the Messiah,” a title for which he was eligible given his Davidic ancestry.[2] For the Ebionites, Jesus’ life of unparalleled observance toward Mosaic Law served to further solidify his Messianic identity; because of this, Ebionites required that followers—even those of Gentile background, who were accepted into the Ebionite community—continue to observe all aspects of the Law.[3] This point of contention served to sever Ebionites completely from the theology of Paul, who did not continue to require circumcision and Law observance among Gentiles.

It is also important to note that Iraneus’ Ebionites accepted no concept of Jesus’ preexistence with God, as the prologue of John’s gospel insists.[4] As a group, they were “strict Jewish monotheists”[5]—there could be no god besides Yahweh, even within the construct of the Trinity, which had yet to develop significantly. In accordance, Ebionites rejected the divinity of Jesus, but accepted his bodily resurrection as God’s “chosen one,” or Messiah.[6] Ebionites furthermore claimed that the great prophet and Israelite leader Moses prophesied about Jesus, and that just as Moses was a teacher to all Israel, Jesus’ teachings demanded broad application by both Jews and Gentiles.[7]

According to Iraneus, Ebionites maintained a special reverence for water, a development that undoubtedly traced its roots to their beliefs regarding Jesus’ baptism. Not only was water the original element in God’s creation, but in his ministry, “Jesus substituted it for the sacrificial fire which the high priest had formerly kindled for the atonement of sins.”[8] In other words, the sacrament of baptism removed the necessity to sacrifice animals to God—no longer through blood, but only through the water, could a believer’s sins be negated. In fact, though the Ebionites practiced the Lord’s Supper, their communities insisted that the cup of wine be replaced with water.[9]

Though his accounts depended largely on Iraneus, the early church writer Origen (185-254 CE) was the next to write about the Ebionites with seemingly fresh information. As already noted, Origen knew enough Hebrew to understand the true meaning of ebionim, and used this to chide the Ebionites for their heresy. However, Origen upheld most of Iraneus’ understanding about the sect, with one significant difference: Origen knew of some Ebionites who accepted that Jesus was born of a virgin, but did not agree that this was a divine birth.[10] For these Ebionites, the adoption event at baptism retained its primary significance. Origen furthermore contributed to the knowledge about the Ebionites by claiming that they continued to celebrate the Passover, were especially observant of laws about clean and unclean foods, and that they accused Paul of unspecified “shameful words.”[11]

Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea who lived from approximately 263-339 CE, was the next church father to devote heresiological efforts to the Ebionites. Eusebius continued Origen’s thematic puns about the nature of Ebionite poverty, claiming that they held “poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.”[12] Additionally, Eusebius was one of the first writers to pinpoint a place for Ebionite groups; he said that Ebionites lived in Choba (modern-day northern Kenya), but it is likely that Eusebius is referring to a group of Jewish Christians in general.[13] His only other contribution of significance about Ebionites is that apparently some groups celebrated the Lord’s Day in addition to observing the Sabbath.[14] Though Eusebius does not expound on this claim, he could be referring to practices among different Ebionite groups; alternatively, it is suggested that Sunday would not necessarily have been a second day of rest[15], but rather merely a day to meet for optional worship.

A fourth significant writer opposing the Ebionites was the infamous heresy-hunter Epiphanius (ca. 320-403 CE), a bishop of Salamis. Though Epiphanius wrote extensively on the Ebionites and other heretical groups, most scholars have ultimately concluded that he is the least reliable of our four primary sources given that he presents a “very mixed composite of every scrap of literary information [he] thought he could ascribe to them.”[16] It seems that Epiphanius used this same format for contesting other sects, even to the extent of fabricating a pseudepigraphal writing he attributed to a group called the Phibionites.[17] Epiphanius was furthermore the heresiological Ebionite writer most concerned with “Ebion,” the fictional founder of Ebionite theology. Epiphanius claimed that Ebion was originally a Samaritan and reported an extensive record of his travels, including supposed contact with other heretical sect founders.[18] Even with his extraordinary level of bias in mind, it seems that some of Epiphanius’ content accurately portrays the Ebionites. Among these are suggestions that some Ebionites maintained a vegetarian diet, even to the extent of changing John the Baptist’s diet from “locusts and wild honey” to “pancakes and wild honey,” a difference of just a few letters in the Greek (άκρίδες vs. έγκρίδες).[19] This avoidance of meat is attested elsewhere by some Ebionites’ queasiness with regard to human and animal blood.[20]

A significant amount of Epiphanius’ claims regarding the Ebionites, however, appear to be fabrications or associative attributions to the Ebionites of material unique to other groups. For example, Epiphanius credits Ebionites with widely divergent views about Christ—to some, Jesus was Adam reincarnate; for others, Christ reappeared several times throughout history, including to Abraham.[21] Epiphanius also suggests that Ebionites “detest” all of the prophets and adhere to extraordinarily strict purity codes with regard to sexual intercourse.[22] Most scholars recognize Epiphanius’ accounts about the Ebionites and other heretical groups to be unreliable. That information that he did not fabricate was probably not learned directly, but instead through other literature. Rather, “At no point is there any certain evidence that Epiphanius’ knowledge is based on firsthand, personal contact with Ebionites who called themselves by this name.”[23]

What can we conclude about the Ebionites from the disjointed portrait given by the obviously biased church fathers? From the variety in claims and repudiations over the course of approximately two-and-a-half centuries emerges two signature categories of Ebionite beliefs: those about (1) the identity of Jesus, and (2) the level of required adherence to Jewish Law. First, the Davidic ancestry of Jesus is of the utmost importance; because of it, Jesus fulfills the major Messianic prerequisite. But if Jesus is from David’s seed—and not conceived of God in Mary through the Holy Spirit—Jesus does not by definition possess divine equality with God. It is only through the adoption of Jesus at his baptism that Jesus is begotten as God’s son, and his identity as the Messiah is solidified through his perfect observance of Jewish Law. The second chief belief of the Ebionites stems from the first: inasmuch as Jesus observed the Law, so too must his followers, in seeking to emulate their master, also continue to follow the Law.[24] Interestingly enough, this insistence could be one of the rare instances that Ebionite belief about Jesus was informed by their understanding of Scripture, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law” (Mt 5:18 NIV). In any case, this belief provides the proverbial breaking point from the theology of Paul, who would not require that his followers adhere to the Law.


[1] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 429.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 439.

[4] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 193.

[6] Schoeps, 59-60.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Schoeps, 105.

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 444.

[11] Ibid., 441-442.

[12] Eusebius, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 445.

[13] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 447.

[14] Ibid., 446.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Skarsaune, “The History of Jewish Believers in the Early Centuries—Perspectives and Framework,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 754.

[17] Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 117. Ehrman includes a graphic account of the creatively devised story, in which “Jesus takes Mary up to a high mountain and in her presence pulls a woman out of his side (much as God made Eve from the rib of Adam) and begins having sexual intercourse with her. When he comes to climax, however, he pulls out of her, collects his semen in his hand, and eats it, telling Mary, ‘Thus must we do, to live.’ Mary, understandably enough, faints on the spot (Epiphanius, The Panarion, book 26).”

[18] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 451-452.

[19] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 103.

[20] Schoeps, 99.

[21] Luomanen, “Ebionites and Nazarenes,” in Jackson-McCabe, 87.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 461.

[24] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 434.

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