Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 4 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. :)


IV.  Personal Reflections

As much as such restraint is humanly possible, I have striven to reserve any personal opinions about the Ebionites and those beliefs attributed to them by church fathers from the preceding sections of this essay. On the other hand, in no way do I claim that this section of the exposition will retain a sense of objectivity. For one, I firmly agree that “there is nothing wrong in a natural scholarly sympathy for minority groups that were not destined to be history’s winners.”[1] Rather than existing solely as an interesting factoid in the annals of Christian history, the Ebionites and similar groups labeled as heretics from an early date deserve a voice and a chance to be judged on their merits. Personally, with the extraordinarily limited way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, I furthermore believe that the Ebionites deserve to be praised for their audacity to dissent and to be pardoned for their beliefs, even if they do not align to God’s ultimate, absolute truths. It seems that the Ebionites placed a premium on being intentionally poor as a method to adhering to both Jewish Law and Jesus’ message; this action likely developed more intentional, loving communities in spite of the heresiological claims of early church fathers.

Moreover, today’s Christians must admit that proto-orthodox scribes and proponents had a hand in altering Scripture to suit their beliefs, much as was ascribed to Ebionites and Marcionites. In the aforementioned example regarding the voice from heaven at Jesus’ birth, the Lukan text was eventually changed from “today I have begotten you” to the Markan counterpart of “in whom I am well pleased.”[2] While the Ebionite belief about following Jewish Law may have been a matter of opinion, the adoption of Jesus at baptism was well supported by the original version of Luke, part of which made its way into the Ebionite Gospel. However, once this change was solidified, it was also used to call out heresy among so-called Roman “adoptionists,” who were eventually excommunicated from the church.[3]

Throughout the course of my study of the Ebionites, I continued to find myself increasingly sympathetic toward their points of view. For example, I have always recognized the significance of Paul as a normative and formative writer for the early Christian church. Unfortunately, the ferocity with which he made his claims left little room for nonconformist opinions, serving not only to squelch the perspectives of those who could have been more authentically Christian, but also encouraging equally ferocious and self-serving Deutero-Pauline material, which included unfortunate admonitions about the roles of slaves and women (1 Tm 2:11-15). Additionally, it is inescapable that Paul had no direct, personal knowledge of Jesus. Therefore, I recognize Paul as a commentator on the life of Jesus best viewed on a level playing field with similar writers, his Damascus Road event notwithstanding. In a sense, this viewpoint makes me an Ebionite; furthermore, I am sympathetic to the reasoning behind Ebionite adherence to Jewish Law.

V.  Conclusion

The Ebionites were always a minority group. Perhaps at one point or another they became enough of a minority group—either by their number of followers or by possessing such threatening theology—to encourage early church fathers to write about and denounce their beliefs, but let’s be honest: the Ebionites never had a chance at flourishing as a majority religion. In proclaiming his kingdom message, what Jesus may have intended as a defiant but peaceful Jewish revival eventually became the majority religion of the world, including its most powerful nations. And these empires—whether Roman or American—were never bound to adopt intentional Ebionite poverty and strict adherence to Jewish Law on a large scale. “Had Ebionite Christianity ‘won’ the internal battles for dominance, Christianity itself would probably have ended up as a footnote in the history of religion books used in university courses.”[4] While it feels good to be in power, perhaps Judaism and Christianity alike are better suited as marginalized, minority, mustard-seed-like movements taking over individual patches of land at a time rather than occupying the ivory towers of official (or unofficial) state religion.

Theissen writes, “As a renewal movement within Judaism, the Jesus movement was a failure.”[5] In their own battle for acceptance and survival, the Ebionites also failed. In that sense, Jesus was an Ebionite, too.

[1] Skarsaune, “The History of Jewish Believers,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 754.

[2] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 223.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 110.

[5] Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1978), 112.

History as Lesson in the Books of Kings

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of December 6. Enjoy!


As we begin to conclude this semester’s brisk survey of the Old Testament from Genesis to the fall of the divided kingdoms, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the narrative that Jesus understood. Throughout this study, I have learned to draw more intentionally from the Hebrew Scriptures to comprehend Jesus’ place in the history of Israel, a process sure to continue into the semester to come. But these books are not just a grand prologue to Jesus’ ministry; rather, they are an elaborate history of Yahweh and his revelation to a chosen people who so often failed to worship him authentically and exclusively. While they may be stepping-stones to Jesus, it is important for the modern church to realize that these Scriptures are also preserved for purposes far greater than the trampling of our feet during the walk of faith. It is from this perspective that I look to the book of 2 Kings—writings chiefly concerned with the demise of Israel and Judah and their latter leaders—for three ever-significant theological themes.

2 Kings 4 profiles Elisha’s relationship with a “well-to-do woman” of Shunem (2 Kgs 4:8 NIV), to whom he prophesies that a son will be born almost as a gift in exchange for her hospitality. Some years later the son died after experiencing head pains, and the unnamed woman wishes to plead for help from Elisha. The Shunammite’s husband questions her immediacy, saying, “Why go to him today? . . . It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath” (2 Kgs 4:23 NIV). This man seems rooted in a perspective that also plagues modern believers, namely that our accessibility to God is somehow heightened on Sundays and while sitting in church pews. Knowing that Elisha and Yahweh would be available any day of the week, the Shunammite woman possesses a deeper understanding of this divine truth that we should also not forsake.

Naaman, a Syrian army official of Aram, was granted success from Yahweh and “was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (2 Kgs 5:1 NIV). Seeking a cure to his skin disease, Naaman eventually found himself at the doorstep to Elisha’s abode. Elisha’s messenger gave apparently unfavorable advice, as Naaman would say, “I though that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy” (2 Kgs 5:11 NIV). Naaman found as many who lift prayers and requests to God often do: sometimes the answers we receive are not the answers we want to hear. But even in a round-about way, God’s wisdom prevails; the simple cleansing procedure cured Naaman’s leprous skin.

In the following chapter, a woman approaches King Jehoram of Israel with a heart-breaking story about a hungry acquaintance whose persuasion drove her to cannibalism, an act that was not reciprocated with the sacrifice of the persuasive woman’s son (2 Kgs 6:26-33). Jehoram offers no resolution to the woman’s plea. In effect, the pericope “honors a prophet and assesses a king while ignoring or condemning the desperate situation of two women and their children.”[1] Jehoram, bent on blaming Yahweh—and, by association, his leading prophet—reacts by calling for Elisha’s head. The shocking story is an unfortunate example that some will reject God at every available opportunity, often blaming him and his followers for their problems.

These three theologically insightful themes demonstrate that 2 Kings is more than simple, skip-able historical account of the royal houses of Israel and Judah. Instead, the text is certainly “alive” and worthy of study by modern Christians on its own merits. While believers most often find themselves concerned with the gospels and Pauline epistles, as disciples we should take heart that Jesus himself found inspiration from 1 and 2 Kings, even to the point of inciting a riot at the Nazarene synagogue over comparisons to the works of Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:24-30). Indeed, the good news—the εὐαγγέλιον—of the books of Kings warrants preaching today. Those who withhold such knowledge are like the lepers of 2 Kings 7, who lamented, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves” (2 Kgs 7:9 NIV).

[1] Gina Hens-Piazza, “Forms of Violence and the Violence of Forms: Two Cannibal Mothers Before a King,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 2 (Fall 1998), 91-104.