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. :)

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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.

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