Mike Pence is Terrible, but in a Totally Acceptable Way: A Lament

Preface: Mike, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry that you became Example 1-A for my lament. You are a public servant, however, and I just happened to see your ad one too many times. Good luck in the race, and I hope you’ll give some thought to that He-who-made-a-way guy, if elected.

How does a particular amalgamation of mainstream politicians become so appallingly atrocious that I will likely vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election for a scruffy-bearded ex-contestant on Survivor, CBS’ never-ending reality show that must nowadays refer to its few remaining viewers? Well, unfortunately, I can’t say much about the systemic causes of the ever-deepening rot of America’s political ruling classes/parties, but I can gawk at and lament about the trainwreck produced incessantly by the election cycle’s inescapable death march toward November.

Meet Mike Pence, Indiana’s very own Flat Stanley, a shockingly boring and vanilla Republican candidate for governor, and the current Congressman from the state’s sixth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Go ahead, clickthrough to his website; my post will still be around when you wake up from your nap.

Recognizing that some numbers sound like English words, Pence’s campaign, ever-so-cleverly named “Pence4Indiana” on YouTube, is responsible for this excruciatingly generic drivel of a “campaign ad.” It airs on just about every commercial break during the Olympics, but I’ll only ask you to waste 30 seconds of your time watching it.

Great, eh? Indiana has somewhat of a significant National Guard, and some people choose to serve in it. Good for them. Nevermind that the National Guard is not the active-duty Army, even though our military adventurism of the last decade turned them into that on a de facto basis.

But this post is not about the people who choose to join the National Guard or any other branch of the armed forces, their multitude of reasons for doing so, or the like. It is about the jarringly annoying way politicians use rhetoric for perceived gains, especially when weighed against banal statist obeisance to the supposed religious principles of the majority.

(Please, read that previous paragraph again if you have to. This is not an attack against people who join the armed forces. It is a much, much broader lament about a society that both desires and permits injustice and rewards politicians who fail to question the reign of death posed by our foreign policy on the encouragement of the military-industrial complex and the fear machine. Deep breath.)

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Let’s start with the absolute basics. I was elected as a delegate earlier this year to the Indiana State Republican Convention, and if you know anything about me at all, you know that I went solely in support of Ron Paul. The state party did everything in its power to ensure that our voice was silenced, using its night-before-the-convention emendations to parliamentary process to silence the strong minority of us who were attending not to schmooze with powerful people in button-down shirts, but to challenge the legality of a clause preventing any debate about party-appointed nominees. Instead, we could only vote yea or nay to their slate of party-line-towers hoping for political careers. This, America, is how you get your politicians.

Anyway, on the second day of the convention, we had the distinct privilege of listening to people speak for 3 hours. These people included one Mike Pence, the party’s uncontested candidate to replace Mitch Daniels as governor. Here’s part of Pence’s riveting speech that day, just after he spoke about “faith,” “morals,” and how to “renew our land”:

Two centuries ago, as our pioneer forebearers labored to carve a home in the woods that was Indiana, they did not labor alone. And I believe with all my heart that He who made a way through that dense and dangerous forest, through harsh elements, toils and snares is with us still today.

I start with this not because those comments sounded particularly stupid to me at the time, but because his snoozer of a speech as a whole, and these excerpts, reveal enough about the candidate’s perspective to illustrate a basic theology: God is with Us, Jesus is on Our Party’s side, He will help us navigate this stormy political climate, and it’s a Good Thing for my candidacy if I sound this way when I speak to Hoosiers.

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Now, back to the advertisement.

I’m not sure it’s fair to label it as an advertisement, actually. The information it contains is not especially relevant to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. If I was in high school again and asked to judge the few statements that Pence makes for their communicator’s purpose, I would have to say “to inform.” Of course, Pence did not sit down and film an ad, involve creative firms to produce an ad, and pay immense sums to NBC Universal to air an ad every waking hour of the day just to inform Hoosiers that their National Guard is the fourth largest in the country. There are deep, persuasive elements at play in the ad, and Pence wants you and I to know that he thinks about the American military exactly as we common people do.

As if we had any question about that.

But beyond the feel-good background music and the silhouetted imagery of glorious assault rifle barrels, what do we learn about Pence as a candidate here, other than the fact that he doesn’t mind taking regular Congressional junkets (on the American taxpayer’s dime) as photo ops to shake hands with our troops?

Considering the placement of the ad–during Olympic commercial breaks when our pro-USA excitement is generally pretty high–can we accept the its intentional nationalism (at best) or blatant jingoism (at worst)? Isn’t the Olympics supposed to be apolitical, to foster a sense of respect and togetherness for humanity, and aren’t we supposed to be affected by seeing the faces of The Other who, though he or she happened to be born in some other region of the world, wishes to live a fruitful life, just like us?

How do we square the dichotomy of military bravado with the command to love one’s neighbor, and especially the example of nonviolent resistance to oppression and corruption given by one Jesus of Nazareth?

How is signing on to destroy human life, or worshipping those who do, a “blessing”?

What do “service” and “sacrifice” actually mean?

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I’ve often thought that we, as American Christians, should be far more forgiving to Pontius Pilate. After all, he was just a lad born into the undisputed, uncontested, unchallenged and unmistakeable ruling empire of his day; the world had never before seen such a thing as Rome. Personally, he had aspirations of power and political greatness, and was doing his best to work his way up the chain of command, even if that meant toiling as Prefect of Judaea. Now, I don’t have any insider access to his personal thoughts, but I think it’s fair to say that he probably went about his life without ever questioning the morality of the use of force against oppressed peoples, which meant he had no problem using brutal force against those who his empire dominated violently, even for the most benign of reasons. He, like Rome in general, was not especially critical about who made their way onto his kill list from these inconsequential lands.

Through the armed-forces-worship, this is exactly what I hear from Pence’s advertisement. Only, it’s not in an explicitly abhorrent sort of way, whereby he cheerleads the deaths of people who happen to be on the wrong side of our armed drones, or superimposes the number of dead Middle Easterners all over the screen.

It’s in an I-know-the-American-people-are-totally-cool-with-this sort of way.

And that, to me, is far worse.

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On This Summer, Financial Meltdowns, Ron Paul and the Future

The bushes in front of my apartment have been overridden with cobwebs this summer because until just recently, central Indiana hadn’t received much in the way of rain.

As it turns out, the cobwebs are even thicker on my blog. Wow, no posts since March 14? If we’re counting by the accumulation of U.S. government debt since that time, that’s over 400 billion dollars ago!

Also since that time, the spring semester came to a close (complete with 2.5 weeks of absolute frantic chaos), followed promptly by a summer course and thesis proposal that, when combined, felt like a death march. I’ve enjoyed my recent freedom from coursework, though in that time I’ve dedicated several hours a day to learning French. (Oui, je parle le français maintenant! Vive le France!) The language is necessary for my future pursuit of doctoral studies, but it may come in extra handy if Lauren and I decide to pursue the Peace Corps before that time. Now, there’s less than a month until the fall semester commences, so it’s time to savor every remaining day.

But the major benefit to the summer has been the ability to clear required reading off my bookshelf and make some room for “pleasure” reading. My pleasure reading this summer has consisted of three major categories: theology (of course), politics, and the complexity of the human brain (yes, it’s way out in left field, I admit). My summer reading list:

  • Love Wins, Rob Bell
  • Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan
  • The Evolution of Faith, Philip Gulley
  • Christianity Without Absolutes, Reinhold Bernhardt
  • The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul
  • Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedon, Ron Paul
  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies–How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths, Michael Shermer

That last one–by Shermer–has been entirely fascinating, and probably will require a serious discussion on the part of this “believer” whenever I happen to finish it. It’s long, challenging and intellectually stimulating, but in the end will be worthwhile.

But as the title of this post suggests, I’ve kept myself abreast of the financial Armageddon that the United States is quickly approaching next Tuesday. Actually, as we spend much more than we take in–to the tune of 40 percent of every dollar spent being borrowed from some other country like China–we’ve been approaching it for a while. It’s just been quickly accelerated since 2000 or so. And the things that Ron Paul wrote in his 2008 “campaign book” (of sorts), The Revolution: A Manifesto, make him seem like a prophet. I quote Dr. Paul at length:

Right now our government is borrowing $2.2 billion every day, mainly from China and Japan, to pay for our overseas empire. As our dollar continues to decline, thanks to Federal Reserve inflation, the American debt instruments that these countries are holding lose their value. We cannot expect these and other countries to hold on to them forever. And when they decide that they no longer wish to, our fantasy world comes crashing down on us. No more empire, no more pledging ever more trillions in new entitlements. Reality will set in, and it will be severe.

Our present course, in short, is not sustainable. Recall the statistics: in order to meet our long-term entitlement obligations we would need double-digit growth rates for 75 consecutive years. When was the last time we had double-digit growth for even one year? Our spendthrift ways are going to come to an end one way or another. Politicians won’t even mention the issue, much less face up to it, since the collapse is likely to occur sometime beyond their typical two-to-four-year time horizon. They hope and believe that the American people are too foolish, uninformed, and shortsighted to be concerned, and that they can be soothed with pleasant slogans and empty promises of more and more loot.

To the contrary, more and more intelligent Americans are waking up to the reality of our situation every day. Now we can face the problem like adults and transition our way out of a financially impossible situation gradually and with foresight, with due care for those who have been taught to rely on government assistance. In the short run, this approach would continue the major federal programs on which Americans have been taught to be dependent, but in accordance with our Constitution it would eventually leave states, localities, and extended families to devise workable solutions for themselves. Or we can wait for the inevitable collapse and try to sort things out in the midst of unprecedented economic chaos. I know which option I prefer.

Now that’s the truth, truth.

I’ve come to the realization that the only thing really great about our government these days is the size of the growing monstrosity of a deficit. Ron Paul preaches a foreign policy of non-interventionism and a domestic policy of weaning ourselves off entitlement programs, abolishing the Federal Reserve and allowing free market economies to prosper without unnecessary intermingling. I’m convinced that his Constitutionalist ideas, whether they are adopted under a possible administration of his or by a like-minded individual, are the last shot we’ve got at regaining the greatness that once was the United States and curtailing our empire before it crumbles before us.

So really, read his book. Go to the library today and borrow it. Educate yourself and challenge yourself. You don’t have to agree with me, or Dr. Paul, but at least give him a shot. Because if there’s anything we know for certain, it’s that the establishment-fattening ideas of the last two administrations have not produced anything worthwhile. For a quick introduction to him, you may even like to give this recent interview he gave to PBS Newshour a listen:

I know people are fond of saying that he’s crazy (or maybe some other, more explicit manifestation of this idea). He seems crazy because what he’s saying is so different from everyone else in Washington. I’m probably crazy for believing that he can become president of such a mess. I do know that I’m willing to give the man a shot. He’ll get my vote in the primary and, I’m certain, a plethora of other support along the way.

But, I digress. In the days to come, this blog will once again light up with activity, as I have a number of papers long and short from the last 1.5 months of the spring semester that are certainly worth sharing. I’ll try to keep it light on the politics, I promise. The easiest way to receive these is to click the “Sign me up!” button on the right-hand border, just below the recent post list and the category cloud. Or you could subscribe to my RSS feed, or just look for my shares on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for visiting, and au revoir!

One Semester Down!

Well, I made it.

Academically, this surely will not have been the hardest semester of my postgraduate experience, but it will probably come to be the hardest one logistically.

 

A squirrel hanging from a birdhouse has nothing to do with this blog entry, but it was one of the first photos that came up on a Google Image Search for “whew.”

 

The actual truth of the matter is that my semester ended eight days ago. But for the last week or so, we’ve been frantically packing our apartment so we can move to campus just after Christmas. I feel fortunate enough to blog about it all now that I’m with family to celebrate Christmas or Winter Solstice or whatever it is that we celebrate this time of year (more on that tomorrow).

But starting next semester, I won’t have to wake up so early for my early classes! I’ll still wake up early, and hopefully go through the gym routine before classes begin, but I’m most excited about not having to waste time (and gas) on the drive to and fro. That will free up time to do coursework at a more reasonable hour, cook dinner more often, sleep longer, devote some time to a community ministry and hopefully have a free weekend every now and then for some recreation. Like all of that will ever happen like I imagine.

To recap from the year that was, all of my classes ended excellently… a 4.0 semester! I certainly didn’t expect that, but I’ll take it and try to repeat it again in the spring. Two of my classes – Greek and Old Testament – essentially continue in the semester to come, and to that I will add the history of the Church of God movement (I’ll call it CHOG History) and “Christians and Old Testament Theology,” which has interested me throughout the past semester of Old Testament class. It will be exciting to interact with the beliefs of the Israelite fathers and prophets and understand how Christians can more faithfully apply that to a well-rounded base of faith.

Other than the big post-Christmas move, I have two major personal goals during the break. Those are…

  1. Read for fun! I have been reading Jesus the Riddler by Tom Thatcher for the greater part of the semester, and am almost finished with it. It has been a great read, even if my wife has ridiculed me for enjoying such “boring” books. The good news is that I’ve also checked out Thatcher’s other book, Why John WROTE a Gospel. I have another about the history of Messianic expectations, but I probably will not get to that until next semester.
  2. Apply for funding to go to Israel this coming summer. Through a fellowship, Anderson University funds a student to travel to Israel for an archaeological dig each summer, and I want to get that either this summer or next… but preferably this summer. I have picked out an interesting dig site (Tel Hazor) and need to fulfill the application requirements, including an essay, before January 15.

And besides those things, it would be nice to add some new and fresh content to the blog for the new year. I’m sure I’ll hammer out a blog post or two once I’m settled in Anderson!

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.

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.

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. 🙂

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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.

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.