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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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.

“Exterminating Them Without Mercy”

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 October 11. Enjoy!

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The first half of the Old Testament book of Joshua poses special problems for modern Christians who unequivocally understand God as loving and peace-seeking for all people groups.  Per a straightforward reading of these first twelve chapters, the tribes of Israel march throughout Canaan and are seemingly commanded by God to dispose of anyone they find inhabiting the land.  Referring to a group of kings, the writer of Joshua explains, “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” (Jo 11:20 NIV).  When preaching about the characteristics of Yahweh, most pastors do not include qualities such as “merciless” and “requiring complete annihilation,” yet these are found rather plentifully in Joshua.  This reflection paper will attempt to reconcile such primitive portrayals of God for today’s believers.

Given the significance of these issues, Victor P. Hamilton devotes several pages to a discussion of the Hebrew words kharam and kherem, which lie behind several of God’s apparent requirements for total destruction of “other” peoples in both Joshua and Deuteronomy.  Avoiding the problematic language present in many of the relevant verses, Hamilton explains kherem as “handing something over to God, with no ‘ifs, ands, or buts’ and renouncing of any further claim on the item.”[1] Unfortunately, when that item happens to be land claimed by someone else, those Yahweh-less people often cannot remain alive.  This is not a portrait of the peaceful, loving and forgiving God portrayed in the gospels by Jesus, despite Hamilton’s attempt to pacify by noting that “such wars of extermination” do not “become national policy” for Israel.[2]

Certainly, these apparent conquest accounts are not the only instances of senseless violence in the Old Testament.  Quite graphically, a psalmist in exile speaks favorably toward anyone who would murder Babylonian babies to exact revenge for the fall of Jerusalem (Ps 137:8-9).  Borrowing from medical lexicon, Israel’s xenophobia may be presenting itself symptomatically both in this psalmist’s lament and the kherem commands.  With this frame of mind, is the nationwide predisposition to violence driven by the authentic words of God, or is it merely a reflection of human imperfection?  Or, as Bart D. Ehrman colorfully inquires, “Does [God] really want his followers to splash the brains of their enemies’ infants against the rocks?”[3]

With the benefit of a more matured understanding of God and the good news of Jesus Christ, modern Christians – likely joined by some of the psalmist’s contemporaries – would be unlikely to answer Ehrman’s question in the affirmative.  Perhaps, then, the events and themes recorded in the Bible can be viewed as a chronological progression in the understanding of God’s character.  Brian D. McLaren compares this ever-developing perception of God to the way a schoolchild is introduced to new mathematical concepts as he or she enters new grade levels.[4] For example, whereas all numbers a second grader adds and subtracts are strictly whole and positive, in just a few years, the child will be taught both fractional and negative numerals.  Reasoning for God, McLaren suggests, “What if the best way to create global solidarity is by first creating tribal solidarity and then gradually teaching tribes to extend [that] to ‘the other’?  What if, then, God must first be seen as the God of our tribe and then only later as the God of all tribes?”[5] Only for the slain Anakites might this hypothesis prove insufficient (Jo 11:21-22).


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 34.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 11.

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 103-104.

[5] Ibid., 104.

Inconsistencies in Exodus’ Ten Plagues

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. This last week included the first twenty chapters of Exodus, about 13 chapters of Numbers, and corresponding commentaries. The topic about which I chose to write was inconsistencies in the account of the ten plagues.

I was limited to one single-spaced page, but probably could have gone on for a while longer. For example, the topic of naturally occurring disasters that could explain the plagues intrigues me quite a lot. But, I digress.

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. Enjoy!

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Ten plagues wreaked utter devastation on the Egyptian people, land and spirit before Pharaoh ultimately allowed Moses and his fellow Israelites to proceed out to the desert (Ex 7:14-12:30).  In a fascinating fashion, the Exodus narrative simultaneously highlights the power of God over Pharaoh and the forces of nature in a display that Victor P. Hamilton claims will allow all parties – Pharaoh, Egyptians and Israelites – to “indeed acquire knowledge of the true God.”[1] All may not have realized that goal, however, and the account of the ten plagues unfortunately leaves inquisitive readers with as many questions as answers.  This reflection paper explores such questions regarding two major inconsistencies in the Exodus reading.

After repeatedly hardening his heart and having his heart hardened by God through four plagues, Pharaoh is once again offered an opportunity to let the Israelites leave.  Pharaoh does not respond, and God sends a plague of pestilence upon the Egyptian field livestock – or more specifically, upon “horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats” (Ex 9:3 NIV).  Shortly thereafter, it is reported that “all” of the Egyptian livestock died, whereas “not one animal belonging to the Israelites died” (Ex 9:6 NIV).  Bart D. Ehrman asks, “How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields?  What livestock?”[2] Furthermore, the tenth plague relates that not only have the firstborn of Egyptians from all different kinds of social classes and backgrounds been killed, but “the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Ex 12:29 NIV).

If one assumes the particular view of Biblical inerrancy, he or she might also have to deduce fanciful manners of spawning by Egyptian livestock.  Perhaps, however, a more apt explanation is simply lost in translation.  In their exploration of the ten plagues as “an aberrant El Niño-Southern Oscillation teleconnection that brought unseasonable and progressive climate warming” to portions of Egypt other than inland Goshen[3], N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson make a decidedly linguistic deduction.  “We take ‘cattle’ to be a generic term for two distinct collections of livestock: animals in pasture that are killed in plague 5 and animals destroyed in plague 10 that are located elsewhere – presumably at Egyptian dwellings.”[4] Still, this assumption begs the question: what division of animals died in the hailstorm (Ex 9:21)?

Another significant inconsistency in the account of the ten plagues comes after an irritated Pharaoh orders Moses away following the ninth plague, of darkness.  Pharaoh claims that Moses will die if the Israelite sees his face again, and Moses affirms that he will never again appear before Pharaoh (Ex 10:28-29).  But depending on one’s reading of the passages that follow, Moses and Pharaoh definitely meet again at least one more time (Ex 12:31-32), and possibly even twice (Ex 11:4-8).  And chronologically, on the latter of these two occasions, Pharaoh urges Moses to bless him – a far cry from attempting to kill God’s messenger.

Even with his willingness to bring up – and explain away – criticisms within the source text, Hamilton does not address apparent inconsistencies within the ten plagues narrative.  To be sure, the presence of inconsistent textual renderings does not detract significantly from my comprehension of the story, and neither is such a phenomenon limited to these five chapters.  However, they do create certain problems for Christians with more lofty views of the Bible.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 159.

 

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 10.

[3] N. Joel Ehrenkranz and Deborah A. Sampson, “Origin of the Old Testament Plagues: Explications and Implications,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 81, no. 1 (March 2008), under “Abstract,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2442724/ (accessed September 25, 2010).

[4] Ibid.

Labels

In varying circumstances, labels help us and they hurt us. They help our brain sort out the puzzle of life, but they irreparably prejudice our thoughts about what we’re labeling. Consider, for a minute: fishy aftertaste, used car salesman, feminist, Southern Baptist…

[Had to get in a denominational dig there. I’m sure I’ll write more about the poison of denominations at a later date!]

Anyway, McLaren writes at length about the things his detractors say about him, including the labels and terms used to discredit. My favorite among these, “heretic,” made its way into my blog’s title, because I’m sure I’m destined to be labeled the same way. Consider it some tongue-in-cheek truth in advertising.

So last night in the course of penning my first Truth and/or Heresy post, I wanted to check the date that Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus was published. My source became the all-knowing Wikipedia, and in the midst of fact-checking, my eyes were drawn to a quote from a critical review of the book:

Alex Beam, of the Boston Globe, wrote that the book is “a series of dramatic revelations for the ignorant”, and continues to say, “Ehrman notes that there have been a lot of changes to the Bible in the past 2,000 years. I don’t want to come between Mr. Ehrman and his payday, but this point has been made much more eloquently by … others.”

Now, I believe Ehrman’s intentions to be good and proper. He states quite plainly that he is agnostic, an ex-Christian who left the faith after wrestling with the question of suffering in the world. Fine and dandy! He notes, also, that among his goals is to educate lay people about the scholarly thought accepted by the large part of Biblical academia, a task that is very admirable and to which I also hold dear. But in the end, the reviewer takes offense because [1] he’s read better writers, and [2] Ehrman is getting (gasp) paid. As if the critique was written out of the benevolence of the writer’s heart.

Heretic and money-grubber. What isn’t to love about the path I’ve chosen?

My hope is that we could rise above categorizing one another by a handful of quotations or beliefs, to see more deeply the relative truths we speak within our narratives. That’s how the puzzle of life should be sorted.