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.

Deuteronomic Theology and the Gospel of Prosperity

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 4. Enjoy!

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In the midst of warning the Israelites about a litany of curses that could befall them for not upholding God’s Laws, the Deuteronomist pauses to promise broad-sweeping earthly blessings for those who will “obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees” (Dt 30:6 NIV).  This basic concept, repeated throughout Deuteronomy with nuance, forms what Victor P. Hamilton refers to as “Deuteronomic theology.”[1] Perhaps the promise of blessings for the righteous is a natural progression that follows the delivery of the Law, wherein God can be understood as the originator of positive reinforcement.  Stated another way, God knew his people needed an incentive to obey him.  Rightfully so, however, Hamilton astutely notes that the phenomena of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy are not always related to the degree to which one follows the Law.[2] Yet, this reflection paper will examine the application of the basic concept as mirrored by modern popular theology and as found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Deuteronomic theology forms the backbone of the cynically titled “prosperity gospel,” a message popularized by Joel Osteen and based on the promise of blessing from Deuteronomy (Dt 30:1-10).  Osteen pastors a Houston-area mega-church, but is more widely known around the United States for his loosely theological self-help books.  Having never heard Osteen speak in person, I must rely on video clips, sound bites and other means of understanding his yoke.  However, for a cogent summary of his message, I defer to friend and colleague Andrew Baumgartner, who in 2009 visited Osteen’s Lakewood Church and walked away with a critical assessment.  Referring to Osteen’s message, he wrote, “To the untrained or uncaring ear, it could sound almost Christian.  It is full of happy platitudes, and some genuinely get comfort from it.  But upon further examination and reflection, prosperity is built on the theological sand.”[3]

If this indeed were the case, Osteen would not be the first to build an understanding of God on sand, referencing the saying of Jesus (Mt 7:24-27).  Perhaps the most compelling argument against the broad-brush application of Deuteronomic theology comes when God judges against the counsel of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu regarding the reason for Job’s suffering (Jb 42:7-10).  Throughout the greater part of the book, these friends attempt to reason that Job lost his material blessings of family, servants, livestock and possessions due to some unrighteous or sinful action hidden in Job’s life.  Emphatically, God responds to Eliphaz, “‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. . . . Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly’” (Jb 42:7-8 NIV).  Not only are Job’s friends wrong, they are also foolish for applying such basic Deuteronomic theology in this instance.

Considering this passage as part of a discussion regarding the authority of the full Bible, Brian D. McLaren concludes that while individual books and passages contain truth, “We speak nonsense when we practice verse snatching from Deuteronomy, the middle of Job, or anywhere else.”[4] McLaren posits that a fuller understanding of the Bible is found in context, conversation, and community.  Without these vital clues, it is difficult to understand that the promise of Godly blessing in Deuteronomy may be necessary positive reinforcement to incentivize the freshly minted Law, rather than a verdict on the origin of one’s recent promotion or cancer diagnosis.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 446.

[2] Ibid., 450-451.

[3] Andrew Baumgartner, “My Evening at Lakewood Church,” I’m Wide Awake, entry posted October 12, 2009, http://abaumgart.livejournal.com/98075.html (accessed October 3, 2010).

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 90-91.

Jesus the Riddler?

I’ve updated my “Currently Reading” section in the right-hand margin because, well, I’m reading a new book! Not that I’m no longer reading the apologetic commentary on the Old Testament… this new book – Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels – just happens to pique my historical Jesus interest more.

No, not that Riddler… no matter how much the photo reminds my about one of my more favorite portraits of Jesus. But, I digress.

If you’re familiar at all with the gospel accounts – and especially, the words of Jesus as they are portrayed – you know there are many, many times when the disciples (or the crowds) simply do not comprehend the things Jesus says. The gospel writers/redactors sometimes take great joy from the fact that the disciples couldn’t figure their Rabbi out. Significantly, the writer of John identifies the instances where his readers would obviously understand Jesus words, even if those around Jesus at the time didn’t.

Knowing this, I decided to do some research into the potential ambiguity of Jesus’ message and how it might have sparked the wildly different and conflicting beliefs of Jewish-Christian groups that formed in the first two centuries following his death. This will eventually turn into my term paper for my History of the Christian Church class, where I am specifically interested in the Ebionites, Nazoreans and Marcionites, but for now, I want to share the book and the concepts it postulates. I believe it could introduce you to a new way to view Jesus!

From his ministry, we know that Jesus was a public orator. We also know that he would frequently teach only his disciples, and that at times he would engage in verbal confrontations with groups of Pharisees or Sadducees. But these facts alone don’t make him a riddler. Two essential elements of his conversation would qualify him as that:

  1. Ambiguity, which involves the delivery of teaching that could be taken to mean more than one thing, and in which one of the options is distinctly “correct” in the mind of the deliverer.
  2. Intentionality, or a purposeful use of language to create confusion, double meaning, etc. If a saying is ambiguous but unintentional, it is merely vague or poorly worded.

Tony LaRussa has been manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for almost as long as I can remember, since 1996. And when you listen to him answer questions at a press conference or on a radio show, generally you walk away wondering what exactly he said. His answers can frequently go either way, qualifying him as a riddler. This is a picture of LaRussa with a dog, for no reason in particular.

TLR with dog in dugout.

If I haven’t lost you yet, let’s come back to Jesus (isn’t that a Third Day song?). As I said, Thatcher’s book is a foray into the historical Jesus from an angle that is entirely fresh to me. Part of this, however, is due to the nature of Jesus’ sayings that qualify as riddles: often times they do not meet the principle of multiple attestation. In other words, a riddle may appear in the gospel according to Luke, but not any others. Or sometimes, the riddle may be part of a story that appears in all four gospels, but the riddle itself is only contained in the gospel according to John. Historical textual criticism values multiple attestation is a marker for sayings that are more likely to actually date back to Jesus, and in a lot of cases the Jesus Seminar had major doubts about riddle material.

But, this isn’t necessarily the case for the riddle construct that Jesus is ascribed to have used. And many of the parables can be understood as an extended form of riddling that also accompanies storytelling. So, are there implications that accompany the view of Jesus the Riddler? Thatcher writes (emphases his):

I assert that it is likely that Jesus asked and answered riddles on a regular basis; I am not concerned about particular riddles recorded in the Gospels but about whether he engaged in riddling at all. I claim that if Jesus engaged in riddling at all, this fact is significant to key aspects of our understanding of his social posture and message.

In other words, my argument does not depend on whether or not Jesus actually asked people how the Messiah could be both “David’s son” and “David’s lord” at the same time. My argument depends, instead, on the fact that Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas, and virtually every other extant ancient source for Jesus’ teaching claims that Jesus said things like this to people on a regular basis.

I am presently about a quarter of the way through the book, and I am finding that Thatcher makes very thought-provoking arguments. While I may not start thanking God in prayer for sending the Great Riddler to this earth, this is a wonderful new way to think of Jesus. And, with these thoughts in mind, it’s much easier to be sympathetic to the way Gnosticism – in particular, the Gospel of Thomas, bloomed. Doubtlessly, I will seek to post additional blog entries when new ideas from the book excite me, and once I have read it, I will post my overarching conclusions and takeaways.