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.

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An Alternate Logo?

Hockey teams have alternate logos and sweaters/jerseys all the time. Why can’t I have an alternate logo?

I designed this during some idle time in a class last week. Don’t judge me.

You’ll be seeing this logo on my third jersey…

 

I pledge to post an in-depth update sometime soon, likely after next Tuesday when my final exams are complete and I’ve had some time to celebrate a successful semester. Until then, enjoy the auto-posts I have set up! Ciao!

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.

November News and Notes

Consider it the seminarian’s lament, but as I alluded to about a month ago during my last “update” post, after classes and commuting and work and marriage and errands and leading a high school small discipleship group and whatever else, my hours and minutes are few. Not even seminarians get a regular Sabbath!

But in the last four weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to rid myself of that ridiculous stack of books and turn in my two major expositions for the semester. As I trudge toward Thanksgiving(s), I still have plenty of work to do, but luckily, I’ve gotten slightly ahead of the game – at least enough to return to the blog without feeling guilty!

On the positive side, my recent weeks dedicated to coursework has produced somewhat of a backlog of blog-ready theological material, including three consecutive weekly Old Testament reflection papers, my exegesis on the bulk of Genesis 39 (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife), and a church history term paper on an interesting Jewish-Christian heretical group known as the Ebionites. I’m not quite sure how much of the longer papers I will end up posting – I don’t want anyone to get plagiaristic ideas, you know – but for now, I plan on dedicating a few posts to each paper. Here’s something you can count on, though: this Monday through Friday, I will post something each day at noon. Set an alarm for yourself, if you’d like!

(Earlier today I posted Part 1 and Part 2 of my exegesis on
Genesis 39, which got an unexpectedly fortuitous grade!)

Now for the brief rundown of my classes and how they’ve progressed:

  • Greek: For the first half of the semester we get a taste of different parts of speech, including nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and other special particles, albeit all in the present verb tense. Over the last 3 or so weeks we’ve branched out from the present tense to the present active form, the imperfect and aorist (past) tenses, and the future tense. Basically, when I pick up my Greek New Testament I am continually able to read more and more of the words, but there are still large gaps in my understanding. Everything must be proceeding as desired, however, as my quiz grades continue to look stellar.
  • Old Testament: Seems like not too long ago that we were stuck in Deuteronomy, but we’ve now rolled along quite swimmingly through Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings. The fun part about this is we’ve gotten into (and through) books that I’d previously never read completely. Doing so gives you a much better perspective about the history of the Israelites and, ultimately, the circumstance in which Jesus was born. Despite the heavy reading necessary for Old Testament, my grade is looking much better than I could’ve hoped for, especially after I received my exegesis back!
  • Church History: We’ve breezed past the Protestant Reformation pretty quickly and are almost getting into more modern periods of Christian history, such as the 1800s and 1900s. In fact, this is the last week that the class will be in a church history textbook: after this is a focus on African-American churches and reformers followed by the religious right. As I may have alluded to before, my particular historical interest is much further back: the historical Jesus himself, and the battles that raged for orthodoxy of faith in the centuries following his death. It is out of this spirit that my term paper on the Ebionites came about!
  • Theological Ethics: While my major papers for the semester are now in the books, I still have two smaller papers, about 3-4 pages in length, due for Theological Ethics. These involve ethical case studies and wrestling with the theological and social dilemmas they propose. They have no specific due date, but I plan to get on one of these before Thanksgiving, and one afterwards. This timing works out quite nicely with the heavy periods of my other classes. In Ethics class itself, I believe I have overcome my deference to all of the third-year M.Div students to participate frequently in class discussion. Ultimately my grade will be the arbiter of that, but I’m satisfied with my level of discourse in the class about the various topics, such as the medical-industrial complex (as a power and principality) versus the Christian ethical call.

Aside from schoolwork, I’ve been fortunate enough to dedicate some time each week to the Miriam Project, where I have applied my prior online marketing and public relations background. The Miriam Project is a Christian adoption agency in Anderson, a non-profit with a strong heart for children and adoptive families. If you weren’t aware, November is National Adoption Month – as dedicated by the President – and all month long, in addition to other things, I’m writing a blog series for the Miriam Project about ways to improve knowledge and perspectives about adoption. If you’d like, please check out our first two posts: Get the Facts and Consider the Scripture. I may eventually repost the latter of those on my own blog, but for now, learn about adoption through the Miriam Project, please!

In short, all is shaping up well for the end of the semester and the holidays. I’ve already registered for the spring term (maybe I’ll share this in my next post). And it’s hard to believe that Christmas is just 40-some days away! I guess we had better get to ordering our wedding photos for everyone! 🙂

If you are reading my blog, I’d love it if you left a comment or two – not necessarily on this post, but on anything you find interesting or challenging or whatnot. Either way, thanks for reading, friends.

~Rob

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 2

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 2 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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3.  Context

Inasmuch as Genesis and Exodus were intended to be read seamlessly, the redactors of these texts required a method by which “Israel in light of the promise [to Abraham] had its start in Egypt rather than Canaan.”[1] The expansive Joseph narrative provides this essential step, and more pointedly, Joseph’s purchase by a dignitary of the Egyptian court is the means by which Joseph will come to an audience with Pharaoh, thereby preventing Israel’s house from falling victim to famine. Unfortunately, historians attempting to date the passage must admit that “a historical inexactness pervades the Joseph narrative.”[2] Indeed, no name for Pharaoh is supplied, and no reference is made to other aspects of recorded Egyptian history, so any dating hypothesis must work backwards from an estimate of the exodus, which itself is fraught with disagreement among scholars. Historians are left with a range of more than six centuries, perhaps from “the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2100-1786) and the Second Intermediate era (ca. 1786-1550).”[3]

Similarly, the dating of the writing of Joseph’s story follows a natural progression from scholars’ individual assessments of the Documentary Hypothesis. Whereas elements of the Joseph narrative are thought to be from both the Yahwist and the Elohist, Genesis 39 is regarded as a united chapter originating from the Yahwist.[4] Given this attribution and the Joseph narrative’s sequential flow from the patriarchal stories, general consensus dates the narrative’s origin to the ninth or tenth centuries BCE, during the rule of David or Solomon.[5] In contrast to the “crude and disjointed tales” of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, however, Joseph’s story stands out as a “polished, sophisticated novelette.”[6]

Immediately preceding the passage in Scripture is an interlude about Joseph’s older brother Judah, which does not fit particularly well anywhere within the larger Genesis narrative. The story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar is best understood, then, as following Genesis 37, the conclusion of which relates that Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt (Gn 37:36). At the end of the passage at hand, we learn that Joseph is prospering in prison (Gn 39:23), and the next chapter resumes the sequential narrative by relating some of his in-prison interactions with the baker and the butler (Gn 40:1-19). Accordingly, Genesis 39 is the first act of Joseph’s rise in Egypt, which comes to fruition only after a major setback.

The passage reflects from the motif of a subordinate male pressured to surrender to the advances of a married woman, as in Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Persian literature, among others.[7] And though Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife is not an exact mirror image of any one story, “the innocent victim generally escapes death” in each case, as Joseph does, and its similarities with the Egyptian “Tale of the Two Brothers” suggest that this was likely known by the author of the Joseph story.[8] Into this borrowed motif the narrator has inserted a formative, powerful theme of God’s prosperous presence.

We got the Egyptian part right, but this time gave Joseph a terrible haircut!

4.  Form and Structure

The Joseph story reads as a cohesive narrative unit distinct in many ways from the rest of Genesis. Seeking specificity, scholars refer to the Joseph story formulaically as a novella, and the largest one found in the Bible at that.[9] As a novella, it is chiefly written to entertain, and is “not an account of events and person that bears the stamp of historical reporting,”[10] though it is certainly possible that historical events can be woven into the novella’s creative fabric. Viewing the passage at hand as the opening part of the Genesis 39-41 trio, readers find that “with great skill the narrator is careful to shape each of these three scenes in such a way that they have the effect of a whole, each with its own arc of tension with introduction, climax and conclusion.”[11] Borrowing further from the lexicon of a theatrical drama, our passage can be interpreted as a single act within Joseph’s rise to a position of status in Egypt, an act upon which the rest of the play depends. But a novella is not borne out of genealogical lists, recitations of laws or poetry. Instead, “the novella moves easily into the private and personal, reporting intimate conversations and often even the thoughts of characters in a detail that would be available to no one but their creator.”[12] It is significant to note that Genesis 39 jumps from interactions between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Gn 39:7-12), to Potiphar and his wife (Gn 39:17-19) and finally to an imprisoned Joseph (Gn 39:20-23). With no common individual in these signature events of the novella, readers can easily conclude that at least portions of the dialogue and details are less than historically accurate.

Therefore, the function of this act of the novella is derived from its narrator’s creative purpose. The author took a well-known “wandering tale,” adapted it to fit the characters and social situation—with Joseph as a highly exalted slave and the woman as his master’s wife—and created an “enthusiastic embellishment of a piece he must have found in oral form.”[13] To the built-in moral imperative of resisting sexual temptation, the author added the imagery of control transferring from hand to hand and the theological element of God’s presence with, and blessing upon, the tempted. It was then committed to writing and, in time, “was taken up into the larger Pentateuchal narrative, possibly in a revision of the Yahwist’s epic, to provide an extended transition between major themes in the Torah story.”[14]

With the way that themes and key words are repeated in the passage, it is no wonder that some scholars consider it “the most elegantly symmetrical episode in Genesis.”[15] Structurally, this act of the novella contains its own distinct introduction, body and introduction-reflecting conclusion, which serves to set up the chapter that follows in the royal prison. The structure appears as follows:

I.             INTRODUCTION: Joseph’s Role in Potiphar’s House (v. 1-6a)

A.             Connective Tissue from Gn 37:36; Potiphar Purchases Joseph (v. 1)
B.             Joseph Finds Favor from Yahweh (v. 2)
C.             Joseph Finds Favor, Special Status from Potiphar (v. 3-4)
D.             Joseph’s Favor Transferred to Potiphar’s House (v. 5-6a)

II.             BODY: Joseph’s Fall from Favor (v. 6b-19a)[16]

A.             Lust Overcomes Potiphar’s Wife (v. 6b-7)
B.             Joseph’s Restraint Explained (v. 8-9)

III.             CONCLUSION: Joseph Relocated to Prison (v. 19b-20)

A.             Potiphar Reacts, Sends Joseph to Prison (v. 19b-20)
B.             Yahweh’s Favor Remains with Joseph (v. 21)
C.             Yahweh Imparts Favor, Status to Joseph from the Prison’s Keeper (v. 22)
D.             Joseph’s Actions Prosper, and are Transferred to Prison by Implication (v. 23)

While the conclusion is not a perfect linguistic reflection of the introduction, they share many of the same elements. Twice the introduction notes that Yahweh was with Joseph, and this is twice relayed in the conclusion. Three times the introduction identifies Yahweh as the source of success and blessing over Joseph, and the conclusion adds this again once more. Additionally, in both instances Joseph is taken to a new setting, shown the Lord’s favor, shown his master’s favor, and given success from Yahweh.


[1] Matthews, 51.

[2] W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 20.

[3] Matthews, 53.

[4] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 364.

[5] Claus Westermann, Genesis 37-50: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 25.

[6] Donald B. Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph: (Genesis 37-50), vol. XX of Supplements to Vetus Testamentum (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970), 1.

[7] Hermann Gunkel, The Folktale in the Old Testament, trans. Michael D. Rutter (Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1987), 139.

[8] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis = Be-reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 276; Westermann, 65.

[9] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 19.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Westermann, 60.

[12] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 19.

[13] Gunkel, 139; Redford, 181-182.

[14] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 29.

[15] Alter, 221.

[16] As they are not the primary exegetical focus, verses 10-19a are extracted from this structural exposition.

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 1

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 1 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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In all this the novella seeks to reflect life, to present the truth in life: not what happened once in the past, but what happens.  This is how people act, and will act again and again.

—W. Lee Humphreys, Joseph and His Family: A Literary Study

1.  Introduction

With its flowing, differentiated scenes and complex literary elements, the Joseph novella is one of the most gripping and suspenseful stories in the Bible. Borrowing from the motif of a wise man, the narrative involves a youthful sage who triumphs against all odds to save a nation.[1] But for all its points of connection with oral and written traditions of the Ancient Near East—including that of devious married woman versus innocent hero[2]—the Joseph novella is a vital transition to Yahweh’s direct involvement with the sons of Israel, as “up until Genesis 37, God is in the story of Jacob’s sons only as they are a part of their father’s story.”[3] The presence of Yahweh is absolutely essential if Joseph, alone and enslaved in Egypt, is ever to rise from the household of Potiphar and fulfill his destiny. Accordingly, this paper is an exegetical study of Joseph and the presence of Yahweh, as found in Genesis 39:1-9, 20-23.

A very white, European interpretation of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.

2.  Text and Translation

This passage’s most interesting textual oddity identifies Potiphar as an “official” of Pharaoh’s court; while this translation appears in standard English versions unanimously, the Hebrew noun saris “means either ‘a eunuch’ or ‘an official.’ Potiphar’s wife’s attraction to Joseph . . . might seem different if her husband were understood to be a eunuch.”[4] Indeed, rabbinic exegetical tradition elaborated extensively on this possibility, with some early writers excusing Potiphar’s wife altogether for what would have been “ordinary human desires, particularly that of motherhood.”[5] However, this paper will make use of the common understanding of Potiphar merely as a court official, the captain of the guard.

Some scholars see a major problem with English translations of the Old Testament that abstractly interpret the original Hebrew’s “extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body.”[6] The Hebrew text of Genesis 39 utilizes this imagery abundantly, with body parts and functions like eyes, hands, and sight expressing concepts ranging from responsibility or control to perspective and perception.[7] Unfortunately, English versions often present the terms’ connotations rather than their denotations, as is the case with “in Joseph’s hand” being rendered as “under Joseph’s authority” (Gn 39:23 NKJV). For this reason I am working from the NRSV, which tends to maintain intent, with an eye toward Robert Alter’s more concrete translation of the original Hebrew.[8]


[1] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, vol. 1B of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 52.

[2] Judith McKinlay, “Potiphar’s Wife in Conversation,” Feminist Theology, no. 10 (September 1995), 75.

[3] W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 205.

[4] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: URJ Press, 2008), 221.

[5] James L. Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 76; Heather A. McKay, “Confronting Redundancy as Middle Manager and Wife: The Feisty Woman of Genesis 39,” Semeia, no. 87 (March 1999), 215.

[6] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), xix.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alter regards Genesis 37 and 39 as a “fine object lesson about how biblical narrative is misinterpreted when translators tamper with the purposeful and insistent physicality of its language.” Ibid., xxiii.