The Reverse Gospel of Amos

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 February 14. Enjoy!

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Amos begins his prophetic book with what I suggest might be referred to as the “reverse gospel.” Whereas the actual gospel is good news first revealed through the seed of Abraham and later, most poignantly and emphatically, to all nations, Amos’ condemnations from the mouth of Yahweh are just the opposite. Bad, or harsh, news filters first to Israel’s neighbors, but most critically upon Israel itself. And despite the difficulty in reasonably or confidently dating all of the oracles against the nations to Amos himself and the time in which he preached, the lesson from these sharp and biting words is not principally that Yahweh will judge them (though that is certainly important), but that Yahweh will judge Israel all the more. Yes, other nations have rebelled, but is that not to be expected given their lack of immediate inclusion within the unfolding revelation of Yahweh? Yet Israel, which had been given the promises of Yahweh, wasted them given that they “sell the righteous for silver . . . trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” and “lay themselves down beside every altar” (Am 2:6-8 NRSV). Judah, for its part, has also “rejected the law of [Yahweh], and have not kept his statutes” (Am 2:4 NRSV). So while the other nations have committed innumerable acts against Israel and Judah, Israel and Judah have committed graver sins against Yahweh.

This is reflective of Jesus’ words in the parable of the faithful servant: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk 12:48 NRSV). Israel and Judah have been given much—indeed, they have been given Yahweh himself! Through their actions, however, they have chosen to squander, or at least disregard, the promise that through them the nations of the world would be blessed (Gn 12:3), and have practiced their desire to become like the other nations (1 Sm 8:20). As Victor H. Matthews cogently explains, Amos develops a message through a rhetorical strategy of judgment upon other nations as a gradual, yet grandiose, crescendo to his ultimate message of condemnation against Israel.[1]

Amos’ repeated admonitions to “seek [Yahweh] and live” (Am 5:6 NRSV) are closely connected to the Day of Yahweh. While it may be more germane to the text to imagine an inverse as seek not-Yahweh and die, I believe the modern body of believers can take even more meaning if the passage from Amos is interpreted as seek Yahweh and live as Yahweh intended you to live. In rejecting basic commands to resolutely pursue justice for all people and worship Yahweh with authenticity, Israel may be physically alive, but is spiritually and communally dead. Yahweh yearns for his people to return to right relationships, both with one’s neighbors and one’s God, and therefore also be alive in community and in worship. The book of Hosea conveys a similar theme in comparing Israel’s conduct to prostitution, as when Yahweh commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking [Yahweh]” (Hos 1:2 NRSV).

Amos may also teach us that the prophetic word can lose its sting when indictment and condemnation are so quickly followed by a fluffy pillow of reassurance and blessing. Though this pattern displays a beautiful theological message in the context of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others, Amos tugs more strongly at the notion of a collective, required repentance. Matthews writes, “Amos does not waste words on deaf ears. He simply tells them all what they need to know to live and leaves it to them to act on this advice.”[2] Such a message is in contrast to the guarantee that Yahweh will relent in Hosea: “I will not execute my fierce anger . . . for I am God and no mortal” (Hos 11:9 NRSV). Though sharp and biting words alone may seize our attention, thank-fully, the ways of man are not the way of Yahweh and our gospel is not presented in reverse.


[1] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 68-69.

[2] Ibid., 69.

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A Brief Study of El Shaddai

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 February 7. Enjoy!

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This reflection paper will explore the prophet Joel’s use of a particular Hebrew proper name in his prophecy regarding the Day of Yahweh. Near the end of the first chapter, the book reads, “Alas for the day! For the day of (Yahweh) is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Jl 1:15 NRSV). This verse, which takes from its close parallel in Isaiah 13:6, features a footnote in my Bible that the word “Almighty” is the current adaptation of the Hebrew word “Shaddai”; in fact, most English translations choose to interpret the confusing Hebrew term as a descriptive feature for Yahweh rather than its variety of other possible constructions. Though this is understandable for our modern monotheistic setting, Shaddai is rendered in the NRSV translation of both Joel and Isaiah as a simile, which sparked a question: am I reading a metaphor for some well-known person or deity who would have been plainly obvious to the biblical writers, or is the author simply conveying the destructive characteristic of Yahweh?

After further research, I found that the terms “Shaddai” or “El Shaddai” appear 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. Six of these occurrences are in Genesis, three are in the remainder of the Pentateuch, and a remarkable 31 mentions come from Job alone.[1] In seeking to understand the origin of the term, however, scholarly attention has focused on the mentions from Genesis, where Shaddai is strongly connected to promises of fertility, and especially, distinguishing characteristics of the female anatomy. While etymologically a handful of meanings have been suggested, David Biale agrees that “the original meaning of shadu was probably ‘breast’ which, by a psychological association evident to the author of the Enûma Elish in ancient times and to Freud in our own, came to mean mountain.”[2] Nowhere is this double entendre more evident than in Genesis 49, when an aging Jacob invokes the blessing of Shaddai on Joseph that will manifest as “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gn 49:25 NRSV). Jacob continues to remark that his blessing upon Joseph is “stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains” (Gn 49:26 NRSV). Furthermore, of the remaining mentions of Shaddai in Genesis, “four are fertility blessings of the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ variety,”[3] as evidenced by the promise to Abraham (Gn 17:1-7) and Isaac’s instruction for Jacob to take a wife from the house of Bethuel (Gn 28:1-5).

With the connection of Shaddai and fertility firmly established, the quest to understand the prophetic meaning of the term can begin. Surely Isaiah and Joel were not implying that the Day of Yahweh would be like one filled with breasts and fertility. This has led Biale to conclude that Shaddai language fell out of popularity among writers of the Old Testament books, perhaps around the seventh century b.c.e. when King Josiah’s reforms drove out Caananite fertility practices, including Asherah worship. In ridding the land of cultic behavior, however, Israelites had to deal with their own patriarchal fixation on Shaddai. Biale writes, “The psychological associations between El Shaddai and Asherah must have become embarrassing and even dangerous. Yet the old name could not be utterly suppressed.”[4] The solution was to retain the name Shaddai, but ascribe warrior-like qualities to the pseudo-deity, as in the Psalms: “When the Almighty scattered kings there, snow fell on Zalmon” (Ps 68:14 NRSV). Effectively, Shaddai’s fertility powers and breasts had been covered up, but Shaddai became powerful in conquest.

So while Joel piggybacks on the ideas of Isaiah, a calculated move that serves to further legitimize both within the canon, neither seems aware of Shaddai’s previous fertility qualities. Instead, both prophets are in agreement: the Day of Yahweh will bring destruction similar to that of an almighty warrior-deity, an alter ego of Yahweh. The motherly characteristics of Yahweh, by which he was known to the patriarchs (Ex 6:3), are sadly lost to history.


[1] David Biale, “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai in the Bible,” History of Religions 21, no. 3 (Feb. 1982), 243.

[2] Ibid., 240-241.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] Ibid., 254-255.

The Jonah Fable

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 January 31. Enjoy!

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For the modern critical scholar, both the book and the person of Jonah are difficult to date, relate, and investigate for a variety of reasons. The contents of the book of Jonah do not exactly lend historical credence to its narrative elements, perhaps leading to a suggestion that the text was intended solely as moral literature. A clue useful in pinning down the prophet is offered outside of the book bearing his name, as Old Testament readers also find Jonah delivering a message of expansion from Yahweh to King Jeroboam, son of Joash. Speaking of King Jeroboam II, the 2 Kings texts reads, “He restored the border of Israel from Lebohamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of [Yahweh], the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kgs 14:25 NRSV). So how does an easily forgettable character, known only for prophesying to an unfavorable king of Israel, end up famous for a strange amphibious encounter to possibly being mentioned within Jesus’ ministry for his σημεῖον, or sign (Mt 16:4)? In his examination of the Jonah narrative’s insight into Old Testament Israel’s conception of mission, Daniel C. Timmer wonders aloud if the surviving literature is “as much a rogue as its main character, playing havoc with the theological expectations of the canonical reader.”[1] As this reflection paper explores, very little of the “rogue” Jonah narrative follows a “normal” or “expected” path.

Jonah and the "Great Fish"
Here’s a rendering of what probably didn’t ever happen.

Careful readers are immediately confronted with the amount of liberties taken within the text, from the points at which it simply lacks specificity to instances of abject hyperbole. For example, J. Gordon McConville writes that Jonah’s depiction of Nineveh’s size hardly matches current archaeological observations, and, moreover, that the literature is unlikely to reflect the actual system of government within the city.[2] So while the original author of Jonah would have undoubtedly known about Nineveh, a sense of distance from the city—both in proximity and theology—accompanies the text. Meanwhile, a number of other details range from improbable to outrageous, including Jonah’s manic depressive behavior, the suggestion of knee-jerk city-wide repentance, to even pondering the anatomical features and requirements of a fish great enough to swallow a man. Finally, one has to wonder at the gullibility of the Ninevites. In his supposed travels through the town’s streets, Jonah was hardly specific about the prophecy he received or even the one from whom it had been received, and yet the inhabitants of Nineveh either follow the king’s lead in mourning and fasting or beat him entirely to the punch. The king’s speech suggests that Jonah may have even obscured the name of Yahweh as he prophesied, as the generic ‘elohim is used: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind” (Jon 3:9 NRSV).

Perhaps the most significant unexpected element of the narrative is the repentance of Nineveh, which was acceptable to Yahweh and qualified Jonah as “the most successful evangelist in history,” per Victor H. Matthews.[3] Given that the historicity of the Jonah story is deeply in question, the temporal salvation of Nineveh would have been a lesson to the author’s first audience, and it may have been as shocking as the Beatitudes or the parable of the Good Samaritan were to those gathered around Jesus. As Matthews and McConville document, Jonah reads as a coming out party for universalism, or the availability of Yahweh to people groups beyond Israel, though it should stand equally as a caution against both evading the call of God and expecting certain outcomes from one’s ministry. Despite the problems that pervade Jonah, the inherent theological lessons are not diminished by the possibility of pure literary origin.


[1] Daniel C. Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 160.

[2] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 186.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 165.

D.S. Warner and the Dilemma of Sectarian Soil

My class for Church of God History frequently requires assignments similar to those you may have seen me post for Old Testament class. While I will not be posting every one of these assignments, I will select those that I regard as interesting, worthwhile or enjoyable for posting on the blog. In particular, the prompt for this assignment included an evaluation of D.S. Warner‘s claim, as made in 1878, that the holiness doctrine could not prosper on sectarian soil. Read on and learn!

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Rather famously, Daniel S. Warner wrote in a March 1878 diary entry essentially that holiness was not possible in a denominationally rich environment. But as our duty is to understand history in its proper context, it is foolish to simply repeat this groundbreaking thought without applying the historical perspective. After being strongly influenced by his second wife, Sarah, and her father, Warner came to appreciate entire sanctification as the second work of grace to the extent that he sought the experience himself, ultimately declaring in July 1877 that the process had been completed.[1] Naturally, Warner then began to teach entire sanctification and the doctrine of holiness to his audiences, much to the chagrin of boards of elders. While initially Warner was only reprimanded for his tendencies, he eventually overstepped boundaries by bringing in holiness “bands” and had his license to preach revoked on January 30, 1878. As Warner later would recall, the day after being excused from preaching was one of divine revelation. He wrote,

“On the 31st of last January the Lord showed me that holiness could never prosper on sectarian soil encumbered by human creeds and party names, and gave me a new commission to join holiness and all truth together and build up the apostolic church of the living God. Praise his name! I will obey him.”[2]

D.S. Warner
D.S. Warner

In examining the declarative statement comprising first half of this quote, we realize that two main issues are brought to the forefront. It becomes possible, then, to evaluate the issues on the basis of their inherent limitations and strengths. First, Warner’s devotion to the advancement of holiness is observed. Though he has only grasped or accepted the doctrine for a short period of time, holiness and sanctification are of the utmost concern to him, which is further supported by the way in which he jeopardized his previous position as preacher. Second, it is hard to avoid Warner’s opposition to sectarianism. Throughout the decade of the 1870s, numerous quotes suggest that he was fed up with denominational thinking, which is crystallized in an April 1876 diary entry saying, “O Sectarianism! thou abomination of the earth, thou bane of the cause of God, when will thy corrupt and wicked walls fall to earth and cease to curse men to hell?”[3]

Consideration of these aforementioned two issues and their limitations must address the timeline of Warner’s thought development and the proximity of the ultimate revelation in regard to his dismissal from preaching. In doing so, it is unavoidable that Warner realized the “abomination” of denominational chest-thumping much earlier than he latched onto holiness doctrine. Therefore, was Warner’s January 31, 1878-dated claim a true revelation from the Lord, as he professed, or simply the adaptation of long-held feelings on sectarianism to a newly revealed problem, that is, the revocation of his license to preach freely? Furthermore, it needs to be admitted that bitterness may have played a role in making the claim; as he wrote on January 31, his dismissal was a “dreadful calamity and intolerable to bear.”[4] Another significant limitation of Warner’s claim is evident through the application of the measuring stick of history. As it stands today, the modern Christian climate remains heavily denominationally divided. So as a capital-c Church, are we not holy?

Approaching Warner’s claim critically tends to disregard or dismiss it, when historically the revelation, whether from the Lord or crafted out of Warner’s perception of the situation, undoubtedly served grander purposes. To be sure, the claim had (and still has) its strengths. It enabled Warner to forge relationships with some denominations and organizations—including Mennonites and Holiness groups—while at the same time arguing for the abolishment of thinking along sectarian lines. As an example, Warner’s desire to remain true to the January 1878 revelation eventually resulted in a Gospel Trumpet declaration that “now we wish to announce to all that we wish to co-operate with all Christians, as such, in saving souls—but forever withdraw from the organisms that uphold and endorse sects and denominations in the body of Christ.”[5] This June 1881 proclamation was a watershed moment for the early Church of God movement, and it would not have been possible if Warner and others did not actively seek to fulfill the January 1878 revelation, which served to project the movement’s grand vision. Even today, when paraphrased, we might say that, “We cannot be the church that God intended when we elect to segregate ourselves ideologically and prioritize our differences among the most important foci of our ministry.” In that sense, Warner revealed (or had revealed to him) a timeless truth.

Ultimately, the historical interpretation of Warner’s January 1878 revelation lies in its ability to produce positive effects for the Church. In that light, Warner’s mission was a revolutionary success. This doesn’t rubber stamp his tactics or excuse his overly dismissive, damnation-centered attitude toward honest followers of Christ who happened to claim denominational faiths. However, we have to conclude that God used the faulty comprehension of his fallible followers to address the burgeoning problems of each period of history and produce ultimate good for his Church body.


[1] John W. V. Smith and Merle D. Strege, The Quest for Holiness & Unity, 2nd ed. (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2009), 46.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 51.

What About Mark? John?

What about Bob?As Christians, we generally ignore these two gospels around Christmas time unless they are otherwise advantageous to us. Mark serves us… well, by having served Matthew and Luke enough to finagle Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. (The birth story wouldn’t have been quite the same if Mary texted her midwife and gave birth to Jesus in the spare room of her Nazarene home, right?) While we can always count on John for a spoonful of divinity-speak, Mark and John certainly don’t say anything about the supposed Bethlehemic birth of Jesus, which is what we tend to be celebrating.

Or are we? Is there anything about our Christmas celebration that would indicate we’re celebrating something more than Winter Solstice (or Festivus)? We like to think so, but we’re easily susceptible to the trap of materialism (believe it or not) and traditionalism.

Something I look forward to around Christmas and Easter is the broadcast of religious-themed programming on TV stations like the History Channel and National Geographic purporting to explore the history behind our traditions and the historicity of the holidays in general. I was reminded last night about the pagan roots of our celebrations, from the “Christmas” tree to the candles to other nonsense that has nothing to do with the birth and life of Jesus.

But these hour-long features are a topic unto themselves. Since we have no footage from many thousands of years ago, actors and actresses are hired to reinforce the stereotypes that scholarly types eventually come on screen to refute. And anytime some sort of Hebrew or Greek translation error comes into play, it is drawn out and treated like a major revelation. Six to eight minutes of solid information is stretched out into 47 minutes, and after you solicit advertising, you’ve got yourself an unnecessary hour-long block. But that’s not all! Some sort of ambiguous ending is always thrown in, so you are left with no clue why you just spent an hour of your time learning nothing in particular.

But back to those not-so-Christmasey gospels. For all of the affinity that pastors have with John (hard to ignore those way and truth and life Ἐγώ εἰμι statements), it just throws a wrench into the Bethlehemic birth story. Jesus wasn’t just God’s divine son, but he even preexisted with God before coming to Earth! While the common “good” Christian thing to do is meld these accounts into an über-Gospel, it’s important we recognize that John’s community put their gospel into writing not to augment the Synoptics, but to supplant them.

For Mark, it was enough that Jesus was and Jesus did. But predictably enough, the communities that heard his gospel started asking questions, and started thinking of him in terms of the history of Israel. Was Jesus the one who was to come? Was he “Emmanuel,” God with us? Certainly a man so knowledgeable and gracious had an eventful birth.

I’m not going to pretend like I have all of the historical answers, but we can’t deny that those people who Jesus interacted with on a daily basis didn’t ask and didn’t care where he came from, how he was born, etc. The disciples didn’t whisper to each other about it in their spare time, and they didn’t entertain such gossip about him from outsiders (biblically speaking). Either they all knew and accepted his upbringing (which would have made it into Mark) or they didn’t care. I subscribe to the latter interpretation.

Which would mean that the message of Jesus is in his message, not in his person. Not in his birth.

Which would mean that we’re wasting a lot of time worrying about the acceptance of our nativity scenes.

Which would mean that on his “birthday” (I say that very loosely), shouldn’t we be stressing his message – his vision of the Kingdom – rather than fables that were crafted after his death?

Merry Christmas, and may we come to understand what that really means.

War of Words: Sennacherib vs. Yahweh

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 December 13. Enjoy!

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To take advantage of the plethora of idle time spent traveling from Indianapolis to Anderson (and back) each weekday, I have listened to a public library edition of our assigned biblical readings on compact discs for the last two weeks. During this time, no passage has been narrated quite as powerfully as 2 Kings 18-20, wherein Sennacherib of Assyria, through his field commander the Rabshakeh, and Yahweh, through Isaiah, engage in a grandiose war of words. Their back-and-forth taunts and jabs touch on a number of topics: the awesome destructive power of the Assyrian army—and, especially, the gods it has overrun—the doom that awaits a rebellious and weakened Jerusalem, and the bodily by-products its citizenry will be left to consume, followed by Yahweh’s preordination of events and his response to the chest-beating “rage” and “insolence” of Sennacherib (2 Kgs 19:28 NIV). But upon further study, the true beauty of these accounts lies not in their narration, but their deeper exegetical analysis.

To be sure, scholars are befuddled by a number of questions that have arisen from investigating the chapters at hand. For example, it is likely that some liberty has been taken with the timeline of the pericope,[1] and the ebb and flow of messengers and their orations may actually be a marriage of multiple textual traditions.[2] While these problems are decidedly beyond the scope of this reflection paper, it is unavoidable that the Rabshakeh’s speech makes no sense in the context of the passages that immediately precede it, wherein Hezekiah won Sennacherib’s withdrawal from Lachish for an unfathomable sum of, literally, tons of gold and silver (2 Kgs 18:13-16). Miano asks, “Why would Sennacherib send his officials to demand unconditional surrender immediately after Hezekiah made peace with him by way of a substantial tribute?”[3]

That question cannot be sufficiently answered without the escape of an incomplete redaction. Such a conclusion might also add perspective to the narrative’s transition from a broad introductory statement about the fourteenth year of Hezekiah to an inordinate focus on individual speeches. Of this “disproportionate” use of direct address, Fewell notes, “Not only do the character’s speeches contain information crucial to the story, but also the tones of the speeches communicate certain dynamics that could not have been captured by straight narration.”[4] In this light, the Rabshakeh’s comments are nothing short of brilliant, serving to demoralize, humiliate and pierce the people of Jerusalem to the point of capitulation. Indeed, Eliakim, Shebna and Joah deliver the message to Hezekiah with torn clothes, as a sign of extreme sadness or mourning, and Hezekiah describes it to Isaiah as “a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace” (2 Kgs 19:3 NIV).

But perhaps these chapters are constructed in this manner to demonstrate the fallacy of taunting Yahweh, who comes to display his authority and supremacy over Sennacherib. Whereas the Rabshakeh contends that Yahweh is on the side of Assyria (2 Kgs 18:25), the prophecy of Isaiah mirrors and reflects the taunts lobbed against both Yahweh and his people. Yahweh appears to be against anyone who proudly proclaims that they have personally accomplished this or that (2 Kgs 19:23-28; Dt 8:10-20), and therefore “becomes the taunter, the threatener, the punisher and the destroyer.”[5] As Isaiah writes, “Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of man; a sword, not of mortals, will devour them. . . . at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic” (Is 31:8-9 NIV). Apparently, the Rabshakeh’s ability to craft his message with harsh and prideful language is ultimately the undoing of Assyria, which begs the question: Did Babylon learn a lesson from the Rabshakeh and refrain from taunting Yahweh more than a century later?


[1] David Miano, “What Happened in the Fourteenth Year of Hezekiah?” in Milk and Honey: Essays on Ancient Israel and the Bible, ed. Sarah Malena and David Miano (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 113.

[2] Ibid., 114-122.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Danna Nolan Fewell, “Sennacherib’s Defeat: Words at War in 2 Kings 18.13-19.37,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 (Fall 1986), 80.

[5] Ibid., 82.

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.