Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 3

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 3 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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5.  Commentary Body (v. 1-9)

Verse 1 In reconnecting readers with the end of Genesis 37, Joseph is transferred from the hands of the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, for whom the verse ascribes an unusual amount of descriptors.[1] While it would seem obvious that an officer of Pharaoh would be an Egyptian, this could be specified “because there were non-Egyptians in service to the Egyptian court, as indeed Joseph will shortly be.”[2] A more likely possibility is that Potiphar and, by association, his house, are identified as Egyptian “to be played off against [Potiphar’s wife’s] derogatory identification of Joseph as ‘a Hebrew man’” in her accusation that follows (Gn 39:14).[3] As such, this reversal of status from Abraham and Hagar sets the social stage not only for the chapter to come, but also for the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2 Yahweh, the personal name for Joseph’s god, is used here for the first of eight times in thirteen verses. Each time, Yahweh is named to indicate divine presence with or blessing upon Joseph, though the name is never spoken in conversation and should be appropriately understood as originating from the perspective of the narrator.[4] Certainly, if Yahweh spoke directly to Joseph to indicate his presence, the narrator would be sure to indicate as much. As it stands, however, “the repetitious use of the phrase imparts coherence and meaning to what superficially appear to be merely random events.”[5] Therefore, because God was with Joseph, he became a successful slave inside Potiphar’s house, where it was more likely that his good works could be observed by the master and his inner circle.

Perhaps the attribution of Yahweh’s presence with Joseph, which could have only come from a backward-looking overview of the pericope, was necessary given that this is the “first revelation of God in any Egyptian circle.”[6] With Joseph alone in a foreign land, and for God to fulfill his covenant with Abraham, his “special care and protection” was the only impetus that could secure success for Joseph, the favor of Potiphar and protection over Jacob’s house from eventual hardship.[7]

Verse 3 This verse is highlighted by the somewhat preposterous notion that Potiphar himself observed Yahweh’s divine presence unto Joseph. Rather specifically, the narrator does not say just that Potiphar “sees that Joseph has a golden touch”[8]; instead, the narrator ascribes Potiphar a unique awareness among non-Israelites of Yahweh’s presence.[9] The verse also makes dual use of the “lexicalized metaphor” of body parts and bodily function[10]—Potiphar perceives with his eyesight that Yahweh is with Joseph, and matters in Joseph’s hand are made successful by Yahweh.

Verse 4 The narrator essentially repeats verse 3, adding only that Potiphar becomes fond enough of Joseph’s success to promote him as an overseer of the entire estate. The verse again contains mentions of both eyes and hands, specifically that all things owned by Potiphar are given into Joseph’s hands, and that Joseph’s favor comes as a result of the perception of Potiphar’s eyes. In doing so, the author is cleverly hinting at what will befall Joseph when “the master’s wife becomes obsessed with him.”[11] For Joseph, the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar are both a blessing and a curse.

Verse 5 Perceptive readers will have taken notice of the narrator’s meticulous and repetitious method by verse 5. This intentional recapitulation is a “device which has the effect of retarding the action” and increasing its suspense.[12] As the verses mount, the narrator repeats the same themes—Yahweh’s blessing, the master-servant relationship, and the concepts furthered by the hands and the eyes—while adding only minute new details. In this case, the reader finds that after Joseph’s promotion over the house of Potiphar, Yahweh’s blessing is extended beyond Joseph to everything within the scope of the household, twice directly through the use of the Hebrew kol.[13] This is buttressed by the literary device of “in house and field,” a phrase that “combines two contrasting elements to express totality.”[14] In widening Joseph’s blessing, the narrator is essentially speaking for the character of God where God himself has not spoken. “The narrator simply presupposes that the blessing can flow over from the one whom Yahweh assists to a foreign people and adherents of a foreign religion precisely because of the one whom Yahweh assists.”[15] This, too, must have been rendered with the benefit of hindsight.

Verse 6 This verse is split between the passage’s introduction and its main body. First, the narrator explains that because of the blessing now applied to Potiphar’s house, everything remains in Joseph’s hands, though for the first time Joseph’s authority is limited: he is not to be in charge of Potiphar’s food. The question becomes, “Is one to understand that Joseph supervises the entire household, but Potiphar still has to see to his own lunch?”[16] This can be taken to fit Egyptian ritual practices or to merely “indicate his private affairs,”[17] but the more accepted understanding is a euphemism standing for his wife, especially given the verses that follow. The takeaway is that Potiphar has either intentionally, or by means of accepted social norms, restricted Joseph’s hands from touching his wife.

The reader is then struck by a surprise mention of Joseph’s looks, which stands out in Scripture given that “no other male is so described.”[18] In this instance, the NRSV doesn’t do appropriate justice to what is, “literally, ‘good looking and good to look at.’”[19] Jacob’s favorite son is beautiful, and receives the same gender-adjusted description as his mother Rachel (Gn 29:17)[20]; essentially, Joseph is a modern-day Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom stuck in service to Potiphar’s house. But Joseph’s allure would not be featured so emphatically if it had no purpose in the following verses: “Attentive readers know something is about to happen when they hear a reticent narrator uncharacteristically give a physical description.”[21]

Verse 7 Some time has passed since Joseph was given the keys to Potiphar’s house, and finally the master’s wife can no longer withstand what her eyes have seen in Joseph. She propositions him with a two-word imperative in the Hebrew, which is “not so much an invitation as a command.”[22] Her order is extraordinarily blunt, with “no verbal preliminaries, no expressions of love.”[23] Readers would expect an actual seduction to first include significant nonverbal appeals to Joseph’s eyes and second, more flowery language, but the narrator is literarily making a point: Potiphar’s wife is crass, a slave to lust, while Joseph masterfully controls his temptations. Indeed, “It is a remarkable deployment of the technique of contrastive dialogue . . . to define the differences between characters in verbal confrontation.”[24]

A modern-day interpretation of Joesph and Potiphar’s Wife, as shown from a recent adaptation of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat via MLive.com.

 

Verses 8-9[25] Joseph counters the wife’s command with a flowing, reasoned thirty-five-word response.[26] In the heat of the moment, Joseph makes no reference to his own possible sexual feelings, but unloads three distinct reasons why he will not take the order: first, because Potiphar trusts everything in the estate to his hands; second, because she is Potiphar’s wife; and third, finally, because the command carries some unspecified sin against God.[27] In the absence of specificity about the nature of this sin, it is unavoidable that this third reason is directly related to, and possibly dependent upon, the first two. Rather, that primarily “the sin against God would be the breach of trust,”[28] thereby endangering God’s presence with Joseph and the house of Potiphar. Secondarily, if at all, the command requires the sin of adultery, which although not yet given in the Decalogue was understood by both Israelites and foreigners.[29] Joseph has remained faithful, though his faithfulness could predominantly be toward either God or Potiphar.[30]

Unless the qualification of Joseph’s authority in verse 6 is understood as euphemism, Joseph’s response contradicts the earlier portion of this passage. In view of Joseph’s other reasons for challenging the mistress’ command, however, it seems to both support the euphemism and cast light on the narrator’s questionable use of repetition. “For example, when presenting his reasons for declining Potiphar’s wife’s invitation, Joseph repeats almost verbatim the narrator’s prose comments in the earlier verses (as though perhaps he had read them!).”[31] Among the phrases apparently spoken by Joseph are the master’s lack of concern for his house and the master’s trust of the household in Joseph’s hands, both from verse 6. Either Joseph himself is the Yahwist, or the narrator-as-novella-creator argument holds significant water.


[1] Potiphar himself is not mentioned by name after the first verse, leading scholars to suggest that the inclusion of his name is an “editorial patch.”  Redford continues: “Very early . . . the figure of Joseph became connected with the Egyptian name P3-di-p3-r, ‘Potiphar’; but the connection was never explicit.  One tradition ascribed the name to Joseph’s father-in-law, another to Joseph’s master.  An editor, plagued by a bent toward completeness, inserted them both.” Redford, 136-137.

[2] David W. Cotter, Genesis, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 290.

[3] Alter, 221.

[4] Sarna, 271.

[5] Ibid.  This “phrase” identified by Sarna includes “was with him,” indicating The Lord’s presence.

[6] Samson Raphael Hirsh, The Pentateuch: Vol. I Genesis, trans. Isaac Levy, 2nd ed. (London: L. Honig & Sons Ltd., 1963): 560.

[7] Ibid., 559.

[8] Westermann, 63.

[9] Humphreys, The Character of God, 209.

[10] Alter, xix.

[11] Cotter, 290.

[12] Redford, 77.

[13] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 518.

[14] Sarna, 272.

[15] Westermann, 63.

[16] Kugel, 74.

[17] Westermann, 64; Sarna, 272; Eskenazi, 221.

[18] Sarna, 272.

[19] Eskenazi, 221.

[20] Ibid.; Alter, 222.

[21] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 153.

[22] Alter, 222; McKinlay, 72.

[23] Sarna, 272.

[24] Alter, 222.

[25] As both verses encompass Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife, I consider them an exegetical whole.

[26] Alter, 222.

[27] Sarna, 272. “God” in verse 9 is this passage’s only use of the generic ’elohim.

[28] Westermann, 66.

[29] von Rad, 365.

[30] McKinlay, 72.

[31] Redford, 77.

Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 4 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. :)

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IV.  Personal Reflections

As much as such restraint is humanly possible, I have striven to reserve any personal opinions about the Ebionites and those beliefs attributed to them by church fathers from the preceding sections of this essay. On the other hand, in no way do I claim that this section of the exposition will retain a sense of objectivity. For one, I firmly agree that “there is nothing wrong in a natural scholarly sympathy for minority groups that were not destined to be history’s winners.”[1] Rather than existing solely as an interesting factoid in the annals of Christian history, the Ebionites and similar groups labeled as heretics from an early date deserve a voice and a chance to be judged on their merits. Personally, with the extraordinarily limited way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, I furthermore believe that the Ebionites deserve to be praised for their audacity to dissent and to be pardoned for their beliefs, even if they do not align to God’s ultimate, absolute truths. It seems that the Ebionites placed a premium on being intentionally poor as a method to adhering to both Jewish Law and Jesus’ message; this action likely developed more intentional, loving communities in spite of the heresiological claims of early church fathers.

Moreover, today’s Christians must admit that proto-orthodox scribes and proponents had a hand in altering Scripture to suit their beliefs, much as was ascribed to Ebionites and Marcionites. In the aforementioned example regarding the voice from heaven at Jesus’ birth, the Lukan text was eventually changed from “today I have begotten you” to the Markan counterpart of “in whom I am well pleased.”[2] While the Ebionite belief about following Jewish Law may have been a matter of opinion, the adoption of Jesus at baptism was well supported by the original version of Luke, part of which made its way into the Ebionite Gospel. However, once this change was solidified, it was also used to call out heresy among so-called Roman “adoptionists,” who were eventually excommunicated from the church.[3]

Throughout the course of my study of the Ebionites, I continued to find myself increasingly sympathetic toward their points of view. For example, I have always recognized the significance of Paul as a normative and formative writer for the early Christian church. Unfortunately, the ferocity with which he made his claims left little room for nonconformist opinions, serving not only to squelch the perspectives of those who could have been more authentically Christian, but also encouraging equally ferocious and self-serving Deutero-Pauline material, which included unfortunate admonitions about the roles of slaves and women (1 Tm 2:11-15). Additionally, it is inescapable that Paul had no direct, personal knowledge of Jesus. Therefore, I recognize Paul as a commentator on the life of Jesus best viewed on a level playing field with similar writers, his Damascus Road event notwithstanding. In a sense, this viewpoint makes me an Ebionite; furthermore, I am sympathetic to the reasoning behind Ebionite adherence to Jewish Law.

V.  Conclusion

The Ebionites were always a minority group. Perhaps at one point or another they became enough of a minority group—either by their number of followers or by possessing such threatening theology—to encourage early church fathers to write about and denounce their beliefs, but let’s be honest: the Ebionites never had a chance at flourishing as a majority religion. In proclaiming his kingdom message, what Jesus may have intended as a defiant but peaceful Jewish revival eventually became the majority religion of the world, including its most powerful nations. And these empires—whether Roman or American—were never bound to adopt intentional Ebionite poverty and strict adherence to Jewish Law on a large scale. “Had Ebionite Christianity ‘won’ the internal battles for dominance, Christianity itself would probably have ended up as a footnote in the history of religion books used in university courses.”[4] While it feels good to be in power, perhaps Judaism and Christianity alike are better suited as marginalized, minority, mustard-seed-like movements taking over individual patches of land at a time rather than occupying the ivory towers of official (or unofficial) state religion.

Theissen writes, “As a renewal movement within Judaism, the Jesus movement was a failure.”[5] In their own battle for acceptance and survival, the Ebionites also failed. In that sense, Jesus was an Ebionite, too.


[1] Skarsaune, “The History of Jewish Believers,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 754.

[2] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 223.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 110.

[5] Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1978), 112.

Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 3 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. :)

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III(b).  The Ebionites: Beliefs

This essay will regard the remainder of Ebionite beliefs chronologically by their first instance of attestation by early church fathers. Accordingly, I will first consider those beliefs and practices described by Iraneus, a bishop of Lyons from 177 CE until his death around 202 CE.  Writing around the beginning of his term as bishop, Iraneus correctly identified the most significant of Ebionite beliefs as their insistence that Jesus was conceived through intercourse between Joseph and Mary, and therefore not born as God’s son via the virginal Madonna.[1] However, Ebionites continued to hold that Jesus was God’s adopted son, elevating Jesus’ immersion by John the Baptist as an event of primary significance. Indeed, “at his baptism, God’s Spirit descended upon Jesus, making him the Messiah,” a title for which he was eligible given his Davidic ancestry.[2] For the Ebionites, Jesus’ life of unparalleled observance toward Mosaic Law served to further solidify his Messianic identity; because of this, Ebionites required that followers—even those of Gentile background, who were accepted into the Ebionite community—continue to observe all aspects of the Law.[3] This point of contention served to sever Ebionites completely from the theology of Paul, who did not continue to require circumcision and Law observance among Gentiles.

It is also important to note that Iraneus’ Ebionites accepted no concept of Jesus’ preexistence with God, as the prologue of John’s gospel insists.[4] As a group, they were “strict Jewish monotheists”[5]—there could be no god besides Yahweh, even within the construct of the Trinity, which had yet to develop significantly. In accordance, Ebionites rejected the divinity of Jesus, but accepted his bodily resurrection as God’s “chosen one,” or Messiah.[6] Ebionites furthermore claimed that the great prophet and Israelite leader Moses prophesied about Jesus, and that just as Moses was a teacher to all Israel, Jesus’ teachings demanded broad application by both Jews and Gentiles.[7]

According to Iraneus, Ebionites maintained a special reverence for water, a development that undoubtedly traced its roots to their beliefs regarding Jesus’ baptism. Not only was water the original element in God’s creation, but in his ministry, “Jesus substituted it for the sacrificial fire which the high priest had formerly kindled for the atonement of sins.”[8] In other words, the sacrament of baptism removed the necessity to sacrifice animals to God—no longer through blood, but only through the water, could a believer’s sins be negated. In fact, though the Ebionites practiced the Lord’s Supper, their communities insisted that the cup of wine be replaced with water.[9]

Though his accounts depended largely on Iraneus, the early church writer Origen (185-254 CE) was the next to write about the Ebionites with seemingly fresh information. As already noted, Origen knew enough Hebrew to understand the true meaning of ebionim, and used this to chide the Ebionites for their heresy. However, Origen upheld most of Iraneus’ understanding about the sect, with one significant difference: Origen knew of some Ebionites who accepted that Jesus was born of a virgin, but did not agree that this was a divine birth.[10] For these Ebionites, the adoption event at baptism retained its primary significance. Origen furthermore contributed to the knowledge about the Ebionites by claiming that they continued to celebrate the Passover, were especially observant of laws about clean and unclean foods, and that they accused Paul of unspecified “shameful words.”[11]

Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea who lived from approximately 263-339 CE, was the next church father to devote heresiological efforts to the Ebionites. Eusebius continued Origen’s thematic puns about the nature of Ebionite poverty, claiming that they held “poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.”[12] Additionally, Eusebius was one of the first writers to pinpoint a place for Ebionite groups; he said that Ebionites lived in Choba (modern-day northern Kenya), but it is likely that Eusebius is referring to a group of Jewish Christians in general.[13] His only other contribution of significance about Ebionites is that apparently some groups celebrated the Lord’s Day in addition to observing the Sabbath.[14] Though Eusebius does not expound on this claim, he could be referring to practices among different Ebionite groups; alternatively, it is suggested that Sunday would not necessarily have been a second day of rest[15], but rather merely a day to meet for optional worship.

A fourth significant writer opposing the Ebionites was the infamous heresy-hunter Epiphanius (ca. 320-403 CE), a bishop of Salamis. Though Epiphanius wrote extensively on the Ebionites and other heretical groups, most scholars have ultimately concluded that he is the least reliable of our four primary sources given that he presents a “very mixed composite of every scrap of literary information [he] thought he could ascribe to them.”[16] It seems that Epiphanius used this same format for contesting other sects, even to the extent of fabricating a pseudepigraphal writing he attributed to a group called the Phibionites.[17] Epiphanius was furthermore the heresiological Ebionite writer most concerned with “Ebion,” the fictional founder of Ebionite theology. Epiphanius claimed that Ebion was originally a Samaritan and reported an extensive record of his travels, including supposed contact with other heretical sect founders.[18] Even with his extraordinary level of bias in mind, it seems that some of Epiphanius’ content accurately portrays the Ebionites. Among these are suggestions that some Ebionites maintained a vegetarian diet, even to the extent of changing John the Baptist’s diet from “locusts and wild honey” to “pancakes and wild honey,” a difference of just a few letters in the Greek (άκρίδες vs. έγκρίδες).[19] This avoidance of meat is attested elsewhere by some Ebionites’ queasiness with regard to human and animal blood.[20]

A significant amount of Epiphanius’ claims regarding the Ebionites, however, appear to be fabrications or associative attributions to the Ebionites of material unique to other groups. For example, Epiphanius credits Ebionites with widely divergent views about Christ—to some, Jesus was Adam reincarnate; for others, Christ reappeared several times throughout history, including to Abraham.[21] Epiphanius also suggests that Ebionites “detest” all of the prophets and adhere to extraordinarily strict purity codes with regard to sexual intercourse.[22] Most scholars recognize Epiphanius’ accounts about the Ebionites and other heretical groups to be unreliable. That information that he did not fabricate was probably not learned directly, but instead through other literature. Rather, “At no point is there any certain evidence that Epiphanius’ knowledge is based on firsthand, personal contact with Ebionites who called themselves by this name.”[23]

What can we conclude about the Ebionites from the disjointed portrait given by the obviously biased church fathers? From the variety in claims and repudiations over the course of approximately two-and-a-half centuries emerges two signature categories of Ebionite beliefs: those about (1) the identity of Jesus, and (2) the level of required adherence to Jewish Law. First, the Davidic ancestry of Jesus is of the utmost importance; because of it, Jesus fulfills the major Messianic prerequisite. But if Jesus is from David’s seed—and not conceived of God in Mary through the Holy Spirit—Jesus does not by definition possess divine equality with God. It is only through the adoption of Jesus at his baptism that Jesus is begotten as God’s son, and his identity as the Messiah is solidified through his perfect observance of Jewish Law. The second chief belief of the Ebionites stems from the first: inasmuch as Jesus observed the Law, so too must his followers, in seeking to emulate their master, also continue to follow the Law.[24] Interestingly enough, this insistence could be one of the rare instances that Ebionite belief about Jesus was informed by their understanding of Scripture, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law” (Mt 5:18 NIV). In any case, this belief provides the proverbial breaking point from the theology of Paul, who would not require that his followers adhere to the Law.


[1] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 429.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 439.

[4] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 193.

[6] Schoeps, 59-60.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Schoeps, 105.

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 444.

[11] Ibid., 441-442.

[12] Eusebius, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 445.

[13] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 447.

[14] Ibid., 446.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Skarsaune, “The History of Jewish Believers in the Early Centuries—Perspectives and Framework,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 754.

[17] Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 117. Ehrman includes a graphic account of the creatively devised story, in which “Jesus takes Mary up to a high mountain and in her presence pulls a woman out of his side (much as God made Eve from the rib of Adam) and begins having sexual intercourse with her. When he comes to climax, however, he pulls out of her, collects his semen in his hand, and eats it, telling Mary, ‘Thus must we do, to live.’ Mary, understandably enough, faints on the spot (Epiphanius, The Panarion, book 26).”

[18] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 451-452.

[19] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 103.

[20] Schoeps, 99.

[21] Luomanen, “Ebionites and Nazarenes,” in Jackson-McCabe, 87.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 461.

[24] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 434.

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.