Friday, February 2, 2007


The Ebionites (from Hebrew; אביונים, Ebyonim, "the Poor Ones") were an early sect of mostly Jewish disciples of John the Baptizer, Jesus the Nazarene and James the Just, who flourished in and around the land of Israel as one of several so-called "Jewish Christian" communities coexisting from the 1st to the 5th century of the Common Era.[2] It is believed that they took their name from several religious texts, including a verse in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "Congratulations, you poor! God's domain belongs to you."[3] Accordingly, they are said to have dispossessed themselves of all their goods and lived in religious communistic societies.[4]
Ebionites were in theological conflict with other streams of early Christianity. As a result, our knowledge of them is fragmentary, originating primarily from the polemics of the early Church Fathers. These accounts at times seem to be contradictory arising from the double application of the term "Ebionite", some referring to Jewish Christianity as a whole, others only to a sect within it. According to the select few modern scholars who have studied the historicity of Ebionites, they may have existed as a community distinct from "Pauline Christians" and "Gnostic Christians" before and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Some commentators even contend that Ebionites were more faithful than Paul to the authentic teachings of Jesus
Since there is, as of yet, no authenticated archaeological evidence for the existence and history of Ebionites, much of what we know about them comes from brief references by early and influential theologians and writers in the Christian Church, who considered them to be "heretics" and "Judaizers". In 140 CE, Justin Martyr, in the earliest text known to us, describes an unnamed sect estranged from the Church who observe the Law of Moses, and who hold it of universal obligation.[10] In 180 CE, Irenaeus was the first to use the term "Ebionites" to describe a heretical judaizing sect, which he regarded as stubbornly clinging to the Law.[11] Origen remarks that the name derives from the Hebrew word "evyon", meaning "poor". [12] The most complete yet dubious account comes from Epiphanius of Salamis, who wrote a heresiology in the 4th century, denouncing 80 heretical sects, among them Ebionites as having poor opinions.[13] These are mostly general descriptions of their religious ideology, though sometimes there are quotations from their gospels, which are otherwise lost to us.
The Fathers of the Church sometimes distinguished Ebionites from Nazarenes, another early sect of Jewish disciples of Jesus also believed to be a current within, or an offshoot of, the first "Christian church of Jerusalem" (which thrived from c. 30 to 135 CE) or the first "Judeo-Christian synagogue" (built on Mount Zion between 70 and 132 CE),[14] one polemicist often depending upon another for his assessment. However, Jerome clearly thinks that Ebionites and Nazoraeans were a single community.[15] Without surviving texts, it is difficult to establish exactly the basis for their distinction.
The legacy of Ebionites is debated. Once the Roman army decimated the Jerusalemite leadership of the mother church of all Christendom during Bar Kokhba's revolt in 135 CE, Jewish Christians gradually lost the struggle for the claim to orthodoxy owing to marginalization and persecution.[16] Scholar Jans-Hoachim Schoeps, however, argues that the primary influence of Ebionites was on the nontrinitarian origins of Islam.[17]
Ebionites might be represented in history as the sect encountered by the Muslim historian Abd al-Jabbar c. 1000 CE, almost 500 years later than most Christian historians allow for their survival.[18] An additional possible mention of surviving Ebionite communities existing in the lands of north-western Arabia, specifically the cities of Tayma and Tilmas, around the 11th century, is said to be in Sefer Ha'masaoth, the "Book of the Travels" of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a sephardic rabbi of Spain.[19] 12th century historian Mohammad al-Shahrastani, in his book Religious and Philosophical Sects, mentions Jews living in nearby Medina and Hejaz who accepted Jesus as a prophetic figure and followed traditional Judaism, rejecting mainstream Christian views.[20]
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, several small yet competing new religious movements, such as the Ebionite Jewish Community, have emerged claiming to be revivalists of the views and practices of early Ebionites,[21] although their idiosyncratic claims to authenticity cannot be verified. The counter-missionary group Jews for Judaism favorably mentions the historical Ebionites in their literature in order to argue that "Messianic Judaism", as promoted by missionary groups such as Jews for Jesus, is Pauline Christianity misrepresenting itself as Judaism.[22]
Views and practices
Most patristic sources portray Ebionites as traditional yet ascetic Jews, possibly permanent Nazirites, who, for example, restricted table fellowship only to gentiles who converted to Judaism,[23] practiced religious vegetarianism,[24] engaged in ritual bathing,[25] and revered Jerusalem as the holiest city.[26] Some Ebionites, however, may have accepted unconverted gentiles into their fellowship on the basis of a version of the Noahide Laws decreed by the Council of Jerusalem in c. 50 CE.[27][28][29]
Qumranism and Essenism
Some scholars such as Robert Eisenman, James Tabor and Martin A. Larson have speculated that Ebionites may have been Qumran and/or Essene revivalists.[30][31][32][33]
Epiphanius of Salamis is the only Church Father who describes some Ebionites as departing from traditional Jewish principles of faith; specifically by denying parts or most of the Law,[34] opposing animal sacrifice,[35] and possessing an angelology which claimed that the Christ is a great archangel who was incarnated in Jesus when he was adopted as the son of God.[36] The reliability of Epiphanius' claims, however, is questioned by some scholars.[37][38] Shlomo Pines, for example, argues that all these heterodox doctrines, whether or not they originated from Gnostic Christianity or Jewish mysticism, are characteristics of the Elcesaite sect, which Epiphanius has mistakenly attributed to Ebionites.[39]
John the Baptizer
In the Gospel of the Ebionites, John the Baptizer is portrayed as a vegetarian Nazirite master and a forerunner to Jesus. Jewish Christians viewed John as the lawful high priest of Israel, by virtue of being descended from Aaron, in opposition to the high priest recognized by the Roman Empire. Some scholars argue that Jewish Christians may have also viewed John as the priestly Messiah of Jewish eschatology.[40][41][42]
Jesus the Nazarene
The majority of Church Fathers are in agreement in claiming that Ebionites rejected many of the central Christian views of Jesus such as the trinity of God, the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, and the death of Jesus as an atonement for sin.[43] Ebionites are described as emphasizing the oneness of God and the humanity of Yeshua (the Aramaic name for Jesus) as the biological son of both Mary (a daughter of Aaron) and Joseph (a son of David), who by virue of his righteousness, was chosen by God to perform two functions as the Jewish Messiah during in his ministry - those of prophet[44] and king[45] - after he was anointed with the holy spirit at his baptism.[46][47]
Of the books of the New Testament Ebionites are said to have only accepted an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew, referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews, as additional scripture to the Hebrew Bible. This version of Matthew, Irenaeus reports, omitted the first two chapters (on the nativity of Jesus), and started with the baptism of Jesus by John.[48]
Modern scholars argue that Ebionites understood Jesus as inviting believers to live according to an ethic of social justice that will be standard in the future kingdom of Heaven. Since Ebionites believed that this will be the ethic of the Messianic Age, they went ahead and adjusted their lives to this ethic in this age.[49] They therefore believed that all Jews and gentiles must observe the commandments of God,[50][51] in order to become holy and seek communion with God;[52] but that these commandments must be understood in light of Jesus' expounding of the Law,[53] which he taught during his Sermon on the Mount.[54] Ebionites may have held a form of "inaugurated eschatology" positing that the ministry of Jesus has ushered in the Messianic Age so that the kingdom of God may be understood to be present in an incipient fashion, while at the same time awaiting consummation in the future age.[55][56]
James the Just
Although he is not mentioned in patristic sources for Ebionites, James the Just, the brother of Jesus, was the hereditary leader of the Jerusalem church; followed by other members of the Desposyni (the blood relatives of Jesus) who Jewish Christians regarded as the legitimate apostolic successors to James as patriarchs of the Jerusalem church, rather than Peter. Jewish Christians also viewed James as the lawful high priest and king of Israel, by virtue of being descended both from Aaron and David, in opposition to the high priest and the king recognized by the Roman Empire. Some scholars argue that Jewish Christians may have viewed James as the priestly Messiah of Jewish eschatology upon the death of John the Baptist.[57][58][59]
Paul of Tarsus
Patristic sources report Ebionites as denouncing Paul of Tarsus as an apostate from the Law and a false apostle, for his slander of the pillars of the church and condemnation of their "judaizing teachings" as a threat to the spread of his new religion.[60] Epiphanius claims that some Ebionites fought back by gossiping that Paul was a Greek who converted to Judaism in order to marry the daughter of (Annas?) a high priest of Israel, apostasized when she rejected him;[61] and later, according to scholar Hyam Maccoby, developed the early Christian church as a Gnostic Jewish mystery religion.[62]

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