The Ebionites (from Hebrew; Ebionim, "the poor ones") were a sect of Judean followers of John the Baptizer and later Jesus (Yeshua in Aramaic) which existed in Judea and Palestine during the early centuries of the Common Era. The "Pauline Christians", those who were ultimately successful in establishing a state-sanctioned church, did not consider Ebionites "real" Christians: the terms "Pauline Christians" and "Ebionites" are used in this article to distinguish these two threads in early Christianity.
Several modern scholars, including Robert Graves, Joshua Podro, Hyam Maccoby, Hugh Joseph Schoenfield, Keith Akers, Benjamin Urrutia, and others, believe that the Ebionites, being led by the relatives of Jesus, probably were more faithful to the original and authentic teachings of Jesus than Paul was.
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Virtually no writings of the Ebionites have survived (see below), except as excerpted in the writings of orthodox Christian theologians, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, who considered the Ebionites to be heretics.
Mainstream or "Pauline" Christian writers sometimes distinguished the Ebionites from the Nazarenes, one patristic author often depending upon another for his assessment. Without surviving texts, it is even less easy now for us to establish exactly the basis for their distinction.
The Ebionites emphasized the humanity of Jesus as the mortal son of Mary and Joseph, who was 'adopted' as a son of God when he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and therefore could have become the messianic king-priest of Israel (by virtue of also being both a descendant of king David through his father and a descendant of high priest Aaron through his mother) but was chosen to be the last and greatest of the prophets.
It seems that the Ebionites also rejected the doctrine of atonement for sin through the death of Jesus, and judged posthumous sightings of Jesus as spiritual experiences such as dreams and visions rather than an actual physical resurrection. This theory, however, is contradicted by the Ebionite story, included in the Gospel of the Hebrews, according to which Jesus, "risen from those who sleep," appeared to his brother Jacob ("James") and ate bread with him. This sounds very much like an actual physical resurrection. There are no stories from the Ebionite canon that present the opposite view.
The Ebionites revered the Desposyni (a sacred name reserved only for Jesus' blood relatives), especially James the Just,(the above-mentioned Jacob, brother of Jesus) as the legitimate apostolic successors of Jesus, rather than Peter.This is supported by the Epistles of Paul, and portions of the Book of Acts that present "James" as outranking Peter.
Of the books of the New Testament the Ebionites only accepted an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew, referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews, as scripture. This version of Matthew, Pauline Christian critics reported, omitted the first two chapters (on Jesus' virgin birth), and started with Jesus' baptism by John.
Ebionites believed that all followers of Jesus, whether they be Jewish or Gentile, must adhere to Noahide Laws and Mosaic law through an either more restorative (Essene) or progressive (Pharisee) interpretation and observance, tempered with the wisdom teachings of Jesus. The Ebionites were strict pacifists and vegetarians, and also believed in communitarian living and abstinence from alcohol.
The sect did not exert any great influence on Christianity, and gradually dwindled into obscurity. However, the Ebionites are represented in history as the sect encountered by the Muslim historian Abd al-Jabbar (ca. 1000 A.D.) almost 500 years later than most Christian historians admit for the survival of the Ebionites. An additional possible mention of surviving Ebionite communities existing in the lands of the east, Theyma and Thilmes, around the 11th century, is said to be in Sefer Ha'masaoth, the "Book of the Travels" of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, or Benyamin Bar-Yonnah, a sephardic rabbi of Spain.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908, mentions four classes of Ebionite writings:
- Ebionite Gospel. The Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew (according to Irenaeus). Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae IV, xxi, 8) mentions a Gospel of the Hebrews, which is often identified as the Aramaic original of Matthew, written with Hebrew letters. Such a work was known to Hegesippus ( according to Eusebius, Historia Eccl., ), Origen (according to Jerome, De vir., ill., ii), and to Clement of Alexandria (Strom., II, ix, 45). Epiphanius attributes this gospel to the Nazarenes, and claims that the Ebionites only possessed an incomplete, falsified, and truncated copy. (Adversus Haer., xxix, 9). The question remains whether or not Epiphanius was able to make a genuine distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites.
- Apocrypha: The Circuits of Peter (periodoi Petrou) and Acts of the Apostles, amongst which is the work usually titled the Ascents of James (anabathmoi Iakobou). The first-named books are substantially contained in the Homilies of Clement under the title of Clement's Compendium of Peter's itinerary sermons, and also in the Recognitions attributed to Clement. They form an early Christian didactic fiction to express Ebionite views, i.e. the supremacy of James, their connection with Rome, and their antagonism to Simon Magus, as well as Gnostic doctrines.
- The Works of Symmachus the Ebionite, i.e. his elegant Greek translation of the Old Testament, used by Jerome, fragments of which exist, and his lost Hypomnemata which was written to counter the canonical Gospel of Matthew. The latter work, which is totally lost (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xvii; Jerome, De vir. ill., liv), is probably identical with De distinctione præceptorum, mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or., III, 1).
- The Book of Elchesai (Elxai), or of "The Hidden power", claimed to have been written about A. D. 100 and brought to Rome about A. D. 217 by Alcibiades of Apamea. Those who accepted its doctrines and its new baptism were called Elkasites. (Hipp., Philos., IX, xiv-xvii; Epiphanius., Adv. Haer., xix, 1; liii, 1.)
In 1995, Shemayah Phillips started a modern Ebionite revival by forming the online Ebionite Jewish Community whose goals are the promotion of Yahwism and a conservative form of Talmidaism to Gentiles, the restoration of Yahushua (Jesus) as a Jewish prophet through the deconstruction of the "Christ myth," and disproving that Christianity is a biblically-related religion. Other modern religious thinkers, while not going so far, do believe that Christianity would greatly benefit by a return to pacifism and vegetarianism, and a greater respect for its Jewish roots.
- A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace The most balanced and thorough explication of the Ebionites and other non-Pauline Christian Jews on the Web, with references to contemporary documents.
- Ebionite Community Modern Ebionites