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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Ebionism

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Ebionism is best understood as the generic name under which may be included a variety of movements, diverging more or less from Catholic Christianity, and primarily due to a conception of the permanent validity of the Jewish Law. Of these, some were merely tolerable and tolerant peculiarities; some were intolerable and intolerant perversions of Christianity.

As soon as Christianity became conscious of its world-wide mission, the problem arose as to its relation to the Judaism out of which it sprang. This produced what we might a priori expect-a difference within the primitive Christian community between a liberal and a conservative tendency. It was a liberalism which steadily advanced, a conservatism which as steadily hardened and became more intolerant, and drifted further out of likeness to normal Christianity. Jewish Christian conservatism in its different degrees and phases gives rise to the various species of Ebionism.

1. Characteristics.-All Ebionites are distinguished by two main and common characteristics: (1) an over-exaltation of the Jewish Law; (2) a defective Christology. We may take the first as fundamental. The second is deducible from it. To hold by the validity of the Law is obviously to find no adequate place for the work of a Redeemer (Galatians 5:4). Christ tends to be recognized merely as a new prophet enforcing the old truth. And defective views of the work of Christ logically issue in, if they are not based upon, defective views of His Person. It is clear also, that those who hold the Law to be permanent, cannot consistently accept the authority of St. Paul, so we find that (3) hostility to St. Paul, involving the rejection of its Epistles, was a characteristic common, not to all, but to many, Ebionites.

2. Main groups.-There are three distinct classes of Ebionites. Ancient authorities speak of two sects of Ebionites, the more nearly orthodox of which they call Nazarenes. It is necessary, however, to add as a third group those Ebionites whose system results from a union of other elements with the original mixture of Judaism and Christianity. Our classification, therefore, of the Ebionite sects is: (1) Nazarenes, (2) Ebionites proper, (3) Syncretistic Ebionites.

The clear division into two sects, named Nazarenes and Ebionites, appears in the 4th cent. in Epiphanius (Hœr. xxx. 1) and Jerome (Ep. 112, ad August. 13). But in the preceding cent. Origen speaks of ‘the two-fold sect of the Ebionites’ (circa, about Cels. v. 61), though he has not the name Nazarene. In the 2nd cent. Justin Martyr divides Jewish Christians into two classes: those who, while they observed the Law themselves, did not require believing Gentiles to comply therewith, and who were willing to associate with them; and those who refused to recognize all who had not complied with the Law (Dial. c. Tryph. xlvii.). Justin has neither name. At the end of the same cent., we find the name Ebionite for the first time in Irenaeus (adv. Hœr. I. xxvi. 2, etc.). He has no distinction between Ebionites and Nazarenes, and in this Hippolytus and Tertullian follow him. It is not surprising that only writers who had special opportunity of familiarity with Palestinian Christianity should be aware of the distinction.

3. Name.-In all probability both names, Nazarenes and Ebionites, applied originally to all Jewish Christians. It was not unnatural that they should be called Nazarenes (Acts 24:5); it was not unnatural that they should call themselves Ebionites, a name signifying ‘the poor’ (Heb. אָבְיוֹן, ’ebyôn). We know that the Ebionites identified themselves with the Christians of Acts 4:34 f., and claimed the blessing of Luke 6:20 (Epiphan. xxx. 17). (Galatians 2:10 is interesting verse in this connexion. It seems clear that ‘the poor,’ if not a name for the whole Christian community of Jerusalem, is to be understood at least of Jewish Christian poor.) Or, on the other hand, the name may have been attached to Jewish Christians in contempt. At all events, we may take it as highly probable that the two names were originally designations of Jewish Christians generally, and the retention of those primitive names is in keeping with the essentially conservative character of Ebionism.

Some of the Fathers (the earliest of them Tertullian) derive the name Ebionite from a certain teacher, Ebion. In modern times Hilgenfeld is inclined to support this view (Ketzergeschichte, 1884, p. 422ff.), but it is highly probable that this is a mistake, and that Ebion had no more existence than Gnosticus, the supposed founder of Gnosticism. Origen has another explanation of the name Ebionite as descriptive of the poverty of the dogmatic conceptions of the sect. This is but an interesting coincidence.

4. Nazarenes.-We begin with the Nazarenes, who came nearest orthodoxy, and are to be considered not as heretics, but as a sect of Jewish Christians. Our information regarding them is scanty, and several details are obscure. Our main and almost sole authorities are Jerome (de Vir. illustr. iii., and some references scattered in his Commentaries) and Epiphanius (Hœr. xxix.). The latter, who on almost every subject must he used with the greatest caution, is in this particular case specially confused, but has the candour to admit that his knowledge of the Nazarenes is limited. Jerome had opportunity of gaining accurate acquaintance with their views, and unless we admit his authority, we have practically no knowledge of the sect at all.

Mainly from Jerome, then, we learn that the views of the Nazarenes on the three important points (bindingness of the Law, Christology, authority of St. Paul) were as follows:

(a) As to the Law, they held that it was binding on themselves, and continued to observe it. They seem, however, to have distinguished the Mosaic Law from the ordinances of the Rabbis, and to have rejected the latter (so Kurtz, Hist. of Christian Church, Eng. translation , 1860, vol. i. § 48, 1). They did not regard the Law as binding on Gentile Christians, and did not decline fellowship with them. They honoured the Prophets highly.

(b) As to Christ, they acknowledged His Messiahship and Divinity. They termed Him the First-born of the Holy Spirit from His birth. At His baptism the whole fount of the Holy Spirit (omnis fons Spiritus Sancti) descended on Him. They accepted the Virgin-birth. They looked for His millennial reign on earth. They mourned the unbelief of their Jewish brethren, and prayed for their conversion.

(c) They bore no antipathy to St. Paul, and accepted his Epistles. They used a Gospel according to Matthew in Hebrew (see below). We shall comment on these views below, in connexion with those of the Ebionites proper.

5. Ebionites proper.-In strong contrast to the Nazarenes stand the Ebionites proper, regarding whom our information is fuller and clearer. Our main authorities are Irenaeus (adv. Hœr. I. xxvi., III. xv., v. iii.), Hippolytus (Hœr. vii. 22, x. 18), Epiphanius (Hœr. xxx.), and Tertullian (de Prœscr. Hœr. xxxiii.). Eusebius (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] iii. 27) and Theodoret (Hœr. Fab. ii. 2) may also be mentioned. In the main these give a consistent account, which may be summarized as follows:

(a) The Ebionites not only continued to observe the Law themselves, but held its observances as absolutely necessary for salvation and binding on all, and refused fellowship with all who did not comply with it.

(b) As to Christ, their views were Cerinthian (see article Cerinthus). Jesus is the Messiah, yet a mere man, born by natural generation to Joseph and Mary. On His baptism, a higher Spirit united itself with Him, and so He became the Messiah. He became Christ, they further taught, by perfectly fulfilling the Law; and by perfectly fulfilling it they too could become Christs (Hippol. Phil. vii. 22). They agreed with the Nazarenes in expecting a millennial reign on earth. In their view, this was to be Christ’s compensation for His death, which was an offence to them.

(c) The Ebionites denounced St. Paul as a heretic, circulated foolish stories to his discredit, and rejected all his Epistles as unauthoritative. They agreed with the Nazarenes in accepting a Hebrew gospel, and in addition had certain spurious writings which bore the names of apostles-James, Matthew, and John (Epiphan. Hœr. xxx. 23). This Hebrew gospel used by Nazarenes and Ebionites was in all probability the Gospel according to the Hebrews, of which only fragments have survived. With this work we are not here concerned. It is in place to say that most likely it was a Nazarene production. In ancient writers it is sometimes attributed to the twelve apostles, more often to Matthew. The Ebionite version was accommodated to their peculiar views by both mutilation and interpolation; thus it omitted the first two chapters, and began the life of Jesus with the baptism. For full treatment of this subject see E. B. Nicholson, The Gospel according to the Hebrews, 1879.

From the information at our disposal we cannot say how rapidly Ebionism developed, nor estimate the position it had reached by the close of the 1st century. No doubt all the essential elements were active before then. In the NT itself we see the process well begun. Dating from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), we can see not only the possibility but the actuality of the rise of three distinct groups of Jewish Christians: (a) those who embraced Christianity in all its fullness, and developed with it; (b) those who accepted the indefinite compromise represented in the finding of the Council, and did not advance beyond it, which is essentially the position of the Nazarenes; (c) those who did not agree with the finding, and continued to protest against it, which is the starting-point of the Ebionites proper. We see them carrying on an active propaganda against the liberal school whose leader was St. Paul. The Epistle to the Galatians (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) is St. Paul’s polemic against them. In Corinth, too, they have been active (2 Corinthians 10-13). After the Fall of Jerusalem, just as Judaism became more intolerant and more exclusive, so we may suppose this judaizing sect followed suit, and, retiring more and more from fellowship with the Church at large, and seeking to strengthen their own position, they by degrees formulated the system we have described.

In brief, then, while the Nazarenes are only Christians of a stunted growth, the Ebionites proper are heretics holding a system that is false to the real spirit of Christianity. While the Nazarenes are Judaistic, the Ebionites are Judaizers. Neither Nazarenes nor Ebionites seem to have been of great influence. The latter were the more wide-spread, and, we may suppose, the more numerous. While the Nazarenes were practically confined to Palestine and Syria, Ebionites seem to have been found in Asia Minor, Cyprus, and as far west as Rome.

6. Syncretistic Ebionites.-The most conservative movement could not escape the syncretistic tendencies of the age with which we are dealing. We have notices of several varieties which we class together as Syncretistic Ebionites.

(a) The first of these we way term the Ebionites of Epiphanius. Epiphanius agrees with Irenaeus in describing the Ebionites as we have done above. But he adds several details of which there is no trace in Irenaeus. Making all allowances for the generally unsatisfactory character of Epiphanius as an accurate historian, we cannot set aside what he reports so clearly. The easiest explanation is that the Ebionites of Irenaeus developed into the Ebionites of Epiphanius, i.e. Ebionism as a whole became syncretistic. The Ebionites of Epiphanius show traces of Samaritanism and an influence which we may with great probability term Essenic. The former is shown in their rejection of the Prophets later than Joshua, and of Kings David and Solomon (Hœr. xxx. 18). The latter is manifest in their abstinence from flesh and wine, their rejection of sacrifices, their oft-repeated, even daily, baptism (xxx. 15, 16).

The siege and fall of Jerusalem were events of the greatest importance for Judaism (see article Pharisees) and Jewish Christianity alike. Jews and Christians, including Ebionites, settled east of the Jordan. There they came into close contact with a Judaism that was far from pure. The most important form of this was Essenism (see article Essenes). There were also the Nasaraeans, who exhibited the very peculiarities described in the Ebionites by Epiphanius, except perhaps as regards the baptisms (Epiphan. Hœr. xviii.). If, as seems probable, the Order of Essenes was broken up after the Fall of Jerusalem, it is very likely that many of them would associate with the Ebionites, who held the Law in such esteem, and would be able to impress their own customs on their associates.

(b) A still more pronounced Essenic influence is patent when we consider the Elkesaites. The Book of Elkesai was in great repute among Essenes, Nasaraeans, and other trans-Jordanic sects, and Ebionites accepted it also (Epiphan. Hœr. xxx. 3). The book appeared about a.d. 100. Hippolytus (Phil. ix. 8-12) gives details regarding it. Its main points are: bindingness of the Law; substitution of frequent baptisms for sacrifices; rejection of the Prophets and St. Paul; Christ’s appearance in Adam and others; permissibility of formal idolatry in times of persecution; magic, astrology, prophecy. This is specially interesting because we trace here a germ of Gnostic doctrine.

Gnostic tendencies are still more pronounced in the Ebionism of the Clementine Literature, which, however, falls outside the period we are concerned with. Gnosticism has there advanced sufficiently to induce even a more favourable view of St. Paul. The union of Ebionism with Gnosticism is one of the strangest cases of extremes meeting. In most things the two movements are completely antithetical: one practically denied Christ’s humanity, the other His Divinity; one made salvation depend on obedience to the Law, the other on speculative knowledge. Yet the two met in a strange amalgam. The explanation lies in the Essenism with which Ebionism entered into relation. It was already a Gnosticism of a sort. Ebionism ran its course till about the 5th cent., when in all its forms it was extinct. It was despised by Jews and Christians alike, and had no strength to maintain itself, as is shown by the unnatural union it entered into with its own antithesis.

Literature.-Besides the works mentioned in the article , see F. C. Baur, de Ebionitarum Origine, 1831, and Dogmengeschichte, 1865-68; F. C. A. Schwegler, Das nachapostol. Zeitalter, 1846; A. Ritschl, Die Entstehung der altkathol. Kirche2, 1857; A. Harnack, Dogmengeschichte3, 1893; G. P. Fisher, Hist. of Christian Doctrine, 1896; C. v. Weizsäcker, Apostol. Age, Eng. translation , ii. [1895] 27; E. Reuss, Hist. of Christian Theol. in Apostal. Age, i. [1872] 100; Church Histories or Neander, Kurtz, Schaff, and Moeller; articles ‘Ebionism’ and ‘Elkesaites’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics ; ‘Ebioniten’ and ‘Elkesaiten’ in Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3; ‘Ebionites’ in Jewish Encyclopedia ; ‘Ebionism’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ; ‘Ebionites’ in Catholic Encyclopedia .

W. D. Niven.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ebionism'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/e/ebionism.html. 1906-1918.

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Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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