The name Ebionite first occurs in Irenaeus (c. 180-190). It was repeated, probably from him, by Hippolytus (c. 225-235) and Origen (d. A.D. 254), who first introduced an explanation of the name. Others offered different explanations; while other writers fabricated a leader, “Ebion,” after whom the sect was called.
These explanations owe their origin to the tendency to carry back Ebionism, or the date of its founder, as far as possible. Thus the “Ebionite” was (according to his own statement) the “poor” man, he who voluntarily strove to practise the Master’s precept in Apostolic times; and the correctness of the etymology is not shaken by the Patristic scorn which derived the name from “poverty of intellect,” or from “low and mean opinions of Christ”.
“Ebion,” first personified by Tertullian, was said to have been a pupil of Cerinthus, and the Gospel of St. John to have been directed against them both. St. Paul and St. Luke were asserted to have spoken and written against Ebionites. The “Apostolical Constitutions” traced them back to Apostolic times; Theodoret assigned them to the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96). The existence of an “Ebion” is, however, now surrendered. Ebionism, like Gnosticism, had no special founder; but that its birthplace was the Holy Land, and its existence contemporary with the beginning of the Christian Church, is, with certain reservations, probably correct. A tendency to Ebionism existed from the first; gradually it assumed shape, and as gradually developed into the two special forms presently to be noticed.
The records of the church of Jerusalem contained in Acts prove how strong was the zeal for the Law of Moses among the Jewish converts to Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), the church was formed at Pella under Symeon, and the Jewish Christians were brought face to face with two leading facts: firstly, that the temple being destroyed, and the observance of the Law and its ordinances possible only in part, there was valid reason for doubting the necessity of retaining the rest; secondly, that if they adopted this view, they must expect to find in the Jews their most uncompromising enemies. As Christians they had expected a judgment predicted by Christ, and, following His advice, had fled from the city. Both prediction and act were resented by the Jews, as is shewn not only by the contemptuous term (Minim) they applied to the Jewish Christians, but by the share they took in the death of the aged bp. Symeon (a.d. 106). The breach was further widened by the refusal of the Jewish Christians to take part in the national struggles—notably that of Bar-Cocheba (a.d. 132)—against the Romans, by the tortures they suffered for their refusal, and lastly, by the erection of Aelia Capitolina (a.d. 138) on the ruins of Jerusalem. The Jews were forbidden to enter it, while the Jewish and Gentile Christians who crowded there read in Hadrian’s imperial decree the abolition of the most distinctively Jewish rites, and practically signified their assent by electing as their bishop a Gentile and uncircumcised man—Mark. Changes hitherto working gradually now rapidly developed. Jewish Christians, with predilections for Gentile Christianity and its comparative freedom, found the way made clear to them; others, attempting to be both Jews and Christians, ended in being neither, and exposed themselves to the contempt of Rabbin as well as Christian (Gratz, p. 433); others receded farther from Christianity, and approximated more and more closely to pure Judaism. The Ebionites are to be ranked among the last. By the time of Trajan (96-117) political events had given them a definite organization, and their position as a sect opposed to Gentile Christianity became fixed by the acts which culminated in the erection of Aelia Capitolina.
The Ebionites were known by other names, such as “Homuncionites” (Gk. “Anthropians” or “Anthropolatrians”) from their Christological views, “Peratici” from their settlement at Peraea, and “Symmachians” from the one able literary man among them whose name has reached us. Acquaintance with Hebrew was then confined to a few, and his Greek version of O.T. was produced for the benefit of those who declined the LXX adopted by the orthodox Christians, or the Greek versions of Aquila and Theodotion accepted by the Jews. Many, if not most, of the improvements made by the Vulgate on the LXX are due to the Ebionite version.
Ebionism presents itself under two principal types, an earlier and a later, the former usually designated Ebionism proper or Pharisaic Ebionism, the latter, Essene or Gnostic Ebionism. The earlier type is to be traced in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, etc.; the latter in those of Epiphanius especially.
(a) Ebionism Proper.—The term expresses conveniently the opinions and practices of the descendants of the Judaizers of the Apostolic age, and is very little removed from Judaism. Judaism was to them not so much a preparation for Christianity as an institution eternally good in itself, and but slightly modified in Christianity. Whatever merit Christianity had, it possessed as the continuation and supplement of Judaism. The divinity of the Old Covenant was the only valid guarantee for the truth of the New. Hence such Ebionites tended to exalt the Old at the expense of the New, to magnify Moses and the Prophets, and to allow Jesus Christ to be “nothing more than a Solomon or a Jonas”. Legal righteousness was to them the highest type of perfection; the earthly Jerusalem, in spite of its destruction, was an object of adoration “as if it were the house of God”; its restoration would take place in the millennial kingdom of Messiah, and the Jews would return there as the manifestly chosen people of God. The Ebionites divided the life of Jesus Christ into two parts—one preceding, the other following, His Baptism. In common with Cerinthus and Carpocrates, they represented Him to have been “the Son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation”. They denied His birth of a Virgin. He was “a mere man, nothing more than a descendant of David, and not also the Son of God”. But at His Baptism a great change took place. The event is described in the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” current among them, and the description is an altered expansion of the record of St. Matthew (III. 13, 14). The Voice from heaven spake not only the words recorded by the Evangelist, but also the words, “This day have I begotten thee”. A great light suddenly filled the place John the Baptist asked, “Who art Thou, Lord?” and the Voice answered as before. John prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus, “I pray Thee, Lord, baptize me,” but Jesus forbade him, saying, “Suffer it to be so,” etc., etc. The day of Baptism was thus the day of His “anointing by election and then becoming Christ”, it was the turning-point in the life of Jesus: from that moment He was endued with power necessary to fill His mission as Messiah; but He was still man. The Ebionites knew nothing of either pre-existence or divinity in connexion with Him. They are said to have freed themselves from the common Jewish notion that the Messiah was to be an earthly king; they were not shocked, as were so many of the Jews, at the humbleness of the birth, the sufferings, and crucifixion of Jesus; but they agreed with them in looking upon the advent of Messiah as future, and in deferring the restitution of all things to the millennium. The Ebionites proper insisted that the Law should be strictly observed not only by themselves but by all. They quoted the words of Jesus (Matt. v. 17), and pointed to His practice. It was the natural tendency of this view to diminish the value of faith in Christ and a corresponding life. Of far greater moment to them, and as necessary to salvation, was the due observance of circumcision, the sabbath, the distinction between clean and unclean food, the sacrificial offerings—probably with the later Pharisaic additions—and the refusal of fellowship or hospitality to the Gentiles. They even quoted the words of Jesus as their warrant, and affirmed their motto to be: “We also would be imitators of Christ”. Jesus, they asserted, “was justified by fulfilling the Law. He was the Christ of God, since not one of the rest of mankind had observed the Law completely. Had any one else fulfilled the commandments of the Law, he would have been the Christ.” Hence “when Ebionites thus fulfil the law, they are able to become Christs”.
As might be expected, the Apostle Paul was especially hateful to them. They repudiated his official character, they reviled him personally. In language which recalls that of the Judaizers alluded to in Corinthians and Galatians, they represented him as a teacher directly opposed to SS. Peter, James, and John; they repudiated his Apostolical authority because (as they affirmed) he had not been “called of Jesus Christ Himself,” nor trained in the Church of Jerusalem. They twisted into a defamatory application to himself his employment of the term “deceiver” ; he was himself one of the “many which corrupted the word of God”; he proclaimed “deliverance from the Law” only “to please men” and “commend himself” . His personal character was held up to reproach as that of one who “walked according to the flesh”, puffed up with pride, marked by levity of purpose and even by dishonesty. They rejected his epistles, not on the ground of authenticity, but as the work of an “apostate from the Law “. They even asserted that by birth he was not a Jew, but a Gentile (wresting his words in Acts xxi. 39 who had become a proselyte in the hope of marrying the High Priest’s daughter, but that having failed in this he had severed himself from the Jews and occupied himself in writing against circumcision and the observance of the sabbath.
In common with the Nazarenes and the Gnostic-Ebionites, the Pharisaic Ebionites used a recension of the Gospel of St. Matthew, which they termed the “gospel according to the Hebrews.” It was a Chaldee version written in Hebrew letters, afterwards translated into Greek and Latin by Jerome, who declared it identical with the “gospel of the Twelve Apostles” and the “gospel of the Nazarenes”. In the Ebionite “gospel” the section corresponding to the first two chapters of St. Matt. was omitted, the supernatural character of the narrative being contradictory to their views about the person of Jesus Christ. It is difficult to say with certainty what other books of the N.T. were known to them; but there is reason to believe that they (as also the Gnostic-Ebionites) were familiar with the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke.
(b) Essene or Gnostic Ebionism.—This, as the name indicates, was a type of Ebionism affected by external influences. The characteristic features of the ascetic Essenes were reproduced in its practices, and the traces of influences more directly mystical and oriental were evident in its doctrines. The different phases through which Ebionism passed at different times render it, however, difficult to distinguish clearly in every case between Gnostic and Pharisaic Ebionism. Epiphanius is the chief authority on the Gnostic Ebionites. He met them in Cyprus, and personally obtained information about them. (Their principal tenets were as follows: Christianity they identified with primitive religion or genuine Mosaism, as distinguished from what they termed accretions to Mosaism, or the post-Mosaic developments described in the later books of O.T. To carry out this distinction they fabricated two classes of “prophets”. In the former class they placed Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, Moses, and Jesus; in the latter David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. In the same spirit they accepted the Pentateuch alone among the O.T. writings, and emasculated it; rejecting whatever reflected questionably upon their favourites. They held that there were two antagonistic powers appointed by God—Christ and devil; to the former was allotted the world to come, to the latter the present world. The conception of Christ was variously entertained. Some affirmed that He was created (not born) of the Father, a Spirit, and higher than the angels; that He had the power of coming to this earth when He would, and in various modes of manifestation; that He had been incarnate in Adam, and had appeared to the patriarchs in bodily shape; others identified Adam and Christ. In these last days He had come in the person of Jesus. Jesus was therefore to them a successor of Moses, and not of higher authority. They quoted from their gospel a saying attributed to Him, “I am He concerning Whom Moses prophesied, saying, A prophet shall the Lord God raise unto you like unto me,” etc., and this was enough to identify His teaching with that of genuine Mosaism. But by declining to fix the precise moment of the union of the Christ with the man Jesus—a union assigned by Pharisaic Ebionites to the hour of Baptism—they admitted His miraculous origin.
In pursuance of their conception that the devil was the “prince of this world” they were strict ascetics. They abjured flesh-meat, repudiating passages which contradicted their view; they refused to taste wine, and communicated with unleavened bread and water. Water was to them “in the place of a god”; ablutions and lustrations were imperative and frequent. But they held the married life in honour, and recommended early marriages. To the observance of the Jewish sabbath they added that of the Christian Lord’s day. Circumcision was sacred to them from the practice of the patriarchs and of Jesus Christ; and they declined all fellowship with the uncircumcised, but repudiated the sacrifices of the altar and the reverence of the Jew for the Temple. In common with the Ebionites proper, they detested St. Paul, rejected his epistles, and circulated stories discreditable to him. The other Apostles were known to them by their writings, which they regarded as inferior to their own gospel.
The conjecture appears not improbable that as the siege of Jerusalem under Titus gave an impetus to Ebionism proper, so the ruin under Hadrian developed Gnostic Ebionism. Not that Gnosticism began then to affect it for the first time, but that Gnostic ideas hitherto held in solution were precipitated and found a congenial home among men who through contact with oriental systems in Syria were already predisposed to accept them. This is further evident from the book of Elchasai and the Clementine literature. These works are the production of the Essene Ebionites; and where they speak of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, His sayings and their lives, they do so, not in the words of the canonical Gospels and Epistles, but with additions or omissions, and a colouring which transforms (e.g.) St. Peter, St. Matthew, and St. James the Just into Essenes, and yet with that Gnostic tendency of thought which makes them lineal descendants of the Judaizers who imperilled the church at Colossae.
The Essene or Gnostic-Ebionites differed from the Pharisaic Ebionites in another respect. By missionary zeal, as well as by literary activity, they sought to obtain converts to their views. In the earlier part of the 3rd cent. the Ebionite Alcibiades of Apamea (Syria) repaired to Rome. He brought with him the book of Elchasai, and “preached unto men a new remission of sins (proclaimed) in the third year of Trajan’s reign” (A.D. 101). Hippolytus, who gives an account of the matter , exposed the decided antinomianism which penetrated the teaching of the mythical teacher and of the pupil, but it is evident that many “became victims of the delusion.” The immorality which the book—in imitation of the teaching of Callistus—indirectly encouraged probably attracted some, but would discredit the dogmatic views of the missionary.
Ebionite Christianity did not, however, last very long, neither did it exercise much influence west of Syria while it lasted. In Palestine the discomfiture accorded to “a certain one” (probably Alcibiades) who came to Caesarea c. A.D. 247 maintaining the “ungodly and wicked error of the Elkesaites” was in keeping with the reception accorded to less extreme Ebionite views from the time of the reconstitution of the mother-church at Aelia Capitolina. Judaism of every kind gradually passed out of favour. The attitude of the bishops of Palestine in the Paschal controversy of the 2nd cent. was that of men who wished to stand clear of any sympathy with Jewish customs; the language of Justin Martyr and of Hegesippus was the language of the representatives of the Samaritan and the Hebrew Christianity of the day, not of the Ebionite. Outside of Palestine Ebionism had even less chance of survival. From the very first, the instructions and memories of St. Paul and St. John excluded it from Asia Minor; in Antioch the names of Ignatius, Theophilus, and Serapion were vouchers for Catholic doctrine and practice; and the daughter-churches of Gaul and Alexandria naturally preferred doctrine supplied to them by teachers trained in the school of these Apostles. Even in the church of Rome, whatever tendency existed in Apostolic times towards Ebionism, the separation—also in Apostolic times—of the Judaizers was the beginning of the end which no after-amalgamation under Clement could retard. The tone of the Shepherd of Hermas—a work which emanated from the Roman church during the first half of the 2nd cent. (see Lightfoot, Galatians, p. 99, n. 3)—however different from the tone of Clement and St. Paul, is not Ebionite, as a comparison with another so-called Roman and certainly later Ebionite work—the Clementine writings—shews. The end of Ebionism had actually come in the Roman church when in the 2nd cent. Jewish practices—notably as regards the observance of
Easter—were unhesitatingly rejected. The creed of the Christian in Rome was the creed which he held from Irenaeus in Gaul and Polycarp in Asia Minor, and not from the Ebionite. When the above-named Alcibiades appeared in Rome (A.D. 219), Hippolytus denounced his teaching (that of Elchasai) as that of “a wolf risen up against many wandering sheep, whom Callistus had scattered abroad”: it came upon him as a novelty; it had “risen up,” he says, “in our own day” (Haer. ix. cc. 8, 12). This language is a proof of the oblivion which had certainly befallen any previous propagation of Ebionism in Rome.
For 200 years more Ebionism—especially of the Essene form—lingered on. A few Ebionites were left in the time of Theodoret, about the middle of 5th cent.; the rest had returned to strict Judaism and the utter rejection of Christianity, or to a purer Christianity than that which Ebionism favoured.