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Ebionites, or Ebionaioi (Greek: Ἐβιωναῖοι; derived from Hebrew אביונים ebyonim, ebionim, meaning "the poor" or "poor ones"), is a patristic term referring to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. The Ebionites used only one of the Jewish Gospels, revered James the Just and rejected Paul of Tarsus as an apostate from the Law. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty. The Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran that sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple, whom many believe were the Essenes.
Since historical records by the Ebionites are scarce, fragmentary and disputed, much of what is known or conjectured about the Ebionites derives from the Church Fathers, who wrote polemics against the Ebionites, whom they deemed heretical Judaizers. Consequently, very little about the Ebionite sect or sects is known with certainty, and most, if not all, statements about them are conjectural.
At least one scholar distinguishes the Ebionites from other Jewish Christian groups, e.g., the Nazarenes; other scholars—and the Church Fathers from the first centuries after Christ, themselves—consider the Ebionites identical with the Nazarenes.
The term Ebionites derives from the common adjective for "poor" in Hebrew (singular: אֶבְיוֹן ev·yōn, plural: אביונים ev·yōn·im), which occurs fifteen times in the Psalms and was the self-given term of some pious Jewish circles (e.g. Psalm 69:33 ("For the LORD heareth the poor") and 1 QpHab XII, 3.6.10). The term "Ebionim" was also a self description given by the people who were living in Qumran, as shown in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The term "the poor" was at first a common designation for all Christians - a reference to their material and voluntary poverty.
The graecized Hebrew term "Ebionite" (Ebionai) was first applied by Irenaeus in the 2nd century without making mention of Nazarenes (c.180 CE). Origen wrote "for Ebion signifies 'poor' among the Jews, and those Jews who have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites." Tertullian was the first to write against a heresiarch called Ebion; scholars believe he derived this name from a literal reading of Ebionaioi as "followers of Ebion", a derivation now considered mistaken for lack of any more substantial references to such a figure. The term "the poor" (Greek ptōkhoí) was still used in its original, more general sense. Modern Hebrew still uses the Biblical Hebrew term "the needy" both in histories of Christianity for "Ebionites" (אביונים) and for almsgiving to the needy at Purim.
The earliest reference to a group that might fit the description of the later Ebionites appears in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (c. 140). Justin distinguishes between Jewish Christians who observe the Law of Moses but do not require its observance upon others, and those who believe the Mosaic Law to be obligatory on all. Irenaeus (c. 180) was probably the first to use the term "Ebionites" to describe a heretical judaizing sect, which he regarded as stubbornly clinging to the Law. Origen (c. 212) remarks that the name derives from the Hebrew word "evyon," meaning "poor." Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century gives the most complete but also questionable account in his heresiology called Panarion, denouncing eighty heretical sects, among them the Ebionites. Epiphanius mostly gives general descriptions of their religious beliefs and includes quotations from their gospels, which have not survived. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica (2011), the Ebionite movement may have arisen about the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70).
Paul talks of his collection for the "poor among the saints" in the Jerusalem church, but this is generally taken as meaning "the poorer members of the church" rather than a schismatic group.
The actual number of groups described as Ebionites is difficult to ascertain, as the contradictory patristic accounts in their attempt to distinguish various sects, sometimes confuse them with each other. Other groups mentioned are the Carpocratians, the Cerinthians, the Elcesaites, the 4th century Nazarenes, and the Sampsaeans, most of whom were Jewish Christian sects who held gnostic or other views rejected by the Ebionites. Epiphanius, however, mentions that a group of Ebionites came to embrace some of these views despite keeping their name.
As the Ebionites are first mentioned as such in the 2nd century, their earlier history and any relation to the first Jerusalem church remains obscure and a matter of contention. There is no evidence linking the origin of the later sect of the Ebionites with the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–70 CE, or that prior to that they formed part of the Jerusalem church led by Jesus' brother James. Eusebius relates a tradition, probably based on Aristo of Pella, that the early Christians left Jerusalem just prior to the war and fled to Pella beyond the Jordan River, but does not connect this with Ebionites. They were led by Simeon of Jerusalem (d. 107) and during the Second Jewish-Roman War of 115–117, they were persecuted by the Jewish followers of Bar Kochba for refusing to recognize his messianic claims.
According to Harnack the influence of Elchasaites places some Ebionites in the context of the gnostic movements widespread in Syria and the lands to the east.
After the end of the First Jewish-Roman War, the importance of the Jerusalem church began to fade. Jewish Christianity became dispersed throughout the Jewish diaspora in the Levant, where it was slowly eclipsed by gentile Christianity, which then spread throughout the Roman Empire without competition from "judaizing" Christian groups. Once the Jerusalem church, still headed by Jesus' relatives, was eliminated during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, the Ebionites gradually lost influence and followers. According to Hyam Maccoby (1987) their decline was due to marginalization and "persecution" by both Jews and Christians. Following the defeat of the rebellion and the expulsion of all Jews from Judea, Jerusalem became the Gentile city of Aelia Capitolina. Many of the Jewish Christians residing at Pella renounced their Jewish practices at this time and joined to the mainstream Christian church. Those who remained at Pella and continued in obedience to the Law were deemed heretics. In 375, Epiphanius records the settlement of Ebionites on Cyprus, but by the mid-5th century, Theodoret of Cyrrhus reported that they were no longer present in the region.
Some scholars argue that the Ebionites survived much longer and identify them with a sect encountered by the historian Abd al-Jabbar ibn Ahmad around the year 1000. Another possible reference to surviving Ebionite communities in northwestern Arabia, specifically the cities of Tayma and Tilmas, around the 11th century, appears in Sefer Ha'masaot, the "Book of the Travels" of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from Spain. 12th-century Muslim historian Muhammad al-Shahrastani mentions Jews living in nearby Medina and Hejaz who accepted Jesus as a prophetic figure and followed traditional Judaism, rejecting mainstream Christian views. Some scholars argue that they contributed to the development of the Islamic view of Jesus due to exchanges of Ebionite remnants with the first Muslims.
Most patristic sources portray the Ebionites as traditional Jews, who zealously followed the Law of Moses, revered Jerusalem as the holiest city, and restricted table fellowship only to Gentiles who converted to Judaism.
Yet some Church Fathers describe some Ebionites as departing from traditional Jewish principles of faith and practice. For example, Epiphanius of Salamis stated that the Ebionites engaged in excessive ritual bathing, possessed an angelology which claimed that the Christ is a great archangel who was incarnated in Jesus and adopted as the son of God, opposed animal sacrifice, denying parts or most of the Law, and practiced Jewish vegetarianism, and celebrated a commemorative meal annually, on or around Passover, with unleavened bread and water only, in contrast to the daily Christian Eucharist.
However, the reliability of Epiphanius' account of the Ebionites is questioned by some scholars. Shlomo Pines, for example, argues that the heterodox views and practices he ascribes to some Ebionites originated in Gnostic Christianity rather than Jewish Christianity, and are characteristics of the Elcesaite sect, which Epiphanius mistakenly attributed to the Ebionites.
Another Church Father who described the Ebionites as departing from Christian Orthodoxy was Methodius of Olympus, who stated that the Ebionites believed that the prophets spoke only by their own power, and not by the power of the Holy Spirit.
While mainstream biblical scholars do suppose some Essene influence on the nascent Jewish-Christian Church in some organizational, administrative and cultic respects, some scholars go beyond that assumption.
Regarding the Ebionites specifically, a number of scholars have different theories on how the Ebionites may have developed from an Essene Jewish messianic sect. Hans-Joachim Schoeps argues that the conversion of some Essenes to Jewish Christianity after the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE may be the source of some Ebionites adopting Essene views and practices; while some conclude that the Essenes did not become Jewish Christians but still had an influence on the Ebionites.
However, Epiphanius of Salamis, in his book Panarion, 30:17:5, said the following: "But I already showed above that Ebion did not know these things, but later, his followers that associated with Elchasai had the circumcision, the Sabbath and the customs of Ebion, but the imagination of Elchasai".
In the Gospel of the Ebionites, as quoted by Epiphanius, John the Baptist and Jesus are portrayed as vegetarians. Epiphanius states that the Ebionites had amended "locusts" (Greek akris) to "honey cake" (Greek ekris). This emendation is not found in any other New Testament manuscript or translation. Though a different vegetarian reading is found in a late Slavonic version of Josephus' War of the Jews. Pines (1966) and others propose on the contrary that the Ebionites were projecting their own vegetarianism onto John the Baptist.
The majority of Church Fathers agree that the Ebionites rejected many of the precepts central to Nicene orthodoxy, such as his pre-existence, divinity, virgin birth, atoning death, and physical resurrection. On the other hand, an Ebionite story has Jesus eating bread with his brother Jacob ("James the Just") after the resurrection, which indicates that the Ebionites, or at least the ones who accepted this version of the Gospel of the Hebrews, very much believed in a physical resurrection for Jesus. The Ebionites are described as emphasizing the oneness of God and the humanity of Jesus as the biological son of both Mary and Joseph, who by virtue of his righteousness, was chosen by God to be the messianic "prophet like Moses" (foretold in Deuteronomy 18:14–22) when he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Origen (Contra Celsum 5.61) and Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica 3.27.3) recognize some variation in the Christology of Ebionite groups; for example that while all Ebionites denied Christ's pre-existence there was a sub-group which did not deny the virgin birth. Theodoret, while dependent on earlier writers, draws the conclusion that the two sub-groups would have used different Gospels.
Of the books of the New Testament, the Ebionites are said to have accepted only a Hebrew (or 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.
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One of the popular primary connections of the Ebionites to James is that noted by William Whiston in his edition of Josephus (1794) where he notes regarding the murder of James the Just, "we must remember what we learn from the Ebionite fragments of Hegesippus, that these Ebionites interpreted a prophecy of Isaiah as foretelling this very murder" That Hegesippus made this connection from Isaiah is undisputed, however Whiston's identification of Hegesippus as an Ebionite, while common in 18th and 19th century scholarship, is debatable.
The Book of Acts begins by showing Peter as leader of the Jerusalem church - the only church in existence immediately after the ascension. Though several years later Paul lists James prior to "Cephas" (Peter) and John as those considered "pillars" (Greek styloi) of the Jerusalem Church. Eusebius records that Clement of Alexandria wrote that Peter, James, and John chose James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem, but Eusebius also subjects James to the authority of all the apostles. Peter baptised Cornelius the Centurion, introducing uncircumcised Gentiles into the church in Judea. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, established many churches and developed a Christian theology (see Pauline Christianity). At the Council of Jerusalem (c 49), Paul argued to abrogate Mosaic observances for non-Jewish converts. When Paul recounted the events to the Galatians (Galatians 2:9-10), he referred only to the remembrance of the poor rather than conveying the four points of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:19-21). James Dunn notes the conciliatory role of James as depicted in Acts in the tension between Paul and those urging the Law of Moses upon Gentiles.
According to Eusebius, after the death of James the Jerusalem church[disambiguation needed] fled to Pella, Jordan to escape the siege of the future Emperor Titus, and then after the Bar Kokhba revolt the Jerusalem church was permitted to remain in the renamed Aelia Capitolina, but notably from this point onward all bishops of Jerusalem bear Greek rather than evidently Jewish names.
Scholars such as: Pierre-Antoine Bernheim, Robert Eisenman, Will Durant, Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, John Painter, and James Tabor, argue for some form of continuity of the Jewish Jerusalem church[disambiguation needed] into the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and that the Ebionites regarded James the Just as their leader.
Against this scholars including Richard Bauckham distinguish the high Christology practiced by the Jerusalem Church under James with the low Christology later adopted by the Ebionites. Tabor argues that the Ebionites claimed a dynastic apostolic succession for the relatives of Jesus. Epiphanius relates that the Ebionites opposed the Apostle Paul, whom they saw as responsible that gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised, nor otherwise follow the Law of Moses, and named him an apostate. Epiphanius further relates that some Ebionites alleged that Paul was a Greek who converted to Judaism in order to marry the daughter of a high priest of Israel but apostatized when she rejected him.
As an alternative to the traditional view of Eusebius, that the Jerusalem church simply became integrated with the Gentile church, other scholars, such as Richard Bauckham, suggest immediate successors to the Jerusalem Church under James and the relatives of Jesus were the Nazoraeans, who accepted Paul, while the Ebionites were a later offshoot of the early 2nd century.
Few writings of the Ebionites have survived, and these are in uncertain form. The Recognitions of Clement and the Clementine Homilies, two 3rd-century Christian works, are regarded by general scholarly consensus as largely or entirely Jewish Christian in origin and reflect Jewish Christian beliefs. The exact relationship between the Ebionites and these writings is debated, but Epiphanius's description of some Ebionites in Panarion 30 bears a striking similarity to the ideas in the Recognitions and Homilies. Scholar Glenn Alan Koch speculates that Epiphanius likely relied upon a version of the Homilies as a source document. Some scholars also speculate that the core of the Gospel of Barnabas, beneath a polemical medieval Muslim overlay, may have been based upon an Ebionite or gnostic document. The existence and origin of this source continues to be debated by scholars.
Irenaeus stated that the Ebionites used Matthew's Gospel exclusively. Eusebius of Caesarea later wrote that they used only the Gospel of the Hebrews. From this the minority view of James R. Edwards (2009) and Bodley's Librarian Edward Nicholson (1879) claims that there was only one Hebrew gospel in circulation, Matthew's Gospel of the Hebrews. They also note that the title Gospel of the Ebionites, was never used by anyone in the early Church. Epiphanius contended that the gospel the Ebionites used, was written by Matthew and called the Gospel of the Hebrews. Because Epiphanius said that it was "not wholly complete, but falsified and mutilated...", writers such as Walter Richard Cassels (1877), and Pierson Parker (1940) consider it a different "edition" of Matthew's Hebrew Gospel. However, internal evidence from the quotations in Panarion 30.13.4 and 30.13.7 suggest that the text was a Gospel harmony originally composed in Greek.
Mainstream scholarly texts, such as the standard edition of the New Testament Apocrypha edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher generally refer to the text Jerome cites as used by the Ebionites as the Gospel of the Ebionites, though this is not a term current in the Early Church.
The collection of New Testament apocrypha known as the Clementine literature included three works known in antiquity as the Circuits of Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and a work usually titled the Ascents of James. They are specifically referenced by Epiphanius in his polemic against the Ebionites. 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 Jewish Christian views, i.e. the primacy of James the Just, their connection with the episcopal see of Rome, and their antagonism to Simon Magus, as well as gnostic doctrines. Scholar Robert E. Van Voorst opines of the Ascents of James (R 1.33–71), "There is, in fact, no section of the Clementine literature about whose origin in Jewish Christianity one may be more certain". Despite this assertion, he expresses reservations that the material is genuinely Ebionite in origin.
Symmachus produced a translation of the Hebrew Bible in Koine Greek, which was used by Jerome and is still extant in fragments, and his lost Hypomnemata, written to counter the canonical Gospel of Matthew. Although lost, the Hypomnemata is probably identical to De distinctione præceptorum mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or., III, 1). The identity of Symmachus as an Ebionite has been questioned in recent scholarship.
Hippolytus of Rome (c.230) reports that a Jewish Christian, Alcibiades of Apamea, appeared in Rome teaching from a book which he claimed to be the revelation which a righteous man, Elkesai, had received from an angel. Though Hippolytus suspected that Alcibiades was himself the author. Shortly afterwards Origen records a group, the Elkesaites, with the same beliefs. Epiphanius claimed the Ebionites also used this book as a source for some of their beliefs and practices (Panarion 30.17). Epiphanius explains the origin of the name Elkesai to be Aramaic El Ksai, meaning "Hidden Power" (Panarion 19.2.1). Scholar Petri Luomanen believes the book to have been written originally in Aramaic as a Jewish apocalypse, probably in Babylonia, in 116-117.
The mainstream Christian view of the Ebionites is partly based on interpretation of the polemical views of the Church Fathers who portrayed them as heretics for rejecting many of the central Christian views of Jesus, and allegedly having an improper fixation on the Law of Moses at the expense of the grace of God. In this view, the Ebionites may have been the descendants of a Jewish Christian sect within the early Jerusalem church[disambiguation needed] which broke away from its mainstream theology.
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. Some Messianic groups have expressed concern over leaders in Israel that deny Jesus' divinity and the possible collapse of the Messianic movement due to a resurgence of Ebionitism. In a recent polemic, a Messianic leader asked whether Christians should imitate the Torah-observance of "neo-Ebionites".
The website "Judaism vs Christianity" rejects Paul, and along with him, Peter and Luke (who acknowledge Paul's ministry), in favor of a more Jewish Christianity.
Mainstream Islam charges mainstream Christianity with having distorted the pure monotheism of Jesus through the doctrines of trinity and through the veneration of icons. Paul Addae and Tim Bowes (1998) write that the Ebionites were faithful to the original teachings of Jesus and thus shared Islamic views about Jesus' humanity, though the Islamic view of Jesus may conflict with the view of some Ebionites regarding the virgin birth and the crucifixion. One of the first men to believe in the prophethood of Muhammad was an Ebionite monk named Waraqah ibn Nawfal, the distant cousin of Mohammed, whom Muslims highly honor as a pious man with deep knowledge of the Christian scriptures.
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