Church history is not my field and while I may have read more about it than the average person, I make no claim to be well-read in these areas. In fact, I can see that I need to do more reading in this field and get my acquaintance with theories up to speed.
In this article, I am simply musing on a chapter in Jewish Believers in Jesus by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik. I am using the information as Skarsaune presents it in chapter 14, “The Ebionites,” and making my own sort of commentary on what he has to say. . .
Anyone who has studied church history in the period of the church fathers has likely heard of the Ebionites. I still remember the summary about Nazirites and Ebionites that I got at a Christian Bible college years ago. The Nazarites were mostly good guys and the Ebionites mostly bad guys.
What I present here is based on the theory of Oskar Skarsaune about the origin of the term Ebionite and the origin of the confusion about their identity and their relationship with other groups. I encourage the read to get the book which will fascinate anyone interested in the Jewish roots of faith in Jesus and how we got away from them (get the book here).
Irenaeus and other church fathers gave lists of heresies in their writings. The whole idea may have begun with Justin Martyr in a now lost work Syntagma Against Heresies. I have to admit that I have found lists of heretical movements somewhat useful over the years, since Apollonarianism, Arianism, and other isms continue to pop up over the centuries. So, I do not fault the idea of listing and defining heretical groups.
But labeling often leads to misunderstanding. I think we have all come to see this with the very tired labels of our time (liberal, conservative). The truth is always more complex than a label. And two very different ideas often find themselves under the same label.
The Ebionites are historical victims of a case of hasty labeling, Skarsaune argues. A simplified history of the case runs something like this:
—Irenaeus (c. 180 C.E.) was aware of Jewish believers in Jesus who continued to practice the Torah and Jewish traditions.
—Irenaeus met a group that believed Jesus was the natural son of Joseph.
—Irenaeus lumped the whole category of Jewish believers into this unbiblical view of Jesus.
—Later writers met Jewish believers who did not seem to fit Irenaeus’s description.
—Epiphanius (c. 350 C.E.) met some Jewish believers who did not seem to be heretics and gave them a different name, Nazarites or Nazoreans.
—Church historians proceeded with the naïve view that there were two types of Jewish believers in Jesus, Ebionites and Nazarites (of course, some church historians dug deeper and a plethora of theories has emerged).
Typical confusion. I mean, the same thing can happen in our day. I can’t count the number of times I have told someone, “Don’t assume that all Messianic Jews are like the ones you may find in your neighborhood.”
Irenaeus met a group of Jewish believers who said Joseph was Jesus’ natural father. Well, I’ve met my share of flakes as well. Flakiness is a universal human condition and we all have ideological dandruff in some areas. I’ve met Messianic Jews or Hebrew Roots teachers who claim that certain books do not belong in the Bible–even some who discount everything written by Paul! I run into less dangerous flaky stuff all the time: “Archaeologists found the wheels of Egyptian chariots in the Red Sea! — The Bible teaches the healing properties of essential oils! — The church is an idolatrous beast earning God’s wrath for celebrating Christmas and Easter!” Okay, that last one is quite dangerous. It is also, sadly, widespread.
Skarsaune delves into the sources, discounts some of them using sound arguments, and seeks the kernel of truth under the typical confusion.
Who were the Ebionites? Were they followers of someone named Ebion? If not, where did their name come from? What did they believe? Are they different from the ones Epiphanius called Nazarites? Sounds like good stuff to talk about in part 2 . . .