Just who were the Ebionites, that pseudo-mythical sect of Jewish followers of Jesus from the early centuries of Christendom? Norwegian scholar Oskar Skarsaune brings together recent scholarship and sound reasoning to get at a more accurate picture of these Torah-practicing Jesus-believing Jews of infamy. Get Skarsaune’s book here.
We already discussed the fact that a hasty process of labeling led to typical confusion about the origin and identity of the Ebionites. Irenaeus, writing about 180 C.E., lumped all Jewish believers in with a group he encountered that denied the virgin birth, apparently regarding Jesus as man and not the God-man.
To make matters worse, in Irenaeus’s catalogue of heretical groups, each group had a founder whom they were named after. Thus entered into legend a non-existent person named Ebion who must have founded these Ebionites.
Oskar Skarsaune puts to rest any doubt that the Ebionites derived their name from a concept and not from a founder. So what is the origin of this name and what can it tell us about early Jewish believers in Jesus?
The word evyon (plural evyonim) is common in the Hebrew Bible. It denotes poverty or neediness.
Its first occurrence is in Exodus 23:6, “You shall not deny justice to the poor among you in his lawsuit.” A number of Torah regulations concern leaving food for the poor, the evyonim, the ebionites if you Hellenize the spelling.
God is called the “one who raises the evyon from the dust” (1 Sam. 2:8). God is a “stronghold for the evyon” (Isa. 25:4). In Messianic days “the evyon will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 29:19).
Amos condemned those who thought they could “buy the needy with silver, the evyon with a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:4). The Psalmist calls himself “needy and evyon” in Psalm 70:5 (6 in Hebrew), and asks God therefore to hurry and deliver him. Throughout the Psalms God is the helper of the evyon.
The gospels of the life of Jesus and the letters of the apostles were written in Greek. So we don’t know for sure what Hebrew or Aramaic word they had in mind, but it is like the following verses from the New Testament follow the same theme:
Matthew 5:3, Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Luke 6:20, Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God is yours.
Luke 4:13, On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind.
Luke 16:20, But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate.
Luke 21:2, “I tell you the truth,” He said. “This poor widow has put in more than all of them.”
2 Corinthians 6:10, …as grieving yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing yet possessing everything.
James 2:5, Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him?
Who can tell if the Ebionites called themselves the “needy ones,” or “the humble ones” or if their enemies mocked them with the name?
Jewish followers of Yeshua the Nazarene became friendless:
—They were at a certain point in history rejected by other Jews, who did not accept the Messiahship of this Yeshua.
—They were doubly distasteful to Romans, who regarded anyone that rejected the Roman gods as atheists and who mocked the Jews and made up libels about the Christians.
—They were misunderstood by their fellow Jesus-followers, who rejected the ongoing validity of the Torah and who had long before de-Judaized the faith that follows a Jewish Messiah.
Origen was no friend to the Jewish believers. He said of them:
“They are called poor because they hang on to the poverty of the law. Because among the Jews Ebion means poor and those of the Jews who accepted Jesus are named Ebionites.” (Celsus 2.1).
“The Ebionites are called by this very name ‘poor ones’ . . . The Ebionites are poor of understanding, so called after their poverty of understanding.” (Principles 4.3.8).
There is one place where another group from antiquity used the name Ebionites. In a Pesher (a kind of fanciful interpretation of a text that makes it refer to a present community) on Psalm 37, the Qumran community labeled itself the Congregation of Ebionites. Psalm 37 says the afflicted will inherit the land (vs. 11) and denounces the wicked who persecute the afflicted and the evyon.
Oskar Skarsaune concludes as follows about the name Ebionite:
The theory proposed here rests on the basic observation that in the Hebrew Bible ebionim is a positive, even honorific word, describing the chosen recipients of divine salvation, because they are an unjustly persecuted sub-group within the people.
The friendless Jewish believers, cast out of the synagogue, avoided by their fellow Jesus-believers, and doubly mocked by Romans, were the humble believers. They preserved at a great price faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel and faithfulness to Messiah, revealed in the process of time to be none other than Yeshua of Nazareth.
Their courage to be who they were and not assimilate in any of the three directions that would have made life easier for them should say something to the modern Messianic Jewish movement. We should never abandon principles to befriend the synagogue, the church, or the world.