Ebionites, Humble Believers

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.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Ebionites and Nazirites, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Oskar Skarsaune, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Ebionites, Humble Believers

  1. kbeau says:

    Hi Derek,

    Very interesting blog! As far as your Ebionite history is concerned, you might do a double-take on your research and note that the Ebionites vehemently rejected not only Paul of Tarsus but also the sacrificial system of Torah. Keith Akers has some excellent website articles on the Ebionites and within his book, “The Lost Religion of Jesus”.

    Call me a “flake” if you like, but let’s not try to rewrite the Ebionites’ history. They flatly rejected sacrifice in the same way the Essene’s did — because the sacrificial system established by the ancient priesthood didn’t accurately represent the Character (i.e. Word) of Yahweh God. The later Prophets and even some Psalmists flatly rejected Israel’s unholy bloodletting.

    Since Yahweh has repudiated human sacrifice within the Law, then for anyone to preach that a human sacrifice was in any way acceptable to God as any kind of atonement is axiomatically hypocritical. In other words, the so-called Ebionites rejected Paul as apostate because the crux of his “gospel” was essentially forgiveness through the breaking of God’s Law.

    Some “gospel”.

    Thanks for listening. Peace.

  2. Dear Readers:

    So we have heard from kbeau. He claims that the sacrifice of Yeshua was a human sacrifice and therefore invalid as an atonement for sinners. He refers to Keith Akers, a man who holds some unusual views and whose work does not interact with serious scholarship. I don’t mean that he does not refer to other scholars, but he is selective in whom he refers to and even in what he takes from those he cites. There will always be voices out there claiming strange things. Check out Keith Akers on Wikipedia.

    As for the human sacrifice argument, it could hardly be more lame. Yeshua was not offered on an altar. Still kbeau’s critique points to a soft spot in much Christian writing and thinking about the cross. The death of Yeshua was not like a sin offering. It was quite different.

    I commend N.T. Wright’s interpretation of the death of Yeshua. He died in order to take Israel’s destiny upon himself. The wrath of God against Israel was poured out on Yeshua, not in a human sacrifice, but in a prophetic acting out. As I have written on here many times, the sacrifices of the temple were of a completely different order than the death of Yeshua.

    Derek

  3. Dear Readers:

    kbeau makes some claims about the specific beliefs of the Ebionites. They allegedly all were vegetarian, rejected Paul, and rejected the sacrificial system. The last claim is silly since the sacrificial system was inoperative after 70 C.E. and we have no record of the Ebionites until 180 C.E. Any comparison of the Ebionites to the Essenes, who rejected the temple system of their day, is ludicrous, since the Ebionites, as far as we know, did not exist while the temple was standing.

    But the real error in Keith Aker’s system and in kbeau’s is simple: making a specific and detailed history out of a handful of references.

    As I indicated in my summary of Skarsaune’s scholarship, our sources are few and distorted. How much can we know about a group from sources who barely mention them and who considered them enemies? Keith Akers and kbeau want us to think we can know a great deal. Reasoned historians would be far more cautious in drawing conclusions.

    Derek

  4. geoffrobinson says:

    I would stick more with the traditional view best expounded recently by Leon Morris of the atonement. NT Wright has a tendency to take things in the background and then make it the main thing. He does that when he redefines “justify” and “righteousness”. I think he’s doing it here as well.

    The historic understanding of the cross as a sin offering, or better yet as a propitiation, where Jesus bore our sins in His body isn’t a soft spot at all. Unless there are certain presuppositions which make that unacceptable to you.

    As to the Ebionites, I think it is really hard to go beyond speculation in historical reconstructions. Do we really have enough to go on? I would have to read the book to find out.

    But just because we know Gentile believers of that day and age would be uncomfortable with Torah observant Jews doesn’t mean the Ebionites weren’t heretical.

  5. Geoff:

    You surely misunderstand me when I say Yeshua’s death was not a sin offering. I don’t mean it did not result in forgiveness of sins. I mean that it was not like the temple sacrifices.

    And while we do have some room to disagree (I don’t think Leon Morris’s explanation gets the details right), I’m surprised you would nitpick with me instead of agreeing with me against kbeau who rejects Paul and the cross. Priorities, man.

    Derek

  6. Geoff:

    I’m sure some Ebionites were heretical. Irenaeus probably did meet a group that rejected the virgin birth and divinity of Yeshua. But Oskar Skarsaune’s point is that the Jewish believers surely had diversity of opinions, as evidenced by others like Epiphanius who met Jewish believers with Orthodox theology.

    Derek

  7. geoffrobinson says:

    I thought the overall point in either this post or the last one was a good one. You run into a certain group and you start thinking they are uniform. That happens all over the place.

    Thanks for the clarification on the cross.

  8. Job says:

    derek4messiah:

    1. Jesus Christ’s death WAS a sin offering for one. The sin offerings of the Jewish sacrificial systems were preparations for, pointed to, and typologically represented the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is Christianity 101 explicitly stated in every single New Testament book. Why else would Jesus Christ be called “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”? Please recall that He was called so by John the Baptist, a prophet operating exclusively under the old covenant and probably was directly exposed to virtually none of Jesus Christ’s teachings or ministry. Christ’s battling with the Pharisees and Sadduccees (plus not a few common people), healing and casting out devils, driving people out of the temple, and His return on the day of the Lord … have you ever seen or heard of lambs doing anything like that? Jesus Christ was not A sin offering, He was THE ONE UNIQUE AND EFFECTIVE SIN SACRIFICE. But of course you knew all of this already.

    2. There were many groups of Ebionites that had a wide diversity of beliefs. It is fair to say that a great deal were in fact heretical. It is equally fair to say that the same was true of a great many Gentile Christians however (case in point: your own example of Origen)! Why? Please recall that post – apostolic but pre – Nicene church operated in a time where there was no official canon and no standard set of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and what was more there was no group or body with the widely accepted authority needed to declare or enforce this orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

    So, some Ebionites did in fact reject Jesus Christ’s deity, claiming that He was only the Messiah, and still other Ebionites accepted Christ’s deity while still rejecting Trinity. And yes still more Ebionites did in fact continue to depict salvation and justification as conditioned at least in part on keeping the 613. And there were also other strange beliefs. But you know what? There were just as many Gentiles with just as many strange beliefs – which were often strikingly similar i.e. the doctrines of the Gentile Arianism to the doctrines of Ebionites that rejected Christ’s deity, and the legalism of the Montanists as compared to that of the Judaizers – and still more. So, what you had going on was large numbers (and possibly a majority!) of both Christian groups – Gentiles and Jews – completely rejecting core points of the apostolic teachings. Quite naturally, the Gentiles preferred to focus on the Jewish errors, and the Jews preferred to focus on the Gentile errors, when the truth is that they were usually both equally wrong.

    3. Not all Jewish Christians were Ebionites. From what I have read, the Ebionites were most strongly associated with Jerusalem, though they did later spread out. But it would be very difficult to assert that Ebionitism – of whatever flavor – ever dominated diaspora or Hellenistic Jewish Christianity (i.e. of such characters as Shaul/Paul, Apollos, Silas, Barnabas, Stephen, Philip, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquilla, Lydia, etc.) or even if it dominated the Jerusalem/Judean Jewish Christianity of the original apostles and their followers.

    Because of the need to cover up or justify their own heretical deviations from the faith, their own desires to control the church, and their own desires to adopt new doctrines and philosophies and take the church in a direction that suited their own needs and cultures, it was in the interests of Gentile Christians to depict all Jewish Christians that resisted being absorbed into Gentile Christianity – which a great many did incidentally – as Ebionites or some other suspect group or movement, but that was almost certainly never the case.

    The bottom line is that within 250 years of the death of the last apostle, Gentile Christianity had fully absorbed a bunch of pagan myths and practices and willingly allowed itself to be taken over by the Roman empire. (Yes, the former happened before the latter … the veneration of saints and Mary, iconography, doctrines like purgatory, mysticism, asceticism, monasticism, and building on the foundations of pagans like Aristotle, Zeno, and Plato long preceded Constantine) and not long thereafter Jewish Christianity – Ebionites included – for all intents and purposes ceased to exist as a vibrant and growing movement. Jewish AND Gentile Christians need to acknowledge that both developments happened for a reason, and see what we can learn from that set of bad facts so that we can proceed forth into these last days together.

    Some real questions have to be asked.

    1. Gentile Christians: how much Greek, Roman, Babylonian, etc. paganism and mysticism are we going to hold onto?

    2. Messianic Jews: yes, the 613 is in the Bible, but the Babylonian mysticism that is all over the Talmud and Kabbalah and Rambam as well as the religion that let us acknowledge is basically the invention of Yochanan ben Zakkai isn’t. Those things were not produced by Holy Spirit inspiration and not only do not point to or speak of Jesus Christ but rather were made or interpreted by men that specifically reject Jesus Christ. So what difference is there between these things and between Roman Catholic tradition?

    Are both Gentile Christians and Messianic Jews halting between two opinions? And if we are, then how long will a God that is certainly merciful and gracious but also RIGHTEOUS suffer our doing so? I am a believer that to more is given, more is required. So, I honestly think that those of us that have been blessed with the resources (time, wealth, education, access to materials) to study things concerning church history and the history of doctrines are going to be more accountable than Jerusalem Jewish Christians in 210 AD or illiterate dirt poor serfs repressed by the “Holy” Roman Empire during the Dark Ages. The question is, then, what are we Christians – whether Gentile or Messianic – going to do with the better information that we have access to. Are we going to ignore it and keep going on as before? Or are we going to allow the greater grasp of the truth that we have transform our doctrines and practice?

  9. judahgabriel says:

    Heheh. Looks like you touched on a few nerves here, Derek!

    Posts like this are like rap music. The more nerves you pinch, the more outrage you get, the more popular the post! :)

    Regarding your post, I’ve talked to a guy who held beliefs that the sacrifice system was invalid and not what God desired — quoting certain Psalms to prove God desired mercy more than sacrifice. His view are kind of strange in combination with a Jewish & Christian theology, where this concept of blood-as-atonement for sin is so central to both!

    There is at least one thing stuck out from kbeau’s post: he said,

    [T]he sacrificial system established by the ancient priesthood didn’t accurately represent the Character (i.e. Word) of Yahweh God.

    Flake time! ;-)

    God gave these instructions to Moses on the mountain…what are we saying, that God changed his mind? Moses lied – God didn’t tell him this on the mountain? The Torah is based on a lie?

    God further tells Moses, paraphrasing, “Make sure you get the details down exactly as was shown to you on the mountain!”. The book of Hebrews explains: it was a picture of what’s in heaven.

    If we say the Levitical system and its sacrifices for covering of sin was not from God, then we invalidate the Torah and the New Testament.

  10. judahgabriel says:

    Ooh, I also wanted to say, I love your instruction at the end of the post,

    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.

    That really made me think. Thanks for that.

  11. geoffrobinson says:

    From my learning in philosophy, I would also state there is a lot of Greek influence within Judaism.

  12. Job:

    Please keep your comments to a reasonable length. I have a family and work to do. If comments are too long, I may be tempted to delete them.

    We could debate at length about whether Yeshua’s death may simply be equated with the sin offering. I’ll just say that: (1) your arguments are not persuasive and (2) I’m not denying that Yeshua’s death results in sins being forgiven.

    About your characterization of the Ebionites–you are getting way too specific. Our sources are quite limited and they are heavily biased. We can’t speak with the degree of specificity you seem to have about them.

    I don’t resonate at all with your denunciation of Christendom. Yes, I too am saddened by errors that crop up in religious institutions and I also point them out. But we must have balance in our presentation. Christendom, with all its warts, has the beauty of God within it.

    Your view of Talmud as a bastion of Babylonian mysticism is first overstated and second it misses the point of what Talmud is. Talmud is a discussion about how to keep the Torah. It is only a discussion.

    Derek

  13. Judah:

    Thanks for the kind words. As for kbeau saying the ancient priesthood created a false system of sacrifices, one possible rationale for such a statement is a critical view of the origin of Torah. Many scholars (not me) believe that Torah is a compilation of sources over many centuries pasted together, sometimes crudely. The P in JEDP stands for the so-called priestly material in the Torah which some scholars claim can be separated from the rest. Perhaps kbeau is, among other things, open to a critical (pessimistic) view of the origin of Torah. On the other hand, when you are making up your beliefs from thin air, you can say anything.

    Derek

  14. Geoff:

    You are right to say that Greek philosophy majorly impacted Judaism from 2nd Temple times on.

    Derek

  15. Job says:

    derek4messiah:

    We could debate at length about whether Yeshua’s death may simply be equated with the sin offering … your arguments are not persuasive

    OK. Please suggest a forum.

    Your view of Talmud as a bastion of Babylonian mysticism is overstated

    As was your statement regarding my alleged denunciation of our brothers in Yeshua.

    Talmud is a discussion about how to keep the Torah.

    Please know that I mean this with no intended harm or disrespect.

    Would you pay any heed to a discussion on how to keep the Torah held by Shintoists or voodoo witch doctors? What difference is there between them and anyone else that rejects that the Torah pointed to, was revealed in, and was fulfilled by Yeshua HaMashiach? Were the Talmud a secular document on philosophy and ethics it would be one thing, but the Torah is a book from just another false religion that rejects Yeshua with all that implies.

    It is true that the Talmud contains a lot of truths handed down from before the time of Jesus Christ. It is also true that Mohammed studied the Old and New Testaments before writing the Koran. So there are a lot of truths in the Koran, but the truths are distorted, depicted out of context, and presented with (and thereby lend false authority to) untruths, rendering the Koran – to quote 2 Timothy 3:16, unprofitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. Suggesting that the Talmud is any different from the Koran (or the Book of Mormon or the “canon” of the heretic Marcion) in those areas is suggesting that the Talmud was – again quoting 2 Timonthy 3:16 – given by inspiration of God.

  16. Job:

    Your comparison of Jewish people, the Chosen People of God, to Shintoists reveals what I suspected when I peeked at your blog. You do not believe that the Jewish people are still being used by God. You believe Israel has been discarded. Such a view usually goes hand in hand with Reformed theology (Barry Horner is a great exception).

    You are welcome to your opinion and we all stand or fall before God our only judge. But most of my readers are going to greatly disagree with you.

    Derek

  17. judahgabriel says:

    “Were the Talmud a secular document on philosophy and ethics it would be one thing, but the Torah is a book from just another false religion that rejects Yeshua with all that implies.”

    Job, can you clarify? Surely you meant to say the Talmud, rather than the Torah?

  18. tlallen says:

    Excellent blog. While I can assume you and I don’t agree on everything… As I am not Jewish… I agree that the Ebionites were most likely the original “Jerusalem Church” under “James the Just”. The fact that they were ridiculed as “Poor of understanding”… is no shocker… as the “religion” of the day was mainly divided in greater parts between poly-theism and Pauline Christianity.

    James SEEMS to be making mention of that fact in James 2:5-7

    Jam 2:5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

    Jam 2:6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

    Jam 2:7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?

    I wonder what “name” he was referring to? I can assure you it was not “Christians”.

    I also agree with your stance on Yahshuah’s death. His abuse and suffering parallel what the Moses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the prophets along with Yahshuah foretold would happen to Israel. Isaiah says that by His KNOWLEDGE He would justify many… unfortunately His teachings of that knowledge have become secondary to… well… other individuals theology.

    In reading some of the comments made in response… I find it odd that nobody mentions the OBVIOUS elephant in the room. Yahshuah advocated adherence to The Law… albeit a more individual based “inner man” form of it that transformed perceived legalism (ritualistic lip service) into true worship and personal responsibility. Examples being feeding the poor, helping the sick, visiting the widows etc. It was all behavioral.

    What strikes me as ODD is that He never mentioned:
    “Oh by the way, Im going to die and take your sins away” in ANY gospel. In fact, sins were being forgiven BEFORE the crucifixion… and sins are still being committed to this day. When the rich young ruler asked about salvation SPECIFICALLY … the answer was behaviorally based: “keep the commandments AND give up the love of worldly possessions and follow Me.”

    How then if one is adhering strictly to His teachings does one come to the “Atonement Death” “God Man” conclusion? Paul… which is one reason the Ebionites rejected him… but that is a whole other discussion entirely.

    Anyway again, good blog!

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