Just who were these Jewish believers? What did they believe and why?
We will never (this side of the World to Come) know much about the Ebionites because they left us no writings and those who wrote about them were quite biased against them. We can only piece together a little about them. Skarsaune does a good job of getting down to what we can know.
In considering our sources on the Ebionites, all writers from the time of the church fathers, one major branch of evidence is the Irenaeus-Tertullian-Hippolytus-Pseudo-Tertullian branch. Skarsaune considers these writers as one branch since they all seem to rely more on Irenaeus’s initial description of the Ebionites than on any actual experiences they had themselves. In other words, Skarsaune makes a good case that Irenaeus created a stereotype and later writers simply added to it.
The following are the major passages about the Ebionites, which I will follow with a few comments:
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2, “Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with regard to the Lord are similar* to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the gospel according to Matthew only and repudiate the apostle Paul, saying he was an apostate from the Law. As to the prophetical writings, they do their best to expound them diligently; they practice circumcision, persevere in the customs which are according to the Law and practice a Jewish way of life, even adoring Jerusalem as if it were a house of God.”
*Note: Some texts says “not similar to those of Cerinthus, but Skarsaune argues for the reading “similar to.”
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.1.3, “Vain also are the Ebionites who do not receive by faith into their soul the union of God and man, but who remain in the old leaven of the [natural] birth; who do not wish to understand that the Holy Spirit came into Mary and the power of the Most High did overshadow her: therefore also what was generated is holy and the Son of the Most High God the Father of all, who wrought His incarnation and displayed a new [kind of] generation.”
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 32.5, “Writing also to the Galatians, Paul blazes out against those who defend circumcision and the Law; this is Ebion’s heresy.”
Hippolytus, Against Heresies 7.34.2, “They live conformably to the Jewish customs saying they are justified according to the Law. Therefore it was that he was named the Messiah of God and Jesus, since not one of the rest kept the Law. For if any had kept the commandments of the Law, he would have been the Messiah. And they themselves, also, having done the same, are able to become messiahs; for they say that he himself was a man like all.”
Pseudo-Tertullian, Against Heresies 3, “Cerinthus’ successor was Ebion, though not in agreement with Cerinthus in every point . . . he brings to the fore likewise the Law, of course for the purpose of excluding the gospel and vindicating Judaism.”
We have in addition to this a statement by Tertullian (The Flesh of Christ 14) that I did not include because it is hard to understand without a long explanation of the context.
Also, several statements in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho add to the evidence that there were people who held to an adoptionist Christology (Jesus was a mere man until God adopted him at his baptism). And elsewhere Irenaeus describes the heresy of Cerinthus in precisely this way, as an adoptionist christology. Jesus was merely the son of Joseph and Mary until Messiah descended on him like a dove at his baptism, according to Irenaeus’ description of Cerinthus’ teaching.
The big point, however, in all of this, is that the bad name given to the Ebionites rests on too small a foundation. Irenaeus was likely the only one writing from experience. And since Irenaeus could not name a founder for the Ebionite sect and provides so few details, it would seem Irenaeus’ personal experience with Ebionites was quite limited. Then later writers seem to merely repeat what Irenaeus said.
Were the Ebionites heretics, or were at least some of them early Messianic Jews living the Torah and following Yeshua faithfully? Skarsaune, a Lutheran scholar, says something surprising:
Why would Irenaeus deem any of this [that Ebionites kept the Law] heretical? He probably (mis)took Paul (e.g., in Galatians 3:19-29) to mean that continued practice of the Law by Jewish believers was wrong.”
Skarsaune, surprisingly for a Lutheran scholar, recognizes at least that the Law is an acceptable way of life for a Jewish believer (he does not consider it an obligation, however). But for Irenaeus and Tertullian, the Law was not only done away with, it was sinful to keep it.
I know this sounds strange to Jewish ears, but we face this often in Messianic Judaism. Historic Christianity has often and still today often views the obedience of Jewish people to God’s commandments as sinful, a refusal to accept the “fact” that God has given a new law that supersedes the old one (sic). That is what Irenaeus and Tertullian believed. And Irenaeus had limited contact, it would seem, with actual Ebionites.
So I propose a theory, not too different from Skarsaune’s. Perhaps the Torah faithfulness of the Ebionites was what truly alarmed the church fathers. Perhaps adoptionist christology was not truly characteristic of them as a group (even Irenaeus attributes it to Cerinthus and only secondarily to the Ebionites). Perhaps Irenaeus consciously or unconsciously portrayed Ebionites in a worse light than he had solid evidence for.
Were the Ebionites heretics or were they faithful Messianic Jews? The evidence against them is not as good as it used to appear.