First through fifth centuries.
Possibly Ebion of Pella.
Insistence that all Christians or at least all Jewish Christians must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law; belief that Jesus was not God but an angel or, more commonly, a mere man, often with a denial of the Virgin Birth; rejection of the epistles of Paul; claim that Paul was a false apostle; and often the rejection of all Gospels except Matthew or a revised version of Matthew.
The Term “Ebionite”
Many Church Fathers derive the name “Ebionite” from a supposed founder named “Ebion,” a Jewish Christian who was said to have lived at Pella, across the Jordan, after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Modern scholars see the origin of the name in the Hebrew word ebyon, meaning “poor.” This term originally was applied to Christians because they came from lower social groups and tended to be poor (Gal. 2:10, Acts 11:28-30, 24:17, Rom. 15:25-31, 1 Cor. 1:26-29, 16:1-2, 2 Cor. 8-9). Over time, the term “Ebionite” (Hebrew Ebyonim) came to be applied to Jewish Christians and later to heretical Jewish Christians. This last sense is the one with which we are concerned.
There were three groups of Jewish heretics in the early Church: A strict party, the Judaizers, claimed that all Christians must accept circumcision and keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. A milder party, sometimes called the Nazarenes, claimed that all Jewish Christians must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law, even though Gentile Christians need not. A Gnostic Jewish group, sometimes called the Elkasaites, insisted on keeping the Mosaic Law and added pagan cosmic speculation and the worship of angels.
Development of the Heresy
Ebionism started as a broad movement rather than with a single leader. Even if Ebion of Pella was a real person, many beliefs of Ebionitism were common in early Jewish Christianity, especially the insistence on observing the Law of Moses.
In Acts 10 it was revealed to Peter that the ceremonial precepts of the Jewish Law were no longer binding, especially those dealing with ritual purity and the separation of Jews and Gentiles. Up to this time Christians viewed themselves as a particular sect of Judaism and assumed one must be a Jew (a circumcised keeper of the Law of Moses) to be a Christian. The new revelation given to Peter showed this was not the case, though it did not convince all Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. Those not convinced became heretics by failure to keep up with authentic revelation.
Some time later, a group of early Ebionites (Judaizers) went to Syrian Antioch, where Paul was headquartered, and taught the necessity of circumcision for salvation. This ignited a major controversy in the early Church and led to the first Church council in A.D. 49. This did not completely stop the heresy, and in later years groups of Ebionites continued to plague the apostle Paul’s ministry. Following the two destructions of Jerusalem (A.D. 70 and 135), Ebionitism waned, but did not die out until the fifth century.
As the Church matured Ebionites became more distinct from Catholic Christianity. They rejected most of the New Testament and composed edited forms of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic. Three of these were known as the Gospels of the Ebionites, the Nazarenes, and the Hebrews.
The Gnostic group of Ebionites, also called the Elkasaites, had a book they received from their supposed founder, Elxai. This book was said to be received by Elxai in 101 and was brought to Rome in 220 by the Syrian Alcibiades. According to Origen, the book was said to have fallen from heaven, though according to Hippolytus Elxai was said to have received it from an angel who was the Son of God.
One difference between these Ebionites and ordinary Gnostics was that they maintained the unity of the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New. “Regular” Gnostics claimed that Jehovah (whom they termed “the Demiurge”) was separate from the New Testament God of Love.
In the second century and later, the claim that Jesus was a mere man became the most noted doctrinal claim of Ebionitism. Some have suggested this influenced the development of Islam and its similar view of Jesus.
The decisive step in refuting the Judaizers was taken in A.D. 49 at the Council of Jerusalem, where the apostles, joined by the presbyters of that Church decreed that it was not necessary for the Gentile converts to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law. At this council, Peter issued the basic decision (Acts 15:7-11), Paul and Barnabas gave supporting evidence (15:12), and James the Just proposed four pastoral codicils to make implementation of the decision easier (15:13-21). The result was a circular letter (15:23-29) which was in force for all Christian communities (16:4). This did not stop the Judaizers, and Paul was forced to combat them on later occasions, most notably in his epistles to the Galatians and the Romans.
The Gnostic Ebionites were also dealt with in the New Testament, though no council was convened to deal with them. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul warned against anyone trying to compel his readers to obey the Mosaic Law or to indulge in Gnostic practices, such as the worship of angels (Col. 2:16-18). The book of Hebrews is also at pains to stress the superiority of the Son to angels (Heb. 1:1-14), and many have detected anti-Gnostic themes in the Gospel and epistles of John.
The situations with the moderate Ebionites or Nazarenes was different. Unlike the Judaizers, they did not insist that Gentiles be circumcised, and, unlike the Gnostics, they did not try to combine the Christian faith with pagan elements. For this reason there was hesitancy in dealing with them decisively. The New Testament bears witness that three of the chief apostles–Peter, James, and Paul–tried to get along with rather than attack this group.
We are told in Galatians 2:11-16 that in Antioch Peter once stopped eating with Gentiles in order to appease the sentiments of certain Jews visiting the city. This caused Paul to rebuke him publicly (as later saints had occasional need to rebuke a pope) because he was acting hypocritically, teaching that Gentiles could be saved without the Law, yet behaving as if they were still outsiders who had to be avoided for reasons of ritual purity. This episode shows that, although the Nazarenes were wrong, that Christian Jews did not need to keep the Law of Moses, and, while Peter knew it, there was still a tendency on the part of some apostles to accommodate them.
The connection with James and the Nazarenes is evident. In Galatians 2:12 we are told that it was certain men associated with James who came to Antioch and prompted Peter to refrain from eating with the Gentiles. In Acts 15:20 James is concerned with the sensibilities of the Jewish Christians, who would be scandalized by unrestrained Gentile converts. In Acts 21:18-26 he and his group prompt Paul to perform a public acknowledgment of the Law, similar to Peter’s.
Paul himself accommodates the Nazarenes on a number of occasions. In 1 Corinthians 7:18 he seems to suggest it is permissible for a Jew to continue to live as a Jew once he has converted to Christianity. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16:3 was certainly an accommodation of Jews and possibly Jewish Christians. The chief act of accommodation in Paul’s career is the incident in Acts 21. James and the presbyters at Jerusalem convince Paul to undergo Jewish purification rituals and have sacrifices offered at the Temple.
The explicitly stated purpose of this act is to show Paul’s subjection to the Law so that “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you [Paul] but that you yourself live in observance of the law.” Many have suggested that this appeasing of the Nazarenes set Paul in the same position Peter had been in at Antioch and that it was partly in rebuke of this that God allowed Paul to be captured and taken prisoner, eventually going to Rome for trial (Acts 21:27-28:31).
Aside from these efforts made to appease the Nazarenes, the New Testament teaches against them. Paul correctly rebuked Peter (Gal. 2:11). He indicated that he himself was not under the Law and only made it appear as if he were in order to win converts from the Jews (1 Cor. 9:20-21). He said that Old Testament ceremonies were not only not binding on Gentiles, but that they had truly passed away (Col. 2:13-17). He proclaimed the passing away of the Law of Moses as an entity (Rom. 7:1-6) and that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law but under grace (Rom. 6:14-15).
After the apostolic age Ebionitism continued to be a problem for the Church, and all three sects of Ebionites, the Judaizers, the Nazarenes, and the Elkasaites, survived into the age of the Church Fathers. Those writing against them included Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and Jerome.
Different aspects of Ebionite teaching are reflected in the theologies of modern groups. Some groups of Messianic Jews have a position that is basically the same as the Nazarenes with respect to the Law (that is, Jews should keep it, but Gentiles need not).
Seventh-Day Adventists retain elements of the Mosaic Law and practice vegetarianism; they impose these rules on Gentiles, making themselves like the Judaizers except for the fact that they do not require circumcision.
The Gnostic Ebionites find parallels today in New Agers, who blend pagan elements with the religion of Yahweh.
Moslems, like most Ebionites, claim that Jesus was a mere man, and, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like some Ebionites, claim he was an angel in a body.
Sects that come especially close to Ebionitism are Yahweh’s New Covenant Assembly in Kingdom City, Missouri and the House of Yahweh in Abilene, Texas. These are Messianic Jewish groups that reject the doctrine of the Trinity and insist on observance of parts of the Mosaic Law. The latter group goes so far as to claim that Abilene is God’s chosen city and replaces Jerusalem for the celebration of his feasts.