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Ebionism, Ebionites (Gospel of the)

See also Ebionism

EBIONISM, EBIONITES (GOSPEL OF THE) ē’ bĭ ə nĭsm, ē’ bĭ ə nīts (אֶבְיﯴנִ֑ים, ̓Εβιωναῖοι or ̓Εβιωναῖται, from the term אֶבְיﯴן, H36, meaning poor, i.e., poor men). A term and an apocryphal gospel used to describe certain Judaeo-Christian groups in the early centuries of Christianity. Although some early sources (i.e. Tertullian) suggested that these sects took their name from an individual with the supposed name of Ebion, it is more likely that the term and title was at first one of reproach indicating their stress upon poverty and asceticism partially as a literal interpretation of Matthew 5:3.

1. Ebionite sects. The origin of these sects is shrouded in mystery; however, from the lit. of the Early Church and esp. Acts, it is clearly observable that certain Judaizing tendencies manifested themselves from the very first in the Jerusalem church. (Cf. Acts 6:1-6; 15:1f.; Gal.) After the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and again during the Bar Cochba rebellion when Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem, a.d. 132, Jewish Christianity lost its standing in Jerusalem and the church there was controlled by a Gentile bishop. It is known from the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Eusebius and esp. Epiphanius and Jerome that at least two Jewish Christian groups were known: one heretical in its Christology and resentful of Gentile Christianity, and the other friendly, though distinct from Gentile Christianity but orthodox in its view of Christ. Recent scholarship has distinguished three Judaeo-Christian groups sometimes loosely referred to as “Ebionites”: (a) Nazarenes who accepted the supernatural birth of Jesus without developing a Chalcedonian Christology; (b) Pharisaic Ebionites who recognized Jesus as Messiah but denied His Virgin Birth and hated Paul; (c) Gnostic or Essene Ebionites who tended to gnosticize their Christology. (Cf. HERE, V, 140, 141.) As the early Christian sources indicate, generally the Ebionites were known for two doctrines: (a) adherance to the Jewish law for Jews at least if not for Gentiles and (b) a tendency to interpret the Person of Christ as merely a man on whom the Holy Spirit descended at His baptism.

The exact relationship of the Ebionites to the Dead Sea Community and/or the Essenes as well as the older sect known as the Rechabites is still a matter of conjecture, although more recent scholarship has tended to see basic similarities if not some type of direct relationship.

2. Ebionite Gospel. Only Epiphanius (d. a.d. 403) refers to a Gospel of the Ebionites. Sometimes this gospel is identified with or confused with either the Gospel to the Hebrews or the Gospel of the Nazarenes. The meager traces of this gospel in the extant quotations of Epiphanius are peculiar in their stress upon vegetarianism in the NT accounts of John the Baptist and Jesus.

Bibliography W. Beveridge, “Ebionism,” HERE, V (1928), 139-145; old but still very useful; L. Wallach, “The Textual History of an Aramaic Proverb,” JBL, LX (1941), 403-415; H. Hirschberg, “Simon Bariona and the Ebionites,” JBL, LXI (1942), 171-191; H. J. Schoeps, Jewish Christianity (1969). Original sources: Justin, Dial. c. Tryph., 47; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I. xxvi, 2; III. xxi, 1; V. i, 3; Tertullian, De Praescr., 33; Hippolytus, Haer., vii. 34; ix. 13-17; Epiphanius, Haer., xxx. For a good tr. of Epiphanius’ quotations see M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), 8-10.