Did the “Ebionites” have a founder, and what is the meaning of their name?
The name “Ebionites” normally means one or several of the “ancient Christian” sects, which has the tendency to be placed between Christianity and Judaism. The term “Ebionite” is not derived directly from the Hebrew. It has its origins more exactly in an Aramean word that can be found in certain Greek manuscripts under the form “Ebionaioi”, that’s to say in current terms “Ebionaeans”, which means “Poor Men”. The people who qualify for the first time as Ebionites are one or several Christian sects in certain writings of Irenaeus, even though this church father did not supply a good designation of meaning for that word. (Adv. Haer. I. xxvi. 2).
According to TERTULLIAN (De Praescr. xxxiii. De Carne Chr. xiv. 18), HIPPOLYTUS OF ROME (Pseudo-Tert, Adv. Haer, III) and EPIPHANIUS (Haeres, xxx) the Ebionites, be they a single sect or multiple groups, had their origins in a movement put in place by a certain heretic called Ebion. He could have been a historical figure, a great voyager, having lived in Rome for several years as well as in several Asiatic cities. His existence might actually have been real because certain church fathers, Epiphanius among them, thought they even knew that Ebion had been born in a poor village called Cochabbe or Kochabe or Kochaba, located in the district of Bashan (Batanaea is the Hellenized form of that name), i.e. in ancient Palestine, east of the river Jordan. Saint Jerome also thought that
Ebion was an actual person. This figure would have preached a heresy that would have given birth to the Ebionite movement. (De Prescriptione Haereticorum, 33, 3-5. 11).
At Left: Map of ancient Palestine after the death
of Herod Antipas. This allows us to see that the district or region of Batanea (the former name
of which is Bashan) was located to the east of the river Jordan and of the Sea of Galilee. This place, which was described by the Church Fathers as the Ebionites' original dwelling place, was actually very close to Persia... Could the Ebionites' doctrine reflect their being subject to Chaldean-Persian cultural influences?
Below: The region today
According to ORIGEN (Against Celsus, II, i; De Princ., IV, i, 22) and EUSEBIUS (Church History, III, xxvii), the Ebionites were a single (or multiple) sect of which the name came from the Aramean word meaning “poor”.
Therefore, contrary to the other church fathers, Origen thinks in his “Against Celsus”, that the Ebionites took their name from the Aramean language. He also says that the meaning of the term “Ebion” for the Arameans means “poor”, and that the meaning would have been originally used by the adversaries of the Ebionites to describe them as “poor in matters regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures”. Here “poor” would mean poor in the Spirit, “simple”, “un-cultured” or “barely educated”.
One can also underline that in his”Treatise On First Principles” 4, 3, 8, Origen insists on this aspect and continues his interpretation. His stance influenced Eusebius, who concludes in these terms: “we correctly called these people Ebionites, because they had poor and miserable thoughts concerning Christ” (H.E. 3,27,1).
Therefore, for Origen and Eusebius the Ebionites’ poverty was not physical nor material, but intellectual.
Our Opinion: The word Ebion and the Ebionite movement probably took their names from the Aramean word for “Poor”. But we think that the Ebionites were a movement where the sects practised a form of “asceticism”, that is to say “Poverty” and physical “mortification”. Therefore the word likely does not signify “poor in terms of being ignorant”.
We should not confuse the Ebionites with the Messianic Jews of that time
It seems we have to distinguish between the Ebionites and the other Jewish sects who had belief in the Christ. Actually, in the “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew” by Saint Justin (written around the year 140 AD) in chapter XLVII, this church father mentions several Christian sects that he never names as Ebionites, which were made up of Jews who, by dint of their attachment to the Mosaic Law, had kept several “formal” precepts of this Law, like circumcision, and had then been estranged from the universal Christian church. Justin distinguishes “those that observe the Mosaic Law themselves, but without demanding its observance by others”, and thus do not reject Paul the Apostle, but do not want to waive certain principles judged by them compatible with Christianity, and secondly, “those who see it (The Law) as worthy of universal adherence” (i.e. mandatory, in defiance of the Doctrine of the Faith). Justin states that the latter in this citation are regarded as heretics by all, while in contrast it was allowed, as he himself did, to celebrate church services with the former and to hold joint meetings with them.
On the other hand, around 175 or 180 AD appears the word “Ebionite” under a new meaning, not in reference to Orthodox Jews or Christians Jews attached to certain fundamental precepts of the Law, but this time describing an openly heretical sect.
At Left: The death of Simon Magus, as pictured in this beautifully coloured version of the Nuremberg Chronicle, or Liber Chronicarum, 1493. Simon Magus was a heresiarch from the same time as Christ, who attempted to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit by offering money to the Apostles. He died, it is said, by breaking his neck after crashing to the ground from a great altitude, as a result of his trying to counterfeit the ascension of Jesus to the heavens.
Simon Magus was considered by the Church Fathers to be the forerunner of all forms of heresies, and notably of the Gnostic one. He also gave his name to "Simony", a sacrilegial practice consisting in selling salvation, sacraments, rituals, or church offices in exchange for money. Simony is actually the foundational principle of the Chaldean Cult of the Dead, hence the important role attributed to Simon Magus by the Church Fathers.
Was there one or several groups of Ebionites?
In “Against Celsus”, Origen clearly states that the Ebionite movement was not uniform. There were several trends within. We understand that in effect, when Origen said that there were two types of Ebionites. They all claim to acknowledge Jesus as prophet (C. Cels., V, lxi), but also as Eusebius says (Hist. Eccl., III, xxvii) they do not agree on the details of the birth of Christ.
Conclusion on the nature of the Ebionites and opinions on their origin
According to the experts, the essence of the Ebionite doctrine can be found in the “Pseudo-Clementine” Homilies, which reveal to us a way of thinking that really has no direct link with the Old Testament or the New. We are closer to a form of syncretic Gnosticism, a product of the merger between modified Judaism with a weakened Yahwehism component, nascent Christianity and Chaldean-Persian Dualism. For them, the universe is dualistic: the kingdom of the good is ruled by the Son of God, who opposes the kingdom of the Prince of Evil of this World. But the Son of God, Christ, is not strictly speaking stated here to be Divine, since he is thought by the Ebionites to be a being different from God, un-equal to Him, situated between God and creation in the order of powers, without being consubstantial to the latter. It remains unclear whether the Ebionites are really hard-line Dualists. Indeed, they could be closer to a milder Dualism, or even to a form of watered-down Dualism, because according to their traditions the universe had not been created by any power other than God. (At least, that’s what is usually said about them. But one would need to have certified true copies of their writings in one’s possession to be able to get any clearer ideas on this matter.)
In the Ebionite doctrine, Salvation seems very much dependent on the Works (Works = Counterfeiting of Salvation, trading Salvation, purchasing Salvation by currency, shares, rituals), because it is man’s destiny to be saved by knowledge and external elements (such as various sacraments, secrets, initiations) embedded in the temporal realm of this world. (Unlike Paul, who said that Salvation depends only on Faith, in spontaneous adherence to the Divinity, which in essence is not in the world, and is independent of any earthly or time constraints.)
Ebionites: Multiple religious movements comparable to the Carpocratians.
The books and writings used by the Ebionites (Documentation sources are The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York):
Their Gospel: St. Irenaeus only states that they used the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Eusebius modifies this statement by speaking of the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was known to Hegesippus (Eus., Hist. Eccl., IV, xxii, 8), by Origen (Jerome, De vir., ill., ii), and by Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, II, ix, 45). This probably was the slightly modified Aramaic original of Saint Matthew, written in Hebrew characters. But Saint Epiphanius attributes this writing to the Nazarenes, even though the Ebionites proper, according to him, only possessed an incomplete, falsified and truncated copy of it (Adv. Haer., xxix, 9). It is possible that this text is identical with the “Gospel of the Holy Twelve”, an Aramaic writing also known as “Gospel of the Nazarenes”.
Their Apocrypha: The “Circuits of Peter” (Voyages of Peter) (periodoi Petrou) and their Acts of the Apostles, amongst which the “Ascents of James” (anabathmoi Iakobou). The first named books are substantially contained inside the Clementine Homilies, under the title given by Clement “Compendium of Peter’s itinerary sermons”, and equally in the “Recognitions”, attributed to the same author. They form an ancient Christian didactic novel aimed at propagating Ebionite views, i.e. their Gnostic doctrines, their opinions on the supremacy of the Apostle James, and their connection with Rome.
The works and writings of Symmachus: i.e. his translation of the Old Testament (see Versions of the Bible; Symmachus the Ebionite), and his “Hypomnemata” against the canonical Gospel of Saint Matthew. This latter work, which is totally lost (Eusebius, Church History., VI, xvii; Jerome, De vir. ill., liv), is probably identical to “De Distinctione Praeceptorum”, a book mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or, III, 1).
The Book of Elchesai: also known as “Book of the Hidden Power”, purporting to have been written around 100 AD. and brought to Rome about 217 AD. by Alcibiades of Apamea. Alcibiades claimed he had received it in Persia (Parthia) from a man named Elchesai or Elkasai. Those who accepted its doctrines as well as its new baptism were called Elchesaites (Hippolytus, “Philos.”, IX, xiv-xvii; Epiphanius, “Haer.”, xix, 1, liii, 1.).
The precepts and doctrines of the Ebionites as described by Irenaeus have frank similarities with those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates (cf. the commentary by Isaac ben Jacob on the testament of Philippe de Chérisey, his acknowledgment of the Cult of the Dead and of the Priory of Sion’s obsession with the Carpocratian Sect). The details about their doctrines are equally stated by Hippolytus of Rome (Philos., VIII, xxii, X, xviii) and by Tertullian (De Carne Chr., xiv, 18).
The Ebionites denied Christ’s Divinity, declaring that he was just a man and rejected his pre-existence before his birth on Earth.
They probably denied the Virgin Birth of Christ, meaning that as far as the Ebionites were concerned, Christ was not strictly speaking the Son of God, and was born just like any other man. On this subject, Origen tells us: “The Ebionites say that he was born of a man and a woman, exactly like it is for our own births” (Homilies on Saint Luke, 17, 4).
It is claimed that the Ebionites were very committed to Jewish Law. But it seems that this assumption is not accurate and needs further study, because the Ebionites did not go to the temple of Jerusalem, they certainly did not respect the requirements of the Mosaic Law concerning burials (if their link with the Carpocratians is correct), and on the other hand, Tertullian seemed to strongly put in doubt their “observance of the Law”, which appears therefore as a misinterpretation of some church fathers in relation to the rejection by the Ebionites of the apostle Paul and of his texts (Paul was at odds with the Mosaic Law, which he criticized for not being well understood by the Jews).
The Ebionites considered the Apostle Paul as a monster. They accused him of making the apology of (i.e. being an apologist of) the doctrine of Salvation through Faith, which states that the Works, i.e. the requirements and acts, be they ritual or not, do NOT contribute to salvation in a manner independent from faith in our predestination for resurrection, and that the resurrection is offered freely to men by Christ, and it is obtained via an unconditional adherence to his divine nature. Paul was very opposed to the Salvation through Works, and professed that the Mosaic Law alone was not sufficient to obtain salvation. Having the appearance of Salvation, the Law was its practical and visible consequence here on earth, but it was not Salvation itself.
This was not the view of the Ebionites, who were consequently either for “salvation through Works alone” (the works of Penance, in an anti-Yahwehist, anti-Judaic perspective) or for salvation through Works on the assumption that these Works are the result of faith in Yahweh (Judaic Perspective).
It is highly likely, if they are related doctrinally to the Carpocratians, that the Ebionites are to be classified as followers of the Doctrine of the Salvation through Works Alone (which runs contrary to pure Mosaic Judaism), a characteristic which, by clumsiness, could have left some church fathers into believing that they should be classified as Judaising Christians. We would in this case be in the presence of a Gnostic, neo-Chaldean movement or sect, or a group related to an Egyptian Gnostic strain of thought.
It is said that the Ebionites did not use the canonical books (Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2, III, xxi, 2; IV, xxxiii, 4, V, I, 3). They recognized only the text of a Gospel of Matthew. Truly a strange Gospel, because it was not written in Greek like the original, but in Aramean, or in Hebrew. Eusebius also teaches us that this Gospel might not be a copy of Matthew, but a book that could have been confused with Matthew and that would have carried the name “Gospel according to the Hebrews”. In effect, such a book was indeed known about at the time by Origen and Hegesippus.
In our opinion, the Ebionites could not have been Christians without recognizing the Apostle Paul, and on the other hand, they could not have been Jewish either because they did not fully comply with the requirements of the Mosaic Law.