The Ebionites were some of the earliest Jewish Christians, were adherent to Jewish law, and held that the highest God was the God of Abraham. They appear to have been active between Syria and Palestine, perhaps as early as the late 1st century. Based on their geographic location and theological underpinnings, many people presume the Ebionites were Jesus Christ’s original followers.
The Ebionites were the earliest consumers of what Irenaeus of Lyon recognized as the Gospel of Matthew. Actually it was the prototype version of the Gospel of Matthew, which was written as a polemical response and theological counterpoint to the Gospel of Mark. Given the fact that the Ebionites were not the first sect to create a Gospel, coupled with the fact that Matthew relies so heavily on Mark, it is unlikely the Ebionites, or anyone like them, were the earliest Christian sect; in light of this conclusion, it is unlikely that anyone in the Ebionite community knew Jesus or any of his apostles, as eye witnesses would not have needed to rely on Mark’s Gospel.
This unavoidable conclusion is painfully self-evident, despite tradition’s inclination to place the Ebionites, followers of James and Stephen, as the earliest sect, predating Paul’s ministry. Tradition remembers the Ebionites as enemies Paul; this detail comes directly from Irenaeus – AH i.26.2.
The curious underlying detail is that Ebion means poor. Coupled with the Ebionites’ hatred of Paul, this makes Paul’s passages about “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10) and “men from James” (Gal 2:12) in Galatians likely references to the Ebionites. Yet, if we place Paul in the mid-1st century, Matthew’s reliance on Mark becomes more strange, given that Paul does seem to imply that they preceded his ministry. One solution is that Galatians was written much later than the mid-1st century. Considering Galatians was first consumed by Marcion, and that it was the centerpiece of his canon, this conclusion is economical, in that the earliest and most zealous users of a religious text give clues to that text’s author. In other words, Marcion probably wrote Galatians, probably between 120 and 130.
Many scholars assume the Ebionites’ Jewish roots and baptismal ritual makes them possible inheritors of the Essenes. This might very well be true, as the Gospel of Matthew coincides with several attributes of the Essenes, notably the notion that people should not swear to anything (Matthew 5:34). However, there are a few details that do not fit, suggesting the evolution of the Essenes was more complicated:
- The Essenes were an apolitical Jewish sect, and advocated for the notion that holy things can be outside of the temple. The Ebionites do not seem like they would have been open to this, as they held deep reverence for Jerusalem
- (More importantly) The Essenes, like the Pharisees (and contrasted with the Sadducees), believed in Resurrection. Though the (probably later) Nazarenes believed in Jesus’ resurrection, the Ebionites seem less likely to have believed such a thing
The Essene concern for holy items outside of the temple may also suggest the Essenes had moved outside of Judea and into the Diaspora; a detail which would support the notion that Philo’s Thereapeutae were Essenes. However, the primary difference between the Essenes and the Therapeutae center around the value placed on wisdom and knowledge.
The Ebionites are remembered as early Jewish Christians who did not believe Jesus was born of a virgin. In this sense, they are indeed contrasted from the Nazarenes, despite many who many claim the Nazarenes were synonymous with the Ebionites. However, given this divergence with concern for the virgin birth, the two most economical solutions for these sects’ timelines are:
- The Ebionites wrote a Matthew-like Gospel without a virgin birth story, and the Nazarenes added it later
- The Nazarenes wrote a Matthew-like Gospel with a birth story, and the Ebionites later removed it.
Christian apologists and like-minded defenders of erroneous tradition will strenuously argue for the latter solution. The implication of the claim that the Ebionites preceded the Nazarenes is that Jesus Christ underwent a series of legendizing iterations, which systematically made him more divine. To serious Christians, this assertion is a non-starter, and a devastating blow for both the likelihood of their religion’s truth, as well as the likelihood that Jesus Christ even existed.
My personal assumption is that the Ebionites, and not the Nazarenes, must have been the original authors of a Matthew-like Gospel which did not include a birth narrative or family tree. This conclusion is linked to my contention that Cerinthus was one of the earliest advocates of a Marcan theology, which likewise omitted a birth story; it is much more economical that the Ebionites simply corrected technical and theological details within Mark, and that the Nazarenes invented a birth story and chronology later. In this sense, the birth was most likely a later evolution, created sometime before the mid-2nd century, when Justin Martyr made reference to it in his 1st apology.
According to Irenaeus (AH i.26.2), the primary objection the Ebionites had to Cerinthus was with Cerinthus’ claim that there was a fall from the Godhead which would have differentiated the creator God and the God who sent Jesus (AH i.26.1). The implication of Cerinthus’ theology was that the creator God was somehow inferior to the God who sent Jesus.
There are several implications to Cerinthus’ theological position which would have been objectionable to the Ebionites:
- It violates the commandment that they should have no other Gods
- It gives rise to the notion that the highest God does not materially manifest in the material world (this implication was later expanded by Marcion of Sinope, who presumed Jesus was only a phantom, and not flesh)
- It made the Old Testament prophets inferior to Jesus
Both Cerinthus and the Ebionites believed that the Christ was something like the Holy Spirit, and that it was a separate entity from the Jesus man. Ireaneus’ explicit note that the Ebionites rejected Paul’s theology creates a compelling link between Cerinthus and Paul, which is even more intriguing given the fact that people who held similar views to Cerinthus were said to have used the Gospel of Mark (AH iii.11.7).
Though the Ebionites were critical to Christianity’s early formulation, it was the later Nazarenes, who altered their original antithesis to Cerinthus and formulated a Christianity very similar to the one which survived into Catholicism.