Cerinthus And The Ebionites

One of the most fascinating themes which was a major conversational detail in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity, both pre-Orthodoxical and heretical, relates to the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, and his role in crafting the universe.

In the pre-Orthodoxy space, occupied namely by Ireaneus and Justin Martyr, this notion of a malevolent lower God who created the Cosmos was the height of arrogant blasphemy.  To others, including Cerinthus, Marcion, and Valentinus, the creator of the Cosmos was the same God of the Old Testament, and he was different than the God who sent Jesus to save humanity and rescue them from this inferior material realm.

This conflict becomes easier to parse when you consider the implications of a malevolent Demiurge.

If the God of the Old Testament was not the highest God, then the rules set forth in the Old Testament are not pertinent to Christians.  The law and Judaism were, in those earliest Christian iterations, moot.

Consider the Gospel of Mark 1:10-13:

And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him (!!!): …straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan.

The heavens opening after Jesus’ baptism

The heavens opened, and a dove descended upon Jesus.  There is no clearer reference to Mark’s  intent than this line.  It is also clear that Mark’s author, and his counterparts, the Ebionites, both saw Jesus and the spirit as separable entities, which contributes to the assumption that Mark and the Ebionites were the earliest theologies, and were the first to meaningfully disagree about Christianity’s intent.  Consider Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Book 1 Chapter 26:

Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates.

The passage which immediately precedes the Ebionite reference was about Cerinthus:

Cerinthus taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him.

A notable distinction Irenaeus drew between the Cerinthians and the Ebionites relates to their preferred Gospels:

For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark(!!!), if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified

This contrast Irenaeus drew roughly describes the disagreement history remembers:  Matthew was written to contrast Mark.

A bolder, yet parsimonious assertion is that the Ebionites used Matthew exclusively because they wrote a Matthew-like Gospel which omitted a birth narrative and (perhaps) a resurrection.  If one follows that line, Mark’s underlying theology was Docetic, then Mark’s Gospel can be linked conclusively to Cerinthus via Irenaeus’ reference to “the dove”.  This detail is part of the reason why I think Cerinthus and Cerdo (Marcion’s predecessor) are the same person, as Cerinthus’ theology seems an obvious predecessor to Marcion’s.

A curious detail follows in the Gospel of Mark.  After the dove descended, the spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness so he could be tempted by Satan.  That doesn’t make much sense…unless you consider that this text was written by people who believe this Earth is ruled by a lesser God, hell-bent on manifesting evil and keeping humans ignorant.  And of course, Jesus’ desert locale is a clear reference to the scapegoat ritual (Lev 16:8), which was later confirmed by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Next in Mark, after his temptation, Jesus goes to collect apostles, and then went into the synagogues, where he encountered a demon (Mark 1:21-24):

And they go into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching: For he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes. And straightway there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus thou Nazarene? art thou come to destroy us

Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent and come out of the man (Mark 1:25).  This seems to allude to both the mystery that surrounded the earliest theology, as well as the fact that unclean spirits were infesting the synagogues.

Mark then makes another reference to staying quiet in 1:34:

And he healed many that were sick with diverse diseases, and cast out many demons; and he suffered not the demons to speak, because they knew him.

The theme emerges here:  the demons knew who Jesus was.

Given the relationship between Mark, and Cerinthus’ theology, which had a fall from the Godhead and an inferior material realm in which humanity was trapped, one might conclude that the demons knew Jesus because they were commanded by the God of this world (in the later Marcionite theology, this was the Cosmocrator) to work against him!

Irenaeus’ reference to the Ebionites (“agree that the world was made by God”) makes it clear that their motivation was to respond to Mark; one of the central tenets of Matthew is that the God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Jesus, and that Christians should remain adherent to Jewish law (Matthew 5:17-18):

Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished

The later addition of familial lineage and virgin birth to Matthew, presumably added by the Nazarenes sometime before the mid-2nd century, is the logical endpoint of the Matthew counterpoint that Yahweh is the (good) ruler of this world.  Likewise, the Marcionite notion that Jesus was a phantom, and not actually flesh, is the logical endpoint of the notion that the material realm is inferior.

In this Marcan theology, where the Demiurge is separate from the high God, giving tribute to Yaldabaoth (Yahweh), or partaking in the gifts he has given, would do nothing for a Christian’s salvation.  In that sense, the only thing a Christian could do to give reverence to the “most high” was to HAVE FAITH (Mark 10:52):

And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole

In this context, we see another link between Mark and Paul.  Faith was the central theme to these theologies.

There are echoes of this continuing fight in Pauline letters (this is particularly pertinent if you presume that Galatians was written by Marcion, a later successor of Cerinthus’ theology).  Consider Galatians 2:10-11

They only asked us to be mindful of the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. When Cephas came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face,because he stood to be condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself, for fear of those in the circumcision group

For law-abiding Jews (men from James, probably a reference to the Ebionites), disdain at God’s offerings to humanity (or unapologetic consumption of “unclean” meat) would have been quite controversial.  Indeed, this explanation seems at least as plausible than the explanation that Jews rejected Gentiles simply because they were not Jewish (or circumcised).

See Also
The Ebionites
Marcion of Sinope




Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

15 thoughts on “Cerinthus And The Ebionites”

  1. Tim said: My conclusion is that the Ebionites used Matthew exclusively because they wrote Matthew. If one follows that line of thinking, Mark is obviously Docetic, and can be linked, conclusively to Cerinthus via Irenaeus’ reference to “the dove”.

    Interesting, the Catholic Encyclopedia however says,

    The doctrines of this sect are said by Irenaeus to be like those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They denied the Divinity and the virginal birth of Christ; they clung to the observance of the Jewish Law; they regarded St. Paul as an apostate, and used only a Gospel according to St. Matthew (Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2; III, xxi, 2; IV, xxxiii, 4; V, i, 3). Their doctrines are similarly described by Hippolytus (Philos., VIII, xxii, X, xviii) and Tertullian (De carne Chr., xiv, 18), but their observance of the Law seems no longer so prominent a feature of their system as in the account given by Irenaeus. Origen is the first (Against Celsus V.61) to mark a distinction between two classes of Ebionites, a distinction which Eusebius also gives (Church History III.27). Some Ebionites accept, but others reject, the virginal birth of Christ, though all reject His pre-existence and His Divinity. Those who accepted the virginal birth seem to have had more exalted views concerning Christ and, besides observing the Sabbath, to have kept the Sunday as a memorial of His Resurrection. The milder sort of Ebionites were probably fewer and less important than their stricter brethren, because the denial of the virgin birth was commonly attributed to all. (Origen, Hom. in Luc., xvii) St. Epiphanius calls the more heretical section Ebionites, and the more Catholic-minded, Nazarenes. But we do not know whence St. Epiphanius obtained his information or or how far it is reliable. It is very hazardous, therefore, to maintain, as is sometimes done, that the distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites goes back to the earliest days of Christianity
    -Emphasis added

    It is possible that the Ebionites used the canonical Matthew but our earliest reference of Ebionites comes from Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. I think these earlier Ebionites might have used a common source text or another gospel with similar themes with canonical Matthew like the lost Gospel of the Hebrews since under close scrutiny, Justin Martyr’s writings bears little to no cognizance of the four canonical gospels (see Walter Richard Cassels’s Supernatural Religion). Also in the Catholic Enyclopedia, Irenaeus and Eusebius are in disagreement as to what gospel the Ebionites are using. CE states

    “Their Gospel. St. Irenæus only states that they used the Gospel of St. Matthew. Eusebius modifies this statement by speaking of the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was known to Hegesippus (Eusebius, Church History IV.22.8), Origen (Jerome, Illustrious Men 2), and Clem. Alex. (Stromata II.9.45). This, probably, was the slightly modified Aramaic original of St. Matthew, written in Hebrew characters. But St. Epiphanius attributes this to the Nazarenes, while the Ebionites proper only possessed an incomplete, falsified, and truncated copy thereof (Adv. Haer., xxix, 9). It is possibly identical with the Gospel of the Twelve.”

    I do agree however that Mark is originally a docetic text reworked during the early stages of the Catholic Church. Matthew was written not only to pander with Eastern pagans but also to correct Mark because of its lack of birth narrative, humanity, and resurrection stories. John is definitely a gnostic text historicized and judaized and was probably a bastardized version of Cerinthus gospel who was originally from Alexandria, a melting pot of different cultures and religions. This development is getting more interesting. I wish mainstream academia catches up.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

      People misinterpreted Irenaeus when he said something to the effect of “the Ebionites agree that the world was created by God”. The assumption people wrongly make is that the Ebionites agree with Cerinthus about how the world was created. No, no, no.

      Irenaeus was saying that the Ebionites agree with Irenaeus and his emerging orthodoxy…not Cerinthus.

      Irenaeus makes it clear that Cerinthus, like Marcion, has a God above God; therefore, Cerinthus saw the middle-man God as the Demiurge, just like Marcion did.

      Then Irenaeus says that the Ebionites’ opinions are similar to Cerinthus “with respect to the lord”. In other words, Cerinthus’ brand of Docetism, where the Christ descended upon Jesus was the same as the Ebionites. The primary difference between Cerinthus and the Ebionites related to the Demiurge, not the relationship between the spirit and Jesus’ humanity.


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