Lost Voices of Christianity: Ebionites (Christians who wanted to be Jews)

In one of the earlier posts, I gave short introductory remarks about the diversity of early Christianity. As I explained, in the first several centuries (especially, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries), Christianity was a diverse phenomenon. A diversity so strong that prompted scholars to abandon the term “Christianity” in favor of the plural form: “Christianities” – as a term that encapsulates the social and theological outlook of the early Christian world. And indeed, there were different streams (or groups) of Christians, often with conflicting views about the major theological issues (God, creation, Jesus, etc.). Eventually, only one group that scholars often call “proto-orthodoxy” (even though I don’t think it’s a usable term) emerged victorious (re)defining what it means to be a Christian. Other groups slowly became marginalized and forgotten. They are only known in the world of scholarship. Ordinary people most likely never heard of them. In what follows, I’ll be talking about one of these groups: Ebionites – a group that followed Jesus, considered themselves Christians, but had a particularly Jewish view on his life and death. To explain their position, I have to present basic background information about the development of Christianity during the 1st century.


Jesus was a Jew. This is a matter of simple historical fact. He was raised by Jewish parents, his siblings were Jewish, he lived in a Jewish part of the Roman Empire, and he was “educated” (in an informal way since I don’t think he had any formal education) in the traditional Jewish framework of the 1st century CE. His preaching was primarily focused on the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven which is a particularly Jewish theme. Moreover, his disciples were lower-class Jewish people from the rural area of Galilee. However, after his death, disciples (e.g. Peter, and John) became convinced that God had raised him from death, exalted him in heaven, and that Jesus will be back soon to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. One of the earliest “converts” to Christianity was the apostle Paul. As a Jew, Paul was known as the persecutor of the first Christians. But, somewhere between 33 and 36 CE, he had an intense experience that he interpreted as the vision of the post-resurrected Christ. Based on that, Paul converted and became the most important of all the early missionaries! We are fortunate that several (probably seven!) of Paul’s letters have survived. Based on the information gathered there, we can pretty much establish his basic theological views. As it turns out, Paul believed that the path to salvation lies in faith in Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection. In other words, the cornerstone of Christianity was the belief that God raised Jesus. As Paul claims in one of his epistles: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”. This was actually Paul’s attempt to answer a burning identity question that had emerged soon after Jesus’ death. If Jesus was a Jew who preached primarily to Jews about Jewish God and the Jewish Kingdom of Heaven, doesn’t that mean that the Gentiles or pagans have to be converted to Judaism before they could become the followers of Christ? That would of course mean that a person who wanted to convert to Christianity has to follow all of the Jewish ceremonial laws from the Old Testament such as circumcision and Kosher food. Paul was adamant in rejecting this notion. In his opinion, Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection are the only necessary step toward salvation. To put it bluntly, if you are a Gentile, to become a part of a Christian community, you have to believe in Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection. This is the conditio sine qua non! However, not all of Jesus’ followers accepted Paul’s view. They were groups of people who claimed that Paul was actually corrupting the original message of Jesus and that he was in a sense a heretic. These people firmly believed in a close relationship between Judaism and Christianity. For them, you couldn’t be a follower of Jesus before you accepted the basic tenets of Judaism.

Some of them clearly formed a group that the sources called “Ebionites”. It seems they first appear in the 2nd century. The etymology of the term isn’t that clear. Tertullian claimed that they were named after its founder Ebion. This probably isn’t true and it most likely only reflects Tertullian’s strange idea that every heresy begins with a heretic who can be named. Origen of Alexandria claimed that their name derives from the Hebrew term ebyon – which means “poor”. Needless to say, Origen concluded that this means they were “poor in understanding” – something they would never accept. It is more likely that they were inclined to give away their possessions and property thus committing themselves to lives of voluntary poverty for the sake of others. Maybe Ebionites took seriously Jesus when he said that one has to leave all the property and belongings if he (or she) wants to follow him. So, what did they actually believe? What was the true meaning of Christianity for these people?


They believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. Consequently, Ebionites thought that the observance of Jewish laws was a necessary step if one wanted to follow Jesus. As a result, they insisted on observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, and circumcising all males. For the proto-orthodox leaders (e.g. Irenaeus, and Tertullian), Ebionites were heretics who corrupted the original message of Jesus and his followers. Ebionites, on the other hand, maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples – especially by Peter and James (Jesus’ brother, and the head of the Jerusalem church). They also had different views regarding Jesus’ identity. They rejected the notion of Jesus’ preexistence or his virgin birth. For them, Jesus was the Son of God, not because of his divine nature or virgin birth but because of his “adoption” by God to be his son. Ebionites believed that Jesus was a real human being (like the rest of us), born as the eldest son of the sexual union of his parents, Joseph and Mary. What set Jesus apart wasn’t his divine nature, but the fact that he kept God’s law perfectly and he was, because of that, the most righteous person on the face of the earth. As such, God chose him to be his son and assigned to him a special mission: to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. As a sign of his acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice, God then raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to heaven. It should be noted that the sources claim that some Ebionites didn’t deny virgin birth. But, as far as we can tell, most of them did. Still, these views are far away from the standard belief system of the “proto-orthodox” Church that triumphed as the most prevailing stream of Christianity. As you probably know, Christians today believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine and that he was God before he came to Earth via virgin birth. To support their views, Ebionites appeal to the Old Testament, but also to the Gospel of Matthew which is justifiably considered to be the most Jewish Gospel in the Bible. Although, their own version of Matthew probably was a translation of the text into Aramaic. Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic, as was of his disciples. It would make sense that a group of Jewish followers of Jesus that originated in Palestine would continue to cite his words, and stories about him, in his native tongue. I would suppose that their version lacked the first two chapters that are typically focused on Jesus’ virgin birth – a notion that Ebionites firmly rejected. Furthermore, they used their own Gospel called The Gospel of Ebionites which seems to be a harmonization of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Unfortunately, we know about this Gospel only in seven short fragments quoted by the heresy hunter and a bishop called Epiphanius who lived in the 4th century CE.

Eventually, Ebionites were pushed aside as the proto-orthodox Church triumphed and became a standard form of Christianity to which emperor Constantine converted at the beginning of the 4th century. With the political and military power on their side, proto-orthodox bishops were safely situated in the position of privilege. The battle against other “heretical” forms of Christianity (Ebionites included) was over. It has to be noted that this victory wasn’t the result of political power per se. Due to numerous sociological and ideological advantages, the proto-orthodox Church established its dominant position over other Christian groups (e.g. Ebionites, Gnostics, etc.) in the “marketplace” of the Roman Empire already during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The political power that came, through the conversion of Constantine, into the hands of proto-orthodox bishops was only a confirmation of the process that was (by the end of the 3rd century) firmly defined.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *