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The Ebionites and their Gospel

There are other interesting features of the Gospel of the Ebionites, known from the quotations of Epiphanius, the fourth-century heresiologist (= heresy-hunter). We wish we had the whole Gospel. We have only these eight fragments that Epiphanius quotes. We wish we knew who actually used the Gospel. We wish we knew how long it was, what it contained, and what it’s theological slant was. It is almost impossible to say from what remains.

One big question is whether, since it was used by the Ebionites – according to Epiphanius, it had a particular bias in its reporting of the words and deeds of Jesus.

The term “Ebionite” was widely used in proto-orthodox and orthodox sources to refer to “Jewish-Christian” groups, or at least one group (it is likely that there were lots of these groups, and it may be that the church fathers assumed they were all the same group when in fact they had different views, different theologies, different practices, and so on). Some of the church fathers indicate that the name came from the founder of the group Ebion. But that’s a legend. Almost certainly the term came from the Hebrew word “Ebyon” which means “poor.” The normal hypothesis is that these Jewish-Christians accepted the early Christian policy of giving away their possessions for others and so took on lives of voluntary poverty. The church fathers who know the linguistic meaning of their name claimed that they were called “the poor ones” because the were “poor in faith.” (!)

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  1. Avatar
    roltidroll  September 13, 2013

    The vast majority of your posts are very interesting and thought provoking, but these last few on the “more Jewish” gospels have been even more so. I hope to get more of your insights on the lesser known early christian writings. Many thanks!

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    RonaldTaska  September 14, 2013

    Was James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the Ebionites?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 15, 2013

      They claimed he was more or less their “founder,” but in truth they arose after his death — though they did see the Jerusalem church as their spiritual ancestors.

  3. Avatar
    Cygnus_X1  September 14, 2013

    It’s amazing how much you know and how much you work on your writing. I wish I had that kind of work ethic. I love watching your debates on YouTube btw, it amazes me that anyone would debate you.

  4. Avatar
    Scott F  September 14, 2013

    Could an Ebionite rejection of temple sacrifice be sour grapes of a group who had been rejected by the priestly class and driven away from the temple: “Well… your sacrifices are just…. dumb! Yeah, and God doesn’t even want sacrifices any more, so there!”

  5. cadmium
    cadmium  September 14, 2013

    To jump on the speculation wagon… this makes one wonder just how much of this Gospel has filtered into the mainstream traditions in the Christian church today with its rejection of the Torah and harmonization of the NT Gospels.
    It does make one wonder…

  6. Avatar
    SJB  September 15, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    Even though there were various groups who were known as Ebionites, in your “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” you identify some similar characteristics that seem to have been shared by all or at least perceived by the orthodox to have been shared by all. They self-consciously traced themselves back to the early Jesus movement, rejected the virgin birth and Jesus’ divinity believing him to have been adopted by god because of his righteousness, and retained their Jewish practice.

    Realizing it’s probably not so cut and dried, but isn’t it possible that at least some of the Ebionites were the remnants of the original Jesus movement in Palestine? And if that’s possible isn’t it remarkable that at some point the groups that most closely resembled the original historical Jesus movement were declared heretics?

    What do make of the idea of a “truncated” form of Matthew written in Hebrew? Or did they mean Aramaic? I think the idea of a truncated form of Matthew would not be hard to accept but is there any evidence there was an Aramaic literary layer in the development of the gospels?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 15, 2013

      Yes, I’d say that that kind of Ebionite, or probably more accurately, that kind of Jewish- Christian (since there were several types) probably traced their lineage back to the original church in Jerusalem.

      They probably meant Aramaic, but I don’t see evidence of any Aramaic layer beneath our Greek text, and there are compelling reasons for thinking Matthew was originally written in Greek.

  7. Avatar
    Jim  September 15, 2013

    Now this time I’m really straying way off topic. Next spring is the date for the end time. How do I know? Spring 2014 is the target for Richard Carrier’s book which I understand is tentatively titled “On the Historicity of Jesus” (presumably presenting the thesis of a myth of a God being humanized) and of course your book on how Jesus became God. If I’m not the only one interested, would you consider devoting one post to providing a list of suggested/recommended readings for those of us who would like to get up to speed in advance of at least your book.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 15, 2013

      Interesting idea. I’d say all one needs to know to get up to speed is something about what scholars of the historical Jesus (which, of course, would not include Carrier) have said about him. You might start with my book Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium or the books by Geza Vermes, E P Sanders, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen — lots to choose from!

      • Avatar
        Shubhang  September 16, 2013

        Dear Professor Ehrman, I have recently finished reading Geza Vermes’ Nativity – Passion – Resurrection trilogy and he’s a fantastic writer but to my untrained eyes his view of the Resurrection as representing a spiritual revival of Jesus in the hearts of his disciples seemed a bit odd, in particular, when set against Paul’s expectation of a very real resurrection of the dead faithful and the ascension of the faithful to Heaven – would a purely spiritual reading of the Resurrection have led to such a fervent belief? Or does Prof. Vermes mean to say that the core disciples of Jesus viewed resurrection as a spiritual revival but Paul, who was a latecomer to the party, interpreted it to be a bodily revival and since he left the most indelible impact on future Christianity, it became the orthodox belief about this very puzzling event? Would love to get your views on this, either as a reply or in one of your future posts

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 17, 2013

          I’m afraid I’m not familiar with what Vermes says about this. Some scholars who say something like what you summarized are talking about how they understand the resurrection, since they don’t believe in it literally: Jesus came alive to his disciples. Others who say something like you summarized mean that the original disciples believed in a spiritual but not a physical resurrection. I would agree with the first view (since I don’t believe in the literal resurrection) but not with the second (since I think the earliest followers certainly did believe in a physical resurrection.)

  8. Avatar
    EricBrown  September 16, 2013

    I understand that the enforcement of orthodoxy was largely confined to the Roman Emperors’ “pale.” For example, I’m pretty sure the so-called barbarians were Arians by and large (Lombards, Visigoths, etc). I recently read an assertion that lands to the east and southest of the empire’s frontiers (Arabia, the Parthian and later Sassanid empires, for example) widely adopted an Ebionite form of Christiianity (or at least one that did NOT view Christ as God). The context of this was in an assertion (which might be less supportable) that the widespread acceptance of this was the pre-exisiting belief framework onto which Islam was laid (these people would not have to “unlearn” Christ is God)

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    ralfellis  September 17, 2013

    >>Why would Jewish Christians intent on keeping the Jewish law
    >> insist that Jewish sacrifices be stopped? Sacrifices were demanded
    >>in the Law of Moses itself. So why would they need to be destroyed?

    Becase there was more than one Jewist sect in the 1st century. Apart from the Pharisees and Sadducees, there were the Eseene and the Forth Sect Nazarenes. I think you will find that it was the Nazarene who were against animal sacrifices (they sacrificed their hair instead).

    Remember it was Jesus, who was a Nazarene, who drove out the animal sacrifices from the Temple. So although Jesus wanted to preserve the Law (every jot and tittle), he nevertheless wanted to end animal sacrifice. Not to become a veggie, of course, for Jesus was still noted as being a glutton and wine-biber – just to end animal sacrifice.

    It would appear that Josephus Flavius was also against animal sacrifice, and that as the last-Jew-standing after the siege of Jerusalem he would have wielded considerable power in the region. And correct me if I am wrong, but the Jews stopped all animal sacrifices at this time.

    Note that Saul was also a Nazarene, and so if Saul was Josephus Flavius, as I have argued, then it would not be so surprising that Josephus wanted to end animal sacrifice – and had the power and influence (backed by Rome) to do so.


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    raskel  September 24, 2013

    What about Pythagorean or some other Hellenistic influence? Origen had his theory of the transmigration of the soul. Some of the sayings of Jesus have been interpreted to support reincarnation. (Which per the standard historical critical method would suggest their authenticity.) If you buy reincarnation/ you have to consider that that hamburger you are eating might have been grandma. Scholarship has often distinguished between Hellenistic and the Jewish tradition/ but Philo clearly was influenced by Hellenism/ so perhaps the questions of Jewish or Greek is much more complex than previously suspected. Maybe it was really Greek or Persian/ with Orthodoxy ultimately opting for the Persian conception of the afterlife. After all/ the Jews did not have any monolithic view of the afterlife in the first century of the Common Era. Of course/ this is rank speculation/ but if I learned eight dead ancient languages/ I could probably publish a dissertation somewhere making this very case.

  11. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 5, 2016

    Hi, Bart:

    (1) If the Ebionite beliefs reflected an authentic tradition from Jesus, could this partly explain the fracas at the Temple when he reportedly staged a protest against sacrifice (overturning cages of pigeons and money-changers’ tables)?

    (2) Or is it more likely that the protest (if it happened, in the only place to which he could get access), was against the wrong set of priests running the Temple and thus “polluting” the sacrifices (as the Essenes argued)? So he was driving out symbolically the current regime in preparation and announcement of the coming Kingdom of Heaven when he would come back as the Davidic Messiah …

    (3) There are also reports that Mohammed was influenced by Ebionite Arab Christians, as Ebionite communities survived quite late in that part of the world. This would then explain why in Islam Jesus is special as a prophet, though human, and Mary is mentioned some six times, including as the woman blessed above all others. Do you have thoughts on this topic?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      We don’t have any record of Ebionite beliefs about the “cleansing of the Temple.” I do think that historically there was some kind of small event/protest against people making money off of religion and thus polluting the temple. I don’t know what kinds of Christianity influenced the writings of the Quran.

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