Last week in my class on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film” we were discussing the intriguing little fact that when Jesus is baptized, the voice of God that comes from heaven to call him his Son says different things in each of the three Synoptic Gospels (there is no voice in the Gospel of John). How does one explain that? It made me think of the Gospel of the Ebionites, and I started wondering if I ever talked about it on the blog.
It turns out the answer is yes. Here is a post devoted to it, from years ago — which begins with a general discussion of it along with two other “Jewish-Christian Gospels,” and ends with a description of its rather clever way of reconciling the three accounts of the voice from heaven.
Yesterday in my graduate seminar we spent three hours analyzing the three so-called “Jewish-Christian Gospels.” These are very tricky texts to deal with. We don’t have any manuscripts of them – even small fragments. They come to us, instead, in the quotations of church fathers such as Origen, Didymus the Blind, Jerome, and Epiphanius. These (orthodox) church fathers sometimes quoted or referred to one or the other of the Gospels in order to relate what it said; and sometimes it was in order to attack what it said. There are all sorts of questions raised about these no-longer surviving Gospels in these quotations.
A good part of the problem is that some of these fathers – especially Jerome, on whom we depend for most of our information for two of the three Gospels – quite obviously confused things, or were confused themselves in what they had to say, since what they have to say about these Gospels doesn’t add up and in the end doesn’t make sense. On this every scholar who works on these things agrees.
The fathers virtually all believed or assumed that the various Jewish-Christian Gospels were in fact only one Gospel not three (some scholars think there were only two), that it was called something like “the Gospel according to the Hebrews,” that it had been written originally in Aramaic (or Hebrew), and that it was in fact an altered version of the canonical Gospel of Matthew, in use among a sect of Jewish Christians (i.e., those who thought that one should keep the Jewish law as well as believe in Jesus as the Messiah). Much of that simply can’t be true – especially that it (or all of them) were originally written in Aramaic as a version of Matthew.
Scholars call the three Gospels that are ferreted out from the various quotations the Gospel of the Nazareans, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and, as I said, the Gospel According to the Hebrews. One of the hot questions among scholars right now is if there were really three of them, or only two; if there were two, then the Nazareans and the Hebrews were one and the same.
Anyway, for my class I had my students translate all of the Greek quotations of these Gospels (a number of the quotations are preserved only in Latin; I didn’t have them deal with these in the original language since some of the students don’t know Latin yet). And then we discussed them, in some depth (though even so we were just scratching the surface).
Right now I’m particularly intrigued with the Gospel of the Ebionites. It is found in quotations only of Epiphanius – a late fourth century church father quite famous, or rather infamous, for his 80-book refutation of every heresy on the planet, called the Panarion (which means “medicine chest”: in it he provides the antidote for the bites of the serpents of heresy) (!). There are eight quotations (some scholars count them only as seven). One that I have long been intrigued by is cited below.
For background: as you may have noticed if you’ve read the NT Gospels carefully enough, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the voice that comes from heaven at Jesus’ baptism says *different* things. In Matthew it says “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”; in Mark it says “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased”; and in Luke it says “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” (That version of Luke is found only in some manuscripts, but elsewhere I have argued at length that it was in fact the original version of Luke, only later changed by scribes to make it coincide with the words of the voice as found in Mark.)
So, not just modern readers but early Christians wondered, on occasion: what did the voice really say? Which version is right?
The Gospel of the Ebionites provides an attempt to show that they could *all* be right. Here we learn that the voice spoke three times, saying something different each time. I think this is *great*! Here’s the quotation (the “it” at the beginning is referring to the Gospel of the Ebionites):
And after a good deal more, it says: “When the people were baptized, Jesus also came and was baptized by John. When he came up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, descending and entering him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.’ Then it said, ‘Today I have given you birth.’ Immediately a great light enlightened the place. When John saw this,” it says, “’he said to him, Who are you Lord?’ Yet again a voice came from heaven to him, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ And then,” it says, “John fell before him and said, ‘I beg you, Lord — you baptize me!’ But Jesus restrained him by saying, ‘Let it be, for it is fitting that all things be fulfilled in this way.’” (Epiphanius, Panarion, 30, 13, 3-4)
This Gospel may have been, in part, a kind of harmony of the Gospels, that tried to smooth over the differences among them. Whether that’s what it was in toto or not, this passage certainly is a great way to reconcile the three versions of the voice — even if its solution does strain credulity a bit!