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Was Christ God? The View of Jewish-Christian Ebionites

We know of several groups and individuals from the first three centuries of Christianity who were known, or at least thought, to support an “adoptionistic” Christology, one that said that Christ was not by nature a divine being but was, instead, a fully and completely human being, one who had been “adopted” by God to be his son (and therefore divine for *that* reason).  He was the Son of God, then, by adoption or election, not by nature.  He did not pre-exist his birth, and his birth was normal – his parents had sexual relations and he was the offspring.  But later God made him his own son.

When I say that some persons were known or thought to hold some such view, I mean that in many instances it is difficult (impossible, actually) to show that they really did hold such views.  All we have, in virtually every case (not quite) are what their proto-orthodox opponents said about them.  In other words, we have to take their enemies’ word for it.   That is not usually a safe guide to a person’s views, as we realize all so well from the political realm (if instead of Jesus’ birth you’re interested in Obama’s, I’m not sure the best source is Donald Trump….)

Very roughly speaking, we know of two major groups that were believed to promote an adoptionistic Christology in the second and third centuries.  One of the groups was Jewish and the other gentile.

The Jewish group (which may have been a variety of groups) goes by various names, but is sometimes simply called the Ebionites.   We actually don’t know…

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Other Christians Who Denied that Christ was Divine by Nature
Adoptionistic Christologies



  1. Avatar
    nacord  October 15, 2015

    You may have already covered this–if so I apologize:

    The variant in Luke that contains the “today I have begotten you” line (attested to in D)–do you believe this is an Adoptionist change to the text, or is the more common reading a proto-orthodox change? Or is there another option?

    Either way, the same phrase is employed in Acts as well in reference to Christ’s resurrection… Do you think the author here had an adaoptionist view in mind?


  2. Avatar
    dhinton  October 15, 2015

    I can certainly see how people would tend to like the sound of Jesus being God himself over this because the Trinity appears more beautiful and profound…

  3. Avatar
    joks  October 15, 2015

    Dr Ehrman,
    Do you have any opinions on which group left the Proto-Orthodox community in 1 John? And if you do have a strong opinion, what are your reasons for that opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      Yup, a strong opinoin. I’ts not a group we know of otherwise, but it is definitely a group that had begun to subscribe to a docetic Christology that went “too far” for those who stayed behind (because they began to deny that Christ was really a human with flesh and blood)

  4. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 16, 2015

    Which group believed Christ jumped into and out of Jesus through out his time ? Ebionites?
    Jesus was the host of Christ ?

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 16, 2015

    And Matthew 17:5? What happened here Bart?
    And Essenes who are they ? The teacher of righteousness?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      The Essenes were a rigorous Jewish group that believed in separating itself off from the impurities of the rest of Israel (and from everyone else who could pollute it). The Teacher of Righteousness was one of their leaders. They produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  October 16, 2015

        THEE teacher of righteousness in unknown correct? And for example the chalice that Jesus held ? Did the teacher of righteousness come up with something similar ? With this cup ?
        And we have Eastern Orthodox because they broke away from Rome or Vatican or something of that nature?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2015

          His identity is not known, and he did not hold a last supper.

          • Josephsluna
            Josephsluna  October 18, 2015

            Yes I know he did not hold last supper Bart. Was asking if he came up with something Similar.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 19, 2015

            Not that we know of.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 20, 2015

        I think I read (Lawrence Schiffman?) that there were Essene groups in different areas of Judea and maybe north of there but that the Qumran community was apparently the most strict of them.

  6. Avatar
    uziteaches  October 16, 2015

    Bart, I learned much about the Ebionites in The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Jeffrey Butz (http://www.amazon.com/Brother-Jesus-Lost-Teachings-Christianity/dp/1594770433/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1444964159&sr=1-10).

    Bernard Uzi Weingarten

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      I haven’t read the book. But we know virtually *nothing* about the actual teachings of Jesus’ brother James.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  October 16, 2015

        Can we say with confidence that James was widely known as “James the Just”? And that Jews of that time saw the destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishment for his murder?

      • Avatar
        MMahmud  October 17, 2015

        And isn’t that a bit odd and convenient….. the views of the disciple (possibly leader and shephard of the flock facing an onslaught of apostasy from the true teachings of Jesus ) are practically nowhere to be found
        We have to give it to the Church daddies…or whoever it was. They were sure hell bent on taking away all evidence of the truth in favor of their truth.

        I would like to ask you about Paul.
        He seems to have come up with the adoptionist point of view don’t you think? Jesus being divine from eternity(always having been Gods son) is first noted in John.

        If these Ebionites believed in adoptionism wouldn’t they be in line with the teachings of Paul in terms of Cristology? He seems to be the first recorded to have espoused it (God taking a son).

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2015

          It is pretty clear that Paul held to Christ’s pre-existence. See Phil. 2:6-11. (I have a lengthy discussion of Paul’s views in my book How Jesus Became God.)

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  October 16, 2015

    The Hebrew word אֶביוֹן doesn’t just mean “poor” as how a peasant might be poor. It suggets a level of abject poverty that leads one to begging, i.e. a beggar or a wretch. I’ve noticed some scholars have latched onto this connotation and use it as evidence that Jesus was something of an itinerant Cynic philosopher–a Jewish Diogenes of sorts. Just like Cynic philosophers, Ebionites may have taken on the appearance of shameless, dog-like wretches in order to appear more holy or wise or whatnot. And so the reasoning goes that Jesus imparted this cynic way of life to who followers, yet it was only the Ebionites who continued the practice.

    I, for my part, am rather skeptical of the notion that Jesus was a Cynic philosopher. If there was one common theme throughout the ancient world it was that an appearance of asceticism tended to impart an aura of holiness or wisdom or both to a man. (This likely has something to do with the reverance we place on people who appear selfless and humble, but that’s an entirely different discussion.) Jesus wouldn’t have had to be an outright Cynic to adopt the cynical mannerism. It was so ubiquitious that he could just pick up the pretense without the actual philosophical ideals. A form of imitation for the sake of appearances. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Jesus had certain ascetic behaviors (the gospels’ exaggerated accounts of his gluttony notwithstanding).

    There’s one passage in particular that makes be suspect that Jesus would purposely abstain from certain pleasures for the sake of appearances. When Jesus says that he will not “partake of the fruit of the vine” (a reference to wine in the Hebrew blessing of the wine) before the coming of the Kingdom (Mark 14:25; Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18), most scholars–and, indeed, the gospel authors themselves–interpret this line to mean that Jesus is predicting his death. That is, Jesus is saying he won’t be drinking any wine because he’s going to die soon, so we won’t be able to drink wine for the time being. But that suggests that there is no wine available to drink in Heaven (which doesn’t exactly sound like Heaven), so Jesus will have to wait until he returns to earth. Indeed, I think some early Christians noticed this conundrum and added the phrase “with you” in Matthew in order to have the line make sense within the context of Jesus dying and going up to heaven. That is to say, they have Jesus saying he won’t be drinking wine with his disciples again until he returns, not necessarily not drinking wine at all.

    I believe, however, that this quote from Jesus was originally meant to state something much more simple and matter of fact. Jesus would not be drinking wine until the coming Kingdom because Jesus was actually abstaining from wine until then! That is to say, Jesus was returning to something of an ascetic existence in the meantime. Fortunately for Jesus, I’m convinced that Jesus was convinced that the Kingdom was coming any day now–like, within months if not weeks–so what Jesus is really saying is that we won’t be drinking wine until he partakes of the Passover meal again the next year (31 CE) with his disciples with God’s Kingdom established on earth.

  8. Avatar
    Todd  October 16, 2015

    The contemporary Christian churches are, for the most part, extensions of the work of Paul in the Roman world. Is there any information concerning what happened to the original Jewish church in Jerusalem after the Romans destruction of Jerusalem c. 60CE and possibly other groups who made their way to various parts of the Near East, India, Ethiopia, etc?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      The oldest tradition (Eusebius) is that htey fled Jerusalem before the destruction in 70 CE and relocated to Pella.

  9. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 16, 2015

    “The Ebionites did not survive for the simple reason that they were persecuted out of existence by the Catholic Church. When this oppression was lifted for any reason (for example, when an area changed from Christian to Muslim rule), they sometimes came out of hiding and resumed an open existence.” Source: “The Mythmaker — Paul and the Invention of Christianity” by Hyam Maccoby (a Jewish scholar), 1986. Bart, are you going to mention Arius in this thread, a priest who I presume was a Gentile?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      Not in this thread, since he was active in the early fourth century, after the period I’m covering here.

  10. Avatar
    Omar6741  October 16, 2015

    Somewhat related to this topic, in the 1960s Shlomo Pines thought he had found an excerpt from a Jewish Christian group’s account of Christian origins being used by the 10th century Mu’tazilite scholar Qadi Abd al-Jabbar. Just out of curiosity, have you studied this or do you have any views on it?
    (If that text in Qadi Abd al-Jabbar’s work turns out to be an early Jewish Christian account of Christian origins, it is *very* interesting, to say the least.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2015

      No I haven’t

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  October 16, 2015

        Just for your information, and that of others who may be interested in another source for Jewish Christianity:
        “The Jewish Christians of the Early Centuries of Christianity According to a New Source” by Shlomo Pines
        Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Volume II, No. 13

        • Bart
          Bart  October 18, 2015

          What’s the new source? And is the author sure it’s new? If it’s new, is he sure it’s a source?

          • Avatar
            Omar6741  October 18, 2015

            The new source is a series of passages in a 10th century Muslim polemic against Christianity by one of he leading scholar of the day, Qadi Abd al Jabbar.
            These passages present a radically different, previously unknown story of the origins of Christianity, the origins of the Gospels, the role of Paul, and so on. It is new in that the source suggests that our gospels were written by a group of Christians after they were deprived of any chance to access an original Gospel which they wanted (this last Gospel is of course lost to us).
            Up to that time, no Muslim polemicist had ever written anything like such a historical account of Christianity, since Muslims never knew much about the history or the New Testament, and they focussed on theological issues when writing against Christians.
            Based on the content of these passages (a very new account of the origins of Christianity and the writing of the four gospels, never done before by a Muslim), the ideology of these passages (it is very unusual for a Muslim to be so passionately concerned with the Hebrew language, for example), and some oddities of the language (which suggest that it was translated from Syriac into Arabic), Pines is sure that these passages come from some hitherto unknown Jewish Christian sect, and express their view of the history of Christianity. The author, Qadi Abd al Jabbar, apparently just pasted them into his book and didn’t give any reference (something medieval authors did).
            These are the reasons he thinks it is a source. Not everyone agreed, though Pines continued to defend this view till his death, and the debate goes on right now.
            I am not sure how he dates this source, other than to say it could go back very early. I am interested in it since it is original and the story is weirdly insightful; the source mentions that eighty gospels were originally written, and four emerged as the winners, for example; and that the people writing these gospels had to rely on the memories of what they had heard about the original Gospel.
            My own preferred explanation is that this is a Elchasaite source (based on the opinions expressed in it); Qadi Abd Al Jabbar lived in Persia, where the Elchasaites use to have a strong presence, so that would make sense.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 17, 2015

      The book is called Tathbit Dala’il Nubuwwat Sayyidina Muhammad, a 10-11th century Muslim polemic against Christianity.
      An English translation of the pertinent passage can be found here:

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  October 18, 2015

        Those are nice links.
        One thing I noticed: this passage mentions the Romans sending people to the Arabian Peninsula for some reason. Might this have anything to do with Paul’s decision to visit Arabia after his conversion. Is there any connection?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 19, 2015

          Not that we know of.

          • Avatar
            Omar6741  October 19, 2015

            Just out of curiosity, do you have a view as to why he went to Arabia? I can’t find much agreement among the scholars who have written about it.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 21, 2015

            No, I’m afraid I don’t know. I assume it means thtat he went to the cities in the Nabatean kingdom (not into the wilderness)

  11. Avatar
    mrbrain  October 16, 2015

    “it is difficult (impossible, actually) to show that they really did hold such views.” Ironically, it would be difficult event today to show, or even know what the views of many people are with respect to Jesus’s virgin birth, since if you happen to be in the church but hold a different view, it would often be unspoken, and thus unknown. How much more so the private views of those from 1,700 years ago?

    Thanks for your post.

    • Avatar
      mrbrain  October 16, 2015

      Sorry, but this was my first post and I didn’t realize there’s no edit functionality. Like the older facebook. Of course I meant to say “even today.” Feel free to edit that for me Mr. Moderator, and delete this reply 🙂

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 18, 2015

    Wow! You are an incredibly productive person. Is the tv broken at your house? Or are there three or four Doppelganger (spelling?) copies of you like commonly occurs on “The Young and the Restless” soap opera?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2015

      Ha! I’m afraid about the only thing I watch on TV are sports….

  13. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  October 19, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, Paul himself described in his letter to the Galatians (2: 1-16) some pretty serious conflict between himself and Peter (and James to some extent) during his visit to Jerusalem. In light of the Patristic descriptions of the Ebionites and their possible connection to James and vitriol towards Paul, is it possible that Paul’s meeting with Peter and James left two factions with a more antagonistic relationship than Paul describes. He prefaces his description of their meeting with the strange verse 1:20 (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) This seems like a strange oath to undertake at this point in his letter. Almost like he is protesting ahead of time that his description of the encounter may be competing with an alternate narrative. Do the majority of scholars take Paul’s description of the encounter at face value?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2015

      No, I’d say most critical scholars suspect that Peter got the better of Paul on the occasion. My view is that there were lots of factions in early Christianity, and that Paul and the other apostles may not have always been on the same page.

  14. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 22, 2019

    Dr Ehrman – I’ve just relistened to audiobook of Lost Christianities, and was wondering if you have done or if you know of a good list/accounting of early Christian groups (by belief sets and bonus if includes their respective preferred scriptures)? And possibly of comparable compactness as Aland’s systematic table on the 4 gospels. I’m currently wandering the wilderness of Wikipedia… thanks a ton!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2019

      You can’t really put them in parallel columns becuase they stress very different things — rather than taking different views of precisely the same things. You might try Antti Marjanen and Petri Luomanen, A Companion to Second-Century Christian Heretics if you can find an affordable volume or a library copy (it’s expensive!)

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