The Ebionites or the "Poor Ones"

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EBIONITES. This designation was at first, like "Nazarenes," a common name for all Christians, as Epiphanius (d. 403) testifies (Adv. Haer., xxix. 1). It is derived from the Hebrew [Hebrew text omitted] "poor," and was not given, as Origen supposes, in reference to their low views of Christ, but to their own poverty. This poverty, especially characteristic of the Christians of Jerusalem, evoked from the Pagan and Jewish world the contemptuous appellation of "the poor." Minutius Felix says, "That we are called the poor is not our disgrace, but our glory" (Octav., 36). Subsequently its application was limited to Jewish Christians. "The Jews who accept Christ are called Ebionites," writes Origen (c. Cels., II. 1). Then, when a portion of the Jewish Church became separate and heretical, the designation was used exclusively of it. Later in the fourth century Epiphanius, Jerome, and others use it of a separate party within the Jewish Church distinct from the Nazarenes. This outline of history proves that Tertullian was wrong when he derived the term from a pretended founder of the sect called Ebion.

The notices in the early fathers are fragmentary, and at times seem to be contradictory on account of the double application of the term, now to Jewish Christianity as a whole, now only to a party within it. The New Testament knows of no sects in the Jewish Church, but indicates the existence of different tendencies. At the Council of Jerusalem a legalistic and Judaizing spirit manifested itself, which was in antagonism to the spirit of Paul, and was shown in the Judaiziug teachings which did so much mischief in the Galatian churches. But it was not until after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the founding of Aelia Capitolina by Hadrian, in 134, that Jewish Christianity became a distinct school, gradually becoming more and more heretical till it separated into the two sects of Ebionites proper and Nazarenes. The latter still held to Paul as an apostle, and, while they kept the law themselves, did not demand its observance of the Gentile Christians. The former held the observance of the law to be obligatory upon all Christians alike, and rejected Paul as an apostate. This was the state of affairs at the time of Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph., 47). Irenaeus, who does not mention this party division, describes the Ebionites as stubbornly clinging to the law, as rejecting the apostle Paul as an apostate, and all the Gospels except Matthew. He further notices a christological heresy. Denying Christ's birth from the Virgin, they regarded him as a mere man. Origen (c. Cels., V. 61) distinguishes between two branches of Ebionites, - those who denied and those who accepted the miraculous birth. Here he distinction between Nazarenes and the Ebionites proper becomes apparent. In the later fathers, as Jerome, Epiphanius, etc., the notices are more frequent; but nothing is added to our knowledge except that the [p.685] Ebionites were chiliasts (Jerome ad. Esdr., 35, 1). In Epiphanius' day (d. 403) they dwelt principally in the regions along the Dead Sea, but also in Rome and Cyprus. The disintegration of Jewish Christianity was consummated by the introduction of Gnostic philosophy, of Greek culture, as also, perhaps, of Oriental theosophy. See the art. ELKESAITES.

G. Uhlhorn, "EBIONITES," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn., Vol. 2. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.684-685.

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Primary Sources

Book or monograph Epiphanius, Panarion 29-30.
Book or monograph Eusebius, Church History 3.27.
Book or monograph Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.22, 34; 9.13-17.
Book or monograph Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2, 3.11.7; 3.21.1, 5.1.3.
Book or monograph Justin Martyr, Dialog With Trypho 47.
Book or monograph Origen, Against Celsus 2.1.
Book or monograph Pseudo-Tertullian, Against All Heresies 11.
Book or monograph Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 33.

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Secondary Sources

On-line Resource Ebionites (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Book or monograph F.J.A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity. Cambridge & London: MacMillan, 1894.
Article L.E. Keck, "The Poor Amongst the Saints in the New Testament," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 56 (1965): 100-129.
Article L.E. Keck, "The Poor Amongst the Saints in Jewish Christianity and Qumran," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 57 (1966): 54-78.
Book or monograph Albertus Frederik Johannes Klijn & G.J. Reinink, Patristic evidence for Jewish-Christian sects. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 36. Leiden: Brill, 1973. Hbk. ISBN: 9004037632. pp.313.
Article H.J. Schoeps, "Ebionite Christianity," Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1955): 219-24.
Article G. Strecker, "On the Problem of Jewish Christianity," R.A. Kraft & G. Krodel, eds. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. pp.241-285.
On-line Resource Edward J. Young, "Biblical Criticism in the Second Century" (Pd.D. diss., The Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, 1943).View in PDF format pdf [Reproduced by permission of the current copyright holder]

Related Subjects

Alogi | Apollinarianism | Arianism | Docetism | Donatism | Ebionites | Gnosticism | Manicheaism | Marcion | Monarchianism | Montanism | Nestorianism | Pelagianism

Heresies | Apostolic Brethren | Arnoldists | Beguins | Flagellants | Bogomils | Cathari | Henricians | Humiliati | Hussites | Lollards | Manichees | Passagians | Paulicians | Petrobrusians | Speronists | Spiritual Franciscans | Waldensians


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