The Ebionites (from Hebrew; Ebionim, "the poor ones") were a sect of Judean followers of John the Baptizer and later Jesus (Yeshua in Aramaic) which existed in Judea and Palestine during the early centuries of the Common Era. The "Pauline Christians", those who were ultimately successful in establishing a state-sanctioned church, did not consider Ebionites "real" Christians: the terms "Pauline Christians" and "Ebionites" are used in this article to distinguish these two threads in early Christianity.
Virtually no writings of the Ebionites have survived (see below), except as excerpted in the writings of orthodox Christian theologians, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, who considered the Ebionites to be heretics.
Mainstream or "Pauline" Christian writers sometimes distinguished the Ebionites from the Nazarenes, one patristic author often depending upon another for his assessment. Without surviving texts, it is even less easy now for us to establish exactly the basis for their distinction.
All these sources within mainstream Christianity agree that the Ebionites denied the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Virgin Birth.
The Ebionites emphasized the humanity of Jesus as the mortal son of Mary and Joseph, who was 'adopted' as a son of God when he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and therefore could have become the messianic king-priest of Israel (by virtue of also being both a descendant of king David through his father and a descendant of high priest Aaron through his mother) but was chosen to be the last and greatest of the prophets.
It seems that the Ebionites also rejected the doctrine of atonement for sin through the death of Jesus, and judged posthumous sightings of Jesus as spiritual experiences such as dreams and visions rather than an actual physical resurrection.
The Ebionites revered the Desposyni (a sacred name reserved only for Jesus' blood relatives), especially James the Just, as the legitimate apostolic successors of Jesus, rather than Peter.
Epiphanius states (Panarion 16:9) that they criticized Paul as a Greek who converted to Sadduceean Judaism in order to marry the High Priest's daughter, and then apostasized when she rejected him.
Of the books of the New Testament the Ebionites only accepted an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew, referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews, as scripture. This version of Matthew, Pauline Christian critics reported, omitted the first two chapters (on Jesus' virgin birth), and started with Jesus' baptism by John.
Ebionites believed that all followers of Jesus, whether they be Jewish or Gentile, must adhere to Noahide Laws and Mosaic law through an either more restorative (Essene) or progressive (Pharisee) interpretation and observance, tempered with the wisdom teachings of Jesus.
Some Ebionites such as Cerinthus adopted Gnostic beliefs but are better identified as Elkasites and were seen as heretics by traditional Ebionites, as well as Pauline Christians.
The sect did not exert any great influence on Christianity, and gradually dwindled into obscurity. However, the Ebionites are represented in history as the sect encountered by the Muslim historian Abd al-Jabbar (ca. 1000 A.D.) almost 500 years later than most Christian historians admit for the survival of the Ebionites. An additional possible mention of surviving Ebionite communities existing in the lands of the east, Theyma and Thilmes, around the 11th century, is said to be in Sefer Ha'masaoth, the "Book of the Travels" of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, or Benyamin Bar-Yonnah, a sephardic rabbi of Spain.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908, mentions four classes of Ebionite writings:
- Ebionite Gospel. The Ebionites used only the Gospel of Matthew (according to Irenaeus). Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae IV, xxi, 8) mentions a Gospel of the Hebrews, which is often identified as the Aramaic original of Matthew, written with Hebrew letters. Such a work was known to Hegesippus ( according to Eusebius, Historia Eccl., ), Origen (according to Jerome, De vir., ill., ii), and to Clement of Alexandria (Strom., II, ix, 45). Epiphanius attributes this gospel to the Nazarenes, and claims that the Ebionites only possessed an incomplete, falsified, and truncated copy. (Adversus Haer., xxix, 9). The question remains whether or not Epiphanius was able to make a genuine distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites.
- Apocrypha: The Circuits of Peter (periodoi Petrou) and Acts of the Apostles, amongst which is the work usually titled the Ascents of James (anabathmoi Iakobou). The first-named books are substantially contained in the Homilies of Clement under the title of Clement's Compendium of Peter's itinerary sermons, and also in the Recognitions attributed to Clement. They form an early Christian didactic fiction to express Ebionite views, i.e. the supremacy of James, their connection with Rome, and their antagonism to Simon Magus, as well as Gnostic doctrines.
- The Works of Symmachus the Ebionite, i.e. his elegant Greek translation of the Old Testament, used by Jerome, fragments of which exist, and his lost Hypomnemata which was written to counter the canonical Gospel of Matthew. The latter work, which is totally lost (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xvii; Jerome, De vir. ill., liv), is probably identical with De distinctione pręceptorum, mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or., III, 1).
- The Book of Elchesai (Elxai ), or of "The Hidden power", claimed to have been written about A. D. 100 and brought to Rome about A. D. 217 by Alcibiades of Apamea . Those who accepted its doctrines and its new baptism were called Elkasites. (Hipp., Philos., IX, xiv-xvii; Epiphanius., Adv. Haer., xix, 1; liii, 1.)
It is also speculated that the core of the Gospel of Barnabas, beneath a polemical medieval Muslim overlay, may have been based upon an Ebionite document.
In 1995, former Baptist minister Shemayah Phillips started a modern Ebionite revival by forming the online Ebionite Jewish Community whose goals are the promotion of Yahwism and a conservative form of Talmidaism to Gentiles, the restoration of Yahushua (Jesus) as a Jewish prophet through the deconstruction of the "Christ myth," and disproving that Christianity is a biblically-related religion.