Comments on the Ebionites


When Jesus came, many Jews wondered if he was the reincarnation of one of the prophets. Some wondered the same thing about John the Baptist.

Jesus affirmed to His disciples that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah the Prophet.

There was in fact three main early churches, those of Paul, those of the Gnostics, and the Jewish-Christians sometimes called Ebionites. (Meaning "poor men?")

Jesus' actual apostles in the gospels are often portrayed as doubters and even stupid, never quite understanding what Jesus is saying. Their importance in the origins of Christianity, are at best marginalized.

We find immediately after Jesus' death that the leader of the Jerusalem Church is Jesus' brother James. (Acts) In the Gospels this James has almost nothing to do with Jesus' mission only given a brief mention as one of the brothers of Jesus, who allegedly opposed Jesus during his lifetime and regarded him as a nutcase.

But Acts (supposed to be a historical narrative written by Luke) tells us after Jesus' death James, a brother who had been hostile to Jesus in his lifetime, suddenly became the revered leader of His Church. Like so much else, this isn't explained. Let us remember that according to scholars all the gospels were written after Paul's writings, there are no originals.

In fact James is a subject, some Protestants in particular, wish would just go away. The most likely explanation is that the near erasure of Jesus' brother James (and his other brothers) from any significant role in the gospel story is part of the downplaying of the early leaders who had been in close contact with Jesus whom regarded with great suspicion and dismay the Christological theories of Paul.

Paul flaunted his brand new visions in interpretation of the Jesus whom he had never met in the flesh. The church fathers wanted the Jesus of Paul, a neoplatonic savior-god that offered salvation at no effort other than faith and through the church. They didn't want the Jesus of James, a Jew that wouldn't let them escape the Law, which held one directly responsible for their actions. James and the other apostles were in fact bitter enemies of Paul.

Jesus and his immediate followers were Pharisees who like the Zoroastrians (Persians) believed in the resurrection of the dead. (The Sadducees rejected this and were at odds with the Pharisees.) Jesus was a rabbi who probably had no intention of founding a new religion.

He regarded himself as the Messiah in the normal Jewish sense of the term, i.e. a human leader who would restore the Jewish monarchy and inaugurate an era of peace, justice and prosperity (known as "the kingdom of God") for the whole world. Jesus believed himself to be the figure prophesied in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things.

He was not a militarist and did not build up an army to fight the Romans, since he believed that God would perform a great miracle to break the power of Rome. This miracle would take place on the Mount of Olives, as prophesied in the book of Zechariah. Note that Pharisee Judaism is the one that survives today.

The first followers of Jesus, under James and Peter, founded the Jerusalem Church after Jesus' death. They were called the Nazarenes, and in all their beliefs they were indistinguishable from the Pharisees, except that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and that Jesus was still the promised Messiah.

They believed Jesus had been brought back to life after his death on the cross, and would soon come back to complete his mission of overthrowing the Romans and setting up the Messianic kingdom.

The Nazarenes did not believe that Jesus had abrogated the Jewish religion, or Torah. Having known Jesus personally, they were aware that he had observed the Jewish religious law all his life and had never rebelled against it.

His Sabbath cures were not against Pharisee law. The Nazarenes were themselves very observant of Jewish religious law. They practiced circumcision, did not eat the forbidden foods and showed great respect to the Temple.

The Nazarenes did not regard themselves as belonging to a new religion; their religion was Judaism. They set up synagogues of their own, but they also attended non-Nazarene synagogues on occasion, and performed the same kind of worship in their own synagogues as was practiced by all observant Jews.

The Nazarenes became suspicious of Paul when they heard that he was preaching that Jesus was the founder of a new religion and that he had abrogated the Torah.

After an attempt to reach an understanding with Paul, the Nazarenes (i.e. the Jerusalem Church under James and Peter) broke irrevocably with Paul and disowned him.

Indeed, when Paul visited Jerusalem, Jews attacked and try to kill him. Paul is saved only by invoking his Roman citizenship, a citizenship that Jews fiercely hated in those days.

Because Paul appeals to Rome, Paul is then taken to there where he undergoes a trial for his life.

Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as a new religion which developed away from both normal Judaism and the Nazarene variety of Judaism. In this new religion, central myth was that of an atoning death of a Divine being.

Belief in this sacrifice, and a mystical sharing of the death of the deity, formed the only path to salvation. Paul alone was the creator of this amalgam.

A source of information about Paul that has never been taken seriously enough is a group called the Ebionites. Their writings were suppressed by the Orthodox Church, but some of their views and traditions were preserved in the writings of their opponents, particularly in the huge "Treatise on Heresies" by Epiphanius.

From this it appears that the Ebionites had a very different account to give of Paul's background and early life from that found in the New Testament and fostered by Paul himself.

The Ebionites testified that Paul had no Pharisaic background or training; he was the son of Gentiles, converted to Judaism in Tarsus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached himself to the High Priest as a henchman. Disappointed in his hopes of advancement, he broke with the High Priest and sought fame by founding a new religion.

These accounts, while not reliable in all its details may be substantially correct. It makes far more sense of all the puzzling and contradictory features of the story of Paul than the account of the official documents of the Orthodox Church.

The Ebionites were stigmatized by the Orthodox Church as heretics who failed to understand that Jesus was a Divine person and asserted instead that he was a human being who came to inaugurate a new earthly age, as prophesied by the Jewish prophets of the Bible.

Moreover, the Ebionites refused to accept the Orthodox Church doctrine derived from Paul, that Jesus abolished or abrogated the Jewish law. Instead, the Ebionites observed the law and regarded themselves as Jews.

The Ebionites were not heretics, as the Church asserted, nor "re-Judaizers", as modern scholars call them, but the authentic successors of the immediate disciples and followers of Jesus, whose views and doctrines they faithfully transmitted, believing correctly that they were derived from Jesus himself.

They were the same group that had earlier been called the Nazarenes, who were led by James and Peter, who had known Jesus during his lifetime, and were in a far better position to know his aims than Paul, who met Jesus only in dreams and visions.

Thus the opinion held by the Ebionites about Paul is of extraordinary interest and deserves respectful consideration, instead of dismissal as 'scurrilous' propaganda -- the reaction of Christian scholars from ancient to modern times.

The Ebionites and the existence of the Jewish Church itself still haunt the churches of Paul (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) to this day. The Ebionites and others were declared heretics only on the basis of the "say-so" of the church and its self-chosen counsels. God decides, not the churches.