The Gospel of the Ebionites and the Hebrew Gospel

By Mary Jane Chaignot

No one doubts that the first followers of Jesus were all Jews. They did not call themselves Christians until later. The first use of the word "Christian" is found in Acts 11:26, where it states the disciples in Antioch were called Christians. Scholars believe Jesus' followers in Jerusalem referred to themselves as the Nazarenes, or followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Some scholars believe the Ebionites were an early offshoot of the Nazarenes. Epiphanius made a point of distinguishing the Ebionites from the Nazarenes by saying the Nazarenes were orthodox; the Ebionites were heretics. Nonetheless, the Ebionites were very devout Jews who believed that Jesus was, indeed, the Jewish Messiah. They continued to practice Judaism in all its forms, which included keeping the dietary laws and circumcising all males. Not surprisingly, however, their acceptance of Jesus as Messiah brought them into conflict with the Jewish leaders who had rejected him. Eventually, they would also come into conflict with the Gentile Christians who had been told by Paul that they didn't need to adhere to the Jewish traditions. Obviously, Paul's message resonated with new converts and his version of Christianity soon eclipsed that of the Jewish Christians. Both sides believed with all their hearts that they each represented Jesus' message. This shift from Jewish to Gentile Christianity occurred within 20-30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Epiphanius, a Church Father writing in the fourth century, claimed that the Ebionites had a Hebrew version of Matthew's Gospel, which they called the Hebrew Gospel. He goes on to disparage it by saying that it was incomplete and therefore false. The missing parts included the infancy narrative and the genealogy. Eusebius wrote that the Ebionites used the Gospel of the Hebrews. Origen and several other Church Fathers mention a "Gospel of the Twelve," which is later referred to as the Ebionite Gospel, and that's all we know of the one by the "Twelve." Apparently, the Ebionites referred to their scripture as the "Authentic Gospel of Matthew." Scholars argue whether this is another document or another name for their gospel. In other words, there could be as many as four separate documents being talked about here or only one. Scholars simply don't know for sure. They do think, however, that the Gospel of the Ebionites was, in fact, an attempt to harmonize (and then possibly to replace) the other Gospels.

The Gospel of the Ebionites begins with the story of John who was baptizing with a baptism of repentance. All went out to him, including the Pharisees. He was dressed in camel's hair with a leathern girdle about his loins. His diet consisted of wild honey and something like "manna" that tasted like a cake dipped in oil. (Since the Ebionites were strict vegetarians, they changed his diet from locusts to a manna-like cake. This is easy to do in Greek because locust is akris whereas cake is enkris. [This apparently assumes a similar sleight of text is possible in Aramaic.])

The timeline is similar to that of Luke's Gospel – in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, when Caiaphas was the high priest. John was of the lineage of Aaron; his parents were Zacharias and Elizabeth.

One day Jesus came and was baptized by John. As he came up out of the water, the heavens opened; he saw the Holy Ghost in the likeness of a dove that descended and entered into him, and he heard a voice from heaven. (These are straight out of Matthew's gospel. What's different is that this voice speaks several times, repeating all the variations found in the synoptic gospels. In this way, the Ebionites have been able to harmonize the gospel accounts.) Apparently, John also heard the voice, whereupon John fell before Jesus and asked to be baptized of him. To which Jesus replied, "Suffer it (or let it go): for it is fitting that all things be fulfilled in this way."

The only difference between the Ebionites and the Hebrew Gospel up to this point is that in the latter, it is the mother of the Lord and his brothers who suggest they go and be baptized by John. Jesus replied, "In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance."

After this, we read that Jesus is a man about thirty years old who chose "us." He entered into Capernaum and chose Simon, surnamed Peter, and made him speak, saying that eleven followers had already been chosen and that Matthew, who sat at the receipt of custom, should be the twelfth. Jesus chose these apostles to be a testimony to Israel. (The list of names matches the list in Matthew's gospel.)

There are only a few more known quotations from the Gospel of the Ebionites, so let's focus on the Hebrew Gospel. One specific fact in the Hebrew Gospel is at variance with Luke. In his gospel, Luke refers to Matthew as Levi; in the Hebrew Gospel, it is obvious that Levi is really Matthias who replaced Judas after his betrayal. One of the worst sins in the Hebrew Gospel is, "To grieve the spirit of one's brother."

Perhaps this is why the Hebrew Gospel has a great emphasis on James, the brother of Jesus. James (known as James, the Just) was the head of the Jerusalem Church and a proponent of obeying the Jewish law. It is in the Hebrew Gospel that we read that Jesus' first resurrection appearance was to his brother: "After Jesus had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, he went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep. And shortly thereafter the Lord said: Bring a table and bread! And immediately it added: he took the bread, blessed it and brake it and gave it to James the Just and said to him: My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of man is risen from among them that sleep." This also means that James was present at the Last Supper. These verses stand in direct contradiction to that which is presumed from the canonical stories. John 7:5 claims outright that Jesus' brothers did not believe in him. Paul, however, does allude to the fact that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection.

So it is that we also read, "the Lord spoke to his disciples saying, 'And never be joyful except when you look on your brother with love.' "

The Hebrew Gospel also has an account of the rich young man coming to Jesus. He asked, "Rabbi, what good thing can I do and live?" Jesus answered, "Fulfill the law and the prophets." When the man said he had already been doing that, Jesus added, "Go, sell all that you have and distribute to the poor; and come, follow me." When the young man began to squirm, Jesus asked, "How can you say, I have fulfilled the law and the prophets, when it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself and many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?" And he turned and said to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by Him, "Simon, son of Jonah, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

From these examples, it is easy to see great similarities to the canonical books, yet none of these were accepted into the canon. All of these books firmly state that Jesus was chosen by God; he obeyed the laws of the Torah and preached, "Love God; love your neighbor." Yet, because these writings bore no witness to the virgin birth or Christ's pre-existence, they were deemed to be heretical. The Ebionites fought against Paul's teaching about salvation apart from obedience to the law – and lost. History is written by the winners. Half of the New Testament books are attributed to Paul; the Ebionites' writings were destroyed.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha