The Ebionites

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

  • The word ebionite means "poor."
  • Ebionites referred to themselves as "poor" men, but their detractors referred to them as having a "poor" understanding.
  • They probably spoke Aramaic.
  • They were very devout Jews who believed that Jesus was, indeed, the Jewish Messiah and were early followers of Jesus.

The Ebionites and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke

  • Matthew's gospel was very popular with the early Jewish Christians because it is the most Jewish.
    • Especially 5:17-18 which states, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."
  • The Ebionites had an Aramaic version of Matthew's gospel at their disposal.
  • The Ebionite version of Matthew didn't have the first two chapters, which include the Nativity story and virgin birth, just as the earliest manuscripts of Matthew's gospel do not include these chapters.
  • Reinforcing confusion about the virgin birth and the Nativity was the earliest manuscripts of Luke that specifically refer to Joseph as Jesus' "father" (2:33, 43). However, later manuscripts refers to Jesus' parents as "Joseph and the mother of Jesus" instead of calling them "the father and mother of Jesus." In addition, an early version of Luke 3:22 states that God "adopted" Jesus.
  • Ebionite beliefs were largely based on the versions of the Gospels that they have at hand.

Beliefs about Jesus

  • The Ebionites did not believe in the virgin birth or in the pre-existence of Jesus, perhaps because of not having the first two chapters of Matthew and the passages in Luke referenced above.
  • They believed that Jesus was born to two human parents and was "adopted" by God at the moment of baptism because he was the most righteous man on earth.
  • They believed that Jesus had a normal childhood and that God had specifically chosen Jesus as the perfect sacrifice to lay down his life for the sake of others.
  • They no longer felt the need to continue with the ritual animal sacrifices that were integral to Jewish practice because Jesus was the "perfect" sacrifice.
  • They believed that God demonstrated His acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice by raising Jesus from the dead.

Conflict with Paul and Demise

  • The Ebionites believed Paul was the nemesis of Jesus' true message because he preached that anyone could be saved.
  • By the end of the fourth century, the Ebionites had been eradicated and the Gentile Christians went on to make history.

Bible Characters