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§ 113. Nazarenes and Ebionites (Elkesaites, Mandoeans).


I. Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. I. 26. Hippolytus: Refut. omnium Haer., or Philosophumena, 1. IX. 13–17. Epiphanius: Haer. 29, 30, 53. Scattered notices in Justin M., Tertullian, Origen, Hegesippus, Eusebius, and Jerome. Several of the Apocryphal Gospels, especially that of the Hebrews. The sources are obscure and conflicting. Comp. the collection of fragments from Elxai, the Gospel of the Hebrews, etc. in Hilgenfeld’s Novum Test. extra Canonem receptum. Lips. 1866,

II. Gieseler: Nazaräer u. Ebioniten (in the fourth vol. of Stäudlin’s and Tzschirner’s "Archiv." Leipz. 1820).

Credner: Ueber Essaeer und Ebioniten und einen theitweisen Zusammenhang derselben (in Winer’s "Zeitschrift für wissensch. Theol." Sulzbach, 1829).

Baur: De Ebionitarum Origine et Doctrina ab Essaeis repetenda. Tüb. 1831.

Schliemann: Die Clementinen u. der Ebionitismus, Hamb. 1844, p. 362–552.

Ritschl: Ueber die Secte der Elkesaiten (in Niedner’s "Zeitschr. Hist. Theol." 1853, No. 4).

D. Chwolsohn: Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus. St. Petersburg, 1856,· vols.

Uhlhorn: Ebioniten and Elkesaiten, in Herzog, new ed., vol. IV. (1879), 13 sqq. and 184 sqq.

G. Salmon: Elkesai, Elkesaites, in Smith & Wace, vol. II. (1880) p. 95 98.

M. N. Siouffi: Études sur la religion des Soubbas on Sabéens, leurs dogmes, leurs möurs. Paris, 1880.

K. Kessler: Mandaeer, in Herzog, revised ed., IX. (1881), p. 205–222.

AD. Hilgenfeld: Ketzergesch. des Urchristenthums, Leip., 1884 (421 sqq.).


The Jewish Christianity, represented in the apostolic church by Peter and James, combined with the Gentile Christianity of Paul, to form a Christian church, in which "neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature in Christ."

I. A portion of the Jewish Christians, however, adhered even after the destruction of Jerusalem, to the national customs of their fathers, and propagated themselves in some churches of Syria down to the end of the fourth century, under the name of Nazarenes; a name perhaps originally given in contempt by the Jews to all Christians as followers of Jesus of Nazareth.776776    The heathen enemies of Christianity, as Julian the Apostate, called them sometimes "Galileans." So also Epictetus in the only passage, in which he alludes to the Christians.76 They united the observance of the Mosaic ritual law with their belief in the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus, used the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, deeply mourned the unbelief of their brethren, and hoped for their future conversion in a body and for a millennial reign of Christ on the earth. But they indulged no antipathy to the apostle Paul, and never denounced the Gentile Christians and heretics for not observing the law. They were, therefore, not heretics, but stunted separatist Christians; they stopped at the obsolete position of a narrow and anxious Jewish Christianity, and shrank to an insignificant sect. Jerome says of them, that, wishing to be Jews and Christians alike, they were neither one nor the other.

II. From these Nazarenes we must carefully distinguish the heretical Jewish Christians, or the ebionites, who were more numerous. Their name comes not, as Tertullian first intimated,777777    Praescr. Haeret. c. 13.77 from a supposed founder of the sect, Ebion, of whom we know nothing, but from the Hebrew word, אֶבְירׄנ, poor. It may have been originally, like "Nazarene" and "Galilean," a contemptuous designation of all Christians, the majority of whom lived in needy circumstances;778778    Minut. Felix, Octav. 36: "Ceterum quod plerique PAUPERES dicimur non est infamia nostra, sed gloria; animus enim ut luxu solvitur, ita frugalitate firmatur."78 but it was afterwards confined to this sect; whether in reproach, to denote the poverty of their doctrine of Christ and of the law, as Origen more ingeniously than correctly explains it; or, more probably, in honor, since the Ebionites regarded themselves as the genuine followers of the poor Christ and his poor disciples, and applied to themselves alone the benediction on the poor in spirit. According to Epiphanius, Ebion spread his error first in the company of Christians which fled to Pella after the destruction of Jerusalem; according to Hegesippus in Eusebius, one Thebutis, after the death of the bishop Symeon of Jerusalem, about 107, made schism among the Jewish Christians, and led many of them to apostatize, because he himself was not elected to the bishopric.

We find the sect of the Ebionites in Palestine and the surrounding regions, on the island of Cyprus, in Asia Minor, and even in Rome. Though it consisted mostly of Jews, Gentile Christians also sometimes attached themselves to it. It continued into the fourth century, but at the time of Theodoret was entirely extinct. It used a Hebrew Gospel, now lost, which was probably a corruption of the Gospel of Matthew.

The characteristic marks of Ebionism in all its forms are: degradation of Christianity to the level of Judaism; the principle of the universal and perpetual validity of the Mosaic law; and enmity to the apostle Paul. But, as there were different sects in Judaism itself, we have also to distinguish at least two branches of Ebionism, related to each other as Pharisaism and Essenism, or, to use a modern illustration, as the older deistic and the speculative pantheistic rationalism in Germany, or the practical and the speculative schools in Unitarianism.

1. The common Ebionites, who were by far the more numerous, embodied the Pharisaic legalism, and were the proper successors of the Judaizers opposed in the Epistle to the Galatians. Their doctrine may be reduced to the following propositions:

(a) Jesus is, indeed, the promised Messiah, the son of David, and the supreme lawgiver, yet a mere man, like Moses and David, sprung by natural generation from Joseph and Mary. The sense of his Messianic calling first arose in him at his baptism by John, when a higher spirit joined itself to him. Hence, Origen compared this sect to the blind man in the Gospel, who called to the Lord, without seeing him: "Thou son of David, have mercy on me."

(b) Circumcision and the observance of the whole ritual law of Moses are necessary to salvation for all men.

(c) Paul is an apostate and heretic, and all his epistles are to be discarded. The sect considered him a native heathen, who came over to Judaism in later life from impure motives.

(d) Christ is soon to come again, to introduce the glorious millennial reign of the Messiah, with the earthly Jerusalem for its seat.

2. The second class of Ebionites, starting with Essenic notions, gave their Judaism a speculative or theosophic stamp, like the errorists of the Epistle to the Colossians. They form the stepping-stone to Gnosticism. Among these belong the Elkesaites.779779    Ἐλκεσσαῖοι (Epiphanius); Ἠλχασσαί (Hippolytus); Ἑλκεσαιταί (Origen). Also Σαμψαῖοι, fromשׁמֶשֶׁ, sun.79 They arose, according to Epiphanius, in the reign of Trajan, in the regions around the Dead Sea, where the Essenes lived. Their name is derived from their supposed founder, Elxai or Elkasai, and is interpreted: "hidden power," which (according to Gieseler’s suggestion) signifies the Holy Spirit.780780    Δύναμις κεκαλλυμένη,יסַכְּ ליחֵ. Comp. the δύναμις ἄσαρκοςin the Clem. Homilies, XVII. 16. Other derivations: from Elkesi, a village in Galilee (Delitzsch); fromידַּשׁ לאֵ; from סישִׁחָכֶּלְאַ =apostatae.80 This seems to have been originally the title of a book, which pretended, like the book of Mormon, to be revealed by an angel, and was held in the highest esteem by the sect. This secret writing, according to the fragments in Origen, and in the "Philosophumena" of Hippolytus, contains the groundwork of the remarkable pseudo-Clementine system.781781    See the fragments collected in Hilgenfeld’s Nov. Test. extra Canonem receptum, III. 153-167.81 (See next section.) It is evidently of Jewish origin, represents Jerusalem as the centre of the religious world, Christ as a creature and the Lord of angels and all other creatures, the Holy Spirit as a female, enjoins circumcision as well as baptism, rejects St. Paul, and justifies the denial of faith in time of persecution. It claims to date from the third year of Trajan (101). This and the requirement of circumcision would make it considerably older than the Clementine Homilies. A copy of that book was brought to Rome from Syria by a certain Alcibiades about a.d. 222, and excited attention by announcing a new method of forgiveness of sins.

3. A similar sect are the Mandaeans, from Manda, knowledge (γνῶσις)also Sabians, i.e. Baptists (fromsâbi, to baptize, to wash), and Mughtasilah, which has the same meaning. On account of their great reverence for John the Baptist, they were called "Christians of John."782782    Johanneschristen, Chrétiens de Saint Jean.82 Their origin is uncertain. A remnant of them still exists, in Persia on the eastern banks of the Tigris. Their sacred language is an Aramaic dialect of some importance for comparative philology.783783    Mandäische Grammatik, by Th. Nöldeke. Halle, 1875.83 At present they speak Arabic and Persian. Their system is very complicated with the prevalence of the heathen element, and comes nearest to Manichaeism.784784    For further particulars see the article of Kessler in Herzog, above quoted.84



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