« Prev The Heresy of the Ebionites. Next »

Chapter XXVII.—The Heresy of the Ebionites.824824    The Ebionites were not originally heretics. Their characteristic was the more or less strict insistence upon the observance of the Jewish law; a matter of cultus, therefore, not of theology, separated them from Gentile Christians. Among the early Jewish Christians existed all shades of opinion, in regard to the relation of the law and the Gospel, from the freest recognition of the uncircumcised Gentile Christian to the bitterest insistence upon the necessity for salvation of full observance of the Jewish law by Gentile as well as by Jewish Christians. With the latter Paul himself had to contend, and as time went on, and Christianity spread more and more among the Gentiles, the breach only became wider. In the time of Justin there were two opposite tendencies among such Christians as still observed the Jewish law: some wished to impose it upon all Christians; others confined it to themselves. Upon the latter Justin looks with charity; but the former he condemns as schismatics (see Dial. c. Trypho. 47). For Justin the distinguishing mark of such schismatics is not a doctrinal heresy, but an anti-Christian principle of life. But the natural result of these Judaizing tendencies and of the involved hostility to the apostle of the Gentiles was the ever more tenacious clinging to the Jewish idea of the Messiah; and as the Church, in its strife with Gnosticism, laid an ever-increasing stress upon Christology, the difference in this respect between itself and these Jewish Christians became ever more apparent until finally left far behind by the Church in its rapid development, they were looked upon as heretics. And so in Irenæus (I. 26. 2) we find a definite heretical sect called Ebionites, whose Christology is like that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates, who reject the apostle Paul, use the Gospel of Matthew only, and still cling to the observance of the Jewish law; but the distinction which Justin draws between the milder and stricter class is no longer drawn: all are classed together in the ranks of heretics, because of their heretical Christology (cf. ibid. III. 21. 1; IV. 33. 4; V. 1. 3). In Tertullian and Hippolytus their deviation from the orthodox Christology is still more clearly emphasized, and their relation to the Jewish law drops still further into the background (cf. Hippolytus, Phil. VII. 22; X. 18; and Tertullian, De Carne Christi, 14, 18, &c.). So Origen is acquainted with the Ebionites as an heretical sect, but, with a more exact knowledge of them than was possessed by Irenæus who lived far away from their chief centre, he distinguishes two classes; but the distinction is made upon Christological lines, and is very different from that drawn by Justin. This distinction of Origen’s between those Ebionites who accepted and those who denied the supernatural birth of Christ is drawn also by Eusebius (see below, §3). Epiphanius (Hær. XXIX. sqq.) is the first to make two distinct heretical sects—the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. It has been the custom of historians to carry this distinction back into apostolic times, and to trace down to the time of Epiphanius the continuous existence of a milder party—the Nazarenes—and of a stricter party—the Ebionites; but this distinction Nitzsch (Dogmengesch. p. 37 sqq.) has shown to be entirely groundless. The division which Epiphanius makes is different from that of Justin, as well as from that of Origen and Eusebius; in fact, it is doubtful if he himself had any clear knowledge of a distinction, his reports are so contradictory. The Ebionites known to him were most pronounced heretics; but he had heard of others who were said to be less heretical, and the conclusion that they formed another sect was most natural. Jerome’s use of the two words is fluctuating; but it is clear enough that they were not looked upon by him as two distinct sects. The word “Nazarenes” was, in fact, in the beginning a general name given to the Christians of Palestine by the Jews (cf. Acts xxiv. 5), and as such synonymous with “Ebionites.” Upon the later syncretistic Ebionism, see Bk. VI. chap. 38, note 1. Upon the general subject of Ebionism, see especially Nitzsch, ibid., and Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, I. p. 226 sqq.

1. The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance 159to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.825825    The word Ebionite comes from the Hebrew אֶבְיֹון, which signifies “poor.” Different explanations more or less fanciful have been given of the reason for the use of the word in this connection. It occurs first in Irenæus (I. 26. 2), but without a definition of its meaning. Origen, who uses the term often, gives different explanations, e.g., in Contra Celsum, II. 1, he says that the Jewish converts received their name from the poverty of the law, “for Ebion signifies poor among the Jews, and those Jews who have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites.” In De Prin. IV. 1. 22, and elsewhere, he explains the name as referring to the poverty of their understanding. The explanation given by Eusebius refers to their assertion that Christ was only a common man, born by natural generation, and applied only to the first class of Ebionites, a description of whom follows. For the same name as applied to the second class (but see note 9) who accepted Christ’s supernatural birth, he gives a different reason at the end of the chapter, the same which Origen gives for the application of the name to Ebionites in general. The explanation given in this place is so far as we know original with Eusebius (something similar occurs again in Epiphanius, Hær. XXX. 17), and he shows considerable ingenuity in thus treating the name differently in the two cases. The various reasons do not of course account for the existence of the name, for most of them could have become reasons only long after the name was in use. Tertullian (De Præscr. Hær. 33, De Carne Christi, 14, 18, &c.) and Hippolytus (in his Syntagma,—as can be gathered from Pseudo-Tertullian, Adv. Hær. chap. 3, and Epiph. Hær. XXX.,—and also in his Phil. chap. 23, where he mentions Ebion incidentally) are the first to tell us of the existence of a certain Ebion from whom the sect derived its name, and Epiphanius and later writers are well acquainted with the man. But Ebion is a myth invented simply for the purpose of explaining the origin of Ebionism. The name Ebionite was probably used in Jerusalem as a designation of the Christians there, either applied to them by their enemies as a term of ridicule on account of their poverty in worldly goods, or, what is more probable, assumed by themselves as a term of honor,—“the poor in spirit,”—or (as Epiphanius, XXX. 17, says the Ebionites of his day claimed) on account of their voluntarily taking poverty upon themselves by laying their goods at the feet of the apostles. But, however the name originated, it became soon, as Christianity spread outside of Palestine, the special designation of Jewish Christians as such, and thus when they began to be looked upon as heretical, it became the name of the sect.

2. For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.826826    ὡς μὴ ἂν διὰ μόνης τῆς εἰς τὸν χριστὸν πίστεως καὶ τοῦ κατ᾽ αὐτὴν βίου σωθησομένοις. The addition of the last clause reveals the difference between the doctrine of Eusebius’ time and the doctrine of Paul. Not until the Reformation was Paul understood and the true formula, διὰ μόνης τῆς εἰς τὸν χριστὸν πίστεως, restored.

3. There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name,827827    Eusebius clearly knew of no distinction in name between these two classes of Ebionites such as is commonly made between Nazarenes and Ebionites,—nor did Origen, whom he follows (see note 1, above). but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed,828828    That there were two different views among the Ebionites as to the birth of Christ is stated frequently by Origen (cf. e.g. Contra Cels. V. 61), but there was unanimity in the denial of his pre-existence and essential divinity, and this constituted the essence of the heresy in the eyes of the Fathers from Irenæus on. Irenæus, as remarked above (note 1), knows of no such difference as Eusebius here mentions: and that the denial of the supernatural birth even in the time of Origen was in fact ordinarily attributed to the Ebionites in general, without a distinction of the two classes, is seen by Origen’s words in his Hom. in Luc. XVII. being God, Word, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavored to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.829829    There seems to have been no difference between these two classes in regard to their relation to the law; the distinction made by Justin is no longer noticed.

4. These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law;830830    This is mentioned by Irenæus (I. 26. 2) and by Origen (Cont. Cels. V. 65 and Hom. in Jer. XVIII. 12). It was a general characteristic of the sect of the Ebionites as known to the Fathers, from the time of Origen on, and but a continuation of the enmity to Paul shown by the Judaizers during his lifetime. But their relations to Paul and to the Jewish law fell more and more into the background, as remarked above, as their Christological heresy came into greater prominence over against the developed Christology of the Catholic Church (cf. e.g. the accounts of Tertullian and of Hippolytus with that of Irenæus).
   The “these” (οὗτοι δὲ) here would seem to refer only to the second class of Ebionites; but we know from the very nature of the case, as well as from the accounts of others, that this conduct was true as well of the first, and Eusebius, although he may have been referring only to the second, cannot have intended to exclude the first class in making the statement.
and they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews831831    Eusebius is the first to tell us that the Ebionites used the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Irenæus (Adv. Hær. I. 26. 2, III. 11. 7) says that they used the Gospel of Matthew, and the fact that he mentions no difference between it and the canonical Matthew shows that, so far as he knew, they were the same. But according to Eusebius, Jerome, and Epiphanius the Gospel according to the Hebrews was used by the Ebionites, and, as seen above (chap. 25, note 18), this Gospel cannot have been identical with the canonical Matthew. Either, therefore, the Gospel used by the Ebionites in the time of Irenæus, and called by him simply the Gospel of Matthew, was something different from the canonical Matthew, or else the Ebionites had given up the Gospel of Matthew for another and a different gospel (for the Gospel of the Hebrews cannot have been an outgrowth of the canonical Matthew, as has been already seen, chap. 25, note 24). The former is much more probable, and the difficulty may be most simply explained by supposing that the Gospel according to the Hebrews is identical with the so-called Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (see chap. 24, note 5), or at least that it passed among the earliest Jewish Christians under Matthew’s name, and that Irenæus, who was personally acquainted with the sect, simply hearing that they used a Gospel of Matthew, naturally supposed it to be identical with the canonical Gospel. In the time of Jerome a Hebrew “Gospel according to the Hebrews” was used by the “Nazarenes and Ebionites” as the Gospel of Matthew (cf. in Matt. XII. 13; Contra Pelag. III. 2). Jerome refrains from expressing his own judgment as to its authorship, but that he did not consider it in its existing form identical with the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is clear from his words in de vir. ill. chap. 3, taken in connection with the fact that he himself translated it into Greek and Latin, as he states in chap. 2. Epiphanius (Hær. XXIX. 9) says that the Nazarenes still preserved the original Hebrew Matthew in full, while the Ebionites (XXX. 13) had a Gospel of Matthew “not complete, but spurious and mutilated”; and elsewhere (XXX. 3) he says that the Ebionites used the Gospel of Matthew and called it the “Gospel according to the Hebrews.” It is thus evident that he meant to distinguish the Gospel of the Ebionites from that of the Nazarenes, i.e. the Gospel according to the Hebrews from the original Hebrew Matthew. So, likewise. Eusebius’ treatment of the Gospel according to the Hebrews and of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew clearly indicates that he considered them two different gospels (cf. e.g. his mention of the former in chap. 25 and in Bk. IV. chap. 22, and his mention of the latter in chap. 24, and in Bk. IV. chap. 10). Of course he knew that the former was not identical with the canonical Matthew, and hence, naturally supposing that the Hebrew Matthew agreed with the canonical Matthew, he could not do otherwise than make a distinction between the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Hebrew Matthew, and he must therefore make the change which he did in Irenæus’ statement in mentioning the Gospel used by the Ebionites, as he knew them. Moreover, as we learn from Bk. VI. chap. 17, the Ebionite Symmachus had written against the Gospel of Matthew (of course the canonical Gospel), and this fact would only confirm Eusebius in his opinion that Irenæus was mistaken, and that the Ebionites did not use the Gospel of Matthew.
   But none of these facts militate against the assumption that the Gospel of the Hebrews in its original form was identical with the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, or at least passed originally under his name among Jewish Christians. For it is by no means certain that the original Hebrew Matthew agreed with the canonical Matthew, and, therefore, lack of resemblance between the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the canonical Matthew is no argument against its identity with the Hebrew Matthew. Moreover, it is quite conceivable that, in the course of time, the original Gospel according to the Hebrews underwent alterations, especially since it was in the hands of a sect which was growing constantly more heretical, and that, therefore, its resemblance to the canonical Matthew may have been even less in the time of Eusebius and Jerome than at the beginning. It is possible that the Gospel of Matthew, which Jerome claims to have seen in the library at Cæsarea (de vir. ill. chap. 3), may have been an earlier, and hence less corrupt, copy of the Gospel according to the Hebrews.

   Since the writing of this note, Handmann’s work on the Gospel according to the Hebrews (Das Hebräer-Evangelium, von Rudolf Handmann. Von Gebhardt and Harnack’s Texte und Untersuchungen, Bd. V. Heft 3) has come into my hands, and I find that he denies that that Gospel is to be in any way identified with the traditional Hebrew Matthew, or that it bore the name of Matthew. The reasons which he gives, however, are practically the same as those referred to in this note, and, as already shown, do not prove that the two were not originally identical. Handmann holds that the Gospel among the Jewish Christians was called simply “the Gospel,” or some general name of the kind, and that it received from others the name “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” because it was used by them. This may well be, but does not militate at all against the existence of a tradition among the Jewish Christians that Matthew was the author of their only gospel. Handmann makes the Gospel according to the Hebrews a second independent source of the Synoptic Gospels alongside of the “Ur-Marcus,” (a theory which, if accepted, would go far to establish its identity with the Hebrew Matthew), and even goes so far as to suggest that it is to be identified with the λόγια of Papias (cf. the writer’s notice of Handmann’s book, in the Presbyterian Review, July, 1889). For the literature on this Gospel, see chap. 25, note 24. I find that Resch in his Agrapha emphasizes the apocryphal character of the Gospel in its original form, and makes it later than and in part dependent upon our Matthew, but I am unable to agree with him.
and made small account of the rest.

5. The Sabbath and the rest of the discipline of the Jews they observed just like them, but at the same time, like us, they celebrated the Lord’s days as a memorial of the 160resurrection of the Saviour.832832    The question again arises whether Eusebius is referring here to the second class of Ebionites only, and is contrasting their conduct in regard to Sabbath observance with that of the first class, or whether he refers to all Ebionites, and contrasts them with the Jews. The subject remains the same as in the previous sentence; but the persons referred to are contrasted with ἐκεῖνοι, whom they resemble in their observance of the Jewish Sabbath, but from whom they differ in their observance of the Lord’s day. The most natural interpretation of the Greek is that which makes the οὗτοι δὲ refer to the second class of Ebionites, and the ἐκεῖνοι to the first; and yet we hear from no one else of two sharply defined classes separated by religious customs, in addition to doctrinal opinions, and it is not likely that they existed. If this interpretation, however, seems necessary, we may conclude that some of them observed the Lord’s day, while others did not, and that Eusebius naturally identified the former with the more, and the latter with the less, orthodox class, without any especial information upon the subject. It is easier, too, to explain Eusebius’ suggestion of a second derivation for the name of Ebionite, if we assume that he is distinguishing here between the two classes. Having given above a reason for calling the first class by that name, he now gives the reason for calling the second class by the same.

6. Wherefore, in consequence of such a course they received the name of Ebionites, which signified the poverty of their understanding. For this is the name by which a poor man is called among the Hebrews.833833    See note 2.

« Prev The Heresy of the Ebionites. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection