Nazarenes and Ebionites – and their beliefs

There is no complete agreement among scholars regarding these groups of Jewish followers of Jesus. From the Church fathers we can gather some ideas regarding their beliefs and practices. It appears that the early Jewish believers were known by both these names, but from the third century they became two distinct groups, with the Nazarenes adopting a more orthodox doctrine, but the Ebionites either adopted or retained a quite non-orthodox one.

Let’s consider some of these quotes.

The flight to Pella tradition

Keep in mind that Epiphanius wrote during the second half of the fourth century, and what he wrote reflects the belief at that time, so we should consider them as tradition rather than accurate history:

“The Nazoraean sect exists in Beroea near Coele Syria, in the Decapolis near the region of Pella, and in Bashan in the place called Cocaba, which in Hebrew is called Chochabe. That is where the sect began, when all the disciples were living in Pella after they moved from Jerusalem, since Christ told them to leave Jerusalem and withdraw because it was about to be besieged. For this reason they settled in Peraea and there, as I said, they lived. This is where the Nazoraean sect began.” (Epiphanius, Panarion 29:7:7-8)

“Their sect began after the capture of Jerusalem. For when all those who believed in Christ settled at that time for the most part in Peraea, in a city called Pella belonging to the Decapolis mentioned in the gospel, which is next to Batanaea and the land of Bashan, then they moved there and stayed..” (Epiphanius, Panarion 30:2:7)

“For when the city was about to be captured and sacked by the Romans, all the disciples were warned beforehand by an angel to remove from the city, doomed as it was to utter destruction. On migrating from it they settled at Pella, the town already indicated, across the Jordan. It is said to belong to Decapolis.” (Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures 15)

When you refer to the Nazarenes or the Ebionites you also need to specify what century you are talking about. We can see from Acts and the epistles that the early Jewish believers were referred to as Nazarenes by the Jewish leadership, and Ebionites by the Gentile Chuch, and it is only later (Origen in the 3rd century, Jerome and Epiphanius in the 4th) that two distinct groups were identified – the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes accepted the miraculous birth of Jesus, while the Ebionites rejected it. Erickson in his work “Christian Theology” mentions that the Ebionites heavily contested the virginal birth.

Some links of interest:

  1. http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/ebionites.php
  2. http://www.ancientpaths.org/APJTnazandeb.html
  3. http://www.necessaryprose.com/ebionites.htm

There is quite a lot of online information in the internet, they often contradict each other.

The Gospel of the Hebrews

These Jewish believers exclusively used their version of the gospel of Matthew called “The gospel according to the Hebrews”, probably written in Aramaic, that lacked the birth narrative. It had around 2200 lines, 300 lines less that the Greek version. It also presents a quite unorthodox theology:

Epiphanius 30.14.4
“This is because they mean that Jesus is really a man, as I said, but that Christ, who descended in the form of a dove, has entered him – as we have found already in other sects and been united with him. Christ himself is from God on high, but Jesus is the product of a man’s seed and a woman.?

Epiphanius 30.13.6
“But their Gospel begins: ‘It came to pass in the days of Herod, king of Judaea, in the high priesthood of Caiaphas, that a certain man, John by name, came baptizing with the baptism of repentance in the river Jordan, and he was said to be of the lineage of Aaron the priest, the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth; and all went out to him.’?

Epiphanius 30.14.3
“But these people have something else in mind. They falsify the genealogical tables in Matthew, and start its opening as I said with the words, ‘It came to pass in the days of Herod, king of Judaea, in the high priesthood of Caiaphas, that a certain man, John by name, came baptizing with the baptism of repentance in the river Jordan and so on.’?

Interestingly, in this gospel’s record of Jesus’ baptism God declares from heaven, “This day have I begotten thee”:

Epiphanius 30.13.7
“And after saying a number of things, it adds, ‘When the people had been baptised, Jesus came also and was baptised of John. And as he came up out of the water, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, which descended and entered into him. And (there came) a voice saying, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.’ And again: ‘This day have I begotten thee.’ And straightway a great light shone round about the place. ‘Seeing this,’ it says, John said unto him, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ And again (there came) a voice from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’?

Jesus appears to James first justifying his leadership of the Jerusalem church:

Jerome, Lives Illustrious Men, 2
“The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, ‘but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)’ and again, a little later, it says ‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.’ And immediately it is added, ‘He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, ‘my brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.’?

The doctrine of Cerinthus was similar to those of the Ebionites. The Christ spirit descended on the man Jesus in the form of a dove and left him on the cross. Read about it in this online book.

They believed that Jesus would return and rule the world for a thousand years:

“…the Ebionites … believed that Jesus, on his return, would reign for a thousand years on Earth. Here the concept of Jesus as King of the Jews (and by virtue of the priest role of the Jewish nation) spiritual King of the whole world is clear, and the Ebionites are shown to regard Jesus as the successor of David and Solomon. The thousand-year reign does not point to a concept of Jesus as a supernatural being, but reflects the common idea that human longevity in Messianic times would recover its antediluvian dimension.”

As I can see, the early Jewish believers were called both Nazarenes

Acts 24:5
“For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.

and Ebionites (“poor ones” because they became poor after selling their possessions),

Acts 2:44-45
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Galatians 2:10
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”

but by the fourth century they became two distinct groups, with the former adopting a more orthodox doctrine.

Next time we investigate other early groups or persons that held similar beliefs to the Ebionites.

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