1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ebionites

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EBIONITES (Heb. אביונם, “poor men”), a name given to the ultra-Jewish party in the early Christian church. It is first met with in Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. i. 26. 2), who sheds no light on the origin of the Ebionites, but says that while they admit the world to have been made by the true God (in contrast to the Demiurge of the Gnostics), they held Cerinthian views on the person of Christ, used only the Gospel of Matthew (probably the Gospel according to the Hebrews—so Eusebius), and rejected Paul as an apostate from the Mosaic Law, to the customs and ordinances of which, including circumcision, they steadily adhered. A similar account is given by Hippolytus (Haer. vii. 35), who invents a founder named Ebion. Origen (Contra Celsum, v. 61; In Matt. tom. xvi. 12) divides the Ebionites into two classes according to their acceptance or rejection of the virgin birth of Jesus, but says that all alike reject the Pauline epistles. This is confirmed by Eusebius, who adds that even those who admitted the virgin birth did not accept the pre-existence of Jesus as Logos and Sophia. They kept both the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord’s day, and held extreme millenarian ideas in which Jerusalem figured as the centre of the coming Messianic kingdom. Epiphanius with his customary confusion makes two separate sects, Ebionites and Nazarenes. Both names, however, refer to the same people[1] (the Jewish Christians of Syria), the latter going back to the designation of apostolic times (Acts xxiv. 5), and the former being the term usually applied to them in the ecclesiastical literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The origin of the Nazarenes or Ebionites as a distinct sect is very obscure, but may be dated with much likelihood from the edict of Hadrian which in 135 finally scattered the old church of Jerusalem. While Christians of the type of Aristo of Pella and Hegesippus, on the snapping of the old ties, were gradually assimilated to the great church outside, the more conservative section became more and more isolated and exclusive. “It may have been then that they called themselves the Poor Men, probably as claiming to be the true representatives of those who had been blessed in the Sermon on the Mount, but possibly adding to the name other associations.” Out of touch with the main stream of the church they developed a new kind of pharisaism. Doctrinally they stood not so much for a theology as for a refusal of theology, and, rejecting the practical liberalism of Paul, became the natural heirs of those early Judaizers who had caused the apostle so much annoyance and trouble.

Though there is insufficient justification for dividing the Ebionites into two separate and distinct communities, labelled respectively Ebionites and Nazarenes, we have good evidence, not only that there were grades of Christological thought among them, but that a considerable section, at the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd, exchanged their simple Judaistic creed for a strange blend of Essenism and Christianity. These are known as the Helxaites or Elchasaites, for they accepted as a revelation the “book of Elchasai,” and one Alcibiades of Apamea undertook a mission to Rome about 220 to propagate its teaching. It was claimed that Christ, as an angel 96 miles high, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, as a female angel of the same stature, had given the revelation to Elchasai in the 3rd year of Trajan (A.D. 100), but the book was probably quite new in Alcibiades’ time. It taught that Christ was an angel born of human parents, and had appeared both before (e.g. in Adam and Moses) and after this birth in Judea. His coming did not annul the Law, for he was merely a prophet and teacher; Paul was wrong and circumcision still necessary. Baptism must be repeated as a means of purification from sin, and proof against disease; the sinner immerses himself “in the name of the mighty and most high God,” invoking the “seven witnesses” (sky, water, the holy spirits, the angels of prayer, oil, salt and earth), and pledging himself to amendment. Abstinence from flesh was also enjoined, and a good deal of astrological fancy was interwoven with the doctrinal and practical teaching. It is highly probable, too, that from these Essene Ebionites there issued the fantastical and widely read “Clementine” literature (Homilies and Recognitions) of the 3rd century. Ebionite views lingered especially in the country east of the Jordan until they were absorbed by Islam in the 7th century.

In addition to the literature cited see R. C. Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation, part iii. § ii.; W. Moeller, Hist. of the Christian Church, i. 99; art. in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie, s.v. “Ebioniten”; also Clementine Literature.



  1. So A. Harnack, Hist. of Dogma, i. 301, and F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity, p. 199. Th. Zahn and J. B. Lightfoot (“St. Paul and the Three,” in Commentary on Galatians) maintain the distinction.