The First Christians Part 2: the Ebionites

The Original Jesus and the Aeons

by Kat Kent, January 1, 2017

Christians living in the last century BCE, or during the time just before Jesus was said to have lived, had a large range of beliefs and deities. There were at least two gods of the universe, sometimes more. While many deities were claimed to have “resurrected”, this was believed to be immaterial to salvation of the masses. There were many “gospels” and writings about different belief systems in distribution throughout the world. Most followers accepted these myths as just that, gleaming from them the lessons meant to impart, but realizing that to teach those concepts, a good story had to be told, albeit highly embellished. But most prevalent was the idea that the expected messenger from God was bringing with him, secret wisdom that was to be imparted to these God/men that would allow them to get back to the heavenly realm from whence they came. These mythical stories would later be taken literally by the proto-orthodox Christian religious groups which came to life during the first century CE.

The only historical information we have about the original Jesus cults comes from their detractors. Competing cults often burnt the doctrine of other groups to discourage its dissemination. During the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, all teachings from the gnostic cults were destroyed or hidden, as was any myth that did not fit in to the Roman political ideology. Early Christian cults were particularly dangerous because of their promotion of free thinking and Gnosticism. Many of the early writings have been rediscovered or are mentioned in depth in historical documents.

Ebionites

The earliest cult of the Jesus “Christos” mentioned by early church fathers was the “Ebionites”, which formed around 30CE. Their name comes from the Hebrew word “ebyonim” meaning “the poor”. Eusebius, an early Greek historian of Christianity and one of the fathers of the Christian Church, tells us this group formed in a village called Choba, near Palestine. Formerly known as “Nazarenes”, this was a group of Jewish Christian Adoptionists. All of the very first Christians, Nazarenes, Ebionites, and Gnostic groups were adoptionists, believing Jesus to be fully human and adopted by god. Their first “Gospel of the Nazarenes” was much like what would become Matthew, minus the first two chapters concerned with the virgin birth. Their second doctrine, “Gospel of the Ebionites” was a conflation of Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some modifications, like vegetarianism, making it clear these later documents used the Ebionite doctrine as one of their models. But the Ebionites more ancient doctrine seems to have originated from “Q” or the “Qumran” sect described in the dead sea scrolls. The teaching of “The Way” coincides with the teachings of Jewish mysticism taught in the Kabbalah today.

Saint James

This would have most likely been the group Jesus actually wandered with if he existed. This group was supposed to have been led by James, Jesus brother,and Peter, a disciple. They were staunch Jews and modeled themselves after Jesus himself…what Jesus did they did. Jesus followed the Jewish law strictly, and the Ebionites were no different. Their beliefs were closer to the Jesus apostles beliefs rather than the proto-Orthodox. They believed in one god. Jesus had not been born to a virgin, and was fully human, with Mary and Joseph being his human parents. Jesus was more like a Jonah or a Solomon. They believed that Jesus was chosen as the “Messiah” (the anointed messenger) of god because he had been the most righteous man living on earth. He was adopted by God during his baptism by John. As God’s “son”, he was required to die to end sacrificial rituals and to usher in a return to the “true Jewish faith”, as prophesied in the Old Testament. This would be the last but “perfect” sacrifice, eliminating the need for all others. Because he courageously fulfilled his mission, God raised him from the dead and he was given a new “human” life and responsibility of saving the Jewish “aeons”, by bringing them the secret knowledge God had presented to him.

It was believed you had to be a Jew to be an aeon, and that one had to remain or convert to Judaism as a believer in the Jesus Messiah. But Jesus was not a mainstream Jew. He denounced the ritual of animal sacrifice, and Ebionites became vegetarians as most of the meat in Rome came from those sacrifices. He taught that one must give up all worldly possessions, and take a vow of poverty. Following the Torah, the basis of the Jewish religion, was extremely important, but the group read it in the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. (In Christianity, this doctrine would become known as the “Pentateuch”.) The Ebionites believed Jesus had restored the teachings of the prophets to a “true Jewish faith,” as compared with the teachings of orthodox Jewish groups of the time such as the Pharisees. In addition, they rejected any alterations made by men to the Torah.

The largely pagan society in Rome rejected these Christian cults, accusing them as well as the Jews, of plagiarism of old ideologies and concepts, which they considered to be superstitious and had long ago denounced. Early Church fathers were constantly being forced to defend what other Christian and pagan groups saw as a preposterous yarns and tales. Gnostic Christians, in turn, saw “orthodox” Christians as “dumb animals”.

The Ebionites seemed to have left Palestine to avoid persecution after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. They settled in Transjordan and Syria, and later spread into Asia Minor and Egypt.

Modern Ebionites

Looking at modern Christian beliefs today, there remains almost no influence of the original Jesus Christos cult. A small group of Ebionites have modernized their doctrine and keep a presence on the Internet, as well as meeting in the physical world. You can read about them more here: http://ebionite.com/.   Modern Ebionites have accepted the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic gospels into their belief system, and retain their original belief in the nature of Jesus of Nazarene. Ironic that the cult most likely to have been that of an historical Jesus, is the one modern Christians know little to nothing about, and whose teachings are no longer considered relevant.

The First Christians Part III: the Marcionites

The First Christians Part I:  the Gnostics

Sources:
“The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”, Kersey Graves, 16th edition, 2001 Adventures Unlimited Press
Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authenticity, the Teaching Company 2002,University of NC at Chapel Hill, Professor Bart D. Ehrman
The Christ Conspiracy, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Acharya S (DM Murdock), 1999
http://ebionite.com/
http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/ebionites-beliefs-2922.html
http://www.vexen.co.uk/religion/ebionites.html
The Catholica Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen
Justin. First Apology, Chapter XXVI. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight

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