By this name were designated one or more early Christian sects infected with Judaistic errors.
The word Ebionites, or rather, more correctly, Ebionæans (Ebionaioi), is a transliteration of an Aramean word meaning "poor men". It first occurs in Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2, but without designation of meaning. Origen (C. Celsum, II, i; De Princ., IV, i, 22) and Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., III, xxvii) refer the name of these sectaries either to the poverty of their understanding, or to the poverty of the Law to which they clung, or to the poor opinions they held concerning Christ. This, however, is obviously not the historic origin of the name. Other writers, such as Tertullian (De Praescr., xxxiii; De Carne Chr., xiv, 18), Hippolytus (cfr. Pseudo-Tert., Adv. Haer., III, as reflecting Hippolytus's lost "Syntagma"), and Epiphanius (Haeres., xxx) derive the name of the sect from a certain Ebion, its supposed founder. Epiphanius even mentions the place of his birth, a hamlet called Cochabe in the district of Bashan, and relates that he travelled through Asia and even came to Rome. Of modern scholars Hilgenfeld has maintained the historical existence of this Ebion, mainly on the ground of some passages ascribed to Ebion by St. Jerome (Comm. in Gal., iii, 14) and by the author of a compilation of patristic texts against the Monothelites. But these passages are not likely to be genuine, and Ebion, otherwise unknown to history, is probably only an invention to account for the name Ebionites. The name may have been self-imposed by those who gladly claimed the beatitude of being poor in spirit, or who claimed to live after the pattern of the first Christians in Jerusalem, who laid their goods at the feet of the Apostles. Perhaps, however, it was first imposed by others and is to be connected with the notorious poverty of the Christians in Palestine (cf. Gal., ii, 10). Recent scholars have plausibly maintained that the term did not originally designate any heretical sect, but merely the orthodox Jewish Christians of Palestine who continued to observe the Mosaic Law. These, ceasing to be in touch with the bulk of the Christian world, would gradually have drifted away from the standard of orthodoxy and become formal heretics. A stage in this development is seen in St. Justin's "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew", chapter xlvii (about A. D. 140), where he speaks of two sects of Jewish Christians estranged from the Church: those who observe the Mosaic Law for themselves, but do not require observance thereof from others; and those who hold it of universal obligation. The latter are considered heretical by all; but with the former St. Justin would hold communion, though not all Christians would show them the same indulgence. St. Justin, however, does not use the term Ebionites, and when this term first occurs (about A. D. 175) it designates a distinctly heretical sect.
The doctrines of this sect are said by Irenaeus to be like those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They denied the Divinity and the virginal birth of Christ; they clung to the observance of the Jewish Law; they regarded St. Paul as an apostate, and used only a Gospel according to St. Matthew (Adv. Haer., I, xxvi, 2; III, xxi, 2; IV, xxxiii, 4; V, i, 3). Their doctrines are similarly described by Hippolytus (Philos., VIII, xxii, X, xviii) and Tertullian (De carne Chr., xiv, 18), but their observance of the Law seems no longer so prominent a feature of their system as in the account given by Irenaeus. Origen is the first (C. Cels., V, lxi) to mark a distinction between two classes of Ebionites, a distinction which Eusebius also gives (Hist. Eccl., III, xxvii). Some Ebionites accept, but others reject, the virginal birth of Christ, though all reject His pre-existence and His Divinity. Those who accepted the virginal birth seem to have had more exalted views concerning Christ and, besides observing the Sabbath, to have kept the Sunday as a memorial of His Resurrection. The milder sort of Ebionites were probably fewer and less important than their stricter brethren, because the denial of the virgin birth was commonly attributed to all. (Origen, Hom. in Luc., xvii) St. Epiphanius calls the more heretical section Ebionites, and the more Catholic-minded, Nazarenes. But we do not know whence St. Epiphanius obtained his information or or how far it is reliable. It is very hazardous, therefore, to maintain, as is sometimes done, that the distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.
Besides these merely Judaistic Ebionites, there existed a later Gnostic development of the same heresy. These Ebionite Gnostics differed widely from the main schools of Gnosticism, in that they absolutely rejected any distinction between Jehovah the Demiurge, and the Supreme Good God. Those who regard this distinction as essential to Gnosticism would even object to classing Ebionites as Gnostics. But on the other hand the general character of their teaching is unmistakably Gnostic. This can be gathered from the Pseudo-Clementines and may be summed up as follows: Matter is eternal, and an emanation of the Deity; nay it constitutes, as it were, God's body. Creation, therefore, is but the transformation of pre-existing material. God thus "creates" the universe by the instrumentality of His wisdom which is described as a "demiurgic hand" (cheir demiourgousa) producing the world. But this Logos, or Sophia, does not constitute a different person, as in Christian theology. Sophia produces the world by a successive evolution of syzygies, the female in each case preceding the male but being finally overcome by him. This universe is, moreover, divided into two realms, that of good and that of evil. The Son of God rules over the realm of the good, and to him is given the world to come, but the Prince of Evil is the prince of this world (cf. John, xiv, 30; Eph., i, 21; vi, 12). This Son of God is the Christ, a middle-being between God and creation, not a creature, yet not equal to, nor even to be compared with, the Father (autogenneto ou sygkrinetai -- "Hom.", xvi, 16). Adam was the bearer of the first revelation, Moses of the second, Christ of the third and perfect one. The union of Christ with Jesus is involved in obscurity. Man is saved by knowledge (gnosis), by believing in God the Teacher, and by being baptized unto remission of sins. Thus he receives knowledge and strength to observe all the precepts of the law. Christ shall come again to triumph over Antichrist as light dispels darkness. The system is Pantheism , Persian Dualism, Judaism, and Christianity fused together, and here and there reminds one of Mandaistic literature. The "Recognitions", as given us in Rufinus's translation (revision?), come nearer to Catholic teaching than do the "Homilies".
Amongst the writings of the Ebionites must be mentioned:
- Their Gospel. St. Irenaeus only states that they used the Gospel of St. Matthew. Eusebius modifies this statement by speaking of the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was known to Hegesippus (Eus., Hist. Eccl., IV, xxii, 8), Origen (Jerome, De vir., ill., ii), and Clem. Alex. (Strom., II, ix, 45). This, probably, was the slightly modified Aramaic original of St. Matthew, written in Hebrew characters. But St. Epiphanius attributes this to the Nazarenes, while the Ebionites proper only possessed an incomplete, falsified, and truncated copy thereof (Adv. Haer., xxix, 9). It is possibly identical with the Gospel of the Twelve.
- Their Apocrypha: "The Circuits of Peter" (periodoi Petrou) and Acts of the Apostles, amongst which the "Ascents of James" (anabathmoi Iakobou). The first-named books are substantially contained in the Clementine Homilies under the title of Clement's "Compendium of Peter's itinerary sermons", and also in the "Recognitions" ascribed to the same. They form an early Christian didactic novel to propagate Ebionite views, i.e. their Gnostic doctrines, the supremacy of James, their connection with Rome, and their antagonism to Simon Magus. (See CLEMENTINES.)
- The Works of Symmachus, i.e. his translation of the Old Testament (see VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE; SYMMACHUS THE EBIONITE), and his "Hypomnemata" against the canonical Gospel of St. Matthew. The latter work, which is totally lost (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xvii; Jerome, De vir. ill., liv), is probably identical with "De distinctione præceptorum", mentioned by Ebed Jesu (Assemani, Bibl. Or., III, 1).
- The book of Elchesai, or of "The Hidden power", purporting to have been written about A. D. 100 and brought to Rome about A. D. 217 by Alcibiades of Apamea. Those who accepted its doctrines and its new baptism were called Elchesaites. (Hipp., "Philos.", IX, xiv-xvii; Epiph., "Haer.", xix, 1; liii, 1.) Of the history of this sect hardly anything is known. They exerted only the slightest influence in the East and none at all in the West, where they were known as Symmachiani. In St. Epiphanius's time small communities seem still to have existed in some hamlets of Syria and Palestine, but they were lost in obscurity. Further east, in Babylonia and Persia, their influence is perhaps traceable amongst the Mandeans, and it is suggested by Uhlhorn and others that they may be brought into connection with the origin of Islam.