Judaizing Christians who developed into a separate sect by the last quarter of the second century and had some influence on the early history of the church in Egypt.
The term “Ebion” is probably derived from the Hebrew ebyon (the poor). It is an attribute of those who serve the Lord, in contrast with him who “would not make God his refuge but trusted in the abundance of his riches” (Psalm 52:7). The Covenanters of the Dead Sea regarded themselves as the “Congregation of the Poor” who would inherit the earth (Commentary on Psalm 37 in Vermes, 1975, pp. 243-44). Among the Essenes—who, if not identical with the Covenanters, were closely allied to them and had settled near Alexandria (Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 2.18)—equality in wealth and community of property were strictly adhered to. The description of Josephus (Jewish War II.8.3), “It is impossible to find anyone amongst them exceeding others in possessions . . . ,” is that of an ideal that was to pass into Egyptian monasticism.
Jesus’ ideal as recorded in the Gospels was close to that of the Essenes and Covenanters so far as it concerned possessions. “Take no thought for the morrow,” “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), and the dispatch of the Twelve to teach the Kingdom and heal, “taking nothing for their journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money” (Luke 9:3) are entirely in harmony with those who equated the Congregation of Israel with “the Poor.” The ideal of poverty, however, was one of those that did not survive the Pauline revolution. Paul’s hearers were not to be found among the rural poor but were recruited largely from the literate congregations of the Hellenistic synagogues in the larger towns of western and southern Asia Minor and Greece.
It may well be that proponents of poverty in the sixth and seventh decades of the first century were to be found among Paul’s opponents, the “Judaizers.” That the two began to be equated is evident from a statement made by Ignatius of Antioch about 109 in his letter to the Philadelphians. Criticizing the Judaizers, he asserts, “such a man is poor of understanding as he is by name an Ebionite” (Ad Philadelphenses 6).
With the triumph of Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, the Ebionites gradually became reduced to the level of a sect. From the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, it would seem that by the end of the second century, they could be identified as those who insisted on strict Jewish rituals, including the observance of the Sabbath and circumcision for their members. They accepted one Gospel only, that of Matthew, and rejected the Pauline Epistles. They believed that Jesus was born a man by ordinary birth, but became exalted to a status greater than Moses and higher than the prophets through his outstanding virtues, because God’s angel dwelt in him. They practiced strict asceticism in their lives. In the fourth century, Epiphanius (Panarion XXX) describes the Ebionites as having their own Gospel, which seems to have been identical to that described by Origen (Homiliae in Lucam 1.1) as the “Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.”
The Ebionites’ link with Egypt apart from the Alexandrian Essenes continued but is not easy to follow. One may discern it through the numerous fragments of Matthew’s Gospel found at Oxyrhynchus and the association of those with fragments of the Gospel of Thomas (see Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1 and 654). The latter’s praise of abstinence, poverty, and the solitary life (cf. Logia 49, 69, 75) is in line with Ebionite teaching. If one accepts the Gospel of Thomas as one of the influences that contributed to Egyptian monasticism, then the Ebionites must be included among the movements that lay behind this feature of the Coptic church.
The monastic ancestry of the Coptic church extended back through Thomas to the Essenes and the ascetic movements within Judaism at the time of Jesus, and included the Ebionites among its formative influences.
- Drijvers, H. J. W. “Edessa und das jüdische Christentum.” Vigiliae Christianae 24 (1970):4-33.
- Schmidtke, A. “Zum Hebräerevangelium.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 35 (1936):24-44.
- Schoeps, H. J. Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, trans. D. R. A. Hare. Philadelphia, 1969.
- Vermes, G., ed. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, 1975.
- Waitz, H. “Neue Untersuchungen über die sogenannten jüdenchristlichen Evangelien.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 36 (1937):60-81.
H. C. FREND