The Ebionites and the Reliability of the New Testament Gospels

by Luke Wayne

The Ebionites were an ancient sect of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and savior but denied that He was God in flesh. They put great emphasis on Jewish law but claimed that Jesus had abolished the sacrifices and instituted strict vegetarianism. Many critics of biblical Christianity have claimed that the Ebionites were actually the original Jewish Christians and that the New Testament Christianity that we know is a later gentile aberration and/or an invention of the Apostle Paul. Ironically, the quotations of Ebionite writings that have come down to us point the other direction. They show that the New Testament writings, particularly the Canonical Gospels, are actually earlier than the Ebionites and are more representative of the early Christian movement.

Harmonization

The Ebionites had a "gospel account" of their own which, like the Biblical Gospels, purported to tell of the life of Jesus. Indeed, the Ebionite Gospel actually utilizes the biblical gospels as its primary sources!1  Even Bart Ehrman, an anti-Christian scholar who is not inclined to give any preferential treatment to the Biblical sources, nevertheless concedes of the Ebionite gospel that:

"It was written in Greek, and represented a kind of harmony of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke."2

In other words, the author of the Ebionite Gospel started with the Biblical Gospels and blended them together. An example of this is the narrative of Jesus' baptism. While the New Testament Gospels do not contradict each other on this story, they all word things slightly differently and give slightly different details. For example, when the voice of the Father speaks from heaven, His words are reported in the Biblical gospels as:

"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased," (Matthew 3:17).

"You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased," (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22).

Thus, the Ebionite gospel weaves the stories together so that the voice from heaven speaks more than once, saying both "This is my beloved son..." and "You are my beloved son..." at different times. Other such details are similarly combined into one longer account.3

Orthodox Christian writers of the early/mid Second Century like Justin Martyr also often harmonized quotes and stories from the biblical accounts. Tatian (one of Justin's students) produced a harmonized gospel of his own called the "Diatessaron" that also took the stories of the four biblical gospels and combined them into one narrative. Such harmonies not only testify that the New Testament gospels are the more ancient sources upon which both Ebionites and orthodox Christians relied for their information, it also shows that these Gospels already possessed a unique authority among the ancient readers and had a particular trust invested in their content. The Ebionites developed their Jesus narrative after the New Testament gospels were written and under the assumption that those gospels were basically reliable sources of information on Jesus' life and teaching.

Scholars have also argued that the so-called "Clementine Homilies," another set of ancient sectarian documents of unknown origin, may actually preserve Ebionite material.4 The author of this material used all four gospels as sources, though John less so than the Synoptics.5 If truly Ebionite, this material from the Clementine Homilies offers us yet another example of the Ebionites harmonizing and adapting the Biblical Gospels for their own ends. All of this demonstrates the New Testament Gospels to be the older and more reliable sources and the Ebionite account to be a later phenomenon.

Midrashic Expansion

There was a common practice in ancient Jewish communities to produce literary interpretations of sacred texts called Midrash that, among other things, often explained biblical texts through stories that expanded the narrative and added details, sometimes including whole new legendary episodes. Often, such Midrashic tales made their way into the loose, paraphrastic, interpretive translations known as the Targums. These were copies of the Old Testament texts, usually in Aramaic, that were meant to not only translate but to explain and bring to life the text for the common, less learned people. For example, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the actual text reads:

"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."

The Jerusalem Targums expanded this into:

"When the end had come to our father Jacob, that he should be taken up from the world, he called the twelve tribes, his sons, and gathered them round his couch. Then Jacob our father rose up, and said to them., Do you worship any idol that Terah the father of Abraham worshipped? do you worship any idol that Laban (the brother of his mother) worshipped? or worship you the God of Jacob? The twelve tribes answered together, with fullness of heart, and said, Hear now, Israel our father: The Lord our God is one Lord. Jacob responded and said, May His Great Name be blessed forever! And you shall love the instruction of the law of the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your wealth."6

The Gospel text used by the Ebionites appears to have shown this same kind of Midrashic expansion. For example, Matthew 10 records the names of the twelve apostles as they are called to preach to the towns of Israel. The Ebionite gospel expands the naming of the twelve into the following narrative:

"When He came to Capernaum He entered the house of Simon, also called Peter, and He opened His mouth to say, 'As I was passing by the lake of Tiberias I chose John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon, Andrew, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot; and I called you, Matthew, while you were sitting in the tax collector's booth, and you followed me. I want you, therefore, to be the Twelve Apostles as a witness to Israel."7

Similarly, in Matthew 12:9-10, we are told of an incident involving a man with a withered hand who was healed on the Sabbath:

"Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'—so that they might accuse Him."

Jerome preserves for us how this passage was expanded in what he calls "the gospel that the Nazareans and the Ebionites use,"8 explaining:

"...The man with the withered hand is described as a mason, who sought help in words like these: 'I was a mason who made a living with my hands; I beseech you, Jesus, restore my health so I do not have to beg for food shamefully."9

This not only provides further evidence that these Jewish Ebionites preserve a later, expanded form of the New Testament Gospels, they show that the New Testament gospels not only existed but were, in fact, already held as authoritative Scripture by the time the Ebionites came along and created their gospels. Midrashic expansions were not made for random historical sources. Midrash was explanatory expansion on authoritative texts. So, again, even the Ebionite sect actually provides us evidence that the New Testament gospels are, indeed, the older and more authoritative sources for true Christianity.

Blatant Sectarian Alteration

Finally, the Ebionite gospels display obvious alteration of the stories to fit their own doctrinal developments. For example, the Ebionites were vegetarians, and they changed the narrative to support this view. On the diet of John the Baptist, the New Testament Gospels tell us:

"Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey," (Matthew 3:4, see also Mark 1:6).

The Ebionites altered the text to say:

"And so John was baptizing, and Pharisees came to him and were baptized, as was all of Jerusalem. John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather around his waist; and his food was wild honey that tasted like manna, like a cake cooked in oil."10

They removed the locusts to make John a vegetarian. Biblical Christians have no attachment to eating locusts and had no special reason to report that John ate them other than the fact that he did. The Ebionites, however, did have an important reason to deny that John ate locusts. They altered the text to support their teaching. They did this again later in the gospel, where the New Testament says:

"Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?' And He said, 'Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, "The Teacher says, 'My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.'"' The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover," (Matthew 26:17-19).

The Ebionite gospel adds an extra clause to the conversation to bring it in line with their views. When the disciples ask where Jesus wants them to prepare the Passover, Jesus begins by sternly clarifying:

"I have no desire to eat the meat of this Passover lamb with you."11

These and other such examples lead scholars to conclude that the Ebionite gospel writer "appears to reinterpret both Jewish and Jesus traditions."12 The Ebionites are not the preservers of an original Jewish Christian faith. They are a sect that altered the Christian faith to suit their own novel doctrines.

Yet, even in doing so, they provide an additional line of evidence to us that the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament are, indeed, the older and more reliable sources on who Jesus really is and, therefore, on true Christianity. As much as certain modern critics may wish to find "real" Christianity in some lost ancient sect, the truth is that these later off-shoots all show signs of their novelty and point back to the fact that orthodox, New Testament Christianity is the true heir to Jesus' teaching. The biblical Gospels are early, authoritative, and reliable. We should accept no substitutes.

 

  • 1. Ron Cameron, The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982) 103
  • 2. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 12
  • 3. ibid, 13
  • 4. Fred Lapham, An Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha (T&T Clark International, 2003) 49
  • 5. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) 437
  • 6. See Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in Targum Neophiti and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan for variations on this tradition.
  • 7. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 13-14
  • 8. Jerome's commentary on Matthew, as quoted in Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 10
  • 9. ibid
  • 10. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 13
  • 11. ibid, 14
  • 12. Ron Cameron, The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982) 104