Ebionites a sect of Judaizing Christians who received the doctrines of the Gospel very partially, and denied the divine nature of Christ. They do not appear to have been at any time numerous, and it is doubtful whether they ever obtained such consistency as to have a definite creed.
1. The Name. — The name is derived from the Hebrew אֶביוֹן, poor. This term was anciently applied in derision to Christians in general (Epiphanius, adv. Haer. 29:1), and came later to designate Jewish Christians (Origen, cont. Celsum, 2:1). First (Lexicon, s.v.) makes the derivation refer to Mt 5:3 making "Ebionites" equivalent to "oppressed pious exiles" (Isa 25:4). Eusebius (Hist. Ecclesiastes in, 27) fancifully derives the name from "the poverty and meanness of the Elbionite doctrine concerning Christ." Tertullian (De Praescrip. Haeret. c. 33) derives it from a founder, Edion, who maintained the authority of the Jewish law, and rejected the miraculous conception and divine nature of spirit. The derivation first above given is now generally adopted.
2. History. — Dorner (Person of Christ, Edinb. translated 1:189 sq.) traces the Ebionitish tendency as far back as the Epistle to the Hebrews. "From that zeal for the law with which Paul had to contend, the Judaizing spirit was led not at first to impeach the Christology, but rather the Soteriology, or the work of Christ. But the consequence of the legal stand-point soon showed itself. The party which the Epistle to the Hebrews had in view must have over-estimated the law of the O.T. regarding holy times, places, acts, and persons alike, and have been wanting in the Christian knowledge which knows how to secure to the O.T. its abiding significancy, which it has as a divine institute without imperiling the newness and conclusive completeness of Christianity." Epiphanius traces the origin of Ebionitism to the Christians who fled to Pella after the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 66 (adv. Hoer. 29:1). According to Hegesippus (Hist. Ecclesiastes 4:22), one Thebutis, at Jerusalem, about the beginning of the second century, "began to corrupt the Church secretly on account of his not being made a bishop." "We find the sect of the Ebionites in Palestine and the surrounding regions, on the island of Cyprus, in Asia Minor, and even in Rome. Though it consisted mostly of Jews, Gentile Christians also sometimes attached themselves to it. It continued into the fourth century, but at the time of Theodoret was entirely extinct. It used a Hebrew Gospel, now lost, which was probably a corruption of the Gospel of Matthew" (Schaff, Church History, 1, § 68, page 214).
3. Doctrines. — Dr. Schaff sharply distinguishes Ebionism from Gnosticism as follows: "Ebionism is a Judaizing, pseudo-Petrine Christianity, or a Christianizing Judaism; Gnosticism is a paganizing or pseudo-Pauline Christianity, or a pseudo-Christian heathenism. The former is a particularistic contraction of the Christian religion; the latter a vague expansion of it" (Church History, § 67). According to the same writer, "the characteristic marks of Ebionism in all its forms are, degradation of Christianity to the level of Judaism, the principle of the universal and perpetual validity of the Mosaic law, and enmity to the apostle Paul. But, as there were different sects in Judaism itself, we have also to distinguish at least two branches of Ebionism, related to each other, as Pharisaism and Essenism, or, to use a modern illustration, as the older deistic and the speculative pantheistic rationalism in Germany, or the two schools of Unitarianism in England and America.
1. The common Ebionites, who were by far the more numerous, embodied the Pharisaic legal spirit, and were the proper successors of the Judaizers opposed in the epistle to the Galatians. Their doctrine may be reduced to the following propositions:
(a.) Jesus is, indeed, the promised Messiah, the son of David, and the supreme lawgiver, yet a mere man, like Moses and David, sprung by natural generation from Joseph and Mary. The sense of his Messianic calling first arose in him at his baptism by John, when a higher spirit joined itself to him. Hence Origen compared this sect to the blind man in the Gospel who called to the Lord without seeing him, 'Thou son of David, have mercy on me!'
(b.) Circumcision and the observance of the whole ritual law of Moses are necessary to salvation for all men.
(c.) Paul is an apostate and heretic, and all his epistles are to be discarded. The sect considered him a native heathen, who came over to Judaism in later life from impure motives.
(d.) Christ is soon to come again to introduce the glorious millennial reign of the Messiah, with the earthly Jerusalem for its seat.
2. The second class of Ebionites, starting with Essenic notions, gave their Judaism a speculative or theosophic stamp, like the errorists of the Epistle to the Colossians. They form the stepping-stone to Gnosticism.
Among these belong the Elkesaites" (Schaff, Ch. Hist. 1, § 68, 214 sq.). The pseudo-Clementine homilies teach a speculative form of Ebionism, essentially Judaizing in spirit and aim [ SEE CLEMENTINES, 2, page 383]; and compare Schaff, Ch. History, 1, § 69; Dorner, Person of Christ, Edinb. transl., page 203 sq.).
4. Ebionism has reappeared, since the Reformation, in Socinianism (q.v.), and in the other forms of what is called Unitarianism (q.v.). Some Unitarian writers have undertaken to show that Ebionism was the original form of Christian doctrine, and that the Church doctrine as to the person of Christ was a later development; so Priestley, in his History of the Corruptions of Christianity (Birmingham, 1782). Bishop Horsley replied to Priestley in his Charge to the Clergy of St. Albans (1783), and in other tracts, collected in Tracts in Controversy with Dr. Priestley (Dundee, 1812, 3d ed.). Horsley, in this controversy, made use of Bull's learned treatment of the subject in his reply to Zwicker (see Bull, On the Trinity, Oxford, 1855, 3 vols.: 1:116; 2:376; 3:175 et al. See also Waterland, Works, Oxf. 1843, 6 vols.: 3:554 sq.). A far abler advocate of the Socinian view is Baur, in his Christenthum d. drei erstess Jahrhunderte; Lehre v.d. Dreieinigkeit Gottes; Dogmengeschichte, etc. Baur's position is clearly stated, and refuted by professor Fisher (Am. Presb. and Theolog. Rev. October 1864, art. 1). "Baur agrees with the old Socinians in the statement that the Jewish Christianity of the apostolic age was Ebionite. But, unlike them, he holds that we find within the canon a great departure from, and advance upon, this humanitarian doctrine of Christ's person. He professes to discover in the New Testament the consecutive stages of a progress which, beginning with the Unitarian creed terminates in the doctrine of Christ's proper divinity. There occurred at the end, or before the end, of the apostolic age, a reaction of the Jewish Christianity, which with Baur is identical with the Judaizing or Ebionite element; and this type of Christianity prevailed through the larger part of the second century." (See Fisher, 1. c., for a criticism of this view, and for a brief but luminous sketch of Ebionism. On the other side, see N. Amer. Rev. April, 1864, page 569 sq.).
Literature. — See, besides the works already cited, Irenaeus, Har. 1:26 (Ante-Nicene Library, verse 97); Gieseler, Ueber die Nazarder und Ebioniten, in Archiv fur A.&N. Kircheng., 4:279 sq. (Leipsig, 1820); Mosheim, Comnmentaries, 1:220, 400; Neander, Church Hist. 1:344; 350; Schliemann, Die Clementinen (Hamb. 1844), page 362 sq.; Herzog, Real- Esacyklopadie, 3:621 sq.; Martensen, Dogmatics (Edinburgh, 1866), § 128; Shedd, History of Doctrines, 1:106 sq.; Burton, Ecclesiastes History, Lect. 11; Burton, Bampton Lectures (Oxford, 1829), notes 73-84.