A Question I Was Asked:

Who Were the Ebionites?

The Question:

Who were the Ebionites? I have heard conflicting ideas about them.

UK Apologetics Reply:

The Ebionites (Greek: Hebiwnaitoi; derived from Hebrew ebyonim, ebionim, probably meaning "the poor" or "poor ones"), is a patristic theological term referring to a Jewish Christian sect or sects that existed during the first few centuries of the Christian Era. In all probability, more than one group has been included under the "Ebionites" umbrella. A few have claimed that the Ebionites were the descendants of the Jerusalem church of the first century, but this is very far from being proven. But - for sure - these people held James (an early leader in the Jerusalem church) in high esteem. Like the Arians, this group were very soon on the outside of the established Church of the first few centuries.

Mostly these people indeed accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but insisted on the necessity of following old covenant religious law and rites. The Ebionites revered James (the brother of Jesus), but rejected Paul of Tarsus whom they considered to be an apostate preacher and teacher. It seems that this group presented themselves as another option for those Jews who struggled between accepting the New Covenant - in all its Pauline ramifications - and a continuing adherence to Judaism. This has also been called the 'continual covenant' teaching, adopting a position somewhere between the old and New covenants; without question this is heretical. Yet another term which has been applied to such groups is Galatianism, this is a reference to the judaistic heretical group which caused such headaches to Paul the Apostle and which he outlines in books such as Romans, but most especially within the Book of Galatians. That particular group accepted Christ but pointed the Galatians back to observance of the law. Paul is clear that Christ, and justification by faith, was being denied by such behaviour - read Galatians as a reminder!

Much of what we know about the Ebionites derives from the Church Fathers, who wrote polemics against this group/associated groups, which they clearly regarded as heretical Judaizers. However, very little about the Ebionite sect or sects is known with certainty. Most scholars (although not all), distinguish the Ebionites from the Nazarenes; the Nazarenes are usually viewed as true disciples of Jesus, 'Nazarene' being an early name.

Since the Ebionites were clearly a legalistic and anti-pauline group, certain modern legalistic sects and cults have claimed the group as their spiritual forefathers. The original armstrongist Worldwide Church of God certainly embraced the group. Chief armstrongist writer of the 1950s and 1960s Herman L. Hoeh wrote a booklet called 'A True History of the True Church,' which was unreliable, unsourced, unscholarly and often a little garbled. Within its pages, Hoeh, blissfully unaware of the limitations of his own learning, embraced the Ebionites as a fellow-armstrongist group (probably largely true regarding the WCG's legalism), but the error was to consider such heretical groups as part of "the true church."

Robin A. Brace. June 7th, 2012.