QUESTION:

What do you know about the Ebionites  and the Nazarenes? I know that both were a minor sect alongside Gentile Christianity and that the Ebionites denied the majority of the deity claims made about Christ. I wanted to also ask did they both believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?  Thanks.

Answer:

I am copying and pasting a couple of paragraphs on the Ebionites from my upcoming book on Church History, which will be published within the next month.   You will be able to buy it at www.ipibooks.com

Another heretical group in the first century was known to later Orthodox Christians as the Ebionites.  The name derives from a Hebrew word meaning “the poor ones.”  Unlike the Judaizers, the origin and exact nature of what this group taught is somewhat obscure.  Although their beginning was certainly in the first century, we do not have a New Testament book directed against this teaching (unlike the Judaizers and the Gnostics).  Eusebius reported that the Ebionites were descended from the Jewish Christians who fled across the Jordan River to Pella when Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.  We cannot take this as authoritative, but it is logical as this was an essentially Jewish sect of Christianity which taught the necessity of obeying the Law of Moses.  In this sense, of course, they were like the Judaizers, but they went much farther from the apostolic message.  In the words of Eusebius,  “They considered him a plain and common man and justified only by his advances in virtue.” In other words, according to Eusebius, this group denied the deity of Jesus.  They also denied the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  They demanded observance of the Sabbath, yet they worshipped Jesus on Sundays.  Eusebius’ comments are polemical in nature.  It is possible he exaggerates their teaching.  Justin Martyr described groups much like the Ebionites in his book Dialogue with Trypho. Irenaeus applied the label Ebionite to Judaizing Christians in AD 180.  The church fathers agreed that this group rejected most of the New Testament, using only a Hebrew translation of Matthew they called the Gospel of the Hebrews.

Liberal scholars have tried to create the impression that the Ebionites were a major movement which represents the original teaching of Jesus Christ more accurately than traditional, Orthodox Christianity.  Their conclusions reflect more their own anti-Christian predilections than the historical facts.  Although this Jewish sect of Christianity did create a bit of a ripple in the early church, all the evidence supports the idea that from the very beginning they were a small group.  In fact, their importance may have been exaggerated both in what they taught and their influence in order to serve as a foil against which the church fathers taught.  There is no reliable evidence that the heretical groups which came to be known as Ebionites were ever anything other than a minor Jewish sect of Christianity which tried to hold on to their Jewish identity after AD 70 when Christianity moved decisively away from its Jewish roots.

About the Nazarenes, it is more difficult to give a definition.  The fact is that all the early Christians were known as Nazarenes by their enemies.   Eventually, the Church took this derisive name as a point of pride and accepted it as a label.    It was only later–perhaps well into the second century–that a Judaizing wing of the Church was given the name Nazarenes to distinguish them from the mainstream church.   Eusebius uses this label, but it is not clear that he is making a distinction between them and the Ebionites.   Let us leave this as a vague thing, as this is where the information seems to lead us.  By the second and third century there was a small and decreasing group of Christians who held on to Jewish rites and wanted to continue to include them in their brand of Christianity.  By this time, these followers probably were NOT holding to the Ebionite belief that Jesus was just a great teacher, but only human.

John Oakes

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