Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday is for Ad Fontes - Ebionites

In Against Heresies 1.16.2, Irenaeus says o thte Ebionites:

"Those who are called Ebionites, then, agree that hte world was made by God; but their opinions with regard to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates they use the Gospel according to Matthew only and repudiate the apostle Paul, saying that he was apostate from the Law. As to the prophetical writings, they do their best to expound them diligently; they practice circumcision, perseere in the customs which are according to the Law an dpractice a Jewish way of life, even adoring Jerusalem as if it were the house of God."

Our knowledge of the Ebionites is fragmentary and entirely derived from heresiologies of the early church (esp. Irenaeus and Epiphanius). I for one doubt that there ever was a guy called "Ebion" who kicked the whole thing off. The Ebionites take their names from the Hebrew word for "poor". What is often touted about the Ebionites is two things: (1) They stand in a genealogical relationship with the pre-70 AD Jerusalem church, and (2) Their christology also reflects the christology of the Jerualem church which was non-divine, no virgin birth, and adoptionist, posessionist (Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit) and perhaps even angelomorphic. In which case, by the end of the second century (so it goes) the earliest christology is now deemed heretical - as argued by Dunn, Goulder, and Ludemann.

I am not convinced by that. While I think the story of the flight of Jewish Christians to Pella shortly before the Roman siege of Jerusalem is authetic (Eusebius, HE 3.5.3 [see the article on this by Craig Koester]), I doubt the existence of an apostolic line of succession from Pella to Irenaus' account of the Ebionites (Irenaeus may himself be dependent upon an updated version of Justin Martyr's Syntagma). The Ebionites may have evolved out of the post-Pella survivors, but I wouldn't necessarily say that they preserved a specific Jewish Christian line that goes back to Jerusalem of the 30s and 40s. I am far from convinced that the Jerusalem church was (1) anti-Pauline as there was a diversity of views of Paul ranging from individuals such as Peter, James, Barnabas, and John Mark; and (2) I don't see any substantial evidence of an adoptionist or possession christology in the Jerusalem church. Those that try to pin adoptionism on use of Psalms 2, 110 and Rom. 1.3-4 are, I think, barking up the wrong tree.


Unknown said...

Other than the typos in the first paragraph, which I credit Vino, I am in agreement with you. The evidence is slender at best.

jeff miller said...

There is plenty of "barking up the wrong tree" to go around in the study of earliest Christianity. I have been greatly helped by being very skeptical of the orientation and reliability of all the lesser writings...which for me leaves New Testament in great shape with the Gospels being virtually tamper proof even in translation.

Anyway, I am curious as to whether you have come across the book "Re-thinking Gnosticism" by Michael Williams in your studies?

Thanks and Blessings