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Major Jewish-Christian Sects

Early Christianity
1012 Lecture 4
Original Date
June 19, 2010

The Ebionites

The Evionites / Ebionites – The Ebionites (Greek: Ebionaioi from Hebrew Evyonim) were an early Jewish Christian sect that lived in and around Judea and Palestine from the 1st to the 4th century.

The term Ebionites derives from the Hebrew Evyonim, meaning “the Poor Ones”, which has parallels in the Psalms and the self-given term of pious Jewish circles. The term “the poor” was at first a common designation for all Christians – a reference to their material as well their religious poverty. Following schisms within the early Church, the graecized Hebrew term “Ebionite” was applied exclusively to Jewish Christians separated from the developing Pauline Christianity, and later in the fourth century a specific group of Jewish Christians or to a Jewish Christian sect distinct from the Nazarenes. All the while, the designation “the Poor” in other languages was still used in its original, more general sense. Origen says “for Ebion signifies “poor” among the Jews, and those Jews who have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites.” Tertullian inaccurately derived the name from a fictional heresiarch called Ebion.

The divergent application of “Ebionite” persists today, as some authors choose to label all Jewish Christians, even before the mentioned schism, as Ebionites , while others, though agreeing about the historical events, use it in a more restricted sense. Mainstream scholarship commonly uses the term in the restricted sense.

To throw light on the views, practices and history of the Ebionites, modern scholars attempt to reconstruct information from the available sources. Much of what is known about the Ebionites derives from the Church Fathers, who wrote polemics against the Ebionites, whom they deemed heretical Judaizers.  Some scholars agree with the substance of the traditional portrayal as an offshoot of mainstream Christianity attempting to reestablish Jewish Law. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Ebionite movement may have arisen about the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE). Others have argued that the Ebionites were more faithful to the authentic teachings of Jesus and constituted the mainstream of the Jerusalem church before being gradually marginalized by the followers of Paul of Tarsus. -

In contrast to mainstream Christianity, the Ebionites insisted on a universal necessity of following Jewish religious law and rites, which they interpreted in light of Jesus’ expounding of the Law. They regarded Jesus as a mortal human messianic prophet but not as divine, revered his brother James as the head of the Jerusalem Church and rejected Paul of Tarsus as an “apostate of the Law”. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on religious poverty. Some scholars distinguish the Ebionites from other Jewish Christian groups, e.g. the Nazarenes, while others believe the two names refer to the same sect and that noted disagreements among Jewish Christians do not correspond with these names. Still others contend that the term was not used to describe a single group at all, but rather denoted any group of Christians of that time who sought to adhere both to Jesus and the Jewish law.

They were led by Simeon of Jerusalem (d. 107) and during the Second Jewish-Roman War, they were persecuted by the Jewish followers of Bar Kochba for refusing to recognize his messianic claims.

According to these scholars, it was beyond the Jordan, that the Nazarenes/Ebionites were first recognized as a distinct group when some Jewish Christians receded farther from mainstream Christianity, and approximated more and more closely to Rabbinical Judaism, resulting in a “degeneration” into an exclusively Jewish sect.

After the end of the First Jewish-Roman War, the importance of the Jerusalem church began to fade.

Without authenticated archaeological evidence, attempts to reconstruct their history have been based on textual references, mainly the writings of the Church Fathers. The earliest reference to a group that might fit the description of the Ebionites appears in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (c. 140). Justin distinguishes between Jewish Christians who observe the Law of Moses but does not require its observance upon others, and those who believe the Mosaic Law to be obligatory on all. Irenaeus (c. 180) was the first to use the term “Ebionites” to describe a heretical judaizing sect, which he regarded as stubbornly clinging to the Law. Origen (c. 212) remarks that the name derives from the Hebrew word “evyon,” meaning “poor.” Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century gives the most complete but also questionable account in his heresiology called Panarion, denouncing eighty heretical sects, among them the Ebionites. Epiphanius mostly gives general descriptions of their religious beliefs and includes quotations from their gospels, which have not survived.

As the Ebionites are first mentioned as such in the 2nd century, their earlier history and their relation to the first Jerusalem church remains obscure and a matter of contention. Many scholars link the origin of the Ebionites with the First Jewish-Roman War. Prior to this, they are considered to be part of the Jerusalem church led by the Apostle Peter and later by Jesus’ brother James. Eusebius relates a tradition, probably based on Aristo of Pella, that the early Christians left Jerusalem just prior to the war and fled to Pella beyond the Jordan River.

Jewish Christianity became dispersed throughout the Jewish Diaspora in the Levant, where it was slowly eclipsed by gentile Christianity, which then spread throughout the Roman Empire without competition from “judaizing” Christian groups. Once the Jerusalem church, still headed by Jesus’ relatives, was eliminated during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, the Ebionites gradually lost influence and followers. According to one writer their decline was due to marginalization and “persecution” by both Jews and Christians.

Following the defeat of the rebellion and the expulsion of all Jews from Judea, Jerusalem became the Gentile city of Aelia Capitolina. Many of the Jewish Christians residing at Pella renounced their Jewish practices at this time and joined to the mainstream Christian church. Those who remained at Pella and continued in obedience to the Law were deemed heretics . In 375, Epiphanius records the settlement of Ebionites on Cyprus, but by the mid-5th century, Theodoret of Cyrrhus reported that they were no longer present in the region. Some scholars argue that the Ebionites survived much longer and identify them with a sect encountered by the historian Abd al-Jabbar around the year 1000.

Another possible reference to surviving Ebionite communities in northwestern Arabia, specifically the cities of Tayma and Tilmas, around the 11th century, appears in Sefer Ha’masaot, the “Book of the Travels” of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from Spain .

12th century Muslim historian Muhammad al-Shahrastani mentions Jews living in nearby Medina and Hejaz who accepted Jesus as a prophetic figure and followed traditional Judaism, rejecting mainstream Christian views.

Some scholars argue that they contributed to the development of the Islamic view of Jesus due to exchanges of Ebionite remnants with the first Muslims.

The Elkasites

The Elkasites also Helkesaites, Elchasai or Echasaites were an ancient Jewish-Christian sect, a subgroup of the Ebionites, in Sassanid southern Mesopotamia. Some early scholars differentiate Ebionites from Essenic Ebionite-Elchasites. They are discussed by Epiphanius and in pseudo-Clementine literature.

Hippolytus of Rome tells us that under Pope Callixtus I (217-222) a cunning individual called Alcibiades, a native of Apamea in Syria, came to Rome, bringing a book which he said had been received from Parthia by a just man named Elchasai . The contents of the book had been revealed by an angel ninety-six miles high, sixteen miles broad and twenty-four across the shoulders, whose footprints were fourteen miles (21 km) long and four miles (6 km) wide by two miles deep. This was the Son of God, who was accompanied by His Sister, the Holy Ghost, of the same dimensions. Alcibiades announced that a new remission of sins had been proclaimed in the third year of Trajan (100 CE), and he described a baptism which should impart this forgiveness even to the grossest sinners.

Adolf von Harnack makes him say “was proclaimed” instead of “has been proclaimed” (as if eúaggelisthênai and not eúeggelísthai), and thus infers that a special year of remission is spoken of as past once for all–that Alcibiades had no reason for inventing this, so that Hilgenfeld was right in holding that Elchasai really lived under Trajan, as Epiphanius supposed. Putting aside this claim of Harnack’s (and also his earlier conjecture that the remission in the third year of Trajan meant that the first two books of the Pastor of Hermas were published in that year), we see that the remission offered is by the new baptism.  Hippolytus represents this doctrine as an improvement invented by Alcibiades on the lax teaching of his enemy Pope Callixtus I (Hippolytus is often considered the first Antipope). He seems to regard Alcibiades as the author of the book.

Origen, writing somewhat later (c. 246-9), says the heresy was quite new; he seems to have met Alcibiades, though he does not give his name. Lacking a reason to dissent from these contemporary witnesses we must place the first appearance of the book of Elchasai circa 220. A century and a half later, St. Epiphanius found it in use among the Sampsæans, descendants of the earlier Elcesaites, and also among the Ossæns and many other Ebionite communities. The Fihrist of Al-Nadim, an Arabic writer, c. 987, found Mogtasilah, a sect of Sabians in the desert who counted El-’Hasai’h as their founder.

According to Hippolytus, the teaching of Alcibiades was borrowed from various heresies. He taught circumcision, that Christ was a man like others, that he had many times been born on earth of a virgin, that he devoted himself to astrology, magic and incantations. For all sins of impurity, even against nature, a second baptism is enjoined “in the name of the great and most high God and in the name of His Son the great King”, with an adjuration of the seven witnesses written in the book, sky, water, the holy spirits, the Angels of prayer, oil, salt and earth. One who has been bitten by a mad dog is to run to the nearest water and jump in with all his clothes on, using the foregoing formula, and promising the seven witnesses that he will abstain from sin. The same treatment–forty days consecutively of baptism in cold water–is recommended for consumption and for the possessed. Other Ebionites in Epiphanius’s time practiced this treatment.

The Nasoraeans

The Nasoraeans – The Notzrim, also Nasaraioi/Nasoraean, (from Hebrew Notsrim or Notzrim “sentry” or “watchmen” (those who “keep safe” the original teachings), are a sect that began as a Gnostic movement during the reign of the Hasmonean queen Alexandra Helene Salome among Hellenized supporters of Rome in Judea . They were named after fallen angels led by Shemyaza mentioned in the Book of Jubilees. Pliny the Elder indicates that ????????? lived not far from Apamea, in Syria in a city called Bambyx, Hierapolis or Mabog. Dubourg dates Pliny’s source between 30 and 20 BCE and, accounting for the lapse of time required for the installation in Syria of a sect born in Palestine, suggests the presence of a Nasoraean current around 50 BC.

They are sometimes identified as the group called “Nazorei” by Filaster, and were certainly one of the earliest key Gnostic sects. These days the term is most commonly used to refer to various sects of messianic Jews. Many of the original Nasoraeans became Christians.

It appears that the ????????? were originally composed at least partly of Jews (Israeli-Samaritans) beginning long before the Christian Era, whose anti-Torah teachings may have had some Gnostic leanings. The sect was apparently centered in the areas of Coele-Syria, Galilee and Samaria (essentially corresponding to the long-defunct state of Northern Israel).

The Orthodox Church Father Epiphanius writes: “there were Nasoraeans amongst the Jews before the time of Christ.”  They were said to have rejected temple sacrifice and the Torah, but adhered to other Jewish practice. They are described as being vegetarian. Epiphanius says it was unlawful for them to eat meat or make sacrifices. According to him they were Jews only by nationality who lived in Gilead, Bashan, and the Transjordan. They revered Moses but, unlike the pro-Torah Nazoraeans, believed he had received different laws from those accredited to him.

They are considered Minim (heretics) by the Pharisee-derived Rabbinic Judaism in the Mishnah. They were members of a non-priestly congregation that counted Jeremiah as an early leader five centuries before. Key teachings are that sacrifices were created by the priesthood to feed the Priests, and are not in accord with God’s Law. E. S. Drower surmises that the Nasoraean hatred for Jews originated during a period in which they were in close contact with orthodox Jewry, and when the latter was able to exercise authority over them .

The Notzri movement was particularly popular with the Samaritans. While the Pharisees were waiting for a messiah who would be a descendant of David, the Samaritan messiah would restore the northern kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans emphasized their partial descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and thereby from the Joseph of the Torah. They considered themselves the B’nei Yoseph (i.e. “sons of Joseph”).

The Mandaeans, who consider themselves successors of the pre-Christian Notzrim, claim John the Baptist as a member (and onetime leader) of their sect; the River Jordan is a central feature of their doctrine of baptism . The term Mandaii itself may be the Aramaic/Mandaean equivalent of the Greek gnosis (“knowledge”). Besides the Mandaeans, they have frequently been connected with groups known as Naaseni, Naasenians, Naassenes.

Drower asserts that the Church Fathers Hippolytus and Eusebius describe Simon Magus, the Samaritan sorcerer of biblical fame (Acts 8:9ff), as a Nasoraean and a disciple of John the Baptist . The author of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies (Bk. II, xxiii-xxiv), also describes Simon Magus as a disciple of John the Baptist and a Nasoraean. The Homilies also state that the immediate successor to John was another Samaritan named Dositheus, elected as leader because Simon happened to be in Egypt at the time of the martyrdom of the Baptist. Homily (Bk II, xxiv) recounts that when Simon returned from Egypt, the two quarreled: Simon’s authority was proved by miracles; thus Dositheus ceded his position as head of the sect and became Simon’s pupil .

As a result of efforts to bring the sect back into the folds of Judaism they also disparaged the Christian books as fiction, regarding Jesus as the literary invention (mšiha kdaba) of Paul of Tarsus, but eventually they emerged towards the end of the 1st century as the Mandaeans though others actually managed to shape the anti-Torah development of Pauline Christianity like Marcionism.

In Hebrew, the word “Notzrim” (??????) refers to all Christians, evidently a survival of the time when the Notzrim in the strict sense were the Christians with whom Jews were in most contact.