EBIONITES (from = "the poor"):
By: Kaufmann Kohler
Sect of Judæo-Christians of the second to the fourth century. They believed in the Messianic character of Jesus, but denied his divinity and supernatural origin; observed all the Jewish rites, such as circumcision and the seventh-day Sabbath; and used a gospel according to Matthew written in Hebrew or Aramaic, while rejecting the writings of Paul as those of an apostate (Irenæus, "Adversus Hæreses," i. 262; Origen, "Contra Celsum," ii. 1; Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl." iii. 27; Hippolytus, "Refutatio Hæresium," vii. 34; Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, i. 3, 12; on Matt. xii. 13). Some Ebionites, however, accepted the doctrine of the supernatural birth of Jesus, and worked out a Christology of their own (Origen, l.c. v. 61).
The origin of the Ebionites was, perhaps intentionally, involved at an early date in legend. Origen ("De Principiis," iv. 1, 22; "Contra Celsum," ii. 1) still knew that the meaning of the name "Ebionim" was "poor," but refers it to the poverty of their understanding (comp. Eusebius, l.c.), because they refused to accept the Christology of the ruling Church. Later a mythical person by the name of Ebion was invented as the founder of the sect, who, like Cerinth, his supposed teacher, lived among the Nazarenes in Kokabe, a village in the district of Basan on the eastern side of the Jordan, and, having spread his heresy among the Christians who fled to this part of Palestine after the destruction of the Temple, migrated to Asia and to Rome (Epiphanius, "Hæreses," xxx. 1, 2; Hippolytus, l.c. vii. 35, x. 22; Tertullian, "De Præscriptione Hæreticorum," 33). The early Christians called themselves preferably "Ebionim" (the poor; comp. Epiphanius, l.c. xxx. 17; Minucius Felix Octavius, ch. 36), because they regarded self-imposed poverty as a meritorious method of preparation for the Messianic kingdom, according to Luke vi. 20, 24: "Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God"; and "Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation" (=Messianic share; Matt. v. 3, "the poor in spirit," is a late modification of the original; comp. Luke iv. 18, vii. 22; Matt. xix. 21 et seq., xxvi. 9 et seq.; Luke xix. 8; John xii. 5; Rom. xv. 26; II Cor. vi. 10, viii. 9; Gal. ii. 10; James ii. 5 et seq.). Accordingly they dispossessed themselves of all their goods and lived in communistic societies (Acts iv. 34 et seq.). In this practise the Essenes also were encouraged, partly by Messianic passages, such as Isa. xi. 4, xlix. 3 (comp. Ex. R. xxxi.), partly by Deut. xv. 11: "The poor shall never cease out of the land"—a passage taken to be a warning not to embark upon commerce when the study of the Law is thereby neglected (Ta'an. 21a; comp. also Mek., Beshallaḥ, ii., ed. Weiss, 56; see notes).
Origen (l.c. ii. 1), while not clear as to the precise meaning of the term "Ebionim," gives the more important testimony that all Judæo-Christians were called "Ebionites." The Christians that fled to the trans-Jordanic land (Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl." iii. 5, 3), remaining true to their Judean traditions, were afterward regarded as a heretic sect of the Ebionites, and hence rose the legend of Ebion. To them belonged Symmachus, the Bible translator (ib. vi. 17).
- Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. s.v. Ebioniten;
- Harnack, History of Dogma, pp. 299-300, Boston, 1895;
- Hilgenfeld, Ketzergeschichte, 1884, pp. 421-446, where the legendary Ebion is treated as a historical person.