The Monotheistic Ebionites: Islam’s Heritage in the First Century CE

Ebionites as the precursor to Islam: Tracing Islam’s claims to the first century CE

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

There is particularly strong evidence for the theological claims of Islam for the person of Jesus in a very early Christian group called the Ebionites. The Ebionites were a group of very early Christians that traced their lineage back to the primitive Jerusalem Church. According to tradition, they descended from the Jerusalem Church after its violent demise in 70 CE. This important fact of history is noted by Catholic theologian James Leonard Papandrea:

“In the second century, the theological descendants of the Judaizers were the Ebionites. According to tradition, the Ebionites were born out of the Jerusalem church after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices discontinued.” [1]

These early followers of Christ were addressed as ‘Ebionites’ (from the Greek ‘ebionaioi,’ which was derivative of the Hebrew ‘ebyonim’) or ‘poor ones’ because they believed that their life of poverty emulated Jesus. The title gives yet further clue to the origin of this group as it has a strong connection to the primitive church* as stated by Bernhard Lohse:

“The name they applied to themselves, “Ebionites” (poor ones), had reference to an honorific title given to the primitive church at Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 2:10; Rom. 15:26).” [2]

Contrary to Pauline Christians, they were strict observers of the Law and were so regarded as Jewish Christians:

“Just as the Judaizers were Jewish Christians who wanted to maintain a strictly Jewish understanding of Jesus as prophet-messiah, the Ebionites were also predominantly Jewish Christians who emphasized the law and saw Jesus as an anointed human whose mission it was to show the way to perfect obedience.” [3]

Not only did they see Jesus as a “human whose mission was to show the way to perfect obedience,” but they saw him as only human and certainly not divine in any way and this was their defining trademark that irked the early so-called church fathers that insisted on deifying Jesus. P. H. Brazier writes:

“The Ebionites (from the Greek Εβιωναιοι, ebionaioi, for poor ones, derived from the Hebrew, ebyonim) were an early Jewish Christian sect that followed Jewish religious rituals and law; crucially they regarded Jesus as fully human but not divine, they also revered him as a messianic prophet, that is one who was inspired by hope for the Messiah, by belief and expectation of the Messiah, but who was not himself divine. Therefore the Ebionites saw Jesus as an ordinary human being, that he was not really divine (in the intertestamental period messiahship did not necessarily carry with it claims of divinity). The Ebionites were regarded by the early church fathers as heretics in not accepting the divinity of Jesus…” [4]

Their defining trait, that is, a complete denial of Jesus’ alleged divinity, puts them squarely on the same page as Islam and the other prominent traits they have seem to correspond rather well with the essentials of Islamic tenets. Additionally, like most Jewish Christians, the Ebionites were strongly anti-Paul. They rejected Paul as a pretender and a renegade:

“…the Ebionites rejected Paul as a false apostle who had completely perverted the teachings of Jesus and of Christ’s apostles.” [5]

For the Ebionites, the supposed death and resurrection of Jesus had little significance. In their soteriology, salvation did not depend on some God-man entity’s sacrificial act on wooden stakes but on faith in God and adherence to His laws and commandments, which besides mirroring the importance that Islam places on following God’s orders, is also incidentally the exhortation of Ecclesiastes 12:13:

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” (NIV)

Noting the above points, Papandrea writes in the Princeton Theological Monograph Series 175:

“They [the Ebionites] were probably mostly Jewish Christians who were uncomfortable with the idea of the divinity of Christ as it was being expressed in Christian worship, perhaps worrying that such a belief implied the worship of two Gods. Therefore Ebionites maintained that Jesus was a mere man, perhaps a prophet, or anointed like the heroes of the Old Testament, but not the divine Son of God… As a prophet, Jesus received the Holy Spirit for the first time at his baptism. However, he was only temporariy indwelt by the Spirit, who left him alone on the cross (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46). The resurrection of Christ, then, would not be a bodily resurrection, but would be interpreted as a metaphor for eternal life. For the Ebionites, salvation was primarily by obedience to the Jewish law. Some tended toward asceticism.” [6]

In Papandrea’s view although the Ebionites may have accepted narratives concerning the resurrection, the meaning that they attached to the story would have been radically different from the belief that Jesus bodily resurrected which would later become the standard faith of what became mainstream Christianity. What is certain, however, because their salvific theology rests on the idea of faith in God and obedience to His commandments, one must conclude that they attached little importance to either Jesus’ supposed death or his alleged resurrection. They were most certainly not known to propagate those two items as if their lives and salvation depended on them.

A common mistake that readers make as they encounter descriptions of Ebionites in the relevant literature is that these early Christians belonged to a single monolithic group with non-divergent shared doctrines and beliefs. According to David E. Wilhite, the Ebionites may be divided into three general categories or groups: the traditional Ebionites, the Nazarene Ebionites and the Gnostic Ebionites. Wilhite says that the Nazarene Ebionites broke away from the original Ebionites around the time of the Bar Kochba revolt but as there is lack of documentary evidence it is possible that the Nazarenes were, in fact, a separate group altogether. The Gnostic Ebionites are described as either belonging to a splinter group or a later development of the original Ebionites. The traditional Ebionites are the earliest or the original Ebionites with which Islam may claim affinity. This brings us to the following conundrum that is often forwarded by Christian apologists whenever Muslims try to use the Ebionites as evidence for the existence of primitive Islam** in the first century CE:

“If the Ebionites were somehow Muslims and Islamic, why did they deny the virgin birth?”

Firstly, it is true that to deny the virgin birth is to deny Islam because its bedrock, namely the Qur’an, does rather clearly describe Jesus’ virgin birth. Reading some of the literature available, the untrained person may well labour under the impression that the Ebionites as a denomination in its entirety rejected the virgin birth. It is not really the fault of those readers that they reach such a conclusion. Some writers do write about the Ebionites in such a way as to make their readers think that that was the correct belief held by the Ebionites as a whole. But in reality, to claim that the Ebionites were deniers of the virgin birth is only a half-truth. A more accurate statement concerning the Ebionites regarding Jesus’ conception is that some Ebionites believed that Jesus was born of a virgin birth while some others did not. Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Culture and Literature at the University of Helsinki writes:

“Following Origen (Cels. 5.61), he [Eusebius] makes a distinction between two kinds of EbionitesL one group denied the virgin birth, others did not. When describing the latter group, Eusebius notes that, despite the fact that they accepted the virgin birth, they were still heretics, especially because they were zealous in observing the law and because they rejected the letters of Paul, calling him apostate…” [7]

According to Origen and Eusebius, two rather major patristic authorities, there were Ebionites that did not believe in the virgin birth and there were those that did. Therefore the Christian apologetic counterargument that Muslim researchers, scholars or apologists may not appeal to the Ebionites as evidence for primitive Islam in the first century on the basis of an alleged denial of the virgin birth is untenable.

It is also noteworthy that though the Ebionites are typically described as Jewish Christians that laid great emphasis on the laws and commandments, not all of them were of Jewish heritage. Some of them were Gentiles (goyim) but they adhered to the precepts of the Ebionites and lived what may be conveniently labelled a “Jewish life.” This can be shown from Ignatius’ references to the Ebionites whom he referred to as “the uncircumcised preaching Judaism, ” which according to Papandrea “implies that at least some of the Ebionites he knew were Gentiles.” [8] This is a rather important point as it shows that the Ebionites did not consider themselves an exclusive elite that excluded non-Jews from being part of what they saw as the rightly guided path inherited from Jesus. This can be said to mirror the inclusive nature of Islam.

In the foregoing discussion, we have seen that traditional Ebionites did indeed hold to beliefs and doctrines that are fundamentally in line with the beliefs and doctrines of Islam. The traditional Ebionites were absolute monotheists that opposed the divinity of Jesus, they were religiously scrupulous and believed that it was important to abide by God’s decrees and they did not believe that blood was the key to salvation but that faith in God and adherence to His laws and commandments were the way to gain God’s pleasure and receive eternal success. They were also not xenophobic and allowed non-Jews to become part of their religious movement. These are fundamentally Islamic ideas and the first three points, at least, are completely antithetical to orthodox or mainstream Christian belief.

Although we may not be able to establish with historical certainty that these Ebionites were in fact Muslims that subscribed to Islam in its primitive form, the preponderance of evidence that we have put together above does, at least, prove that Islam’s fundamental doctrinal and dogmatic claims were in vogue in the the first century. Though the evidence is sparse, we do see rather visible traces that link the Ebionites back to the primitive church which would link them to Jesus. Sadly, the Ebionites, the unitarian champions of Jesus’ ministry, were eclipsed by Pauline Christianity, but its theological legacy has been rejuvenated and revitalised by the unstoppable force that is Islam. Catholic New Testament scholar and Dominican priest Father Benedict T. Viviano opines that Islam may well be the reemergence of Jewish Christianity which existed in the very early days of Christianity but had died out due to pressures from Paulinism. Commenting on the Matthean dictates on the importance of keeping the letter of the Law in Matthew 5:17-48, Viviano says that this passage reflects the outlook of Jewish Christianity which is indicative of Jewish Christianity’s (which included perhaps the Ebionites or at least, their forerunners) existence in the very earliest stages of Christianity. Viviano writes:

“Apart from v 18, the verses are probably postpaschal and reflect the outlook of Jewish Christianity, which, as a separate movement, was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out (perhaps to be reborn in a different form as ISLAM;…” [9] (emphasis added)

Evidence shows a clear convergence between the fundamentals of Islam and the fundamentals of the Ebionites and whatever one makes of the clear connection, one cannot deny that Islam’s claims are not new but traceable to the very early days of what is conveniently called the Christian era.

Notes:

[1] Papandrea, J. L. (2011). Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicaea. New Jersey: Paulist Press.

* The primitive church or the Jerusalem Church is said to be the original representative of Jesus representing his most authentic and original teachings.

[2] Lohse, B. (1978). A Short History of Christian Doctrine (F. Earnest Stoeffler, Trans.). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 73

[3] Papandrea, J. L. Op. Cit.

[4] Brazier, P. H. (2012). C.S. Lewis–An Annotated Bibliography and Resource. Oregon: Pickwick Publications. p. 15

[5] Ehrman, B. D. (2006). Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. New York Oxford University Press. p. 168

[6] Papandrea, J. L. (2011). Novatian of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy. Oregon: Pickwick Publications. p. 2

** by primitive Islam we refer to the Islamic belief which states that prior to the advent of Prophet Muhammad’s mission, Islam was fundamentally the faith of all previous prophets (including Jesus). Though the juristic aspect of religion may have differed from one prophet to the other or from one prophetically guided nation from the other, the fundamentals of faith and belief were the same, e.g., monotheism.

[7] Luomanen, P. (2005). On the Fringes of Canon: Eusebius’ View of the “Gospel of the Hebrews”. In Jostein Adna (ed), The Formation of the Early Church. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.

[8] Papandrea, J. L. (2011). Novatian of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy. Op. Cit. fn. 1

[9] Viviano, B. T. (1990). Matthew. In Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer & Roland E. Murphy (eds), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 641

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