“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet."--Matthew 5:13

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Law Abiding Christians? A Look at the Ebionite Heresy

There is very little known about the Ebionites as they did not leave us many writings. What is known about them are the things that others have written or said about them throughout history. It is known that they had a small community in Qumran in the late first century A.D. The Ebionites may have migrated from Jerusalem to Qumran after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. The Ebionites suffered persecution by other Jewish groups as well as “Christians” who hi-jacked the name of Christ for their own selfish gains. As a result, the Ebionites lost influence and followers toward the middle of the second-century. However, Epiphanius noted the settlement of Ebionites in Cyprus in 375 A.D.

The highly ascetic Ebionite group received their name, meaning “poor ones” in Greek, from Irenaeus around the year 180. This was derived from the fact that they valued voluntary poverty.

The Ebionites believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They accepted His humanity, but rejected His deity, which is also a rejection of His pre-existence, virgin birth, atonement, and resurrection. They claimed that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph and Mary, and had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. Some Ebionites, however, believed that Jesus became God when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him at baptism, but that divinity left Him at His crucifixion. These are reasons why the early church fathers regarded them as heretics. 

The Ebionites reject every word of the New Testament except for a Hebrew version of Matthew, which of course had omitted the first two chapters. They believed that the Apostle Paul was an apostate to the Jewish faith because he did not mandate circumcision or obedience to the Law (among other things). Epiphanius claimed that the Ebionites alleged that Paul was a Greek who converted to Judaism only to marry a high priest’s daughter, but apostatized when she rejected him.

The Ebionites believed that Jewish laws must be strictly observed and that all people must observe the Law to become righteous. However, as their numbers dwindled, they departed from traditional Jewish practices, and began to engage in excessive ritual bathing, opposing animal sacrifices, and even denying the Law. Methodius, who died in 311 A.D., noted that at that time the Ebionites did not even believe that the Old Testament prophets were inspired.

A rejection of either the deity or humanity of Christ is clearly an errant view of our Savior. The Ebionites refused to believe the testimony of the Apostle John, who writes in chapter one of his gospel that “the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14). Paul tells the Colossians that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). He also exhorts Titus to wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Clearly, Scripture teaches that the man Jesus Christ was also fully God. 

Like the ancient Ebionites, there are currently certain spheres of evangelicalism that force restrictive, unnecessary, and unbiblical laws on its adherents. Paul tells the Galatians that laws cannot bring salvation. Only faith in Christ alone can save us (Galatians 2:16). The law of God is perfect (Psalm 19:7) and man is imperfect. Therefore, it is impossible for us to keep the law. As a matter of fact, if we keep every aspect of the law, but fail in one point, James writes that “we have become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). 

The real issue with the Ebionites was that they refused to believe the eyewitness testimony of those who had not only seen Jesus’ ministry, but who worked closely alongside of Him. The Ebionites denied inspired Scripture and the testimony of the Apostles, choosing instead to strive to live a perfect life as imperfect sinners. They traded the clearly revealed God of Scripture for a created god of their own imperfect imaginations.