During the life of Jesus, Judaism was split into four main sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes. Those Jews who broke away to follow Jesus called themselves Nazarenes and later, Ebionites. They flourished in Palestine around the period 30 to 80 C.E. and the group's beliefs provide an insight into an early response to Jesus' teachings that is still followed in the 21st century.
Who Were the Ebionites?
Ebionite means "the poor ones" and was based on references to the blessings awaiting the faithful in Isaiah 66:2 and in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. The majority of Ebionites were Jews living in Palestine who followed John the Baptist and then Jesus, but it was not exclusively Jewish as the Ebionites accepted non-Jews into fellowship. The group's leader was James, Jesus' oldest brother. According to Dr. James Tabor, writing on ancient Judaism, the term Nazarene was probably more widely used than Ebionite. However, he also says that according to Acts 24:14, the group preferred the name "The Way."
Once Christianity was well established and had mostly severed its connections with Judaism and Palestine, church historians started referring to the Nazarenes and Ebionites as two distinct groups. It appears the Christian church favored the Nazarenes over the Ebionites, mostly on the basis of the latter's beliefs.
Ebionite Core Beliefs
Scholars have established central Ebionite beliefs from references in the New Testamant and the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. To the Ebionites, Jesus was a prophet like Moses and a "true teacher" but he was not the son of God. They adopted dietary laws, based on references in Genesis and Isaiah to a pre-Flood diet, that excluded meat. Ebionites also had an interest in following laws and forms of worship that predated Moses' revelation on Mount Sinai; not allowing divorce is one example.
Following the Torah was extremely important, but the group read it in the spirit of Jesus' teachings. They believed Jesus had restored the teachings of the prophets to a " true faith," as compared with the teachings of orthodox Jewish groups of the time such as the Pharisees. In addition, they rejected any alterations made by men to the Torah and followed the statement in Jeremiah 8:8, which refers to "the lying pens of the scribes."
The Christian Church View of Ebionites
Essentially the early Christian church saw the Ebionites as being far too Jewish. It disliked the Ebionites' rejection of Jesus' divinity and the denial that He was the Messiah. Ebionites also rejected the idea of virgin birth and the teachings of St. Paul, and in terms of sacred texts, the only New Testament book they accepted was the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. The Nazarenes, by contrast, accepted some aspects of Jesus' divinity such as the virgin birth, which is why the church in Rome had a less critical view of the group.
An Ebionite community still exists and holds the beliefs of the early Ebionites. The group's manifesto states that it follows Jesus' teachings but is in no way Christian. Indeed, the Ebionite community calls itself an Ebionite Jewish community. It rejects the teachings of Paul as false and heretical. The manifesto states that to follow Jesus, you must not worship Him, but you must be a Jew like Him. It emphasizes the supremacy of YHWH, also called the God of Israel, and the importance of following the Torah. It believes that Christianity is not what Jesus taught and that it came about as a result of anything from paganism to a political merger of Jewish and gentile cultures.
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