In reading Gibbon’s ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ last night, in Chapter 15, I noted that he discusses that the early Christian church, in the first and second centuries, made it a clear doctrine that Old Testament sacrifice, ritual, and non-commandment laws were nailed to the cross with Jesus. The early Christians who wished to continue to practice Septuagint dietary laws and hygiene laws were called Ebionites. In time, within a couple of centuries, after they became exiled to the modern area of Aleppo, Syria, (according to Gibbon) the Ebionites all either filtered back into Christian churches, or Jewish synagogues. This mention made we wish to research the sect further, because of their similarity to certain modern sects of Christian Identity. What I found was that Gibbons doesn’t tell their full story, sadly.
Ebionites rejected the Apostle Paul as an apostate because he stated that following Old Testament dietary laws, health rituals, and sacrifices was no longer necessary. That’s where they came into direct conflict with the early Church. This led to their separation from it and its doctrine before it rose to prominence in Europe.
The earliest reference to a group that might fit the description of the later Ebionites appears in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (c. 140). Justin distinguishes between Jewish Christians who observe the Law of Moses but do not require its observance upon others, and those who believe the Mosaic Law to be obligatory on all. Irenaeus (c. 180) was probably 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. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica (2011), the Ebionite movement may have arisen about the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70).
All this interest in them for me, after reading Gibbon, came about because of my religious discussion with a Kinist Christian yesterday, one who holds traditional views on race, but is not a Christian Identist. Kinists, because of the propensity of some Christian Identists to follow some, but not all, of the Old Testament laws, think of Christian Identists as being ‘Judaized Christians’, or Neo-Ebionites.
After the end of the First Jewish-Roman War, the importance of the Jerusalem church began to fade. 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 was eliminated during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, the Ebionites gradually lost influence and followers.
According to Hyam Maccoby 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 Mosaic 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.
It seems that, except for their modern reemergence among some sects of Christian Identity which partially follow Mosaic Law (some of them follow OT dietary laws partially, but not fully, and few of them maintain OT health and hygiene laws), the remnants of Ebionites eventually migrated east into Arab lands, where their views of Jesus as being the Messiah but not divine (as some Christian Identists do attest today) influenced the eventual Muslim view of Him.
There is a Gospel of the Ebionites, which is a book of the Apocrypha.