A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

(Ἐβίων), the real or supposed founder of the sect of Christians called Ebionites, by which name, at least after the time of Irenaeus, were designated all those who, though professing Christ's religion, thought it necessary to continue the observance of the Mosaic law. The Ebionite doctrine therefore was a mere engrafting of Judaism upon Christianity. Generally speaking, the followers of this sect considered our Lord as a man chosen by God to the office of Messiah, and furnished with the divine power necessary for its fulfilment at the time of his baptism, which rite was performed by John, as the representative of Elijah. They insisted on the necessity of circumcision, regarded the earthly Jerusalem as still God's chosen city, and denounced St. Paul as a latitudinarian and a heretic. (See, for the latter statement, Orig. Jerem. Homil. 18.12.) It is, however, very difficult to distinguish accurately the various shades of these opinions, or to state at what time any particular form of them was prevalent. Irenaeus certainly confounded varieties of opinion almost sufficient to constitute their holders two distinct sects, whereas Origen (c. Cels. 5.61) divides the Ebionites into two classes, those who denied our Lord's miraculous conception, and those who allowed it; the latter admission of course implying, that the peculiar operation of the Holy Spirit on the man Jesus developed itself from the very commencement of his life, instead of first beginning to act at the particular time of his consecration to the Messianic mission. The first traces of Ebionism are doubtless to be found in the New Testament, where we recognize this doctrine as that of the Judaizing teachers in Galatia (Gal. 3.1, &c.), the deniers of St. Paul's apostleship at Corinth (2 Cor. 11.5, &c.), the heretics opposed in the Epistle to the Colossians, and perhaps of those mentioned by St. John. (1 Joh. 2.18, on which see Lücke, Commentar über die Brief des Evang. Johannes.) The "Clementines," a collection of homilies embodying these views, is probably a work of the 2nd century; and we find that the sect was flourishing in the time of Jerome (A. D. cir. 400), though with its opinions much modified and Christianized, inasmuch as it did not desire to force the ceremonial law upon the Gentiles, and fully admitted the authority of St. Paul. It is needless to trace its progress farther, for in fact Ebionism is only the type of a system which, in different forms, and adapted to various circumstances, has reappeared from time to time in almost all ages of the Church. With regard to Ebion himself, his existence is very doubtful. The first person who asserts it is Tertullian, who is followed by Augustine, Jerome, Epiphanius, and Theodoret. The latter, however (Haer. Fab. 2.218), after saying, ταύτης τῆς φάλαγγος ἦρξεν Ἐβίων, adds, τὸν πτωχὸν δὲ οὔτως οἱ Ἑβραῖοι προσαγορεύονσιν, which may be compared with the derivation given for the name of the sect by Origen (contr. Cels. 2.1), who considers it formed from the Hebrew word Ebion, poor, and knows of no such person as the supposed founder Ebion. Modern writers, especially Matter (Histoire du Gnosticisme, vol. ii. p. 320) and Neander (in an appendix to his Genetische Entwickelung der vornehmsten Gnostische Systeme, Berlin, 1818, and also in his Kirchengeschichte, i. p. 612, &c.) deny Ebion's existence; though Lightfoot says, that he is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud as one of the founders of sects. The authorities on both sides of the question are given by Burton. (Bampton Lectures, note 80.) If we reject the existence of Ebion, we must adopt Origen's derivation, though not with the explanation which he suggests, that it refers to the poverty of the Ebionite creed; for such a name could not have been chosen by themselves, since it would have been in that sense a reproach; nor given by the Christians of Gentile origin, who would not have chosen a title of Hebrew derivation. It is better to suppose that the name Ebionites was originally applied to an ascetic sect, and gradually extended to all the Judaizing Christians. For some of the ascetic Ebionites thought it wrong to possess anything beyond that which was absolutely necessary for their daily subsistence, holding that the present world, not in its abuse, but in its very nature, is the exclusive domain of Satan. This is Neander's explanation.