Just as, lazing on the grass under the summer sun, we feel free
to see pigs, whales and centrifuges in the passing clouds, because
their outline is indistinct and unformed, so observers feel free to make the original Jewish church anything they
want it to be. There are few if any literary remains from this
church still extant, exclusive of the New Testament. Some of the
documents which might seem to originate from within these circles,
like the Clementine literature, are pseudepigraphic. Our author, of
course, has discovered that they were Unitarians. This is a
discovery he will repeat for every group whose sketchy history
The heresy-hunters of the early church era know of a sect they
call the 'Ebionites:'
"Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was
made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar
to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according
to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he
was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they
endeavor to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they
practice circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs
which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of
life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of
God." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 26, Section 2).
The doctrines of Cerinthus are gnostic and adoptionist, "He
[Cerinthus] represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin,
but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary
course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more
righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his
baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the
Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and
performed miracles." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter
26, Section 1).
The early Jewish church called themselves the 'Poor,' i.e., 'Ebionim,'
no doubt in hopes of inheriting a blessing. That later sects should
adopt the same name is scarcely surprising, whatever their origin
may have been. Today's 'Oneness' Pentecostals call themselves 'Apostolics,'
although their movement has no history prior to 1913. It would be
naive for a latter-day explorer to stumble into a UPCI church and
exclaim, 'We've discovered the church of the apostles!' To be sure
they call themselves that. I used to drive by a church with a sign
out from which proclaimed, in great big letters, 'CHURCH OF GOD.' I
used to wonder, if that's the church of God, then what are all the
other churches? But merely choosing such a name does not make this
church genuine and all the others spurious. It requires further
investigation to determine whether the various groups calling
themselves 'the Ebionim,' which differ from one another, are
survivals or innovations.
Origen confirms the presence, in his day, of Jewish believers who observed the
law of Moses:
"Here he has not observed that the Jewish converts have
not deserted the law of their fathers, inasmuch as they live
according to its prescriptions, receiving their very name from the
poverty of the law, according to the literal acceptation of the
word; for Ebion signifies “poor” among the Jews, and those Jews who
have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites.
Nay, Peter himself seems to have observed for a considerable time
the Jewish observances enjoined by the law of Moses, not having yet
learned from Jesus to ascend from the law that is regulated
according to the letter, to that which is interpreted according to
the spirit, — a fact which we learn from the Acts of the Apostles."
(Origen, Against Celsus, Book II, Chapter 1).
That the bulk of the Jewish church continued to uphold the law of Moses is apparent from Acts,
"And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs."
Celsus, a pagan detractor of Christianity, had reproached the
Jewish Christians with apostasy from their ancestral religion:
“'What induced you, my fellow-citizens, to abandon the law of
your fathers, and to allow your minds to be led captive by him
with whom we have just conversed, and thus be most ridiculously
deluded, so as to become deserters from us to another name, and
the practices of another life?'” (Origen, Against Celsus,
Book II, Chapter 1). While Origen defends Christianity by
rebutting this assertion, it does appear there is some 'bite' to
it, because the dominant church, that associated with Peter and
Paul (though Peter seems to have waffled somewhat), did end by
encouraging Jews to abandon the law, which exceeded the
compromise enacted at the Jerusalem Council. That consensus
decision permitted Gentile converts to escape the yoke of the
law, but in no wise suggested it would be prudent for Jewish
converts to join them. These two issues: fealty to the law, and
Christology, are not the same, but there is likely an interplay
between them. (Of course, Christians continue to respect the
moral law, only not the ceremonial or ritual law.) The various defective Christologies ascribed to the
late 'Ebionite' sects have no early
attestation comparable to that available for Torah compliance.
The New Testament testifies to the existence of Jewish believers
who did believe Jesus to be God incarnate. There is additional
indirect evidence showing that, if indeed it is true that some early
Jewish believers considered Jesus to be a.) the Messiah AND b.) only a mere
man, still this was not the only view amongst this group. The Gospel of Thomas is an
apocryphal work, unpopular with the orthodox for its gnostic
tendencies, which nonetheless testifies to the deity of Jesus
"Jesus said, 'I am the light that is over all things. I
am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a
piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me
there.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 77).
Yet the author's loyalties do not lie with Peter and Paul.
Matthew's gospel affixes a 'Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval' to
the ministry of Peter, from Jesus' lips: "And I say also unto thee,
That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and
the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18).
This passage is mostly familiar from its whimsical application to
the Bishop of Rome, but the original intent must have been to validate
Peter's version of Christianity. 'Thomas' also includes a Quality
Stamp, but with a different address:
"The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know that you are
going to leave us. Who will be our leader?'
"Jesus said to them, 'No matter where you are, you are
to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into
being.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 12).
Of course, while 'Thomas' loves James, there is no guarantee this
affection is requited: that James loves 'Thomas' right back.
However, it is understandable, if James, the bishop of Jerusalem,
ran a 'big tent' operation where various flavors of Christianity,
including gnosticism and even Unitarianism, could peaceably
Judaism normally recognizes 'orthopraxy,' i.e., right practice,
versus the Christian concern with 'orthodoxy,' i.e., right doctrine.
For example, the Kabbalah is a medieval revival of gnosticism; yet
the Kabbalists observe the law, so they are tolerated in Judaism,
even though their theology is anything but Biblical. If this
preference for 'orthopraxy' were already in place in the early
Christian centuries, it would tend to select for those Christian
sects who continued to obey the ceremonial law, and likely also
those who refrained from making 'blasphemous' claims for Jesus. So
while Celsus may well have observed Jews gravitating toward the
Peter/Paul axis in the church, later, Origen could not find Celsus'
Jewish Christians, but only those who had continued under Moses'
ceremonial law. The Jewish sects which survived long enough to
attract the attention of the heresy-hunters were not a cross-section
of the early church, but those only who could come to terms with a
persecuting religious establishment.