The Gospel of the Ebionites is one of the early Jewish-Christian Gospels, sharing an affinity with the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Nazoraeans.
Jerome names it as being the same as the Gospel of the Hebrews and states that most ancient Biblical scholars called it “Matthaei Authenticum” or the“True Gospel of Matthew”.
It survives today only as fragments in quotations, and so it is difficult to tell if it is an independent text, or a slight variation on the others. It was used by the Ebionite community during the time of the early church.
The Ebionite Community
At the beginning of the Christian era, Jewish Christian communities flourished throughout the Holy Land. The Ebionites were thought to be an offshoot of theNazarenes. Their center was located east of the Jordan river near where John the Baptist had preached.
The origin of the name Ebionite (or Ebionaean) is debated. Tertullian, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Epiphanius, and Jerome ascribed the movement to a heretic named Ebion or Hebion. Others claim the name Ebionite means “poor one”, not derived from a person, but rather from the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3.
While some note they rejected material wealth, Eusebius and Origen both claimed the Ebionites’ appellation was a term of derision indicating a poverty in intellect, rather than material possessions.
Conflict grew between them and other Christians when the Ebionites failed to embrace the Church doctrines of chastity or celibacy as well as the concept of the Virgin birth. They believed Jesus was begotten of God at the time of his baptism.
Conflict also grew over the issue of the Mosaic law which the Ebionites believed remained in full force. They believed that by fulfilling the law, all are able to become Christs.
They are said to have rejected Paul’s teachings and used only one Gospel, the Gospel of the Ebionites.
They also believed John the Baptist and Jesus as being vegetarians, and rendering him in the adoptionist form. Many of these differences are found in subtle variants of Greek words, such as a meal of egkris (cake), rather than akris (locusts) as used in the later Synoptic Gospels
Epiphanius, whose writing is the main source for finding fragments of the Gospel of the Ebionites, emphasises that the Nazoraeans were considered part of the Christian orthodoxy, whereas the Ebionites were considered heretics, and so there may have been theological and doctrinal differences between the two gospels, possibly over the Virgin Birth which the Ebionites rejected.
Epiphanius considered the Ebionite text to have been mutilated due to textual differences, the lack of a genealogy and nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew – which may indicate that the Ebionites rejected it, or may also be a testimony to an earlier, nativity free, version of Matthew, on which the Ebionite Gospel is based.
The Ebionites are said to have used the Gospel of the Hebrews written by the Apostle Matthew.
Epiphanius stated that the Ebionites accepted only Matthew’s Gospel and they used it alone. They called it the Gospel of the Hebrews, for only Matthew expounded and declared the gospel in Hebrew using Hebrew letters.
Irenaeus and Eusebius also confirmed that the Ebionites used only the Gospel of the Hebrews written by Matthew.
Because of differences in Jesus’ baptism account, some modern Biblical scholars have argued that the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Ebionites were two different gospels. However, since only the Gospel of the Hebrews appears in Early Christian catalogues and because Jerome links the Ebionites with the Nazarenes in their use of the Gospel of the Hebrews, this contention is rendered doubtful.
The Gospel of the Ebionites
The Gospel of the Ebionites is a lost text. A few fragments survive in the form of quotations from the Church Father Epiphanius. Below is the assembled textual fragments of the Gospel used by the Ebionites, the Matthaei Authenticum, the True Gospel of Matthew.
It came to pass in the days of Herod, King of Judaea under the high priest Caiaphas, that John came and baptized with the baptism of repentance in the river Jordan; he is said to be from the tribe of Aaron and a son of Zacharias the priest and of Elizabeth and all went out to him.
And it came to pass when John baptized, that the Pharisees came to him and were baptized, and all Jerusalem also. He had a garment of camels’ hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins. And his food was wild honey, which tasted like manna, formed like cakes of oil.
The people having been baptized, Jesus came also, and was baptized by John. And as he came out of the water the heavens opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit descending under the form of a dove, and entering into him. And a voice was heard from heaven: “Thou art my beloved Son, and in thee am I well pleased. And again: “This day have I begotten thee.” And suddenly shone a great light in that place. And John seeing him, said, “Who art thou, Lord?” Then a voice was heard from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Thereat John fell at his feet and said: “I pray thee, Lord, baptize me.” But he would not, saying “Suffer it, for so it behoveth that all should be accomplished.”
[Matthew said] “And there was a man named Jesus, and he was about thirty years old; he has chosen us. And He came into Capernaum and entered into the house of Simon, surnamed Peter, and He opened His mouth and said, ‘As I walked by the sea of Tiberias, I chose John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddaeus and Simon Zelotes, and Judas Isariot; thee also, Matthew, when thou wast sitting at the receipt of custom, did I call and thou didst follow me. According to my intention ye shall be twelve apostles for a testimony unto Israel.’
[Jesus was told] “Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without.”
[He said] “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?” And He stretched forth His hand toward His disciples and said: “These are my brethren and my mother and sisters, which do the will of my Father.”
[Jesus said] “I am come to abolish the sacrifices: if ye cease not from sacrificing, the wrath (of God) will not cease from weighing upon you.”
[The disiples said,] “Where wilt Thou that we prepare for Thee to eat the Passover?” To which He replied: “I have no desire to eat the flesh of this Paschal Lamb with you.”
All translations are from Bernhard Pick, Paralipomena: Remains of Gospels and Sayings of Christ(Chicago, 1908), pp. 16-18. The sequence of fragments here follows Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, revised edition (Westminster, 1991) volume 1, pp. 169-170. Pick’s arrangement is virtually identical.
~ Peace be with you