Sect that emerged from Judaism, considering Jesus as the Messiah, but in a different manner than the early Christians. The Ebionites existed from around 70 CE until the late 4th century, in all slightly more than 300 years.
The Ebionite sect represented a parallel, and competing, interpretation of Jesus. Their main opponent was Paul, whose teachings were instrumental in shaping early Christianity.
Organization and geography
There may well have been several independent groups that later were collectively labelled Ebionites. Among the groups that are known, were the Nazarenes and Elkasites.
When the history of the Ebionites begins is not answered by any historical evidence. They may well have been the mainstream continuation of the Church of Jerusalem, they may have emerged from the tragedy with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE or from the Third Jewish revolt 132-135 CE.
Early on, the Ebionites left the region of Jerusalem, and settled on the east bank of the Jordan river, notably in Pella. From there, they spread to Syria and even Egypt. The last traces of the Ebionites was in the 4th century, then on Cyprus.
Much of the teachings of the Ebionites is reflected in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. There was a Gospel of the Ebionites, but nothing of this has survived. The surviving document closest to their theology is generally considered to be the Gospel according to Matthew.
The central dimensions to their faith were to interpret Jewish regulations in the light of Jesus' new message. To them, Jesus was the Messiah, but he was not divine. Rather he had become the Messiah through his ability to live by the Law. The Ebionites rejected the concept of a virgin birth, and considered Joseph to be his actual father.
Voluntary poverty was a core value, which is also reflected in their name, meaning "the poor ones". They were also vegetarians, used ritual ablution (washing before rituals) and rejected all forms of animal sacrifice.
Our main sources to their history come from the opponents of the Ebionites. While this invariably involves a negative presentation of the Ebionites as the purpose was to refute Ebionite theology, and it would be pointless to present this incorrectly.
They are first described in 180, by Irenaeus. In his description they were heretic Christians, paying too much attention to the Law.