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Early Jewish Christians

March 14, 2012

Yesterday I was emailed an inquiry about “Ebionites”, the inquiry responding to some simplistic statements asserted with astonishingly unwarranted confidence on certain other web sites. I pointed my inquirer to what is, to my knowledge, now the fullest treatment of the evidence and issues concerning early Jewish believers in Jesus: Oskar Skarsaune & Reidar Hvalvik (eds.), Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007).

This volume features a galaxy of respected scholars known for their expertise and measured approach. The topics covered include definitional issues and the history of research on “Jewish Christianity”, the NT evidence and references to Jewish believers (notably including a chapter on “Paul as a Jewish Believer,” which he manifestly was), “the literary heritage” of Jewish believers (Jewish-Christian gospels, Pseudo-Clementine writings, fragments of alleged Jewish-Christian writings in early Christian “Fathers”), the various names given to Jewish-Christians (Ebionites, Nazoraeans), and “other literary and archaeological evidence for Jewish believers” (including rabbinic evidence).

Those who like uncomplicated and simplistic assertions untroubled by the evidence can go to the web sites I mentioned. Those who want serious, in-depth, and patient handling of all the evidence on “Jewish believers” can find no better one-volume resource than this one.

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  1. Dear Dr. Hurtado,

    I know that you run this website for the benefit of the public, i.e. to make accessible things which are not always easy to find or understand. I urge you, then, to name names – I mean, websites. If these really are pushing junk- or pseudo-scholarship, the folk need to know. Take pity on the interested googlers of the world – if they’re going to find this stuff, they should also find respected scholars saying that it is junk – and hopefully why. Perhaps you don’t want to get into the details at the moment; but that too could be very helpful at some point, if you’d consider it.

    Dale Tuggy

    • Well, I try to avoid this. Instead, for those interested, I simply aim to provide as accurate information and analysis as are available to me. To identify the sources of erroneous information would be likely to incur inflammatory comments from those who produce them, and would only give them undeserved further attention. I’ll simply trust clean water flushing out bad. One thing always to check on blog sites: Who is behind them? What qualifications do they have? Are they upfront about themselves? As in many areas of life, in this area too, as often as not real experts do know better. I know we all live in a X-files-mentality world (all establishment figures are corrupt and hiding the truth, and it’s only the lonely amateur who can be trusted, etc.), but that’s a con. Ok for television series but not really a good way to judge matters.

  2. Joseph Stephen King permalink

    have you had opportunity to study von Wahlde’d recent eerdmans critical commentary on the Gospel and letters of John?


    Joe King

  3. I have a somewhat different take on the Ebionites: see my “The Origin of the Ebionites,” in P. J. Tomson and D. Lambers-Petry ed., The Image of the Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish and Christian Literature (WUNT 158; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003) 162-181.
    I argue that they originated after 70, and deliberately innovated a “low” Christology.

    • Thanks for the reference, Richard. Yes, it is another option to hold the “Ebionites” as a term designating a specific kind of theological/christological stance (e.g., denying Jesus’ virginal conception) may have emerged in the post-70 period as you propose. The Greek equivalent appears in some of Paul’s references to the Jerusalem church, although it is disputed whether he uses it as an honorific term or simply to designate impoverished believers there. The other early term used in the NT is “Nazarenes”, forms of which continue to be bandied about in the 2nd/3rd centuries. Ray Pritz’s book I found useful a number of years ago: Nazarene Jewish Christianity From the End of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century, Studia Post Biblica, no. 37 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988).

  4. S Walch permalink

    It doesn’t help that Robert Eisenman’s “James, the brother of Jesus” tries to claim that those at Qumran were Ebionites due to referring to themselves as “the poor”. I’ve come across far too many people who hold Eisenman’s (quite obviously ridiculous) opinions in far to high esteem.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Prof. Hurtado. One of the websites which your emailing correspondence referred to wasn’t perhaps The author of that website likes to state certain ‘facts’ about the Ebionites with, as you say, “astonishingly unwarranted confidence”.

  5. I’ve been reading your book How On Earth… and I was also wondering about your take on the Ebionites. I have read that they did not worship Jesus. What do you say?

    • I refer you to the treatment of “Ebionites” in the Skarsaune & Hvalvik volume. Briefly, as Skarsaune cogently judges, “ebionites” was probably originally a generic self-designation worn by some Jewish believers (the word comes from the Hebrew term for “poor”), just as the Qumran sect could refer to themselves as “the community of the poor”. References to, and descriptions of “ebionites” in the early Fathers are polemical, fragmentary, and sometimes confused (especially Epiphanius). “Ebionites” didn’t likely designate one particular kind of Jewish-Christian belief/stance, but a certain diversity.

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