There are today many different Christian groups who fashion themselves on the early followers of Jesus. Identifying a few issues either with some Church teachings or practices they seek to return to what they see as more authentic Christianity, noting that Jesus and his followers were Jews they seek to emulate them through introducing Jewish practices, prayers and customs into their communities.
The question is, what do we know about the beliefs of the Ebionites and the Nazarenes, the names ascribed to these Jewish groups who followed Jesus after his death in the first few centuries CE, the real “Jews for Jesus?”
Unfortunately, we have no first hand material of their writings. The Christian Bible gives us some information, which presents this group as Zealous for the Torah, for a gentile to join their movement, it is recorded that among this group some claimed that ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses’ ” (Acts 15:5).
Whilst the Christian bible may be a useful starting point, we should be more interested in what evidence there may be outside of the Christian bible, which may tell us something about this group and see to what extent it corroborates with the Gospels and more importantly the beliefs of these modern groups claiming to be Jewish followers of Jesus.
Most of the information that we have about the Jewish followers of Jesus comes from what their enemies wrote about them. Irenaeus, who was one of the first heresy hunters of the emerging Catholic Church in the second century, in his Refutation of All Heresies he writes of the Ebionites:
“They use the gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the Law. . . . they practice circumcision, persevere in 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. ” (Refutation of All Heresies, 1.26.2)
“God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us, giving us the token of the Virgin. But not as some allege, among those now presuming to expound the Scripture, [thus:] “Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son,” [Isa. 7. 14] as Theodotion the Ephesian has interpreted, and Aquila of Pontus. Both Jewish proselytes. The Ebionites, following these, assert that He was begotten by Joseph; thus destroying, as far as in them lies, such a marvellous dispensation of God, and setting aside the testimony of the prophets which proceeded from God.”
(Philip Schaff, Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martin and Irenaeus (Edited Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson) Vol. 1 Ch. 21 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xxii.html.)
This is quite interesting, and is consistent with recordings found in the Christian bible surrounding the Jewish followers of Jesus and their conflict with Paul. Only Irenaus goes further in confirming that they repudiated Paul seeing him as an apostate from the Torah. So the early Jews for Jesus only used the Gospel of Matthew and hated Paul, this is not surprising as most of the Christian bible was written by Paul and we did not have the version of the Christian scriptures that exists today until the time of Constantine in the 3rd century after the council of Nicea, before then there were lots of different “Christian” groups with very different views of Jesus, it is in reference to these groups as heretics that these early Church fathers have reported on, describing their “false” beliefs. The first attempt to create a Christian cannon was done by Marcion, who included 10 letters of Paul and only a version of the Gospel of Luke. He excluded all the other Gospels and all of the Hebrew Bible. He believed Christianity had nothing to do with Judaism, that there were actually two gods, the evil god of the old testament and the good god of Jesus.
Irenaeus reports that their version of Matthew had omitted the first two chapters on the nativity of Jesus, and started with the baptism of Jesus. Irenarus is a Gentile Christian writing about Jewish Christians, it is more likely that these Jewish Christians came first and that Irenaeus was a convert or a descendent of a Gentile convert, his attests his authenticity by claiming that the Ebionite’s “omitted” passages from the Gospel of Matthew pertaining to the nativity of Jesus, however, it is possible if not likely that the original version of Matthew did not include those chapters but that they were added on later by those looking to appeal to Gentile Pagan beliefs of Virgin births.
Matthews gospel includes some very anti-Jewish passages, but at the same time passages that support the perspective that Jesus believed in the Torah, it therefore comes as no surprise that there may well be traces within the book of Matthew that do not deviate from the teachings of Judaism:
“Then spoke Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
Saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not after their works: for they say and do not.” (Matthew 23:1-3)
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)
“And, behold, one came and said unto him, “Good master, what good things shall I do , that I may have eternal life?”
And he said unto him, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is G-d: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:16-17)
In these passages, Matthew reports of Jesus telling his disciples that the Pharisees are the group that are to be listened to, they have the authority handed down from Moses, not the Saducees or the Essenes. He reveres the law and speaks badly of anyone who would dare to break any of the commandments and speaks highly of those who keep the covenant and who teach Torah to others. Jesus also clearly does not see himself as equal to God, and corrects someone who suggested otherwise, that only God is good and if you want to go to heaven or a place in the world to come you should keep the commandments.
There are conflicting messages throughout the Gospels about what Jesus taught; one might also point to Jesus saying, “I am the way , and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6), which Christians use as the source of their belief that there is no salvation or way of having a relationship with God other than through Jesus, which is of course a claim not consistent with the Torah from a Jewish point of view.
So how are we to make sense of these passages if he were a devout Jew and not a rebel or a reformer starting his own breakaway movement or religion?
Well as we pointed out, we know that before the Christian bible was canonized in the form we know it today immediately following Jesus’s death, they were written at different stages beginning at least 30 years after his crucifixion. We are aware that there were other Gospels that weren’t included in the canon such as the Gospel according to Thomas found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt.
We are informed from writings of the early Church fathers that different groups read varying versions of only selected Gospels with certain chapters of passages missing. For political reasons, Constantine would not tolerate conflicting theologies and different forms of Christianity as he wanted to use Christianity for political purposes to unify Rome under one religion which was dominated more by a Gentile version of Christianity.
It is Paul’s version of Christianity and later developments from it that triumphed, so we have every reason to suspect that certain things in the Gospels may not have occurred, or some editors may have inserted things into Jesus’s mouth that he may not have said. If Christian literature both in and outside of the Gospels gives us reason to believe that Jesus and his followers were observant Jews and not rebels against Judaism as is believed by many secular scholars and Christian historians and theologians (as well as some Jewish ones), which is primarily based on an assumption that the Gospels can be read as a consistent, reliable, testimony which portrays Jesus as arguing with the Pharisees, then we have reason to believe that the passages that speak with authentic Jewish teachings are most likely to be Jesus’s actual words that have survived the tampering and editing of the Church and those passages which are hostile towards the Jews or Judaism giving an alien non-Jewish message are most likely to be later insertions from the teachings of Paul and other Gentile influences on the ideas of the early Gentile Church.
Another Church father, Eusebius in 325 CE wrote of the Ebionites, in Ecclesiastical History
“The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.
For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.
There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name, but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavoured to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.
These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law; and they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.
The Sabbath and the rest of the discipline of the Jews they observed just like them, but at the same time, like us, they celebrated the Lord’s days as a memorial of the resurrection of the Saviour.
Wherefore, in consequence of such a course they received the name of Ebionites, which signified the poverty of their understanding. For this is the name by which a poor man is called among the Hebrews.” 3.27
This account describes two groups among the Ebionites, those who seem to have adopted the belief in the Virgin birth and those who rejected it. Eusebius description confirms our belief that the early Jews for Jesus did not believe that salvation came through faith in the saviour, but that it came through observing the Torah and also a rejection of Paul and his teachings. The Gospel according to the Hebrews is another reference to the Gospel of Matthew. (Chapter XXVII. The Heresy of the Ebionites.)
Another Church father Epiphanius, who lived in the third century, writes of the Ebionites:
“They declare that he (Paul) was a Greek… He went up to Jerusalem, they say, and when he had spent some time there, he was seized with a passion to marry the daughter of the priest. For this reason he became a proselyte and was circumcised. Then, when he failed to get the girl, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against the sabbath and the Law.” (Epiphanius, Panarion, 30.16. 6- 9.)
The Christian tradition tells us that Paul of Tarsus was a Jew, a student of Rabban Gamliel. But from the writings of Epiphanius, we learn that the Jewish followers of Jesus not only despised Paul as an apostate but claim that he was not a Jew by birth, he was according to them an insincere convert, who converted in order to marry a Jewish girl, who did not wish to marry him, who then became very hostile towards Judaism.
Lets look at what another early Church father, Origen had to say about these groups who he condemns as heretics:
“Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus and who boast on their account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law, and these are the twofold sect of the Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a Virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings.” (Contra Celsum 5:6)
“For there are certain heretical sects which do not receive the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, as the two sects of Ebionites, and those who are termed Encritites” (Contra Celsum 5:65)
All these reports of these groups of Jewish followers of Jesus share their observation that they all rejected Paul of Tarsus and regarded him as an apostate. They all were observant of the law and hard to distinguish from other Jews in much of their beliefs and practices. There are of course some deviations between these groups, such as mentioned that there were some among them who accepted the Virgin birth and those who did not. However it should also be duly noted that whilst Eusebius reports that there are those who accepted the Virgin birth, they rejected claims to his pre-existence or divinity. WIth the growth of the Gentile Church these new non-biblical ideas would begin to influence some of the Jewish followers of Jesus and they would become integrated into the growing Christian orthodoxy that we are familiar with today after the adoption by Rome.
So what from the above reports can we gather that these Jews believed?
1. Jesus was human and not divine.
2. Some accepted the virgin birth but others did not.
3. All these groups rejected and hated Paul and all his teachings.
4. They believed that salvation came through observing the Torah and not by faith in Jesus.
5. They saw significance in the Temple and in sacrifices after the crucifixion.
6. They only used a version of the Gospel of Matthew, which is likely to not. be exactly as it appears in a standard King James Bible or any other Christian bible today.
7. The movement centred itself in Jerusalem.
8. They believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
Take the above beliefs and compare them to the beliefs of Messianic Judaism and ask yourself if their beliefs about Jesus resemble that of the original Jewish followers of Jesus that they claim to represent, or whether their beliefs are more consistent with Evangelical Christianity, particularly Conservative Protestants.
It will appear that from what the Christian Bible and what the writings of the early Church fathers tell us about these Jewish groups who followed Jesus is that they were devout observant Jews, no different to Jews who did not follow Jesus.
The difference was that they believed he was the Messiah, but the Jewish definition of the Messiah which is the same definition that Jews believe in today, they believed he was human and would fulfill the Messianic prophecies, but when he was crucified, many had high hopes for him, had invested a lot of energy and belief in him that they could not accept that he was crucified, so they continued to believe, claiming that he was not dead, he had been resurrected and believed he would return soon to finish the job.
Whilst these ideas are strange they are not completely inconsistent with the history of failed Jewish messiahs and the claims of their followers who wished to maintain their belief in him, they attempt to rationalize and explain away their failure. We have seen it before, Shabbatai Tzvi gained a lot more Jewish followers who believed he was the messiah than Jesus did, and in the end he was forced to either convert to Islam or to die, and he chose conversion. Many of his followers knew then that he wasn’t the messiah but some could not let go and followed in his example and also converted to Islam, and tried to find ways to use scripture to claim that the messiah was supposed to convert.
A contemporary example of this would be to look at the reactions to some in Chabad to the death of their last Rebbe. The Lubuvitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneerson was one of the greatest Rabbis of the last century, his influence among Jews outside of his own orthodox sect was immense, he preached a message of outreach, of bringing unaffiliated Jews back to Torah, of reaching out to non-Jews as well. Chabad venture to remote areas where Jews may be. Some of his followers believed he was more than a remarkable Rabbi, but also a prophet or the messiah.
During his lifetime, people were within their right to think he could be the messiah, he was doing great things, but then he died. To some he was and remains their Rebbe, a great and righteous man, to others a disappointment that he wasn’t the messiah that they hoped he would be and to another group he still is the messiah. This group also has interesting ways of trying to explain this issue, by claiming that he didn’t die, or that he will come back as well soon and reveal himself as the messiah; or perhaps some other kind of explanation.
This is likely the situation that the early followers of Jesus were in 2000 years ago. They were devout orthodox Jews, apart from them having this one weird belief that was not shared by other Jews. The beliefs of the Ebionites as described above like those in Chabad who believe Shneerson is the Messiah do not violate any key principle of Judaism. Their ideas are strange and considered far-fetched but do not violate Jewish teachings from the Torah.
However, in order to understand ones toleration of such a strange belief we find the answer in the Christian Bible. After the crucifixion in the book of Acts we are told about how some Jews are angry at the disciples and want to harm them, and are rounded up. The Sanhedrin discusses what these people have done, and their crime. Rabban Gamliel, makes an appearance in the Christian Bible for the first time, Gamliel is found throughout the Talmud and was the leader of the Pharisee movement, who says the following about the Jewish followers of Jesus:
“For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nothing. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: but if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:36-39).
Gamliel did not see that this group had done anything wrong, and mentions other groups who followed other messiahs who failed but continued believing but eventually would disappear on their own if their claims were not true, the Jewish position was and is to adopt a wait and see attitude. They believed he would return soon, in the meantime they haven’t done anything wrong and should be let go.
But as time goes by and he does not return, the belief in him returning becomes not enough to maintain their belief when it does not fit with the reality. It is at this point where one may start to abandon Jewish beliefs and adopt heretical positions in order to maintain those beliefs. The point of departure is not the claim that he was the messiah or of his resurrection from the dead or the belief in the second coming, which for obvious reasons Jews who did not follow Jesus would have every reason to disagree with, but when he did not come back it is possible that these Jews may have adopted some of Paul’s ideas and or joined the growing Gentile Church, or eventually come to abandoned their belief in Jesus.
Today, the case of those in Chabad who believe that the Rebbe is the messiah is a contentious issue, much like how the Ebionites and Nazarenes would have been regarded in the first and second century. There is a joke already said among some Orthodox Jewish communities “the closest religion to Judaism is Chabad.” It is possible that, if not already the case that some followers will make new claims about the Rebbe that would be outright heretical, and they will be in time excommunicated from the rest of Orthodox Judaism for holding those views.
Returning to the topic of whether or not Jesus’s Jewish followers considered him to be human or divine we have records and reports of Gentile Christians in the second and third century testifying that these groups believed he was fully human and born of human parents and was no more divine than any other human. Up until the council of Nicea this issue was argued over, before compromising in declaring that the Church would believe he was both human and divine.
The Pagans believed that their Emperors were God’s or Demi-Gods or the Son of God. Such ideas came naturally to them and so to sell the idea of Jesus to them as a normal human being might have been difficult for them to grasp or perhaps they misunderstood or misinterpreted what they heard from Paul. Among the early “heretical” Christianity’s there were groups such as the Marcionites who believed Jesus wasn’t human at all, and was fully divine, claiming that he only appeared human.
If it were the case that Jesus’s followers believed that Jesus was divine and part of the trinity, then it is difficult to explain why their opponents would all consistently note that they believed he was human and not divine or to explain how the question of Jesus’s divinity or humanity came about. It is well documented that different Christian groups struggled with this issue, as well as it being evident from the above Gentile Church father’s condemnations of the Jewish sects that they believed to the contrary that Jesus was human.
So why would anyone attempt to claim that the followers of Jesus believed he was divine in light of all the evidence?
Well, from a Christian perspective, one might not like to accept these conclusions, that their beliefs are less biblical teachings but are Pagan beliefs and practices, and not purely Monotheistic or true to the biblical tradition. So the idea of hypothesizing that the Jews believed in a divine messiah or at least that some Jews in the first century might have, would grant Christians who hold these views greater authenticity as having “Jewish roots,” rooted in different ancient Jewish biblical interpretation which pre-dates Jesus. The evidence and arguments put forward for this is unconvincing and are based primarily on supposed ways some might have come to interpret biblical texts, or speculation over whether or not there is a link between the community who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls, or whether the Essenes/Qumran community had any influence on the Ebionites or vice versa.
There is much more evidence to the contrary as I have argued above, that the Jews who followed Jesus, were not much different to the followers of any other messianic figure in Jewish history, where their disciples may continue to hold onto their belief in their leader as the Messiah for a period of time and then eventually they will disappear of their own accord. And that is what happened with most of these movements, if they had survived we would expect to find among the Jewish people groups of Jews who throughout millennia believed and still do believe in a failed messiah thousands of years later, but we do not. There are no Jews for Shabbatai, or Jews for Theudus, Jews for Judas of Galilee or Jews for Bar Kochvah today.
Christian followers of Jesus today do not believe about Jesus what the Ebionites or the Jerusalem Church believed about Jesus as mentioned above. Their beliefs and theology are completely different and based mostly on Paul’s teachings, the real founder of Christianity and spread through empire and the power of Rome.