This paper explores Ebionism and Marcionism, two early church heresies which depict the two most antithetical forms of the Judaism-OT and Christianity-NT breach in early Christianity. Ebionism’s philo-Semitlism and Marcionism’s chagrin for the Jewish roots of Christianity are discussed and shown to be antecedents to certain contemporary heretical conceptions; special emphasis is given to the covert anti-Semitic attitude in Christians today. The corrective for these heresies is found in Paul’s metaphor of God’s revelatiory-redemptive olive tree (Romans 1/:/7-24) which aptly describes the dual necessity of the root and the branches, that is the Old and New Testaments. Christians need both the Old and New Testaments to avoid any heresy which may attempt to prune God’s revelatory-redemptive Olive tree; it is “both-and”, not “either-or”.
The manner in which the Jewish faith with its Scriptures, the OT, relates to the Church, the message of the NT, and our understanding of the work of God in Christ has been a perpetually debated issue since the first century. The nature of these relationships were salient even in the earliest church. Even though the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) ratified James’ proposal, which included specific guidelines regarding the Gentiles’ relationship with the Jewish religion, we still see the unresolved nature of this issue a few years later in the NT church (the Judaizers); pragmatically, there remained much to be resolved. Almost two thousand years later the question still remains whether we have reached a theoretic, as well as a pragmatic, resolution of these issues. What is the relationship of the Jewish faith and the OT to the revelation of Jesus Christ and the Church?
The second century AD witnessed various developments which would further intensify the antipathy between, what was becoming, divergent religions and corpora of literature. Christianity was becoming recognised as a distinct faith, no longer subsumed under the rubric of Judaism. Christianity was taking on different forms and expressions, some good and some bad (including anti-Judaism), as professors attempted to understand the implications of this new faith in the divergent world. Conversely, a deep, lasting resentment was felt by the Jewish people, from what they felt was the betrayal of the Nazarenes (Jewish Christians) during the Roman slaughter in their spoiled Bar Kokhba revolution of 132-5 (especially in the light of 66-70). Ebionism and Marcionism are two forms of this development. They represent the two most extreme and antithetical forms of the Judaism-Old Testament and Christianity-New Testament breach in the second century. The issues that arise will have great value in understanding this second century development of Christianity’s relationship to the Jewish people, their faith, and their Scripture, and various Christian perceptions of these relationships today.
There remains today a great need for Christians to reassess their spiritual heritage. Many Christians today operate with a fundamental, undetected aversion for what is Jewish, an inconspicuous antisemitism. This discussion will bear out the arrant contradiction of such a stance. Furthermore, the precarious posture of much of modern Christendom will be demonstrated. This demeanour does not affirm its spiritual debt and inheritance from the Jewish people. From whence have we come? The Ebionites were a Jewish-Chnstian sect that existed from at least the early second to the fourth century AD. There is considerable speculation concerning their origins, but their fundamental beliefs can be reasonably reconstructed. The Ebionites esteemed the Mosaic Law to an extent that their Christology and view of authorised writings were less than the developing Christian consensus.
The prominence that the Ebionites gave the Mosaic Law forced them to adopt a different view of the person of Christ. Ebionites denied the Virgin Birth and believed that Jesus as the “Son of God (was) a mere man, begotten by human pleasure, and the conjunction of Joseph and Mary” (The Constitution of the Holy Apostles 7:452). The Ebionites did not hold to the dual nature of Christ; he was “ust another man, albeit a great one.”
The Ebionite Jesus was indeed a great man, he was the greatest prophet in the Mosaic succession. Jesus was the reformer and true executive of the law, and not the Christian Jesus who came to fulfil and satisfy the law. The Ebionites believed that Jesus had become the Christ of God by being the first man to ever fully observe the law. It was at Jesus’ baptism, after he had successfully kept the law, that he was adopted by God as His Son, the Christ. Jesus served as the paradigm for Ebionite believers themselves to become christs (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies 7:22). He represented a new kind of generation, by which the Ebionites might inherit life.
The prominence which the Ebionites gave to the Law fostered a preconceived view of what Christ and the New Testament faith could mean. Not only did their Christology suffer, but they had to reject certain writings which had, and were gaining, authority in early second century Christendom. They revered an excised version of the Gospel of Matthew which gained popularity because of its concern to connect Jesus with the Jewish faith found in the Old Testament. Their negative view of the Pauline corpus stems from his comments regarding the present inadequacy of the Law in light of the work of Christ. The Ebionites took offense at Paul’s statements because, as we have seen, they believed the Law to be the way to justification. The prominence of the Law was also the basis upon which they maintained a Judaistic lifestyle, practised circumcision, and adored Jerusalem.
It would be presumptuous to expect the early church fathers, polemic in nature, to be free of bias, so caution must be observed in evaluating them. However, there is considerable breadth of independent sources, geographically distributed, which mutually confirm a specific array of Ebionite belief. The consensus of most scholars is that we can be certain concerning their observation of the Jewish law for justification, veneration of the Gospel of Matthew, denigration of the apostle Paul, and Judaistic lifestyle. By the fourth century, when Ebionism was waning, it appears that there may have been some diversity regarding their denial of the Virgin Birth, but the thoroughly Judaistic nature of this sect is unanimously and unambiguously affirmed.
Marcion was the leader of another second century sect which stands in stark contrast to Ebionism in its basic features. Marcion was born in the latter half of the first century AD, in Sinope of Pontus in Asia Minor. His father appears to have been a bishop in Sinope and so it is probable that Marcion was raised in a Christian context. Marcion came to Rome, circa 130’s, and fell under the tutelage of a Gnostic Christian by the name of Cerdo. During this period Marcion acquired and developed the concept that there was a dichotomous relationship between the Creator God and the Father of Jesus. Marcion called the Creator God the Demiurge, a Gnostic term, whom he believed was the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Marcion characterized the Demiurge as requiring exact and retributive justice in human affairs which he believed was graphically portrayed in the war and blood of the OT. Marcion, continuing in his dualistic Gnosticism, believed this Demiurge to be thoroughly associated with this created order. Conversely, the Father of Jesus was above the God that created the world, separate and distinct from the material realm. The God of Jesus, out of sheer goodness, manifested himself in his Son to deliver us from this material world and the Creator God identified with it (lrenaeus, Against Heresies 1:27.2).
Marcion believed Christianity was neglecting Paul and overemphasising the instruction and fulfilment aspects of the Old Testament. Using Paul’s public correction of Peter (Galatians 2:12-14), he asserted that the other apostles were errant in their Judaistic tendencies, and Paul was the sole apostle who had remained true to the teachings of Jesus. Consequently, the canon of Marcion only included excised, that is de-Judaized, versions of ten Pauline letters and the Gospel of Luke. Additionally, he taught asceticism and admitted women to the role of bishop.
In AD 144, Marcion was excommunicated from the church at Rome because of (i) the separation he made between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Law; (ii) his dichotomous view of the Father of Jesus and the Creator of the world; and (iii) the expulsion of the OT from the canon of Scripture. lrenaeus and Tertullian easily countered his doctrine (lrenaeus, Against Heresies 3:25.3; Tertullian, Against Marcion 1:3), but, despite their vigorous fight, Marcionism was a growing phenomenon which lasted until the fourth century. In his travellings, he made a substantial impact with his teachings and established a considerable ‘church’. John Clabeaux cites certain scholarly conjecture which estimates that the Marcionites may have outnumbered the non-Marcionites during the 160-70’s in the Empire (Clabeaux, 1992).
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EBIONISM AND MARCIONISM TODAY
Fundamentally, Ebionism was an attempt to retain Judaism with minimal assent to Christianity. On the other hand, Marcionism endeavoured to completely sever itself from any hint of the Jewish heritage. What, if anything, can be learned from examining these sects? Should we endeavour to emulate either of these views? Do we already display these, or similar, views? Why did the early church fathers labour vigorously and adamantly against these movements?
Paul metaphorically demonstrates the proper relationship between OT-Judaism and NT-Christianity through the procedure of grafting in wild branches into the cultivated olive tree of true Israel (Romans 11:17-24). Even non-believing Israelites who come to faith “will be grafted in” (Romans 11:23). Based upon Paul’s metaphor, Ebionism and Marcionism were making an illegitimate pruning of God’s revelatory-redemptive olive tree. They were both, in their own distinct way, severing the branch from the root. The early church fathers correctly saw these views as a threat to sound Christian beliefs and the apostolic tradition to which they stood very close.
Ebionism was content to stay in the near-branchless root. Marcionism eventually withered as a pile of disconnected branches. That is, they both took an ‘either-or’, and not a ‘both-and’, attitude to the relationship between the Jewish faith of the Old Covenant and the New revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the Church and Apostles. Granted, the ‘both-and’ stature poses some very complicated and wrenching problems (cf Acts 15; Galatians; and the historical debate since), but to do less is to do violence to God’s redemptive plan. Both of these sects shared the similar fate of an olive tree which only has its root or its branches -they died. Both emphases are essential!
Of what possible value could this understanding of these two sects be to Christians today? First, heresy is alive and well in Christendom today. Many view the early church as a period where the war for orthodoxy was uniquely prominent and of special significance. However, though our environment is different, the fact and presence of heresy has not changed. Second, generally the heresies which do arise are not novel developments. In other words by having an operating understanding of the heresies of church history we can be better aware and able to identify and rectify our contemporary fallacious conceptions. To the point, the study of Ebionism and Marcionism addresses certain tendencies which are subtle, yet prominent, problems in the religious world today.
What is the status of God’s revelatory-redemptive olive tree today? It is the contention of this paper that we have much to learn from these historical heresies. The branches and the root are not sustaining one another.
Donald Bloesch (1978) reviewed several contemporary Christologies and concluded that the Ebionite perspective of Jesus is the most prominent fallacious Christology today. The modern Ebionite Jesus, Bloesch describes, “is a divinised or Spirit-filled man”, who “becomes a superhuman being but not quite a divine being” (Bloesch, 1978). Emphasis is given to Jesus’ humanity, at the cost of his deity, or adoptionism is revered, to the denial of his pre-existence.
Tertullian commented that historical Ebionism was motivated to vindicate Judaism in the face of burgeoning second century Christianity (Tertullian, Appendix, Against All Heresies 3). This entrenchment of Ebionism is highly significant. The Ebionite penchant to maintain Judaism resulted in the new revelation in Jesus Christ to be abated and subterfuged. This was, and is, the easy way out! When Ebionism compromises the divinity and work of Jesus Christ they undermine and transform the fundamental premise of God’s continuing redemptive work in the New Covenant. Though they may be praised in their affirmation of the rich root of the Jewish heritage, they go astray by not grappling with the full implications of the new revelation of Jesus Christ of which their Jewish heritage warns them. While the Jewish heritage is an integral part of God’s revelatory-redemptive olive tree, it is only a part, and not the whole plan of God. Consequently, this corroborates the Christian insistence of the necessity of God’s revelation of Himself in His Son, Christ Jesus. The root and sap serve to bring about God’s paramount expression of redemption in Christ.
Conversely, Marcionism neglects the significance of the root and sap of Judaism. Marcion’s extraction of large parts of what was becoming recognised as the authoritative writings of the earliest church means that he did not take seriously the apostolic witness of God’s new work in Christ Jesus and the Church. This unsophisticated and excerpted message of Marcion was highly marketable. Clabeaux (1992) stated that Marcion preached one Apostle and one Gospel which were opposed to the Law. But, as we saw with the Ebionites, simplicity does not mean orthodoxy, though it may result in popularity and success. In terms of Paul’s imagery, Marcion’s truncated gospel is a mere unconnected twig on the ground.
Marvin R Wilson identified an unperceived Neo-Marcionism in the church today. In characterizing this phenomenon Wilson (1989) stated, “in our concerted effort to be ‘New Testament’ believers, we have too often unconsciously minimized the place and importance of the Old Testament and the Church’s Hebraic roots”. Wilson (1989) reminded us; “that for a Gentile to have a right relation to God he must humbly accept and appreciate a Jewish Book, believe in a Jewish Lord, and be grafted into a Jewish people, thereby taking on their likeness through a commonly shared stock”.
Halvor Ronning, a Christian scholar living in Jerusalem, posed the important question, “who joins whom?” Ronning responded, “The biblical New Testament answer (vs the ecclesiastical answer).. is that we non-Jews join the Jews by our faith in the Jewish Messiah. We join the faithful remnant of the Jewish People…, those Jews who are the stump whose root is God.. who are faithful to God” (Ronning, 1989). Wilson (1989) labelled the ecclesiastical, or traditional, answer as the “position of post-New testament Christian triumphalism” which is the “common belief today that Gentiles have replaced the Jewish tree, rather than being grafted into it”. The apostle Paul put it this way, “remember, it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you”(Romans 11:18).
The philo-Semitic views of Ebionism led to an exclusion of essential Christian precepts. Similarly, the anti-Judaistic views of Marcionism led to a non-rooted, heritage-less perversion of Christianity. Both Ebionism and Marcionism can be faulted for taking the easy road out of a difficult dilemma. Accepting either the OT or the NT revelation, or failing to give either testament its full reign of authority, is eminently simple and may bring great success. However, it does violence to God’s redemptive work in history, metaphorically, it prunes His revelatory-redemptive olive tree. It is ‘both-and’ and not ‘either-or’.
The simple identification of this theorem does not end the process, rather it is merely the first step toward a larger, more encompassing, and glorious enterprise of understanding God’s one revelatory, mutually affirming, literary deposit, the OT and NT together! One book, two parts.
For Christians this means admitting to our inherited bias against the OT and our Jewish heritage, and embracing the totality of the Holy Scriptures which results in identifying with True Israel. Furthermore, it is the Biblical model to understand our present and future by reference to our past – namely, our Jewish roots. The history of Christians reaches back to Genesis 1:1, and traces itself through the pages of the OT. Jewish history is Christiann history. The utter contradiction of an antisemitic bent is evident. The Bible has one message and heritage (this does not deny the presence of Hellenism in first century Palestine, the issue here is a legacy of faith); to affirm or use just the NT, is to miss essential aspects of God’s Word to us. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful…” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The apostle Paul and the example of the Marcionites warn us against a presumptuous, elitist, or exclusive attitude in solely reverencing the NT or other Christian distinctives while denigrating or denying our Jewish tutelage. Likewise, any presupposed ideology which attaches Christ or Christianity to it is as inherently fallacious as Ebionism.
Bloesch, D G (1978), Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Volume 1., Harper, New York.
Clabeaux, J J (1992), “Marcion in: Freedman, DN (Ed) The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 4, Doubleday, New York.
Ronning, H (1978), The Land of Israel: A Christian-Zionist View. Immanuel 22123.
Wilson, M R (1989), Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith,Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 1 No 3, AntiSemitism, Spring 1993)