The Ebionites and Paul

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Steven Tomkins declares Ebion to be his” favourite heretic” in a recent article in the Guardian.    Tomkins writes on religion for the Guardian and is a frequent contributor to Ship of Fools.   This is a good article , but perpetuates some ideas which have become commonly accepted, but are not necessarily so.

Tomkins describes Ebionism as “one of the earliest Christian heresies – necessarily so because it involved staying closer and truer to the Jewish roots of Christianity, in many ways, than the mainstream church did.”  First, I agree that the “roots of Christianity” are in fact Jewish, but that the Ebionites stayed “truer to the Jewish roots” is problematic.   This is to assume that there was a core of Jewish belief, or a standard Judaism, by which a sect could be judged to be more or less heretical.  In the first century, that is simply not the case.  The Ebionites were like the Essenes, a more radical group within the varieties of Judaism in the first  century who had some beliefs about the messiah.  In the Ebionites case, Jesus was  the messiah.

Second, assuming that the Ebionites were active by the end of the first century, they were just one of several voices trying to figure out what / who Jesus claimed to be.  Jesus appeared to be a human, he claimed to be the Jewish messiah, although fulfilling the Servant Songs of Isaiah rather than military deliverer of Psalms of Solomon.  But he also put himself in the place of God as well.  The story on Mark 2 illustrates that Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sin, an implicit claim of divinity.  Like John’s Gospel, the Ebionites tried to put this data together — was Jesus a man (prophet, messiah) or was God?  And if he was God, how does “fit” into a Jewish worldview?

I think that this is the same thing Paul tried to do as well. He was a Jewish scholar who encountered a resurrected Jesus.  For Paul, Jesus was the divine Messiah who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice.  The book of Romans tries to work out the implications of this fact.

Tomkins goes on to report that the Ebionites “also rejected all the writings of Paul from their New Testament, a stance that more than a few Christians today would have some sneaking sympathy for.”   This reflects the all-too-common view that Paul somehow misunderstood Jesus, or worse, ignored him to create the church.  Usually there is a historical error in this wort of statement.  I fully agree that the church of the first century is completely different that the medieval Catholic church.  Tomkins is correct that by the fourth century the Jewish roots are completely lost.  I am of the opinion that the religious structure of the Roman world overwhelmed the church and (in my view) corrupted the church as it was intended.

Paul did not hatch a plot to completely corrupt Jesus’ pure teachings.  Paul was an interpreted of the person and work of Jesus, writing before the Gospels were even written. While I am sure he knew traditional teachings of Jesus, Paul was creating a theology based on what Jesus did, his death and resurrection, not what he said.

I suspect there are many within the church who think that Paul created the medieval Catholic church, and we are far better off if we dispense with Paul and get back to Jesus’ pure teachings.  My point here is that the issue is not Jesus or Paul.  Paul was one of the interpreters of Jesus within early Judaism, as were John and Matthew.