Who Were The Ebionites?
The earliest Christians were commonly called Ebionites, meaning "the Poor."
In G. Uhlhorn, "Ebionites," A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology (3rd ed.) (edited by Philip Schaff) Vol. II at pages 684–685 [see PDF at this link], we read:
Ebionites. This designation was at first like 'Nazarenes,' a common name for all Christians, as Epiphanius (d. 403) testifies (Adv. Har. xxix.1) It is derived from the Hebrew Ebion, "poor," and was not given, as Origen supposes, for their low view of Christ." Id. at 684.
Why was this name POOR chosen? Likely because Zephaniah in chapter 3 prophesied of the new kingdom that God will establish, explaining God will "gather the nations" (v.8) and "take away the proud" (v.11), "but I will leave in the midst of thee the afflicted and the poor, and they shall take refuge in the name of Yahweh." (v.12.)
Hence, the POOR (Ebion in Hebrew) was synonymous with these kingdom citizens who would be left when God raptures out the evil from earth. See Bible's True View on the Rapture.
How close to the orthodox center of Christianity were they?
Paul once says the Jerusalem apostles under James asked Paul to remember the "poor" at Jerusalem If you translated into Hebrew the word "poor" you would have the word EBION. Paul apparently meant the Christians at Jerusalem were the EBION -- meaning the name by which they went. Paul said he did intend to remember them by gifts.
Ebionites on Paul.
Over a hundred years later than the first Ebionites -- in about 180 AD, Irenaeus -- a Bishop from Gaul (modern France) -- clearly describes those who persisted in the designation as Ebionites. They rejected Paul and followed the Law, relying upon Matthew's Gospel. In Against the Heresies, 1.26 Irenaeus says:
"Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavor to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practice circumcision, persevere in the observance of 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." (Against Heresies 1.26.)
This is comparable to Eusebius who in 325 AD wrote in Ecclesiastical History 3.27:
"These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle [Paul], 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."
However, based upon the Ebionite writing from the 200s -- the Clementine Homolies -- the Ebionites apparently allowed Paul's writings to be joined to Scripture, explaining that God intended their presence solely as a test, in particular of the Gentiles. The Clementines speak of "Simon Magus" -- a code-word meaning Paul. In chapter 39, Apostle Peter is speaking, and says Simon Magus ("Paul") intends to speak of "chapters against God that are added to Scripture for the sake of temptation that he may seduce as many wretched ones as he can from the love of God." (CCEL at this link.) Peter explains in chapter 4 "Snare to the Gentiles" that God long ago explained the "mystery of the books which are able to deceive...since even the falsehoods of Scripture are with good reason presented for a test." (See link.)
These words from Peter of the Clementines reflect the principle in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. It says God allows false prophets with true signs and wonders to test whether they can seduce you from following the Law given Moses, and thus test whether you love God with your whole heart mind and soul. Apparently, the Ebionites favored letting Paul's writings be connected to the Scripture as a test to the Gentiles -- whether they could be seduced by them, and thus whether they loved God with their whole heart mind and soul.
As to Matthew's Gospel in Hebrew, the same Homolies say it was to be guarded zealously in one place and copied to only those the most upright who were circumcised and live piously.
Accepted Luke; What About Acts?
The Ebionites also accepted Luke and some argue Acts too. In Patrick Gray's Paul as a Problem in History (2016) in footnote 13, he says:
"Irenaeus also argues that the Ebionites ought to accept the letters [of Paul] if they make use of Luke-Acts, which gives a positive evaluation of Paul. (Adversus Haereses 3.15.1.)"
Gray cites Irenaeus's argument that if the Ebionites "made use of them," i.e., the words of Luke's gospel, they should accept "when he (Luke) tells us [in Acts] the Lord spoke to Paul," etc. This proves Irenaeus understood that the Ebionites accepted Luke's Gospel. But Gray's idea that this meant they also accepted Acts appears an incorrect inference. Rather, Irenaeus was saying that because they accept Luke's Gospel, they should accept passages in Acts but with Irenaeus' spin on Luke's words in Acts. Yet, it is possible that the Ebionites did accept Acts, but likely not with the spin that Irenaeus put on Luke's words about the wilderness-of-Damascus event. Thus, Gray overstated what Irenaeus said in Against Heresies 3.15; it appears only to justify saying the Ebionites accepted Luke's gospel.
NOTE ON ERRONEOUS ASSUMPTION OF IRENAEUS: As to the argument itself, Irenaeus had a wrong assumption. Luke never actually says that Jesus is talking from Luke's own belief or knowledge. Luke simply records Paul heard a voice, and then records what the voice said ("I am Jesus,") with Luke never vouching that indeed this was the true Lord Jesus speaking. The same is true of Ananias' vision where Jesus supposedly speaks to him, and Ananias relayed the vision substance to Paul. Luke records what Ananias says to Paul, never vouching that what Ananias said was the true Lord Jesus speaking. While Irenaeus cites words of Luke in Acts that the Ebionites should accept, this does not mean that the Ebionites already accepted Acts.
NOTE ON HOW EBIONITES LIKELY READ ACTS. Irenaeus had an overconfident view of the value of Acts to support Paul among those who know the Bible. There is much information in Acts that undermines Paul for one who has Biblical knowledge. Specifically, on the surface, Luke-Acts was designed to convince a Roman investigator named Theophilus. He was likely investigating on behalf of Nero's Court at Rome as it prepared to decide the fate of a Roman citizen, Paulus of Tarsus. (See link.)
Hence, the pagan judges at Rome who would hear Theophilus' investigation report would be impressed that the Python Priestess at Philippi endorsed Paul's "way of salvation" (Acts 16:16). She was considered the most important oracle-seer of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Many paid for her prophecies. This fact about the Priestess' endorsement of Paul's salvation doctrine likely helped win Paul his case in the pagan court of Rome more than any other fact.
But don't you think the Ebionites knew this was a problem from a Christian perspective? Luke records that Paul later cast out a demon in the Python Priestess. This was after she had for "many days" been telling everyone to follow Paul's "way of salvation." A pagan would not realize the harm this represents to Paul's validity among True Christians. But a discerning Bible-believer would see this means demons endorsed Paul's "way of salvation." Hence, Irenaeus' argument underestimated the value of Luke-Acts for Ebionites to prove Paul was following the wrong Jesus, and that Luke included facts helpful for acquittal in a pagan court but which in a Christian court necessarily has a different outcome. For more on Luke-Acts as a non-Pauline work, see our article.
Ebionites on Sabbath.
The Ebionites observed both Sabbath (rest on Saturday) and the Lord's Day (celebrations over Jesus' resurrection). Eusebius wrote of the Ebionites:
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. (Eccl. Hist. 3:27.5.)
Ebionite General Beliefs.
According to Hippolythus, a converted Jew from the middle 200s, the Ebionites believed
"the world was made by Him who is in reality God. ... They live comformably to the customs of the Jews, alleging that they are justified according to the Law, and that Jesus was justified by fulfilling the Law. And therefore it was that the Savior was the Christ of God, since not one of the rest of mankind had observed the Law completely. Had any one else fulfilled the commandments of the Law, he would have been that Christ...[Hence] when Ebionites thus fulfill the law, they are able to become Christs, for they assert that our Lord Himself was a man in like sense with all humanity." (Hippolytus, Refut. Omn. Haer. vii. 34).
Hippolytus was a critic, so some of this one must take with a grain of salt.
Several sources say the Ebionites practiced circumcision, yet never say they required Gentiles to be circumcised. Tertullian, in de Praescriptione Haereticorum 33, in his poem, Carmen adversus Marcionitas, lists circumcision specifically as an Ebionite practice. Origen says the same in his Homilia in Genesim 3.5. So does Jerome in Epitulae 116.16 and in his commentary on Galatians (3.5.3), as does Rufinas' Commentarius in Symbolum 39. Epiphanius is not an unbiased source on Ebionites, but even he says the Ebionites practiced circumcision. (Panarion 30.2.2). Yet again, none of these sources said this pratice was necessary for a Gentile to be saved / become a Christian.
Elsewhere the following sources say the Ebionites were observant of Torah/the Law: Irenaeus, Origen, in Contra Celsum 5.61, Commitarius in Matthaeum 11.12 (Greek); Hippolytus in Refutatio Omnium Haereses 7.34, 10.22; Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica 3.27, 6.17; Jerome in de Situ et Nominibus Locorum Hebraicorum 112, Commentarius in Esiam 1.1.12, and Commentarius in Matthaeum 2.12.2; and Epiphanius Panarion 30.2.2.
As to Jews in Christ: Who Were Orthodox Christians? Who Were The Apostates?
For this adherence to the Law, Ebionites were deemed apostates by at least the third century. But notice that, as the Jewish Encylopedia explains below, in Judaism that those who were not observant of the Law were apostates. In agreement, James in Acts 21:21 spoke to Paul about hearing Paul was involved in "apostasy" (Greek, apostasian). (See Greek tab for Acts 21:21.)
James was concerned that Paul taught Jews coming to Christ could forsake the Law given Moses. James asked for Paul's reassurance that this was not the case by Paul observing the Temple ritual in Numbers 6. Paul complied, never revealing Paul did indeed teach the Law is dead even as to Jews, as reflected in Romans 7:1-7. In line with James's concern, the Jewish Encyclopedia says apostasy
is applied in a religious sense to signify rebellion and rebels against God and the Law, desertion and deserters of the faith of Israel... Accordingly it is stated in I Mace. 2:15 that “the officers of the king compelled the people to apostatize,” that is, to revolt against the God of Israel; and Jason, the faithless high priest, is “pursued by all and hated as a deserter of the law.” (II Mace. 5:8)... [Gratz in History of the Jews explains apostasy as:] “those of the Jewish race who voluntarily apostatized from the holy God and from the law of God, transgressing the divine commandments for the belly’s sake.” (“Apostasy and Apostates from Judaism,” Jewish Encyclopedia (editors Isidore Singer, Cyrus Adler) (Funk and Wagnalls, 1912) at 13.)
For links to all early church texts on Ebionites, see http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/main/irenaeus/ebionites.shtml
Hence, the derision which the Ebionites received for following the Law by Epiphanius in the 300s is a persecution they suffered for what our Lord said was obeying and following His words, e.g., Matt. 5:17-19. Practicing circumcision is itself not wrong or heretical. For in the Law "Sons of Israel" had broader duties than the Law imposed upon "sojourners in your gates" (Gentiles). Circumcision is a perfect example. It only applies to a "son of Israel" under Lev 12:1-3, not Gentiles (unless they sought to enter the Temple), as was implied from the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15. The same James who gave that apostlic ruling in Paul's presence in Acts 15 even years later -- in Acts 21 -- wants confirmation from Paul that he does not teach "apostasia" by Jewish followers from duties upon Jews, including circumcision. Hence, the Ebionites were completely orthodox on the Law and Christianity. The "apostasia" in the apostolic church would have been had Paul ever said he did teach against circumcision for Jewish believers.
Eusebius on the Ebionites' View of Christ
Roman Catholicism by 325 AD came to a docetic view of Jesus -- He only appeared to be human but His flesh was divine from birth. Instead of Jesus being a man indwelled by God as Jesus Himself repeatedly said He was (John 14), the Roman Catholics eventually taught that Jesus supposedly came only in the appearance of a man. (Protestants who see this error correct this by claiming Jesus was 100% God and 100% man. More accurately, a 100% man was filled fully 100% by God's Shekinah presence.)
Eusebius in the History of the Church wrote that the Ebionites were heretics for insisting Jesus was a true man:
The Heresy of the Ebionites
The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance them, for he draws his information largely from Justin Martyr 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, endeavored 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 [i.e., Paul], 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 our Savior. Wherefore, in the 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 in Hebrew. (Eusebius, "Ebionites," Church History 3:27 exceprted A Select Library of Nicene & Post-Nicene Writings of the Christian Church (ed. Philip Schaff & Edward Wace)(Christian Literature Co.: 1890) Vol. 1 at 158-59.)
A link to all Patristic mention of the Ebionites is at this link -- the original Latin texts.
Ebionites On Authority of Apostles
In the Recognitions of Clement (transl 400 AD by Rufinus) which is typically ascribed to the Ebionites from the 200s, we read through a speech of Peter to Simon Magus (a cipher, scholars concur, for Paul) that their view (from the mouth of Peter) is that an Apostle only had authority to relay Jesus's words, and a true Apostle would never inject any new teaching:
Then Peter: “Do not rashly take exception, O Simon, against the things which you do not understand. In the first place, I shall answer your assertion, that I set forth the words of my Master, and from them resolve matters about which there is still doubt. Our Lord, when He sent us apostles to preach, enjoined us to teach all nations628628 .the things which were committed to us. We cannot therefore speak those things as they were spoken by Himself. For our commission is not to speak, but to teach those things, and from them to show how every one of them rests upon truth. Nor, again, are we permitted to speak anything of our own. For we are sent; and of necessity he who is sent delivers the message as he has been ordered, and sets forth the will of the sender. For if I should speak anything different from what He who sent me enjoined me, I should be a false apostle, not saying what I am commanded to say, but what seems good to myself. Whoever does this, evidently wishes to show himself to be better than he is by whom he is sent, and without doubt is a traitor. If, on the contrary, he keeps by the things that he is commanded, and brings forward most clear assertions of them, it will appear that he is accomplishing the work of an apostle; and it is by striving to fulfil this that I displease you. Blame me not, therefore, because I bring forward the words of Him who sent me. But if there is aught in them that is not fairly spoken, you have liberty to confute me; but this can in no wise be done, for He is a prophet, and cannot be contrary to Himself. (Recognitions of Clement XXXIII.)
For we apostles are sent to expound the sayings and affirm the judgments of Him who has sent us; but we are not commissioned to say anything of our own, but to unfold the truth, as I have said, of His words.” (Recognition of Clement XXXIV.)
Ebionites on Paul as Apostate: The Suppression Such A View Ever Existed
Irenaeus (200s), Eusebius (early 300s) and Epiphanius each describe the Ebionites as regarding Paul as an apostate for his position on the Law's abrogation. We provided a few of these quotes above. We will provide more below.
Christian scholars rarely quote or mention these references, apparently in the hope that by not mentioning them, we--the flock--will not have any questions about Paul arise in our mind. As Hyam Maccoby--a Jewish scholar--said:
"In considering the background of Paul, I have returned to one of the earliest accounts of Paul in existence, that given by the Ebionites ["the poor"], as reported by Epiphanius. This account has been neglected by scholars for quite inadequate and tendentious reasons " (Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker Paul and The Invention of Christianity (Harper & Row, 1987) at xii.)
The quotes to which Maccoby is referring are these:
“And these reckoned that all the epistles of the apostle ought to be denied, calling him an apostate from the law, and, using only the Gospel called according to the Hebrews, they make little of the word of the rest.” (Eusebius, History of the Church 3.27.4.) See http://www.textexcavation.com/gospelhebrews.html
"[The Ebionite] thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of [Paul], whom they called an apostate from the Law.” (Eusebius, Church Hist 3:26.)
They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the Law." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.22, 1.26.)
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.)
Thus, these are quotes rarely related in the history of the early church by Christian historians.
The Coded Language of the Recognitions of Clement
Scholars are unanimous in their view that the Ebionites used the name Simon Magus in their work Recognition of Clement as a cipher for Paul. They were forced to use a key like this so as to preserve their works from destruction. This rewrite may have happened around 325 AD, as Eusebius and others regarded them now as heretics.
As Alexander Roberts, the editor of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, explains: "This passage has therefore been regarded as a covert attack upon the Apostle Paul." Roberts explains that the wording in Homily 17 of the Clementine Homilies is where Peter says his opponent claims he "stands condemned." Roberts says this is a clear allusion to Paul's telling Peter he "stands condemned" in Gal. 2:11. Roberts then explains: "This passage has therefore been regarded as a covert attack upon the Apostle Paul."
Likewise, Robert Griffin-Jones, a pro-Pauline scholar, admits Paul is the true adversary in this passage: "Paul is demonized...in a fictional dispute [in the Clementine Homilies] in which Peter trounces him." (Robert Griffith-Jones, The Gospel According to Paul (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2004) at 260.)
Finally, Bart Ehrman concurs in this Homily that "Simon Magus in fact is a cipher for none other than Paul himself." (Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (Oxford: 2006) at 79.)
Another code word for Paul other than Simon Magus was the label "Enemy."
In the Preface to the Clementine Homolies we find a letter of Peter to James that refers to an enemy with lawless teachings. It now is in code--referring to an unnamed "enemy," and it says:
"For some among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferrred a lawless and absurd doctrine of a man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive to distort my word by interpretation of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the Law ... But that may God forbid! For to do such a thing means to act contrary to the Law of God which was made to Moses and was confirmed by our Lord in its everlasting continuance. For He said: `For heaven and earth will pass away, but not one jot or tittle shall pass away from the Law.'" Letter of Peter to James, 2.3-5 (presumed 92 A.D.)
There is a history in those times about using coded writing. It was designed to preserve one's points to a generation after censorship was lifted who could decipher the original persons to be identified, or the sense in which false praise was made. Just so we know this is not dishonesty in the Ebionites, let's see the example of Eusebius -- later in life -- who had to feign praise when he was, as we can decipher now, criticizing Constantine. To decipher this, we must find the code Eusebius was using.
Eusebius' Coded Writing Close in Time Typifies The Technique
Specifically, Eusebius, a bishop at Rome, and himself earlier a critic of the Ebionites in 325 AD, by 337 AD was trapped. He had to write a servile biography of the Roman Emperor Constantine who by now transformed the church into a very pagan institution. Unable to speak out against Constantine, Eusebius copied the Ebionites' technique to express dissent to Constantine's changes by using coded language.
Eusebius used slobbery praise that was so excessive that we today can see we should not take it at all seriously. It could pass the attention of a deluded and egotistical monarch like Constantine. So to interpet Eusebius correctly, one must find the key, and for this "one must strip away all his sycophant comments about Constantine he gave in his 'Introduction' ...and one will be left with some revealing information that shows the real character of Constantine and the actual type of government that Eusebius thought Constantine was introducing." (Ernest Martin, The Secrets of Golgatha (1996) at 221.)
Eusebius tipped off his readers who were cogently reading. He mentioned in his Introduction to the life of Constantine that Scripture itself is often written in a "disguised form" or in a "veiled way." Id. at 222. Eusebius mentions in the same context that when Plato spoke to the "unitiated" he would refer to "gods," but among the "initiated," who could accept his belief in one God, he would speak of "God." Id., at 224. Eusebius was confessing thereby, amidst glowing and almost incessant praises of Constantine, to the necessity to speak one way in front of those unaware / uninitiated while hoping the initiated might gather the true meaning of his words.
Eusebius' struggle, and the one of the Ebionites before Eusebius, is hard for us to appreciate in the USA. We do not know what it is like to live under censorship. But the Ebionites, like Eusebius after them, had no choice but to veil their meaning if their writings were to survive. And by the time of Recognitions of Clement were written or re-written, their writings would have been destroyed had the name Paul been used rather than Simon Magus. While censorship may have been possible in the 200s, we know for certain Paul had become a hero in Rome in the early 300s. Why? Because his words preached the abolition of Saturday Sabbath. (See "Paul Abolished Sabbath.") By then, Paul had become a pivotal charachter for Constantine to support. Constantine wanted Sun-Day -- the day of rest he commemorated to his God-of-the-Sun (Sol Invictus) -- to become the new Sabbath. So at least by that era, the Ebionites had to rewrite their stories to appear to be about Simon Magus so the Ebionites could preserve for a different era, and an astute audience, about whom they were speaking.
Ebionites On Birth of Christ
The Ebionites insisted Jesus was sired in the flesh by a David heir - Joseph. By 180 AD, due to an obvious mistranslator's illicit license with the text, a virgin birth account, had been added to Matthew. Later a single line was added to Luke to inject a virgin birth account. See our article "Virgin Birth Issues."
Irenaeus circa 180 AD criticized the Ebionites for insisting Jesus’ father was Joseph and not solely conceived by a virgin. (This is the first documented reference to the virgin birth account in church history -- but we are presuming his writings themselves were not tampered with.) Irenaeus explains:
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.)
Indeed, almah in Isaiah 7:14 means in Hebrew "young woman." Ireneus refers in this quote to the second century Jewish correctors -- Theodotion and Aquila. They separately retranslated the OT Bible into Greek, and each had "young woman" as correct, removing "parthenos" in the Septuagint version which primarily means young virgin. (The Septuagint also used 'parthenos' for persons who were clearly married, not virgins, and thus can mean "young woman" too. See Tovia Singer's article. Incidentally, Singer denies there ever was a Septuagint other than of the Torah. However, see I.L. Segilman, The Septuagint Version of Isaiah (Leiden: 1948).)
The Septuagint Isaiah of 257 BC poorly translated almah as parthenos -- which primarily means virgin in Greek. Theodotion and Aquila used a Greek word that excludes the concept of a virgin. Only had the Hebrew been "bethulah" in Isaiah 7:14 would "virgin" have been intended.
Incidentally, the Ebionites relied upon an original Matthew uncorrupted on this issue. In Matthew, where the passage of Isaiah 7:14 was quoted, Jerome asked the Pope for guidance on making the Vulgate translation. Jerome explained all the OT quotes in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew used Greek translations that matched best the Hebrew original, not the Septuagint easily recognized errors / ambiguous terms. Evidently, Jerome meant his comment to include Isaiah 7:14, and thus Matthew originally had in the earliest manuscripts "young woman" in Greek (similar to Theodotian and Aquila's later translation), and not the Septuagint ambiguity of "parthenos" -- primarily meaning "young virgin." But the Pope answered Jerome that Jerome had to employ the Septuagint version of the passages -- meaning Jerome must correct Matthew's original Hebrew-to-Greek translations to instead conform to the Septuagint that had consistently recognizable errors / weak choices such as this one. In this manner, our texts became corrupted apparently in this particular to speak of a virgin birth.
Next, near 236 AD Hippolytus wrote of the Ebionites and their belief in the true humanity of Christ like all of us:
They live conformably to the customs of the Jews, alleging that they are justified according to the Law, and saying that Jesus was justified by fulfilling the Law. And therefore it was, (according to the Ebionæans,) that (the Saviour) was named (the) Christ of God and Jesus, Or, “that the Christ of God was named Jesus” (Bunsen) since not one of the rest (of mankind) had observed completely the Law. For if even any other had fulfilled the commandments (contained) in the law, he would have been that Christ.... They assert that our Lord Himself was a man in a like sense with all (the rest of the human family). (Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Haeresium 7.22.)
This implies that the Ebionites did not have a virgin birth account.
Finally, Epiphanius in the mid-300s says:
The Ebionites, following these, assert that He was begotten by Joseph.... http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xxii.html
In Epiphanius' Panarion 30, he speaks of the Ebionites as founded by Ebion -- a misconception -- not knowing "Ebion" means "Poor" in Hebrew. Thus, Epiphanius depicts Ebion as holding doctrines of a sect he founded called Ebionites. With that misstep, easily corrected, we now read:
For this Ebion was contemporary of the Jews, and since he was with them, he derived from them that Christ was conceived by sexual intercourse and the seed of a man Joseph. I have already said that he agreed with others [i.e., Christians] in everything with this one difference - his adherence to his observance of the Sabbath, and all other Jewish and Samaritan observances....This sect now forbids celebacy....Their origin came after the fall of Jerusalem....He first lived in a village called Cocabe in the district of Qarnaim - also called Ashtoroth - in Bashanitis. There he began where...the Nazareans I have spoken about came from...Ebion was connected with them.... (Panarion of Epiphanius (Brill 2009) Vol. I at pages 131 - 132.)
Hence, the Ebionites contended Jesus was a man begotten by Joseph. Therefore, it appears that there was no virgin birth account in the Gospel of Matthew they used.
Fate of Ebionites versus Essenes
Some modern followers of Ebionite doctrine call themselves Essenes. They believe the Essenes of whom Josephus spoke most closely aligns with their views, and they believe these were the true Ebionites. At the website Essene.net, we read their conclusion on the fate of the "Essenes" aka Ebionites:
It is apparent that many of the doctrines, traditions, and writings of the earlier Nasarene disciples of Yeshua were either destroyed or altered over time by those adhering to Roman, rather than Essene, culture. "The Way" of the early nature loving Nasarenes eventually began to be labeled heretical, and all who held to these original beliefs were persecuted and their scriptures banned and burned. This persecution, so systematic and state supported, resulted in the rewriting of history and scripture and in the recasting and reinterpretation of the meaning and mission of the Essene Yeshua. (New Testament Alterations.)
I would only correct this to say these alterations were intended to obscure the original apostolic view of the true Jesus. But I do not agree that Jesus was an Essene. Nor do I agree that the Ebionites were Essenes.
Dr. Tabor on Ebionites
In his recent book, Paul & Jesus (2013), Dr. Tabor comments on the Ebionites:
"The best known group, and the one that drew the most fire from orthodox Pauline circles, were the Ebionites.
...it is certainly plausible to assume that the Ebionites represent a link to the Jerusalem apostles, at least in their main ideas."(pp. 223-224)
Dr Tabor concludes the last chapter by stating:
"The ultimate irony with regard to what Christianity became is the possiblilty that these voices that no longer speak might well represent something closer to the message of Jesus than do the teachings of Paul or Christianity itself."(p. 225)
Evidence Ebionites Rejection of Paul Was Orthodox
Paul in Philippians mentions the region which first financially supported Paul .. those of Philippi:
As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. (Philippians 4:15. NLT.)
This refers to Acts 17 when Paul leaves Philippi for Macedon. This means even Antioch had not earlier financially supported Paul. This is surprising because this means Paul never received financial support for any Christian activity for more than 14 years after his Damascus Road experience. And this remained true through and after the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 with the 12 apostles. Think about this -- Antioch believers had never even financially helped Paul despite sending him to Jerusalem for the conference in Acts 15. Nor did the Jerusalem believers including the 12 apostles help Paul financially even after listening to his testimony about the Gentile mission at the conference in Acts15.
As one commentator mentions about Philippians 4:15, this financial gift happened near events in Acts 17 -- a chapter immediately following the Python Priestess' endorsement of Paul's "way of salvation" in Acts 16. In the same commentary, the author notes this means Antioch had never supported Paul earlier, even though he was sent by Antioch believers to the conference in Acts 15. To understand the next quote, realize Philippi is in Macedonia. With that in mind, we read:
But ye only (ei me humeis monoi). Not even Antioch contributed anything but good wishes and prayers for Paul‘s work (Acts 13:1-3). (Studylight.org.)
when I departed from Macedonia — (Acts 17:14). The Philippians had followed Paul with their bounty when he left Macedonia and came to Corinth. 2 Corinthians 11:8, 2 Corinthians 11:9 thus accords with the passage here, the dates assigned to the donation in both Epistles agreeing....(Studylight.org.)
Then when we compare that the first Christians at Philippi in Macedonia were positively directed to Paul in Acts 16 by the highly popular and influential demon-possessed Python priestess of Philippi, we see that NO CHRISTIAN FINANCIALLY SUPPORTED PAUL FOR OVER 14 YEARS, including the 12 Apostles. Moreover, no support went to Paul UNTIL AND ONLY AFTER THE PYTHON PRIESTESS ENDORSES PAUL AT PHILIPPI, AND THEN ONLY AMONG THE PHILIPPIANS. Lest we forget, the Python priestess was the most impactful prophetess of the ancient world -- to whom many paid for her prophecies. Royalty sought her favor to win favor with the populace.
Yet, we concluded -- which Luke missed -- that when the Python Priestess endorsed Paul's "plan of salvation," she was under the influence of a demon until Paul "many days" after her endorsement then finally cast out that demon. See our article, Python Priestess of Phillippi endorses Paul
So why would only believers in the entire Christian world other than Philippi be unwilling to support Paul financially until more than 14 years after his Damascus road experience? Until only after the Python priestess, the most influential figure on the ancient world avowedly serving the Denomia endorsed Paul's "way of salvation"?
It would appear the Ebionites ... including the 12 apostles...dominated Christianity up through Paul's period of evangelism until at least a significant time after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Perhaps those earliest Christians persisted through 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, causing the Ebionites to be scattered.