Ebionism was a false view of the nature of Jesus Christ that arose in the second century. Ebionites (or Ebioneans) denied Jesus’ divinity and believed that Jesus was the Son of God only by virtue of His being “adopted” by God; according to Ebionism, Jesus was a descendant of David and a gifted man, but nothing more. They rejected the epistles of Paul—for whom they held a special animus—and only accepted one gospel (Matthew’s) as containing some truth. Ebionism also taught the necessity of keeping the Jewish law. On many levels, Ebionism was heretical.
The origins of Ebionism are obscure, but the heresy most likely traces back to the earliest days of the church. The first Christian writer to mention them by name was Irenaeus in the late second century. Other writers who wrote against Ebionism include Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. The Ebionites were the heirs apparent of the Judaizers who stirred up trouble in the apostolic age (see Acts 15:1; Galatians 1:6–9; 2:16, 21). One theory explaining the source of the word Ebionism is that it comes from an Aramean word meaning “poor” or “lowly.” If this theory is true, then Ebionites considered themselves the “poor ones,” i.e., “humble” followers of Jesus.
The Ebionites crafted their own “gospel” by revising the Gospel of Matthew; they called their book “The Gospel According to the Hebrews.” This book, which presents Jesus as a mere human, divides Jesus’ life into two parts: pre-baptism and post-baptism. According to Ebionism, at Jesus’ baptism there appeared a bright light and a voice from heaven said, “This day have I begotten thee.” In that moment, Jesus “became” Christ, according to Ebionism, and was imbued with power to fulfill the Messiah’s mission—although He remained a man, not God, throughout His ministry. According to Tertullian, the Ebionites considered Jesus to be a wise and gifted person, on the level of Solomon, but not as great as Moses.
Since Ebionites rejected the divinity of Christ, they also rejected the virgin birth. In their glorification of the Law of Moses, they believed that Jesus Himself was justified by keeping the Law. According to Ebionism, if one could just follow Jesus’ example and keep the Law perfectly, then he could also become a “christ” and be justified by God.
The works-based salvation taught in Ebionism is explicitly condemned in Scripture, most notably in Paul’s writings: “A person is not justified by the works of the law. . . . By the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20). Because of Paul’s countering of their doctrine, the Ebionites accused him of being a Gentile and denied his apostolic credentials, saying he had never been called by God. They also attacked his personal character, calling him deceitful, proud, and bitter.
The early form of Ebionism is sometimes referred to as Pharisaic Ebionism to distinguish it from a later form known as Essene or Gnostic Ebionism, which was a more ascetic and separated form of the original. The latter form of Ebionism was closely related to the Essene movement.
Ebionism is clearly refuted in the Bible. The truth about Jesus Christ is that He is the pre-existent Son of God; He did not “become” the Son through adoption, nor was He “imbued” with “Christ power” at His baptism. He was and is the eternal Second Person of the Trinity. “About the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom’” (Hebrews 1:8, quoting Psalm 45:6). “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
Ebionism lasted about two hundred years but eventually petered out. The Ebionites either chose to return to full-fledged Judaism, rejecting Christ altogether, or they moved into a more orthodox version of Christianity.