Early Use of the Name. The name applied first to Christians in general, then to Jewish Christians, and finally to heretical Jewish Christians. To Jewish Christians this name was given because they were generally poor (Hebr, ebyon, ebyonim); and this poverty, especially characteristic of the Christians of Jerusalem evoked from the pagan world for the whole sect the contemptuous appellation "the poor" (cf. Minucius Felix, Octavius, xxxvi.). Subsequently its application was limited to Jewish Christians (Origen, Contra Celsum, ii. 1). When a portion of the Jewish Church became separate and heretical, the designation marked this division exclusively. In the fourth century Epiphanius, Jerome and Theodoret used it of a separate party within the Jewish Church distinct from the Nazarenes. Many of the fathers derived the term from a supposed founder of the sect called Ebion (Hippolytus, Philosophoumena, vii. 34; Tertullian, Hær., xxxiii.; De carne Christi, xiv.; Epiphanius, Hær., xxx. 1), said to have lived at Pella after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The sources for the history of Ebionism, or of Jewish Christianity, are very meager. Neither the New Testament nor the extracanonical literature know of any writings coming directly from them. The notices in the early fathers are confused; those in later fathers like Epiphanius and Jerome belong to too late a time to justify inferences as to an earlier existence. Several of the fathers give a picture of the Jewish Christians of their times as it was presented to them and according to their subjective interests.
Three Groups Mentioned or Implied. The doctrinal position in Jewish Christianity was not such as to produce different sects. A stronger contrast existed only between ordinary Jewish Christianity and syncretistic Gnostic Christianity, while the former divides into a milder and a stricter party. In the New Testament three groups are apparent. The heretics of the Epistle to the Colossians prefigure Gnostic Jewish Christians; the Christians called Ebionites by Epiphanius appear in the New Testament as those who observed the Mosaic law, but did not make it binding upon Gentile Christians. Besides these there were the Pharisaic Jewish Christians, who insisted upon the observance of the Mosaic law and of circumcision by all, and rejected Paul as a false apostle. Both the latter parties were known to Justin (Trypho, xlvii.). Between the time of Justin and Irenæus the complete separation of Jewish Christianity must have been consummated. Irenæus described the Ebionites as Jewish Christians who insisted upon the observance of the whole Jewish law, rejected Paul as a heretic and used only the Gospel of Matthew. Their teaching agreed with that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates, denying the virgin-birth, and regarding Jesus as a mere man.
Christology the Distinguishing Doctrine. While the importance of observance of the Jewish law was diminishing, the Christological question became crucial. To regard Christ as mere man was considered specifically Ebionitic. Origen (Contra Celsum, v. 61) distinguished between two branches of Ebionites, those who denied and those who accepted the miraculous birth, but says of both that they rejected the epistles of Paul (Contra Celsum, i. 65).Those two groups of Ebionites dwelling in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea had little influence upon the nascent Catholic Church. The case was different with the third group, the syncretistic Gnostic Jewish Christians, whom alone Epiphanius calls Ebionites, though he knew other parties related to them. Those Ebionites represented a syncretistic Judaism which combined theosophic speculation with ascetic tendencies. Heathenish elements derived from Asiatic religions were combined with Jewish monotheism; the Old Testament became an object of criticism and parts were eliminated, angelic powers played a great part. That type of Judaism, in absorbing Christian elements, became a syncretistic Jewish Christianity. Jesus was only a man upon whom descended the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at his baptism, whereby he became a prophet. Circumcision and daily ablutions were regarded important; sacrifices were rejected; and the Old Testament was acknowledged only in part. Christianity was a purified Mosaism; Paul was opposed and rejected. See ELKESAITES.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The sources are indicated in the text in the writings of Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Hegesippus, and Origen. Collections of sources more or less complete and of later literature are made in A. Schliemann, Die Clementinen, pp. 362-522, Hamburg, 1844; A. Ritschl, Die Entstehung der alt-katholischen Kirche, pp. 152 sqq., Bonn, 1857; A. Hilgenfeld, Novum Testamentum extra canonem, Leipsic, 1866. Consult: J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians, Dissertation iii., London, 1890; G. Uhlhorn, Die Homilien und Recognitionen des Clemens Romanus, pp. 383 sqq., Göttingen, 1854; D. Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus, 2 vols., St. Petersburg, 1856; A. Hilgenfeld, Judenthum und Judenchristenthum, Leipsic, 1886;.T. Zahn, Kanon, II, ii. 624 sqq., ib. 1891; Harnack, Litteratur, I. i. 625 sqq.; Neander, Christian Church, i. 344-364 et passim; Schaff, Christian Church, ii. 428-432; DCB, ii. 24-28.