A Short History of the Ebionite Movement
There are two phases of the Ebionite Movement, and possibly two streams of thought. The two phases are split by time, and place. The ancient Ebionites ('Evyonim) are described in some histories of Christianity, and often refered to as Jewish Christianity. The second phase began with a single person in the early 1980s, and continues today.
The Ancient Ebionite Movement
Most people realize that Jesus (we will hereafter refer to him as Yahshua) was a Jew, and his activities, as best they can be reconstructed, were totally within the Jewish first century milieu. Not only that, but his students and followers were overwhelmingly Jewish or people attracted to Judaism and contemplating conversion. I use the term Judaism here loosely just as I would Christianity for at the time under discussion neither existed as they do in their present theologically developed forms. It is more accurate to talk of Yahwism, that is, the religion based on the Hebrew Torah and prophets centered on the revelatory experience of the single god, Yahweh. Yet, within Yahwism there were more than one interpretation and expression of the religion.
Most are familiar with the Pharisees (P'rushim), the Sadduccees (Tsaduqqim), Zealots (Qinna'im), and, now, the Essenes (`Ossim) who may be responsible for the documents discovered beginning in 1948 in the area of the Dead Sea. All different, yet all held the Torah and prophets at their core.
The relationship of the itinerant teacher from the Galilee and these movements is complex. Some will claim he was a Pharisee, while others an Essene (who were most likely a separatist branch of the Sadduccees), and others still see him as a revolutionary. Later, under a pagan influence, he would be worshipped as a god in Christianity.
Much of the Christian writings cannot be trusted at face value, and often not at all for information concerning Yahshua and his teachings. In fact, because of Christianity it is hard to be sure there was a Yahshua if it weren't for detailed critical reconstruction. But Ebionites consider the following as being more reliable than the theological mythology presented by Christianity:
- Yahshua was not divine.
- He was a religious Jew.
- His teachings were fully within the framework of Yahwism, yet may have conflicted with other sectarian views.
- He was not a Pharisee, or a "Qumran Essene" yet was aware of their issues and in agreement on some issues.
- Yahshua was perhaps able to achieve miraculous feats, though not necessarily those attributed to him as recorded.
- Yahshua had a political-social agenda.
- Yahshua was "liberal" in his halaka on Torah.
- He was a reformer, trying to recapture an earlier spirit and purity of Yahwism.
- He was not the Messiah but undertook a messianic mission. He called people to accept the Reign of God, i.e., prepare for the Messianic Age by living as if they were already in it. In this way Yahshua was trying to bring the Messiah and Messianic Age by righteousness and loving-kindness.
- He was unsure of his ability to bring this about, and his feelings concerning messiahship were tied to that doubt.
- After his death his immediate Jewish followers' further dealt with the messiahship issue, and came to terms with it correctly, developing their movement on the relationship of action, faith, and community to messiahship and the Messianic Age considering Yahshua to be "a" messiah---i.e., someone furthering the goal of a Messianic Age.
- Non-Jews focused on a deified person, objectifying and mythologizing in the manner of the Mystery religions of the time, placing all in the realm of allegory to compensate for what obviously did not happen---the Messianic Age.
- Yahshua took a prophetic stance imitative of earlier prophets condemning casulatry, legalism, and divided loyalty; yet, was devoted to Yahwism, and elements of new testament writings denigrating Yahwists and Yahwism can be dismissed as later Christian polemics.
- As part of Yahshua's social agenda, he appealed to those who had little stake in existing socio-economic structure, e.g., those disenfranchised by the rich, semi-Jewish Herodian regime, and religious elite.
And this brings us to those disenfranchised ("poor"), or 'evyonim who responded to Yahshua's ideas. Yahshua was their champion and eventually their martyr. They were politically powerless and probably adverse to such machinations and therefore, were not able to impress their movement or glamorize it, unlike the sect of Jewish Mystery Religion initiated by Paul of Tarsus who did have and use political connections and influence. They remained simple Jewish peasants, and were eventually drowned by false sects who commandeered the man Yahshua to gain both wealth and political influence, or integrated him into new age, gnostic systems of belief. Christianity itself is little more than a first century "new age" religion which integrated Yahshua into the position usually occupied by some version of a savior god, like Mithras or Orpheus.
As the Christian Mystery cult grew powerful, and Judaea and Jews were repeatedly crushed under the Roman boot, the Jewish followers of Yahshua either conformed in part (for example, the "Nazarenes") to the now "Universal Church" of "Christ" accepting the myths of virgin birth, divinity and incarnation, and Christ-hood of "Jesus," or they were criminalized as heretics (the 'Evyonim), demonized along with other Jews, and pushed into areas outside the power of the Church. These are represented in history as the sect encountered by the Muslim historian Abd al-Jabbar almost 500 years later than most Christian historians admit for the survival of the Ebionites, as al-Jabbar wrote at around 1000 CE.
Some "Jewish-Christians" considered to be Ebionites veered into gnostic teachings, but are better identified as the Elchasites. At some point Christian scholars categorize all non-orthodox (i.e., orthodox in accepting the tenets the Nazarenes did) Jews holding some doctrine about Yahshua as Ebionite, though this is an incorrect generalization, as there were many views and sects related to some belief in Yahshua, yet they were not all Ebionite.
There are several articles that deal with the ancient Ebionites in the Library of this website.
The Modern Ebionite Movement: The Restoration of the Movement
The modern Ebionite Movement began it's growth in 1978 with Shemayah Phillips while still a Christian, and disillusionment with that religion earlier still. Through a number of pivotal experiences I found Evyonut (Ebionitism). Originally studying history, language, and Bible to improve my Christian faith and to actually missionize Jews, I came to reject most of the teachings of Christianity and adopt Jewish practices, briefly joining the Assemblies of Yahweh formally in 1985. Growing deeper in Judaism and being unable to accept any religion associated with the so-called apostle Paul of Tarsus, I left them within the year. Already I had considered conversion to Judaism for a number of years, yet because of my interest in Yahshua ("Jesus") I had not wanted to attempt it. During this same period I had read about the ancient Evyonim and I realized that I was an Ebionite, a Jew and follower of Yahshua's teachings.
I renounced Christianity. I did not need anyone but God. I performed what is known as a hatafat dam brit, cutting my foreskin since I was already circumcised with a small incision to release a few drops of blood, deliberately against what Christianity taught about the "atoning" blood of Jesus and the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, as a sign of my covenant with the God of Israel. I wanted nothing else ever to do with Christians or Christianity. (It is impossible to be isolated from Christians in this society, but I try.) And I raised my children in the Jewish values, and my wife joined me.This began an immediate negative and threatening response from Christians including family. We assumed that we were alone as 'Evyonim, but dreamed of others who might learn the same things we had.
Modern Ebionite Movement: Our Online Community
In 1995 I started a presence for Ebionites on the Internet not knowing if there were any other than myself. On the website hasted at Geocities was information on the historical sources, and various articles, including the Zikkaron page listing atrocities by Christians against the Jewish people drawing from Every Day Remembrance Day by Simon Wiesenthal. I then became aware of a Roots of Faith email list and joined for a short time, but quit after concluding that the members were mostly Pentecostal or "Messianic" Christians at some level of disillusionment. Yet there I became acquainted with Toni Aguilar of Barcelona, Spain who described himself as an Ebionite. There were a few others who I felt worth contacting. But I sent them the URL of my website, and they were impressed. My acquaintance with Toni was fruitful as he was one of the most supportive people I have ever met, and endowed with a good soul, and he stood by me for two years before some differences of opinion ended the relationship to this point. Also by this time we gained another helpful person, Shmu'el (Richard Antonisz) of London, England. It was Toni who informed me about the coincidence of the semitic rendering of Tarsos (Paul's city) and the number 666.
Still there came to be a schism of sorts. Toni remained uncircumcised, and felt no need to undergo the covenant ritual. He was much more liberal and saw no intrinsic superiority of Judaism over other religious expressions. Yet, the Ebionites were so obviously Jewish and circumcision was a central issue of importance to them as it is today. Both Toni and Shmu'el amicably went their own way, Shmu'el to concentrate on a much more liberal movement he calls "Followers of the Way." There is still occassional cooperation and some affiliation between FOW and the 'Evyonim. Both Shmu'el and Toni are anti-Pauline, and agree with our doctrines concerning Yahshua's non-divinity, virgin birth mythology, and other points.(Update, April 2002: I have recently been informed by my brother Toni Aguilar that he has indeed accepted circumcision since the above was written. Toni has now joined himself to the covenant people of YHWH.)
Also during that period I was contacted by a couple from Arkansas who has maintained a loose network of Christians mostly of Pentecostal background working their way into sacred name use, lawkeeping, and slowly away from Christianity from a site named Qumran Bet after their farm that serves as a religious retreat. They were compiling, with the help of Clif Addiston, a directory of sacred name groups on the Internet and found the Ebionite Community site through a search engine. Clif was anti-Pauline when I first met him online, but had a distrust of Judaism. This of course, is a common sentiment among ex-Pentecostals. And this was an underlying tension between Qumran Bet and the Ebionites that would surface over and over again and continues to some extent.
Qumran Bet was associated with a number of fringe type religious organizations tied to the religious extreme right (in my estimation), and thoroughly suspicious of government and liberal ideas.I assume that much of this happened through the openness at Qumran Bet that eventually extended to their online presences, and the contacts made through compiling their directory. They liked my site (By then I had moved to Tripod (around 1997) also and soon after obtained the ebionite.org web domain.), describing what they found there as "cutting edge truth." They soon joined my email list at Coollist.com (which moved to Onelist which merged with Egroups, later obtained by Yahoo, and was then mirrored on Topica.com in the early summer of 2001), and became anti-Pauline most likely influenced by Clif and reinforced by myself and Toni, and certainly through others and their own study.
We have had many people on the lists, and they have mostly been supportive and helped build us up. Most notably other than those mentioned have been Paula, Hanan, Aviyah (and offlist), Nehemiah (a Qaraite with some grave reservations with any kind of association with Yahshua, yet helpful just the same), Benny (in some ways our liason with FOW), Sol, and Moshe, all these at key times. And we have had people from around the world participate and support our community including Muslims, Jews of every movement, and a few well-behaved Christians, especially considering our total frustration with Christianity.
Unfortunately, because of what I feel now to be a deficiency on my part to fully present all the positions of my community to new members, and my willingness to include the opinions of non-Ebionites in order to sway their desire to become Ebionites; and the motives of those who have come looking for a movement of their own design; or simply those who came to learn and did not agree with what was established, we also have lost many list members. But strangely enough, they are always replaced by others. It is a refining process that will surely continue.
We have also had unwelcome guests: freaked out Christians, wild theorists peddling their wares, missionaries, racists, employers who cowardly spy on list members ultimately to maintain some type of Christian social control on employees ( I have been subjected to this by the local school system). And this has done two things: We have learned to "play" with such guests, even manipulating them with our messages to our own purpose, exposing their cowardice and lowness; but also it has developed a stringent list policy.
In the years 1998-9 we acknowledge the need of an officer for the community, a Paqid, also understood as a chief rabbi to prepare for future rabbis for the movement, and also the procedures for a Bet Din. I was chosen to serve as Paqid until I choose a successor.
We are still defining our movement, mostly finalizing what has been in mind for many years. Our main efforts involve developing our liturgy and services in general. One issue that remains also, is whether to build a synagogue (and synagogues) as opposed to meeting publicly in groups for services, weddings, brits, et cetera.
Accomplishments to Date
This is a new community and materially we are tiny and in fact material wealth is not our goal. That has been the downfall to corruption for many. Our accomplishments are spiritual, and for such a new and numerically small movement we have had success far beyond our means. Our success has been that we have been instrumental in redeeming a good number of Jews from Christian cults. Some have moved into mainstream movements within Judaism and some have stayed with us or are active in both movements. We have helped through encouragement and the information we provide what has motivated many people to study Yahwism and Judaism and some attend the synagogue regularly or have formally converted or plan to do so. And every Christian we speak to are challenged to reevaluate their religion. Most Ebionites are in fact ex-Christians who now worship God.
I recently bumped into a friend from twenty years ago--in traffic court in a town forty miles away (I had not renewed my drivers' license! He had a minor violation.) We spoke just briefly before court, but on his way out walking from the judge he passed me, and urgently stopped as if he did not want to wait another twenty years, bent down putting his hand on my shoulder and said, "I didn't forget." and then recited the Sh'ma in perfect Hebrew, smiled, squeezed my shoulder and walked on. That is what we are doing. We witness that there is One God and that he is not a man.
Over the years some Christians have slowly come to realize what we stand for and consistently, over the years, and they remember. In some it takes years of experience to put the pieces together as they rediscover what their faith has been hiding. Many people have visited our website (over a hundred thousand when I took down the counter in the Spring of 2001), and many who are on their way out of Christianity have stopped here to receive strength for the rest of their journey. Some have passed through at a time when their understanding was embryonic and return later to join us or thank us. That's all we can ask for in the way of accomplishment, and it means we have helped defeat 2000 years of culturally ingrained, and enforced slavery to ignorance. It's no small thing to wash away the mark of Western Christian Civilization even if it is just one person at a time.