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Frist Christians- Ebionites

1st Century Christian Ebionites
The Original Christians?

By Vexen Crabtree 2006 Jun 17

In Romanian (2011 Nov) >

1. The Nazoreans

The very first followers of Jesus were called the Nazoreans. This was a general name for the Jewish followers of Christ, but it is unknown to what extent they were actually Christian. They must have known and understood many aspects of Jesus - who spoke Aramaic like the Nazoreans - which are now lost and misunderstood. From 70ce cataclysmic events led to the Nazoreans being dispersed and broken, which led to their demise (except for a brief resurgence in the 2nd century). They were eclipsed by Roman converts to Christ (by the Pauline Christians, mostly).

Many gentiles already called the Nazoreans Christians, but, we still know little about them. The Ebionites are more distinct and had one of the first Christian documents, the Gospel of Matthew. All Christians were sometimes called Ebionites, although later Christians moved so far from their roots that they came to no longer recognize them.

2. Ebionites

Initially a sect of Judaism, Christianity first organized itself in Jerusalem. However, although Jewish Christianity was dominant at first, within 20 years it had moved out into the Gentile (non-Jewish) world.

"Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004)1

The first Christians were the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. They used an early Gospel of Matthew, and their beliefs are in accordance with the earliest reports of the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and with Jewish prophecy. The term Ebionite "was at first [...] a common name for all Christians, as Epiphanius (d. 403) testifies (Adv. Haer., xxix. 1)."2. But Ebionite Christianity did not remain the only form of Christianity, and St Paul preached that the Jewish Law was no longer necessary for salvation. This less strict form of Christianity gained many converts, especially amongst the gentiles (non-Jews), for whom circumcision was distasteful. Christian groups arose who rejected the Jewish foundation of Christianity. Bart Ehrman in "Lost Christianities" provides a detailed description of the history of many early Christian groups.

We know of Christian groups taking stands on Judaism that were at polar ends of the spectrum, some groups insisting that the Jewish Law was to be followed for salvation and others insisting that the Jewish Law could not be followed if one wanted salvation. All of these groups claimed to be representing the view of Jesus himself.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)3

The success and popularity of these groups caused the Ebionites to be eclipsed, and the beginnings of the Pauline Christianity as we know it today flourished. This developing Church, and its founders, largely forgot and rejected the Jewish roots of their religion. But, curious Christians later wanted to know things that they did not know, for example when was Jesus born, and when did he die? So they went in search of their past.

Book CoverIndeed, when in 160 Bishop Melito of Sardis went to Judea to discover what had become of the legendary Jerusalem Church, to his dismay he found not the descendants of the apostles, but instead a small group of [...] Christians, who called themselves the Ebionites or 'Poor Men', [who] had their own Gospel of the Ebionites and also a Gospel of the Hebrews, aGospel of the Twelve Apostles and a Gospel of the Nazarenes. All of these gospels differed significantly from the gospels of the New Testament.

"The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999) [Book Review]4

This is not the only time that Church elders went in search of their history, only to discover that what they found was not what they expected. They did not realize that over time their religion had changed, the same as with all other religious groups in history. They discovered that the beliefs of the early Ebionite Christians differed from those of their own developing Church.

The Ebionite Christians [...] believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures. They also believed that to belong to the people of God, one needed to be Jewish. As a result, they insisted on observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, and circumcising all males. [...] An early source, Irenaeus, also reports that the Ebionites continued to reverence Jerusalem, evidently by praying in its direction during their daily acts of worship.

Book CoverTheir insistence on staying (or becoming) Jewish should not seem especially peculiar from a historical perspective, since Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. But the Ebionites' Jewishness did not endear them to most other Christians, who believed that Jesus allowed them to bypass the requirements of the Law for salvation. The Ebionites, however, maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples, especially by Peter and Jesus' own brother, James, head of the Jerusalem church after the resurrection.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)5

Ehrman goes on to say that the Ebionite Christians did not accept any of the writings ofSt Paul. It was a long time before the New Testament as we know it was formalized. "Indeed, for them, Paul was not just wrong about a few minor points. He was the archenemy, the heretic who had led so many astray" by saying that you could be saved even without keeping the Jewish Law, "and who forbade circumcision"3.

In Pauline Christianity, Jesus died for rather mystical reasons. It does not make sense to state that Jesus died so that people could know Jesus - as people such as Moses existed before Jesus died on the cross. Nor does it make sense to say that Jesus died so God could forgive, or lower the wages of sin: As God could do that whenever it pleased. Ebionite Christianity did not suffer these problems: Animal sacrifices were made to God but were never perfect; only when (finally) a human who followed the Law perfectly sacrificed himself, was the ultimate sacrifice made, thus ending the need for sacrifices. This introduces no new logical problems into God's story, whereas the Christianity we know today struggles to explain why Jesus was sacrificed at all.

3. The Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew became the first book of the New Testament. Here are some important facts about it:

  • Time of Authorship: The Gospel of Matthew was written after the fall of the Jewish temple in 70ce, in Syria, probably at around the same time as the Gospel of Luke was written (as they were unaware of each other's writings), and almost definitely written before 100ce.

  • A Copy of Mark: Matthew's gospel contains 92% of the text that appears in Mark! This is almost a copy; but Matthew corrected many of Mark's blunders about Jewish ways of lifeand proceeded, a few versions later, to add the chapters about the virgin birth. (See: "The Gospel of Mark" by Vexen Crabtree (2006).) Matthew also uses a source that historians call "Q" - a completely unidentified source who was supposedly an original disciple of Christ (or a friend of Paul), none of whose work has survived, but which was quoted/copied/used by Matthew and Luke.

  • Who Wrote the Gospel of Matthew? The document is anonymous. It was not until about 150ce that the author "Matthew" was assigned to the writings. In traditional pseudepigraphic fashion the author was based on a historic character, in this case onMattai. Mattai was a disciple of Yeishu ben Pandeira, who lived in Hashmonean times, and whose story has many similarities to that of Jesus (see Hayyim ben Yehoshua for details).


  • Not an Eye-Witness of Jesus: We know that the Gospel of Matthew was not written by an eye-witness of Jesus' life, simply because it is a copy of Mark. No eye witness of such an important person would have needed, or wanted, to simply copy someone-else's memories about him.

The first two chapters of Matthew, the virgin birth and the genealogy, were not contained in the first versions of Matthew's gospel, and were added at a later date.

"The Gospel of Matthew, the Fraud!: 1. The Text" by Vexen Crabtree (1999)

The Ebionites had a very early version of the Gospel of Matthew. There were many versions and editions of the gospels in the early years of Christianity. The Ebionites, being such an early group of Christians, had access to the earlier, much less edited, versions of Matthew.

Ehrman compares the Gospel of Matthew to the teachings of St. Paul, who the Ebionites consider the arch-enemy of truth, starting with Matt. 5:17-20: "Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law and the prophets; I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest stroke of a letter will pass away from the Law until all has taken place. Whoever lets loose one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that if your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven".

For Matthew, the entire Jewish Law needs to be kept, down to the smallest letter. [...] It is worth noting that in this Gospel, when a rich man comes up to Jesus and asks him how to have eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he wants to live eternally he must keep the commandments of the Law (19:17). One might wonder: If the same person approached Paul with the same question twenty years later, what would he have said? [Ref: Rom 3:10] It is hard to imagine Paul and Matthew ever seeing eye to eye on this issue.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)3

Their own version of Matthew, however, may have been a translation of the text into Aramaic. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic in Palestine, as did his earliest followers. It would make sense that a group of Jewish followers of Jesus that originated in Palestine would continue to cite his words, and stories about him, in his native tongue. It appears likely that this Aramaic Matthew was somewhat different from the Matthew now in the canon. In particular, the Matthew used by Ebionite Christians would have lacked the first two chapters, which narrate Jesus' birth to a virgin - a notion that the Ebionite Christians rejected. There were doubtless other differences from our own version of Matthew's Gospel as well.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)6

4. Adoptionism, the Nature of Jesus and the Gospel of Luke

The Ebionites were adoptionists:

The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus' preexistence of his virgin birth. [...] For them, Jesus was the Son of God not because of his divine nature or virgin birth but because of his "adoption" by God to be his son. [...] The Ebionites believed that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human like the rest of us, born as the eldest son of the sexual union of his parents, Joseph and Mary. What set Jesus apart from all other people was that he kept God's law perfectly and so was the most righteous man on earth. As such, God chose him to be his son and assigned to him a special mission, to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Jesus then went to the cross, not as a punishment for his own sins but for the sins of the world, a perfect sacrifice in fulfillment of all God's promises to his people, the Jews, in the holy Scriptures. As a sign of his acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice, God then raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to heaven.

It appears that Ebionite Christians also believed that since Jesus was the perfect, ultimate, final sacrifice for sins, there was no longer any need for the ritual sacrifice of animals.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)7

In the Gospel of Luke a Jew called Simeon praises the child of Joseph and Mary. Luke 2:33 then reads: "And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him". It says this because the author of the Gospel of Luke believed Jesus was born normally. Luke 2:48 is another verse in Luke where Joseph is called Jesus' father.

Jewish Christians know that Jesus is prophesized to result from the male line of David - the Jewish authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both list genealogies in order to prove that this is the case. Jews believed that Jesus was the Human son of Joseph and Mary because that is what prophecy dictated, and early Christians believed it because it's what Matthew and other early Christian texts said.

So far so good; the Ebionite Christians believed all this. They believed that Jesus was 'adopted' by God as a perfect sacrifice, but that Jesus himself was a normal Human being. That Luke 2:33 and 2:48 call Joseph Jesus' 'father' is in accordance with their beliefs, and with common sense.

Luke also contains the story of when Jesus was baptized, and God at that very moment, adopts Jesus. "In the oldest surviving witnesses to Luke's Gospel [the voice from God] quotes the words of Psalm 2:7 "You are my Son, today I have begotten you" (Luke 3:22).

Later Christians also came to these conclusions; for example Theodotus of Byzantium8.

5. Pauline Christians Edited the Gospels to Make the Ebionites Look Wrong

Early scribes were not beyond editing the text in order to prove their own views or to disprove the views of others. When the later Pauline Christians went in search of their own history and discovered the Ebionites, they found that their Jewish and adoptionist beliefs were different to their own. They could not accept that they were the ones who had deviated from the truth. So, first, they set out to discredit and disprove the Ebionites in literature. Secondly, they burnt all the Ebionites' books.

Luke was edited in three places. Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both contain verses that state that Joseph was Jesus' father. At least, that is what is said in the oldest manuscripts. Verses such as Luke 2:33 supported Ebionite Christians' belief in adoptionism. Strangely, in some later manuscripts Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both had the word 'father' edited out although over half of our bibles today have thankfully reverted to the original version.Luke 3:22 where God clearly says that he is adopting Jesus was also edited so that it did not say so. "This is one proto-orthodox alteration that proved remarkably successful. Even though the potentially dangerous ("heretical") form of the text is found in virtually all our oldest witnesses [...] it is the altered form of the text that is found in the majority of surviving manuscripts and reproduced in most of our English translations"9.

Later editors 'mistranslated' Isaiah 7:14 in the Septugiant and handily turned the prophecy that a young woman would have a child, to a prophecy that a virgin would have a child. This was used heavily in the debate against the Ebionites and other adoptionists by later Christians.

6. Conclusion and the Demise of the Ebionites

The Ebionites were some of the original Christians: Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They populated the legendary Jerusalem Church. 'Ebionite' was sometimes used as a term to describe all Christians. Those who we now know of as Pauline Christians opposed the Ebionites, after discovering them and realizing that their beliefs differed. Authors such as Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, and many other intolerant "heresy-hunters" wrote at great length against the Ebionites. Many of the claims made against them were based on misunderstandings of their beliefs, and many anti-Ebionite claims were plainly ridiculous. Pauline Christians eradicated the Ebionites, burning all of their books (none survived) and harassing and arresting the people until none were left. They edited Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 where Joseph was twice called the 'father' of Jesus so that it did not say so, and they also edited Luke 3:22 where it plainly stated, in accordance with Ebionite beliefs, that God adopted Jesus. Pauline Christians, as non-Jewish Romans, handily came across a mistranslated prophecy that said Jesus would be born of a virgin (like other Roman sons-of-gods), adding a whole two chapters to the beginning of Matthew to prove their point. These edits, when they were uncovered, have shown that the Ebionites were treated very cruelly and unfairly, and that the original readings of Matthew and Luke both support Ebionite Christianity, rather than the Pauline Christianity that the West has inherited.

If we were to guess which group was the more austere, holy and godly, we would have to guess it was the Ebionites rather than the Pauline Christians who slaughtered, slandered and oppressed them. Unfortunately the victors get to write history, and it is Pauline Christianity that became the legacy of the Roman Empire. After the fourth century, the Ebionites were vanquished.

Read / Write Comments  |  By Vexen Crabtree 2006 Jun 17

References: (What's this?)

Book Cover

Book Cover

Book Cover

Ehrman, Bart
Lost Christianities (2003). Hardback. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.

Freke, Timothy & Gandy, Peter
The Jesus Mysteries (1999). 2000 paperback edition published by Thorsons, London. [Book Review]

Hodge, Stephen
Dead Sea Scrolls (2001). Paperback first edition published by Piatkus books, London UK. [Book Review]

Partridge, Christopher
Encyclopedia of New Religions (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Reynolds, Alfred
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.


  1. Partridge (2004) p27.^
  2., "The Ebionites or the 'Poor Ones'", website accessed 2006 Aug 10.^
  3. Ehrman (2003) p99.^^
  4. Freke & Gandy (1999) p212.^
  5. Ehrman (2003) p99-102.^
  6. Ehrman (2003) p102.^
  7. Ehrman (2003) p99-102.^
  8. Reynolds (1993) p81-3.^
  9. Ehrman (2003) p222.^
  10. It may be that 'Ebionites' and 'Nazarenes' are both slightly later terms used to describe two groups of Jewish Christians, which parted from one another in around 134ce after Jerusalem was destroyed. As not all in history knew of the Nazarenes, they continued to call all Christians 'Ebionites'.
  11. 2006 Jul 11: Added section on the Gospel of Luke and on proto-orthodox editing the NT text.



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Types of Christianity in History
Who Were the First Christians?-By Vexen Crabtree 2010 Feb 18


1. Christianity was Massively Varied

Christianity is not a single, ancient religion. It is a series of religions all given the same name. Many assume that only modern Christianity to be what Christianity is. Some historical forms of Christianity have made more sense, and some have made less sense, than the Christian mythology that is common today.

During the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison. Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today.

In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted that there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.

"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)1

'Christianity' as a single religion is not 2,000 years old. A series of varied different religions, flowing on from one another, have all called themselves "Christian". Rightly so. But the beliefs and form have changed so much from time to time that it is best to consider Christianity a series of religions and the word "Christianity" to be an umbrella term for multiple faiths all of which have the same name but different beliefs. Unfortunately for hundreds of years until the Enlightenment, it was thought that modern-day Christianity in its various forms, represented early Christianity. It hardly does. Christianity now is quite varied, but in history the varieties were much more exotic.

The historian, in speaking of Christianity, has to be careful to recognize the very great changes that it has undergone, and the variety of forms that it may assume even at one epoch.

"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (1946)2

Book CoverIn the first few centuries CE there really was no such thing as 'the Church', only competing factions, of which the Literalists were one.

"The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999) [Book Review]3

Some say that the reason there has been, and continues to be, so many versions of Christianity is that Christian theology contains contradictions and doesn't entirely make sense4. Different sects are different attempts at resolving problems with Christian theory. So what were the original, ancient forms of Christianity like? And what happened to them? We will see!

2. The Earliest Christianities

2.1. Mithraism and Christianity (200BCE +)

Many have realized that as Christianity copied, re-named and inherited many Pagan myths, such as those of Mithraism, that it is hard to pin down a "start" date for Christian ideas. If you go back far enough, Christian history is actually pagan history.

Jesus, son of the Hebrew sky God, and Mithras, son of Ormuzd are both the same myth. The rituals of Christianity coincide with the earlier rituals of Mithraism, including the Eucharist and the Communion in great detail. The language used by Mithraism was the language used by Christians. [...] The idea of a sacrificed saviour is Mithraist, so is the symbolism of bulls, rams, sheep, the blood of a transformed saviour washing away sins and granting eternal life, the 7 sacraments, the banishing of an evil host from heaven, apocalyptic end of time when God/Ormuzd sends the wicked to hell and establishes peace. Roman Emperors, Mithraist then Christian, mixed the rituals and laws of both religions into one. Emperor Constantine established 25th of Dec, the birthdate of Mithras, to be the birthdate of Jesus too. The principal day of worship of the Jews, The Sabbath, was replaced by the Mithraistic Sun Day as the Christian holy day. The Catholic Church, based in Rome and founded on top of the most venerated Mithraist temple, wiped out all competing son-of-god religions within the Roman Empire, giving us modern literalist Christianity.

"Mithraism and Early Christianity" by Vexen Crabtree (2002)

2.2. The Therapeutae (10CE)

Early Christians were criticized for copying Pagan ideas and stories and simply re-telling them. By the 4th century, the founders of the Christian Church sought evidence and historical proof to back up their mistaken opinion that Christianity was a new religion, derived from the new revelations of Jesus. Eusebius failed to find much evidence at all, except in the book of the first century author, Philo, who described a group of people who were clearly practicing Christian rituals:

Eusebius, the fourth-century Church propagandist, could find little evidence from which to construct a history of Christianity, so he eagerly seized upon a description in one of Philo's books, of a group of Jews called the Therapeutae. Philo's description of their spring festival is reminiscent of the Christian celebration of Easter and Eusebius, therefore, claimed that he had discovered the earliest Christians in Alexandria. [... but] the spring, of course, was also the time when Pagans celebrated their festival of the dying and resurrecting godman, so Eusebius is unjustified in his assumption. Philo wrote about the Therapeutae in 10 CE, which would be 20 years before the supposed date of the crucifixion [...]. The Therapeutae are a group of Jews clearly practising a Jewish version of the Pagan Mysteries. [...] We can tell that the Therapeutae were Jews because they celebrated the Jewish festival of the Pentecost and kept sacred the Sabbath. [...]

"The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999) [Book Review]5

Eusebius didn't know that Philo was writing 20 years too early, and he had therefore uncovered additional evidence that turn-of-the-millennium Jewish Paganism was almost identical to Christianity in terms of rituals and beliefs - if Jesus arrived and preached a New Testament, it seems he really didn't have anything new to say that wasn't already being practiced in a Christian way by pagans. The fact that "Philo can, in one sentence, compare the Therapeutae to both initiates of the Mysteries of Dionysis and the followers of Moses on the banks of the Red Sea shows just how integrated Pagan and Jewish traditions had become". They lived "near that great melting-pot of Pagan and Jewish cultures, Alexandria".

Today when we trace the source of modern Christianity, we find that Christianity was codified in the 4th century. But in the fourth century, they didn't know what the source of Christianity was although critics said it was re-hashed paganism. So in the fourth century, they too searched in history to find the source of Christianity. They found the history of their religion to pre-date the actual founding of their own religion. The ancient history of Christianity is merged with the history of Paganism and the Church Fathers in the 4th century, so much closer to original Christianity than us, even mistook a group of pagans for early Christians. It wasn't the only time that they done this either, for when Bishop Melito in 160ce when in search of the ancient center of Christianity, he discovered only a group called the Ebionites, another ancient group that 4th century Christianity rejected as heretical.

2.3. The Dead Sea Scrolls (170BCE to 68BC)

Jewish history led up to Christianity to the extent that Judaism and Christianity shared a blurred boundary in history. Jesus was a Jew and historians find it difficult to classify many early texts as either Jewish or Christian. This confusion is increasingly apparent in Greek-influenced Jewish texts, or, are they Jewish-influenced texts of Roman Mystery religions? Whatever they were, we know one thing: Christianity did not suddenly arrive as a bolt from the blue, but formed part of a progression in history that led from pure paganism, through to the more 'modern' Christianity of the 4th century, without any sudden spurt of change or innovation.

Stephen Hodge studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written variously between 170bce and 68bce6, and he usefully lists many of the similarities found in the Dead Sea Scrolls to the teachings and organisation of the Jewish Christianity which was to arise from the same period in time. He concludes that these Jewish documents make the teachings and appearance of Jewish Christianity less revolutionary.

Book Cover... the collection is really an invaluable cross-section of religious material that reveals for the first time just how rich and varied Jewish spiritual life was at that time. The scrolls offer an intellectual and devotional landscape into which Jesus and his movement can be placed. No longer does Jewish Christianity seem an inexplicable, isolated occurrence. [...]

In other words, the true value of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they help provide a genuine context for what was to become Christianity. For example, they tell us just how widespread was the expectation and longing for a saving Messiah among Jews at that time, and that there were a number of competing theories about the expected role of this Messiah in the world of Judaism. The scrolls also reveal that the expectation found in the Gospels that the end of the world was imminent was a dominant belief in many quarters in Judaea.

All biblical scholars agree that, apart from their intrinsic value, the sectarian scrolls are of tremendous importance as background information to the social and religious conditions in Judaea that led to the rise of Christianity. [... There are] subtle implications that can be derived from the Qumran texts, for they not only provide interesting parallels to Christian concepts and practice but tend to reduce the uniqueness of the Yeshua movement. It is reasonable to assume that there was perhaps not that much direct contact between most members of each community, but that there was a pool of religious language and beliefs shared by many other Jewish groups which have long since disappeared.

"Dead Sea Scrolls" by Stephen Hodge (2001) [Book Review]7

Hodge lists many of the similar practices of the Dead Sea Scroll community and notes which ones were the same as those teachings accepted by the New Testament writers8. The list includes:

  1. Common ownership of property.
  2. Exorcism: 'Allusions to this practice of exorcism are found in some of the writings from Qumran, such as theGenesis Apocryphon where it says, 'so I prayed for him ... and I laid my hands on his head; and the scourge departed from him and the evil spirit was expelled from him' (XX22.29)'.
  3. Teachings on divorce and treatment of enemies: 'The scrolls have also been useful in providing valuable background information for ideas hitherto found only in the Gospels. For many years scholars had been baffled by the ban that Yeshua imposed upon divorce and remarriage, for this ruling had not been found in any other Jewish sources. but when works like the Temple Scroll and the Damascus Document came to light, it was soon noticed that members of the Community were similarly forbidden to divorce'.
  4. The ritual meal
  5. The Beatitudes: 'Even teachings of Yeshua previously thought to be unique, such as the Beatitudes which he enumerates in the course of the Sermon on the Mount, find a parallel among the writings of the Qumran Community.' One such work is called The Beatitudes (4QBeat) where a number of virtues are mentioned in a very similar spirit to how they are in the New Testament. A series of beatitudes are listed which start 'Blessed be they who...'
  6. Eschatological dualism - a great fight between good and evil during end times
  7. Literary style and terminology: 'Writers in the Community used the unique pesher method of interpreting older scriptural texts in terms of contemporary events. When doing so, however, they expressed their interpretations in a heavily coded manner.



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2.4. Ebionite Christians (1st-4th Century)

Book Cover

Ebionite Christians believed that all the Jewish Laws had to be obeyed; including the Sabbath and circumcision for all males. As such, they considered St Paul to be the archenemy of Christianity as he taught that people did not have to obey the Law in order to be saved. They believed Jesus was Human, and adopted by God as a perfect sacrifice.

The Ebionites were some of the original Christians: Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They populated the legendary Jerusalem Church. 'Ebionite' was sometimes used as a term to describe all Christians. Those who we now know as PaulineChristians opposed the Ebionites, after discovering them and realizing that their beliefs differed. Authors such as Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, and many other intolerant "heresy-hunters" wrote at great length against the Ebionites. Many of the claims made against them were based on misunderstandings of their beliefs, and many anti-Ebionite claims were plainly ridiculous. [Ehrman, 2003]. Pauline Christians eradicated the Ebionites, burning all of their books (none survived) and harassing and arresting the people until none were left. They edited Luke 2:32 and 2:48 where Joseph was twice called the 'father' of Jesus so that it did not say so, and they also edited Luke 3:22 where it plainly stated, in accordance with Ebionite beliefs, that God adopted Jesus. Pauline Christians, as non-Jewish Romans, handily came across a mistranslated prophecy that said Jesus would be born of a virgin (like other Roman sons-of-gods), adding a whole two chapters to the beginning of Matthew to prove their point. These edits, now they are uncovered, show that the Ebionites were treated very cruelly and unfairly, and that the original readings of Matthew and Luke both support Ebionite Christianity, rather than the Pauline Christianity that the West has inherited.

If we were to guess which group was the more austere, holy and godly, we would have to guess it was the Ebionites rather than the Pauline Christians who slaughtered, slandered and oppressed them. Unfortunately the victors get to write history, and it is Pauline Christianity that became the legacy of the Roman Empire. After the fourth century, the Ebionites were vanquished.

"1st Century Christian Ebionites: The Original Christians?" by Vexen Crabtree (2006)

2.5. Arian Christians (2nd-8th Century)

As Jewish Christianity began to develop its own character, Jesus was no longer considered to be just a man. He had a special relationship with god, and was perhaps conceived of by God before anything was created. But he was not an eternal man nor a god. Here is an excerpt from my page Arian Christianity (the Father is Greater than the Son): A Precursor to Modern Christianity:

Arianism describes the pre-trinitarian doctrine of a holy, but not a godly, Jesus. It is not always adoptionism and not alwaysmonotheistic, either. It was defined by a negative principal (that logically Jesus can't be God and still suffer on the cross). If Jesus was God (i.e., perfect), Arians realized, what chance would any Human have of imitating him? Although Arian-sounding theologies existed from the second century onwards, it only became a wide point of contention after the third century. In the third century Origen of Alexandria, the greatest theologian of his time, had declared that the Father was Greater than the Son9. This principal was later named after its principal proponent and most articulate defender, Arius (256-336ce). It was opposed by Athanasius, who became a Nicene Christian from 325ce. Because of its popularity and its clear non-trinitarian view of Jesus,trinitarian Christians such as the Nicenes/Cappadocians have considered Arianism to be highly dangerous10. In the Roman Empire, Arian Christianity was supplanted by intolerant Nicene Christianity by the 5th century, but remained the most popular form of Christianity amongst the tribes surrounding the empire, until the 8th century. [...]


The eventual victory of the Cappadocian Nicene faith from 380ce meant that as the Empire collapsed, the Christianity that was left behind was the dark, violent, centralized type that did not tolerate dissent. By the late fourth century, a recognizable Roman Catholic Church had emerged. The doctrine of the Trinity had been created, and the vengeful violence of Nicene Christianity was in full, open, bloody view. Anti-semitism was given its official sanction. The edited Nicene Creed was the only form of belief that was to be tolerated. Inquisitors began reviewing religious beliefs, condemning victims to imprisonment, torture and public execution for failing to believe the right things. This state of affairs persisted and plunged Christian societies into a 1000-year long dark ages. If the Arians had survived the onslaught and been the religion that the Empire left behind, we would have been left with a Christianity that would have left a glowing legacy of Jesus. Instead, the Nicene's violence and intolerance won out, and the 'ages of faith' that resulted darkened humanity from the fifth until the fifteenth century.

"Arian Christianity (the Father is Greater than the Son): A Precursor to Modern Christianity" by Vexen Crabtree (2008)

2.6. Marcionite Christians (2nd-5th Century)

Marcionites believed that the God of the Old Testament (wrathful and angry) was a different God to the New Testament's mystical and forgiving one. Their reasoning was sensible and their knowledge of Christian texts of the time was the most involved. Their collection of Christian texts into a canon was the first ever collection and formed the template for what was to become the Bible.

At one point, the early Christian writings that were collected by Marcion, along with his own writings, were all destroyed. A domineering early Catholic Church, the Pauline Christians, committed themselves to a long-term campaign against these early Christians. Tertullian produced five volumes attacking Marcionism and distributed them throughout the Roman Empire. The honest intellectual and rational approach of Marcion to the Old Testament and the saving grace of Jesus were lost, burnt and oppressed by the more violent and aggressive Pauline Christians. It is ironic that in the name of 'good works', Pauline Christians murdered and tortured those who believed differently to themselves... if it is true, as Jesus says and as Marcion pointed out, that good trees do not produce rotten fruit, then have we ended up with a rotten tree grown from a rotten fruit, instead of the real Christianity as espoused by Jesus?

If it is Christian duty to 'turn the other cheek', 'resist not evil', 'love your enemies' and 'love your neighbours as yourself', then it is clear that the Pauline Christians, who eliminated Marcionism and got to choose the books of the Bible, were not the true Christians.

"Christian Marcionites: 2nd Century Christianity" by Vexen Crabtree (2006)

2.7. Roman Christianity / Pauline Christianity (4th Century +)

The gnostic Mithraists and Jewish Ebionites formed the very first Christians of the first century, with practices and beliefs based respectively on Gnostic and Judaistic rituals, symbols and practices. Pauline Christians dispensed with the difficult Jewish laws and became popular amongst gentiles, soon out-numbering the Jewish Christians, causing them to be secluded and eventually suppressed. Increasing literalism amongst roman converts then led the Pauline Christians to become obsessed with enforcing their literal interpretation of Christianities original stories, causing another huge rift with older gnostic-style Christians. With Roman power behind their printing press and the favour of Emperors, the Pauline-Nicene Christians wiped out the gnostics, annihilated the Arians after long bloody campaigns, and murdered and burnt the Marcionitesand many other small sects, to leave themselves as the sole Christians within the Roman Empire, free to edit their own books to 'prove' how all their predecessors had been wrong. The three Cappadocian scholars promoted the Holy Spirit to the godhead to create a Trinity, which was codified strictly in to the Nicene Creed of 381, which went to careful lengths to disclaim against 'heresy'. Emperor Theodosius published a series of forceful edicts intolerant of all non-Nicene sects. This state of affairs persisted in the West for over a thousand years from the 5th century.

Despite the number of denominations that now exist, Christian diversity has never again regained the richness it had in the first few centuries. Christianity has remained, in the West, the Pauline, Cappadocian, Nicene victor that emerged from the ashes of Christian groups within the Roman Empire and Judea. It is a shame that it appears the most worldly, least spiritual, most power-hungry, least tolerant, most violent and least honest form of Christianity is the one that survived those brutal battles of the first few centuries.

"How Modern Christianity Began: The Cappadocian-Nicene-Pauline Roman Amalgamation" by Vexen Crabtree (2008)

3. What Was the Original Christianity?

3.1. Who Were the First Christians?

We have described the Ebionites, the Marcionites, touched upon the Gnostics, and the Pauline Christians. Who were the original Christians? The Pauline Christians, Greek-speaking and with Roman power, rose to power and eliminated the others in the most un-Christian way. These were the late-comers to Christendom of these four groups. The methodical historian Bauer has studied this question at great length:

Book CoverBauer proceeds by looking at certain geographical regions of early Christendom for which we have some evidence - particularly the city of Edessa in eastern Syria, Antioch in western Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Rome. For each place, he considers the available Christian sources and subjects them to the closest scrutiny, demonstrating that contrary to the reports of Eusebius, the earliest and/or predominant forms of Christianity in most of these areas were heretical (i.e., forms subsequently condemned by the victorious party). Christianity in Edessa, for example, a major centre for orthodox Christianity in later times, was originally Marcionite; the earliest Christians in Egypt were various kinds of Gnostic, and so on. Later orthodox Christians, after they had secured their victory, tried to obscure the real history of the conflict. But they were not completely successful, leaving traces that can be scrutinized for the truth.


"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)11

I will now summarize some contenders and explain if they could have been the true source of Christianity:

  1. Ebionite Christians were the true Christians: Aramaic-speakers like Jesus and his apostles, they would have been the Jewish witnesses to Jesus' ministry and preaching. From this starting point, Jesus' teachings spread. They also, however, spread from Saul of Damascus, who renamed himself Paul and who preached an anti-Ebionite version of Christianity for the gentiles, which was much easier to follow and more popular.


  2. The Marcionites were converts to Christ, who believed truly that he had been adopted by God at his baptism, and that he had come to abolish the laws of the Old Testament, thereby defeating the evil god of the old testament. Such gnostic beliefs may be the original form of Christianity as we shall see, but Marcionism itself can only be a later re-expression of it, and no historian thinks that the Marcionites were the original Christians.


  3. Gnostic Christians: With stories, myths and beliefs that are exactly the same as Christian ones in many of the little details, gnostic beliefs manage to pre-date Christians ones by over 200 years. They understood what the stories of the NT really meant. Jesus didn't really exist, but was a collection of such earlier stories, rewritten in Greek, with Greek names. This is the approach taken by historians such as Freke & Gandy.


  4. Pauline / Roman Christians: When the Roman-backed instance of Christianity went in search of the ancient centres of Christianity, they discovered to their horror that the Ebionites and Gnostics pre-dated them. Their un-Christian answer was to edit verses, burn books, invent doctrines such as the Trinity, arrest and harass the other poverty-stricken Christians until no opposition was left. The form of Christianity that we have inherited from the Roman Empire is far from what Christianity originally was, yet most modern denominations took Cappadocian-Nicene Pauline Christianity as their starting point (and few have moved far from it).



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3.2. The Progression From Paganism to Christianity

Elements common to all types of the Christian religion that were common in previous Pagan mystery religions include much of the religious content of Christianity. All elements of Jesus' life such as the events around his birth,death and ministry were already parts of the myths surrounding other god-men of the time. Peripheral elements such as there being twelve disciples were similarly present in other more ancient religions and sometimes with an astonishing amount of duplication. First century critics of Christianity voiced accusations that Christianity was nothing but another copy of common religions.

All the actual sayings and teachings of Jesus were also not new, and much of the time speeches attributed to Jesus are more like collections of Jewish and Pagan sayings. Even distinctive texts like the Sermon on the Mount are not unique. If we remove all the content that Jesus could not have heard and repeated himself, there is nothing else left. If we remove the supernatural elements of Christianity that are copies of already existing thought and religion, there is nothing left which is unique! Even many of the sayings of subsequent Christians are not unique; Jesus appears to not have taught anyone anything that was not already present in the common culture of the time. This shows us that not only did Christianity follow on, as expected, from previous thought in history but that we do not even need to believe in God or supernatural events in order to account for the history of Christianity.

3.3. Christian Arguments Defending the Similarities of Christianity to Paganism

The fact that many pagan religions had many of the same dates, beliefs and practices as Christians led later Christians to denounce them as 'satanic imitations'. Theologians made the famous argument that the Devil had created these pagan religions so that people would think that Christianity was just a developed copy of them. The Cardinal Newman argued that (be it God or Satan's fiat) these pagan religions merely prepared people to accept Christianity. In other words, god made pagan religions in order to teach people Christianity, before revealingactual Christianity.

Book CoverTo Newman, 'Pagan literature, philosophy and mythology were but a preparation for the Gospel.' His Protestant counterpart, Bishop Westcott of Durham, praised Greek thought for representing several stages in the unfolding of divine purpose. Gladstone determined 'to prove the intimate connection between the Hebrew and Olympian revelations', and told the House of Commons that Greek mythology had prepared minds for some of Christ's teachings. Kingsley agreed that it contained essential lessons in the human relationship with the divine.

"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" by Ronald Hutton (1999)12

Unfortunately, it seems that all such arguments are only half-truths. If there is a progression of human belief, then it implies that Christianity is itself not the final truth. Islam, for example, claims to be host to the teachings of the prophet that followed on from Jesus. If this progressive march continues, then Christianity itself may well just be a stepping-stone for another religion.

4. Literalist Christianity

4.1. The Loss of Symbolism by the Fifth Century

Jesus may well have started out as the creation of Gnostics, who were telling a symbolic story with many parables, much mysticism, and little historical truth. But this story paired well with the Jewish community who were expecting an actual Messiah to arrive. Whether or not Jesus existed as an actual person, it soon transpired that the generations after his supposed existence came to believe in him has an actual person. Although St Paul wrote exactly like a gnostic in all his early writings, Greek authors forged seven epistles with a strong literalist slant, which they then included in the Christian Bible. The sanction of an official canon of Christian texts at the expense of all others was the first major step towards literalist Christianity. By the 4th century, the Pauline Christians had violently enforced their vision of a real, historical Jesus. Christianity has become increasingly literalist, and recent centuries have seen the rising of fundamentalist Christianity, which takes nearly all Biblical stories at literal face value.

Paul's epistles make up 7 of the Books of the Bible. Also, six more were written in Paul's name at later dates (in some cases some believe the text was written over 80 years after Paul's death). There are 13 epistles (epistles) which were canonized into the Bible under the name of Paul. The authentic writings are gnostic, whereas the later pseudonymous texts are more literalist and misogynistic.

"St Paul - History, Biblical Epistles, Gnosticism and Mithraism" by Vexen Crabtree (1999)

Book CoverThe history of Christianity - from the death on the cross onwards - is the history of a gradual and ever coarser misunderstanding of an original symbolism.

"The AntiChrist" by Friedrich Nietzsche (1888) [Book Review]13

4.2. The Evolution of Religion: The Bad Boys Survive at the Expense of the Nice Ones

Religions compete for believers. They compete for influence because the more influence and exposure they have, the more believers they will get. This competition doesn't have to be conscious, or on purpose, it just happens to be that popular religions that are happy with power will prosper, accidentally inhibiting competing religions. There is interplay not only with believers, but with non-believers who have power. Religions that fall foul of politics are very frequently eradicated or ridiculed into extinction, whereas religions that appear to rulers to support the status quo can prosper.

It is not surprising that the dominant motif in the world's major religions has been a hierarchical one - the ruling powers of most societies understandably promote authoritarian religious ideologies and suppress the egalitarian beliefs. Early Chinese culture, for example, had two competing traditions: that of K'ung-Fu-tzu, which emphasized the need for strict social hierarchy and respect for elders and political authorities, and that of Mo Ti, who promoted an egalitarian ideology and ridiculed the followers of K'ung-Fu-tzu for their "exaggerated" emphasis on authority. The first tradition was institutionalized as Confucianism and became the official state religion of the emperors, whereas the second precipitated a relatively unstable popular movement that was almost lost over the centuries.

"Gods in the Global Village" by Lester R. Kurtz (2007)14

So it came to be that the literalist, nastier forms of Christianity survived the first few hundred years of Christian history, because it appealed to a wider number of people. It didn't require such things as circumcision or strict dietary laws. Literalist Christianity held power in Rome and it is no coincidence that it happened to preach a strict hierarchy, instructing slaves to serve their masters for taxes to be paid ("give to Caesar what is Caesar's" -Matthew 22:21) and people to subject themselves to their governors (Romans 13:1). This form of Christianity, as we have seen, was oppressive, combatitive and organised, wiping out its nearest competitors, which was other forms of Christianity, with help from the institutions and Emperors of the Roman Empire.

This survival of the fittest was not just relegated to Christian history, but as Christianity aged and further divisions became apparent, the conflicts continued. Read on.



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5. Lost Christianities of Later History

5.1. The Cathars / Albigenses

The Marcionites of the 2nd century were lost to oppression, however, their form of Christianity was not completely eradicated. The Paulicians (followers of Marcion) and Manicheans fused to form the BulgarianBogomils, who like their founding sects, were oppressed. But the Bogomils were carried by Crusaders to Italy and France, where their gnostic-seeming beliefs flourished and were widely accepted.

Book CoverThe most interesting, and also the largest, of the heretical sects were the Cathari, who, in the South of France, are better known as Albigenses. [Their beliefs] were widely held in Northern Italy, and in the South of France they were held by the great majority [...]. The cause of this wide diffusion of heresy was partly disappointment at the failure of the Crusades, but mainly moral disgust at the wealth and wickedness of the clergy. [...] The Church was rich and largely worldly; very many priests were grossly immoral. [...] The more the Church claimed supremacy of religious grounds, the more plain people were shocked by the contrast between profession and performance. [...]

It seems that the Cathari were dualists and that, like the Gnostics, they considered the Old Testament Jehovah a wicked demiurge, the true God being revealed in the New Testament. They regarded matter as essentially evil, and believed that for the virtuous there is no resurrection of the body. The wicked, however, will suffer transmigration into the bodies of animals. On this ground they were vegetarians, abstaining even from eggs, cheese and milk. They ate fish, however, because they believed that fishes are not sexually generated. All sex was abhorrent to them [...]. They accepted the New Testament more literally than did the orthodox; they abstained from oaths, and turned the other cheek.

"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (1946)15

5.2. The Waldenses (12th Century)

These were the followers of Peter Waldo, an enthusiast who in 1170, started a 'crusade' for observance of the law of Christ. He gave all his goods to the poor, and founded a society called the 'Poor men of Lyons', who practised poverty and a strictly virtuous life. At first they had papal approval, but they inveighed somewhat too forcibly against the immorality of the clergy, and were condemned by the Council of Verona in 1184. Thereupon they decided that every good man is competent to preach and expounded the Scriptures; they appointed their own ministers, and dispensed with the services of the Catholic priesthood. [...] All this heresy alarmed the Church, and vigorous measures were taken to suppress it. [Pope] Innocent III considered that heretics deserved death, being guilty of treason to Christ. He called upon the king of France to embark upon a crusade against the Albigenses [which affected the Waldenses also], which was done in 1209. It was conducted with incredible ferocity; after the taking of Carcassonne, especially, there was an appalling massacre.

"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (1946)16

6. Modern Christianity is Still Very Varied

One major aspect of Christianity can be said to be the cause of its success: That there is a lot of widespread difference in belief across Christian denominations. As perhaps the most fragmented and violent religion in history, Christianity has become broken into countless different Churches all of which call themselves Christian. Many denominations are intolerant of each others' beliefs. It can be said that as all these denominations cover such a wide range of beliefs that it is obvious that many people can call themselves a Christian. But, merely knowing that they call themselves a Christian gives us very little actual information about their beliefs, as Christianity is such a diverse religion. [...] In this way all major religions that exist for long period of time (thousands of years) come to be more of an umbrella term for a vast array of beliefs and practices.

"Institutionalized Religions Have Their Numbers Inflated by National Polls" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)

Professor Bart Ehrman opens his book Lost Christianities with the statement that "it may be difficult to image a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity"17 (excepting, he explains, that ancient Christianity was even more diverse).

Read / Write Comments  |  By Vexen Crabtree 2010 Feb 18
Second edition 2006 Jun 17
Originally published 2003 May 11
Last Updated: 2010 Jun 13


References: (What's this?)

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Ehrman, Bart
Lost Christianities (2003). Hardback. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.

Freke, Timothy & Gandy, Peter
The Jesus Mysteries (1999). 2000 paperback edition published by Thorsons, London. [Book Review]

Hodge, Stephen
Dead Sea Scrolls (2001). Paperback first edition published by Piatkus books, London UK. [Book Review]

Hutton, Ronald
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999). 2001 paperback edition published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1844-1900)
The AntiChrist (1888). Quotes from Prometheus Books publication, 2000, translation by Anthony M. Ludovici. [Book Review]

Reynolds, Alfred
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.

Rubenstein, Richard E.
When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome (1999). First Harvest edition, 2000. Published by Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, USA.

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
History of Western Philosophy (1946). Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.

Schro�der, Robert
Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions (2007). Hardback. Published by Carlton Books.


  1. Ehrman (2003) p1-2.^
  2. Russell (1946) p290.^
  3. Freke & Gandy (1999) p266.^
  4. Schro�der (2007) p19. Added to this page on 2011 Jun 18.^
  5. Freke & Gandy (1999) p225-227.^
  6. Hodge (2001) p37.^
  7. Hodge (2001) introduction p3-4, conclusion p217-218.^
  8. Hodge (2001) p211-214.^
  9. Rubenstein (1999) p53.^
  10. Reynolds (1993) p81-3.^
  11. Ehrman (2003) p174.^
  12. Hutton (1999) p12-13.^
  13. Nietzsche (1888) paragraph 37.^
  14. Kurtz (2007) p141. Added to this page 2010 Jun 13.^
  15. Russell (1946) p438-439.^
  16. Russell (1946) p440.^
  17. Ehrman (2003) p1.^

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