Ebion never existed. He was the fictional founder of the Jewish Christians known as Ebionites, first created by Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies 7.35) and Tertullian (Prescription against Heresies 33.3-5, 20). The Church Fathers who could read Hebrew knew that ’ebyônîm translates as “poor ones,” though they denigrated the Jewish Christians who bore this designation as characterized by the “poverty” of their views about Christ or literal Torah observance (Origen, On First Principles 4.3.8; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.1-2; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.1). However, this term was probably a popular self-designation among Jewish Christ followers in general in light of the biblical view that God would exalt the poor and lowly and may possibly be a claim to be in continuity with the materially poor in the Jerusalem Church (see Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-26; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.2). What else can we say about the Ebionites?
- They denied the virgin birth of Jesus, arguing that he was the biological son of Joseph and an ordinary human elected to be the Messiah at his baptism due to his exemplary righteousness (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2, though I think his equation of the Ebionite’s Christology with that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates may be inaccurate). Indeed, anyone who lives a life of faithful obedience to God’s Law will be similarly exalted as “anointed ones” and “justified” (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 7.34; 10.22).
- The Ebionites were Torah-observant and followed other extra-biblical Jewish practices such as prayer towards Jerusalem. They allegedly only accepted the Gospel of Matthew (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2), or the non-canonical Gospel according to the Hebrews (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.4), and despised the Apostle Paul as an apostate from the Law.
- Some Church Fathers lump all of the diverse Jewish Christians together under the title “Ebionite,” even those who shared the wider Christian belief in the virgin birth (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.61; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.2-3). In fact, Epiphanius and Jerome report about Christians referred to as “Nazoraeans” in the fourth century whose views about Jesus’ divinity and appreciation of the Apostle Paul were completely aligned with the greater Catholic Church, though they continued to observe the Torah. Nazoraean was another primitive title in circulation among later Jewish Christians (Acts 24:5).
- Although some scholars follow the more extensive portrait of the Ebionites in Epiphanius Panarion 30 (see Schoeps, Bauckham, Luomanen), most of Epiphanius’s information derives from a variety of texts (e.g., a source of the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the book of Elchasai, a harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, a Syriac Acts of the Apostles) that he may mistakenly associate with the Ebionites (see Skarsaune). Thus, his extra information about the Ebionites’ confused Christology (e.g. Jesus as an angel and the true prophet) and practices (e.g., vegetarianism, ritual washings) may be dubious.