Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: the highlights, V

Warning: today’s portion will get a bit dicey, hard questions about orthodoxy, the Canon and salvation as we continue our through the classic historical text from 324 AD.


Still in Book 3 of 10, about 117 AD. Along comes a miracle worked named Menander, apparently the successor to Simon Magnus (I believe he states somewhere, that this is the Simon of Acts 8). So he’s a sorcerer. I mention this because Simon and Menander are both rejected, even though they do miracles. The way many see it, the Jews should have accepted Yeshua on the basis of his miracles. As if the only claim to being Mashiach was whether one worked miracles. But we see from Eusebius, that miracles were never any good unless they lined up with good doctrine. Thus, the rejection of Yeshua is not because many Jews were not able to acknowledge his miracles, but the truth of his doctrine.

The ‘heresy’ of the Ebionites

It’s important to remember that Eusebius will later praise Constantine as ‘pious’ even though Constantine threatens to kill any bishop who disagrees with the Nicean council, and Constantine is actively anti-Semitic, and no one in the church is recorded as having any problem with the anti-Semitism. So when Eusebius looks back to around 117 AD, a time before he was alive, and calls someone a heretic, you need to consider who Eusebius is. He seems to be faithful in the recounting of events but his interpretation of those events is less reliable.

Or, I may just not like what he has to say because it appears to condemn my own beliefs. Discern for yourself.

So enter the ‘heretic’ Ebionites. These believed that keeping Torah was necessary, possibly for salvation. I say possibly, because he says, “With them the observance of the law was altogether necessary, as if they could not be saved only by faith in Christ and a corresponding life.” My own belief that Torah is still to be kept means salvation by works of the law, even though I deny that keeping Torah earns salvation. So I can easily see how the Ebionites might simply have been misrepresented to or by Eusebius in this same way.

Notice that this is long after the destruction of Yerushalayim, where there had been a huge congregation under the apostle Ya’akov that was zealous of Torah and yet, no one accused them of this. In fact, some sources that I have not fully vetted, but appears to include Epiphanius (403 AD) and the Dead Sea Scrolls Essene community may indicate that Ebionite actually was the ‘general’ name for what became Christianity and that the head of the Ebionites was none other than Ya’akov the Tzadik (James the Just). So there is a possibility, that I’m still investigating, that the Ebionites were the descendants of Ya’akov’s congregation. So far, the evidence is quite compelling. If so, then Eusebius is actually calling those taught by Ya’akov, the congregational elders that Paul submitted too, as heretics.

Also of interesting note, Eusebius will tell us that the first fifteen bishops of Yerushalayim were Hebrews, and that the line of succession appears to have been broken around 100 AD. Hence the Ebionite (a Hebrew title) ‘heresy’ arises only after the destruction of Yerushalayim with the Temple, the scattering of much of the congregation of Ya’akov, and the beginning of gentile leadership. Coincidence that what Ya’akov taught as an elder to Paul becomes a heresy later?

Now in fairness, the Ebionites also held other beliefs (again according to Eusebius’ sources)—like Yeshua was simply a very virtuous man, not born of a virgin, not preexisting. Those beliefs, if they were in fact true, I would agree are hard to swallow as orthodox. I, however, admit suspicion that there is nuance Eusebius is unaware of or knowingly concealing. For instance, Eusebius admits to conflating different groups, “Others, however, besides these, but of the same name avoided the absurdity …not denying that the Lord was born of the Virgin by the Holy Ghost…” He goes on to allege that the others did deny his preexistence.

I would point out that Yeshua never made his pre-existence a lynchpin of his doctrine, nor his virgin birth, nor a dozen other doctrines that the church has since added as necessary. That’s not to say they aren’t true or aren’t important, but Yeshua seemed more concerned with how you lived than precise doctrinal positions. Did Yeshua have a big problem with the religious elite because they didn’t believe in his virgin birth? Or was it because they were unmerciful? Was his preexistence a topic of constant argument, or was it that they thought their traditions were more important than relieving the afflicted?

This is all to say, the Ebionites may not have been correct on everything, and yet hardly qualified as heretics. It seems more akin to Baptists calling Presbyterians heretics. Or the Ebionites may have in fact been orthodox and Eusebius has been misinformed about them. Or it’s even possible, that Eusebius’ doctrine is so far removed that he and the ‘consensus’ is no longer able to correctly interpret the Ebionite positions. Recall that Yeshua did foretell in Matt 24:5, 24, and others that false teachers and false Messiahs would arise. Paul frequently talks about a falling away, a departure from the faith, and inability to hear sound doctrine that would come before the end. So the question is, did the Ebionites (possibly an early universal term for Messianic/Christian) fall away, or did the ‘catholic’ church of Eusebius’ day?

He goes on to say that these others (who didn’t deny the virgin birth, but perhaps the preexistence) had a great zeal for Torah, the gospel of the Hebrews, observed the Shabbat, yet they also celebrated the commemoration of Yeshua’s resurrection. So with the exception of the denial of the preexistence, I would get along fine with the ‘others’ called Ebionites (a little less likely with the ‘hardcore’ Ebionites).

Interestingly, both of these groups also rejected Paul as an apostate to the Torah. Now, I don’t reject Paul outright, but I can see how someone could easily get to that conclusion, and certainly see that he is not meant to be the foundation of understanding. I personally hold that with careful study, Paul has many useful things to say. However, it does make a disturbing pattern that Paul’s letters are full-throatedly approved by the pro-Constantine, anti-semitic (or at least, anti-semitic tolerating), ‘consensus’ of Eusebius’ day. Meanwhile, the books that are considered spurious or neglected until they disappear are those markedly pro-Hebrew: the gospel of the Hebrews, possibly the book of Hebrews, the original Hebrew-Aramaic gospel of Matthew, or those that seem to be in conflict with Pauline doctrine (2 Peter, James, Jude). And one of the first heretical groups is one who reject Paul for apparent apostasy—a charge that is all the more interesting, since it is the charge of Paul being apostate that was in question in Acts 21:21 “…that thou teachest . . . to apostasia from Moshe…”

One other note, that I didn’t want to rush by. Notice that Eusebius said, “as if they could not be saved only by faith in Christ and a corresponding life.” So even as he denounces the necessity of Torah for salvation, he sets up that there is a necessity of lifestyle that matches faith. Again we see that at least by Eusebius’ time, salvation was not considered to be dependent on only mental assent and was something that could be lost.

Many will take offense at the idea that one can lose their salvation/that it is conditioned on more than a belief without action. I use to be of that opinion myself, but I eventually had to ask what does the scripture actually say? For myself I’ve come to accept: salvation is by grace. Grace is kindness that makes space for repentance. Faith is not a mental opinion, it is a conviction that inevitably leads to action. Thus, the person who is being saved has the power and the motivation to be increasingly righteous in deed, not only ‘legally.’ Now, can someone lose their salvation by doing despite to the spirit of grace? Taking that space to repent and sitting on their butt? Confessing with their mouth, but not working out their salvation with trembling and godly fear?

Looking at scripture, I have a difficult time saying that salvation isn’t able to be forfeited by willful disregard of obedient life. But if you disagree, that doesn’t bother me. After all, unless you are willfully disregarding the call to obedience, what are we arguing about? Just understand that actionless belief + a prayer = salvation is not the historic perspective, and if you even look at modern times it is not the majority of believers worldwide.

To be continued…

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