Wednesday, August 8, 1996

Location - FNCA 1990

The three talks I will be giving this week form a series. The first will deal with

the beliefs of those early Christians who insisted that "Christianity" was

essentially a reform of Judaism, and that Jesus wanted his followers to remain

observant of many of the distinctive laws of the Old Testament. The second will

deal with the people who have been labeled "gnostics," people who believed that

the central work of Jesus was to open the way to the direct, individual experience

of the Divine. The mainline church ultimately rejected both of these movements as

heretical. My third lecture will be an attempt to show that while we may find much

in both of them that is questionable, still if elements of these rejected views

had not been rejected, the resultant Christology would have been very much like

our own.

Let me start by saying that as Swedenborgians, I think we are a bit ambivalent

about the literal sense of Scripture. On the one hand, we are aware that

Swedenborg himself points out inconsistencies in that level of meaning, and uses

them as indications that there must be a deeper level. On the other hand, we do

tend to accept the literal story as true, especially when it comes to the Gospels.

We rarely take the time to face the fact that the four accounts of the Lord's life

contain their own share of inconsistencies. There is ample evidence that these

accounts were written after the fact, and that people's memories were selective.

If we want to be at all careful, we cannot be sure about particular details.

There are, though, some more general things that we can be quite sure of, and they

provide the basis for what I want to say. We can be quite sure, first of all, that

there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth. There are problems as to exactly

when he was born, and there is a shortage of contemporary references to him, but

there is no possible way of explaining what happened by any assumption that other

people just invented him.

Second, we can be quite sure that he was an unusual individual. He made a profound

impression on people. He was perceived as a miracle worker, for example, and this

was not just the enthusiastic view of his followers. There are hostile arguments

in early Rabbinical literature that his healings were actually works of forbidden

magic. Such arguments presume that the healings actually took place. He was also

heard and seen as a teacher, and as a remarkable one, within the traditions of

Judaism. There can be no doubt that he used parables and questions and paradoxes

more extensively than he used any direct didactic method. His technique, that is,

was not to tell people what they ought to think, but to stimulate them to figure

things out for themselves.

He evidently had profound insight into the people he met, and conveyed a very

personal care for them. Those individuals who were willing to be understood found

themselves accepted, while those who simply wanted to maintain the appearances of

virtue or superiority found him intensely threatening.

There is no doubt that he was tried and condemned, and there is no doubt that he

died by crucifixion. Again, early Rabbinical sources contain allegations of the

theft of the body which remind us of the story that is denied in the Gospel of


Lastly, there is no doubt that he appeared to the disciples, convincingly alive,

after his death and burial. There can be no other explanation of the confidence

and zeal with which the apostles went out to change the world. They had been

utterly crushed by the crucifixion, and no private spiritual experience, no

aggregation of private spiritual experiences, could have worked such a collective

transformation. After Paul had his personal revelation on the road to Damascus

(remember that--it will come in handy later), for example, he had a hard time

convincing other Christians that it was genuine. No, something quite tremendous

happened after the crucifixion, and that experience was shared by the disciples.

These, then, are a few general things which are secure from all but the most

hostile skepticism. They may not seem like much, but it is surprising what

searching questions they can raise. In fact, Jesus' contemporaries did not know

what to make of him. The Gospels testify to a wide range of opinions, ranging from

the sublime to the demonic. The disciples were often bewildered. In general, as

Nicodemus expressed it, they knew (or at least suspected) that there was some

special divine presence involved because no one could perform such miracles unless

God were with him. In typical fashion, Jesus seems to have required even his

closest disciples to figure this one out for themselves. His followers went on

trying to figure things out after his death and ascension, and the history of the

Christian church is full of arguments about the nature or natures of the Christ.

We should, I think, regard the Gospels less as an explanation of the Lord's nature

than as material to help us figure it out for ourselves, less as a didactic

treatment of the subject than as accounts of a very confusing debate.

Over the winter, I read a book on the history and theology of some people who

lived in the second century. These were people who identified themselves very

definitely as followers of Jesus, but who saw him essentially as a prophet. The

book gave me a fresh outlook on the New Testament--primarily on Acts and the

epistles, but to some extent on the Gospels as well.

I want to spend most of this talk describing the particular understanding which

these people had. They are referred to, incidentally. as "Ebionites," a term which

means basically, "the poor," and which ties in with the familiar theme in both

Testaments of the perils of riches and of special concern for the poor and the


First of all, in this view, Jesus was not born as a Messiah, but became one by the

devotion with which he lived his life. He was simply a human being, but one who

followed the essence of the Law so faithfully that he broke through to a whole new

level of understanding and power. The primary turning point in this process was

taken to be the descent of the spirit of prophecy at the time of the baptism.

This was the same holy spirit of prophecy which had been received in various

measures by the Old Testament prophets, and in fullest measure by Moses. As the

Ebionites saw history, God had provided a series of prophets through the ages, and

Jesus was the culmination of this series.

In fact, Moses had predicted his coming. In the Gospel of John, we read that when

the establishment in Jerusalem sent emissaries to John the Baptist to ask him "who

he was," one of their specific questions was, "Are you that prophet?" This is a

reference to a passage in Deuteronomy that reads (AV), "The Lord thy God will

raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto

me; unto him ye shall hearken; . . . I will raise them up a Prophet from among

their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall

speak unto them all that I shall command him" (Dt 18:15, 18). We have largely

ignored this in our lists of prophecies of the Messiah, but in New Testament

times, people who were looking for divine rescue from the current plight were

acutely conscious of it.

When the spirit of prophecy descended on Jesus, he did not become divine, for this

was unthinkable, but he did become the new Moses, with full authority to declare

the meaning of the Law. This was seen as necessary because the law as received was

imperfect. God had given Moses the true and essential law on Sinai, but that was

not the end of the story. When Moses came down from the mountain and found the

Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, God saw that they were hopelessly inclined

to idolatry. So in part as punishment and in part as concession, God added masses

of ritual law so that their idolatry would at least be aimed in the right

direction. One of the sayings of Jesus frequently cited in this connection was,

"Moses gave you these commandments because of the hardness of your heart."

There was more wrong than this. The generations between Moses and Jesus had added

their own traditions to the original law. They had instituted a monarchy in which

the king became a substitute for God. Again, this idea has its roots in the past,

and is clearly represented when the people ask for a king and God tells Samuel,

"They have not rejected you, they have rejected me." In Ebionite tradition, Jesus

is never referred to as the son of David, and there is no hint of royal

attributes. He is strictly and solely the new Moses--a leader out of captivity,

yes, but first and foremost a lawgiver.

The present symbol of this punishment/concession was the temple, with all its pomp

and elegance. It had nothing to do with the essence of the Law, which focused on

purity of life, justice, and mutual kindness. We should note that there are

passages in the prophets where the temple comes under severe criticism, indicating

that this line of thought too was not new in Gospel times. Actually, the Ebionites

had a quite fascinating interpretation of Jesus' saying that if the temple were

destroyed, he would rebuild it in three days. In their view, he was saying quite

clearly that if the temple were destroyed, then in three days he would reestablish

the tabernacle, which was the place of worship God had really intended all along.

The tabernacle was associated with the simplicity of the wilderness, and was alien

to all the wealth and corruption of the city.

With the Law purged of all these accretions, the task of true disciples was to

follow Jesus' example of perfect obedience. Circumcision was of course to be

practiced--Jesus was circumcised, so his followers should be also. There should be

a renunciation of worldly wealth, since Jesus clearly set no store by it. The

faith should be received by baptism. The Sabbath, as well as Sunday, should be

observed. The basic dietary laws and the basic laws of personal cleanliness were

actually intensified. In all this, there are strong reminders of the ascetic

traditions which reach back through the period of the monarchy, through the time

of the judges, and into the forty years in the wilderness.

All this was regarded as a temporary arrangement, for shortly the millennium would

arrive. The Christ who had come "in humility" would return "in glory." The whole

movement seems to have foundered as this return failed to occur. The Christianity

we are familiar with emphasized spirituality to the point that the failure of the

earthly kingdom did not extinguish faith in the heavenly kingdom. These Christian

Jews, however, had no such resource. They pinned all their hopes on the

establishment of justice and mercy here on earth.

The true leader of the church was the Lord's brother James, seen as the bishop of

the mother church in Jerusalem; and Peter was his principal adjutant. No one was

to go out to the Gentiles with the Christian message without written authorization

from Jerusalem. This is the issue Paul addresses in II Cor 3:1--"Do we begin again

to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you,

or letters of commendation from you?" James was succeeded after his death by a

cousin, who in turn was apparently succeeded by another relative. There is a

strong suggestion that the intent was some kind of hereditary succession from the

line of Joseph and Mary.

The archenemy of these particular believers was the "false apostle" Paul. Paul had

never known Jesus in the flesh. He boasted that he had never been taught by any of

the "true" disciples. He claimed authority, apostolic status, strictly on the

basis of his own private experience. Paul went around telling people that they did

not need to follow the law any more--"Therefore we conclude that a man is

justified by faith without the deeds of the law." In contrast, the Epistle of

James states that ". . . faith, if it hath not works, is dead." And in explicit

verbal contradiction to Paul's statement, the same letter states, "Ye see then how

that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (3:24).

In fact, there was tension between the group in Jerusalem and the mission field.

The Book of Acts gives us a glimpse of a struggle over the issue of the authority

of Jewish law. Peter was convinced by a vision that he need no longer follow or

enforce the dietary laws. Some such adjustment was undoubtedly helpful in finding

Gentile converts. However, what was an asset in the mission field was a liability

in Jerusalem. It was far easier to persuade Jews of a purified version of their

own religion than to convince them of anything more radical.

The Ebionites had their own version of the story of this struggle, and significant

fragments of it have survived. They tell of a major convocation of Christians in

Jerusalem during the Sabbath year after Jesus' death. After repeated invitations,

James and the disciples accept the invitation of the high priest Caiaphas to hold

a kind of public debate. This takes place at the top of the steps leading to the

temple, in full view of a large crowd, and lasts several days. One after the

other, representatives of the various factions of Judaism come forward--Pharisees,

Sadducees, scribes, priests, disciples of John the Baptist, and even

Samaritans--and present their arguments, which are then refuted.

The primary question at issue is simply whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. It is

not an argument about his divinity or really about his nature at all. It is about

his role in Jewish history. This is the only matter on which they disagree. At the

outset, James asks Caiaphas what authorities shall be appealed to in their debate,

and is perfectly contented when Caiaphas names the Torah and the prophets.

Thanks in part to the peacemaking efforts of a certain Gamaliel, a civil

atmosphere is maintained until the debates are drawing to a close. Then a certain

"hostile man" comes on the scene and starts making inflammatory speeches against

the Christians. He plays on the emotions of the crowd and basically starts a riot.

The accounts of what happened vary. All have James being thrown down and badly

injured. Two have him being killed, one blaming an unnamed fuller, and one blaming

the "hostile man" himself.

The disciples (with or without James) eventually escape, and retreat to Jericho.

From there, they travel to Damascus, where there is already a substantial

community of like-minded Christians. The "hostile man" secures letters of

authorization from Caiaphas, and pursues them. In case you are wondering who this

"hostile man" might be, he never completed his mission. Something seems to have

happened to him on the road to Damascus.

As a kind of postscript, it may be of interest to know what happened to this

group. There is good evidence that after their flight from Jerusalem, the

Ebionites settled in a city named Pella, in northern Transjordan. This was on the

fringes of the Roman empire, under Roman protection, but far enough out to have

missed the tensions in Jerusalem that had led to the flight in the first place.

Geopolitically, it was so closely identified with Galilee as to be included in it.

In the north, the Jordan is not such a formidable barrier as it is in the south.

Since Galilee had been the site of most of the Lord's ministry, it had a claim as

original Christian territory.

In this new site, the group was essentially cut off from the church that was

developing in Asia Minor, and it ceased to be a factor in the development of

orthodox doctrine. Christian travelers make occasional mention of having met some

rather strange, heretical people in this area, and give rather garbled accounts of

their practices and beliefs. There are scraps of evidence that as the movement

itself faded, its members merged with other groups, usually under one particular

charismatic leader or another, and inevitably took some of their beliefs with

them. The main successors seem to have been the Nestorian Christians. These

ultimately became associated with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but in their

beginnings seem to have had elements in common with our Ebionites which were later

lost or suppressed.

It is one of the ironies of history that the original group in Jerusalem, the

birthplace of the Christian church, was ultimately declared heretical. The mission

field grew, the Jerusalem group had to flee into exile when the Romans barred Jews

from Jerusalem, and ultimately a Hellenistic rather than a Judaistic Christianity

became predominant, with Rome rather then Jerusalem as its center. The questions

that this church had to face were not questions of the authority of Old Testament

law but questions of the nature and extent of the divine presence in Jesus.

The group was also declared heretical by Judaism. A few of the Rabbis expressed

appreciation of the goodness of these Ebionites. One stated that they surely had a

place in the world to come, since they were as full of good works as a

pomegranate. But for most Jews, their rejection of the whole sacrificial law and

of the whole monarchical, nationalistic side of Judaism was simply unacceptable.

Paul makes it clear that his persecution of Christians was officially sanctioned,

and there are oblique references in the Rabbinical literature which suddenly

become comprehensible when one realizes that they are addressed to distinctively

Ebionite "heresies."

In retrospect, Judaism seems to have been the poorer for this decision. With the

destruction of the temple, the sacrificial system became wholly impracticable.

With the expulsion from Jerusalem and in the face of the Roman Empire, dreams of a

nationalistic revival brought them nothing but grief. We may well wonder what

would have happened if they had spent less energy in ingenious adaptations of

these aspects of their Law, and had devoted that energy instead to being as full

of good works as pomegranates.

At any rate, what happened was that some very earnest people who tried to be good

Jews and good Christians at the same time wound up being rejected by both groups.

There may well be one way, however, in which they exerted an influence which is

still with us. One particularly striking feature of later history is that the view

of Jesus in Islam is very much like the view we have just presented. In the

Qur'an, Jesus is seen as a major prophet in a long line of prophets, though now,

of course, the culminating figure is Muhammad. He is even referred to as the

Messiah. The emphases on cleanliness, prayer, and obedience to the essence of the

law are equally familiar. Especially when we recall that the Jerusalem community,

the Jewish Christians, fled to the borders of the area where Islam later arose, it

looks very much as though Muhammad accepted the version of Christianity which he

found in his own country. The Qur'an clearly recognizes both the Torah and the

Gospel as revelations, citing them selectively but fairly frequently.

This may serve to bring us back to our main theme. I will be trying to pull things

together in my third talk, but for now, I should like simply to offer a

preliminary evaluation of this particular early understanding of Jesus from a

Swedenborgian perspective.

We obviously could not accept their complete rejection of the Lord's divinity, but

I hope to show that it would be a mistake to stop there. What they do offer that

is most congenial is the belief that the Lord's life was a process, that he

changed and grew spiritually. Traditional Christianity came to focus so completely

on the relationship of the divine and the human natures that this aspect was lost.

It got entangled in arguments about the pre-existence of the Christ, and came to

treat the two natures as essentially static "things" in some kind of constant,

unchanging relationship to each other. In this respect, we have more in common

with the Ebionites than with orthodoxy, differing only in our view that the

process went much further than they could imagine.

We would agree also that Jesus' faithful obedience to the essence of the Law was

the critical factor in this process. There are ways to understand Paul's

statements about faith alone that we can actually accept, ways that understand

"faith" to be a total trust in God and not just loyalty to some particular

intellectual creed. We would certainly agree with Paul that we do not earn

salvation by accumulating Brownie points. But we would stand with the Ebionites in

rejecting Paul's statements as they understood them, and in affirming that

outward, behavioral obedience to the Lord's will is absolutely essential to our


We would also agree that many of the statements and laws in the Old Testament are

concessions to the states of the Israelites at the times when they were given.

Swedenborg states the case somewhat differently, but there is a real similarity

between their understanding of "Moses gave you these commandments because of the

hardness of your hearts" and our understanding of the accommodation of revelation

to states of its recipients. We would wholeheartedly agree that one of Jesus'

primary functions was to restore a right understanding of the Law, and that the

New Testament is therefore not a replacement of the Old but its fulfillment.

While it is not directly a matter of Christology, it iw worth noting in this

connection that Christianity might have been spared much of the trauma of its

confrontation with Biblicl criticism if it had accepted the notion that

substantial parts of Scripture were concessive rather than infallibly

prescriptive, and that the Ebionites had an idea of oral transmission and

alteration that was about eighteen hundred years ahead of its time.

This is a sketchy look at a large subject, but it will have to do for now. When we

look at the gnostics next time, we will find a similar mix of assets and

liabilities, but along quite different lines. And I hope that when we put it all

together, a Swedenborgian Christology will emerge, in a somewhat new light.

contact phil at for any problems or comments