The Judaistic Heresies


1. EBIONISM.--While Judaism was truly a forerunner of Christianity, it was in large part unwilling to accept the position of a mere forerunner. It wished to retain its place and prominence after it had performed the work of introduction. It was unwilling to adopt that true maxim of a forerunner, so nobly uttered by John the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease." Hence the greater part of the nation rejected the gospel.

Of those Jews who received Christ as the Messiah, many came into full fellowship with their Gentile brethren, and claimed no superiority in virtue of the law. Others, however, continued in the spirit of those who disturbed Paul's congregations by insisting that it was necessary to keep the law of Moses. Even the destruction of the temple under Vespasian, and the complete banishment of Judaism from the precincts of Jerusalem under Hadrian, could not wean the more zealous of them from their Jewish exclusiveness. Hence, they passed from the condition of a party within the Church to the status of a sect without its borders. Near the middle of the second century me find them ranked as an heretical faction, and shortly thereafter strongly reprobated by Catholic writers under the name of Ebionites. The probable origin of this name is that suggested by Origen, who derives it from ebion, the Hebrew word for poor. [1 De Prin., iv. 1. 22; Cont. Celsum, ii. 1. Origen, however, probably gave a wrong turn to his exposition, in his intimation that the Ebionites took their name from the poverty of the law for which they were such sticklers. Eusebius, iii. 27, says that their name indicates their low and mean opinions of Christ. Tertullian, De Carne Christi, xiv., xviii., xxiv., assumes that there was a founder of the sect by the name of Ebion. This view is opposed by the silence of some writers and the counter-statements of others.] The name may have been applied at first to Jewish Christians generally by the Pharisees, who wished to stigmatize them as belonging to the poorer ranks. The term, having thus become associated with those of Jewish extraction, might very naturally be applied to them by Gentile Christians with reference to their Jewish type of faith.

The main body of those who were classed as Ebionites asserted the obligation of all Christians to keep the law of Moses. They rejected the apostolic office of Paul. They used only the Gospel of Matthew, and that in a mutilated form. In their view Christ was a mere man, conceived in the ordinary way, and distinguished only by his righteous walk and the superior endowment of the Spirit which came upon him at his baptism. They were also millenarians, and looked for the coming of Christ to inaugurate a visible reign at Jerusalem. But the party of Jewish dissent was not altogether homogeneous. Irenæus [Cont. Hær., i. 26. 2.] and Hippolytus, [Philosophumena, vii. 22.] it is true, make no discrimination between different classes of Ebionites. Origen, on the other hand, speaks of the "twofold sect" of the Ebionites, specifying, as the distinction between the two sections, that the one denied, while the other accepted, the supernatural conception of Christ. [Cont. Celsum, v. 61.] A century earlier Justin Martyr had intimated that the Church had to deal with two classes of Judaizers, --the one imposing the law of Moses only upon themselves, the other insisting that it should be kept by all. [Dial cum Tryph., xlvii.] In his opinion, it was right to commune with the former class, though some, as he states, thought differently.

Near the end of the fourth century, reference appears to a Jewish party, located mainly in Syria, bearing the name of Nazarenes. [Augustine, De Bap. Cont. Donat., vii. 1. Epiphanius, Hær., xxix. Jerome, Comm. in Isaiam, Lib. x. cap. 31; De Vir. Illustr., iii.; Epist., cxii. 13. Theodoret, Hær. Fab., ii. 2.] No definite record of their antecedents is given. The conjecture, however, lies near at hand, that they were not without historical connection with the more liberal of the Judaizers referred to by Justin Martyr, and the more orthodox of the Ebionites described by Origen.

2. THE SYSTEM OF CERINTHUS. -- This errorist, educated, according to Hippolytus and Theodoret, in Egypt, was a contemporary of the Apostle John, and began to spread his views in Asia Minor during the lifetime of the apostle. He might in some respects be classed with the Gnostics. His separation of God from the world, his interposition of intermediate beings, his characterization of the world-maker as an unconscious agent of the Most High, and his distinction between Jesus and the heavenly Christ, --the former being the son of Mary and Joseph, while the latter was a superior being who was joined with Him in the interval between His baptism and His passion, - were quite in the Gnostic vein. At the same time he coincided with the stringent Judaizers in asserting the continued obligation to keep the Mosaic law, and in proclaiming a thousand years reign of the Messiah on earth, with Jerusalem as the centre of His kingdom. [See Irenæus, Cont. Hær., i. 26. 1 ; Hippolytus, Phil., vii. 21, x. 17; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., iii. 28, vii. 25; Theodoret, Hær. Fab., ii. 3; Epiphanius, Hær., xxviii.]

3. THE PSEUDO-CLEMENTINE SPSTEM. -- Not far from the middle of the second century there appeared a work embodying a peculiar phase of Jewish speculation. This work, which is known as the Clementine Homilies, purported to give an account, by the hand of Clement of Rome, of the conversion of the author, of his experience in company with Peter, and of the apostle's sermons and disputations with Simon Magus. The work having a kindred subject-matter, and also imputed to Clement, -- namely, the Recognitions, -- was probably of a somewhat later origin than the Homilies. The former is the less remote from Catholic teaching. Both exhibit no little art in the combination of vivid narrative and scene-painting with the exposition of doctrinal beliefs. Besides these two writings, there is an Epitome of the Homilies.

The system contained in the Homilies cannot be imputed in its entirety to any known sect. While the materials were for the most part at hand, the peculiar combination of them which is here presented was due to an individual mind. However, some of the leading features of the system are supposed to have been entertained by the Elkesaites, an obscure sect that arose in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea. This sect took its name from one Elxai, or Elchesai, who claimed to be a prophet, and wrote a book for which he asserted divine inspiration. [Hippolytus, Philos., ix. 8-12; Euseb., vi. 38; Epiphanius, Hær, xix., xxx. 3, 17.]

The Homilies place the Jewish emphasis upon the unity of God, but fall quite below the best Jewish thought as respects His spirituality. God, it is represented, dwells on high in bodily form, the image of which is seen in man. He is the centre of the universe; and from Him, as such, life-giving power emanates in every direction. [Hom., xvi. 19; xvii. 7-10.] No second being or person stands in the place or bears the name of God. At the same time it is conceded that there is a species of duality in Him. He has, so to speak, His feminine side. "His wisdom was that with which He himself always rejoiced as with His own spirit. It is united as soul to God, but it is extended by Him as hand fashioning the universe." [Hom., xvi. 12; xi. 22.]

A dualistic view of the world is strongly emphasized. "God has distinguished," say the Homilies, "all principles into pairs and opposites.... The present world is female, as a mother bringing the souls of her children; but the world to come is male, as a father receiving his children." To every order of good there is a corresponding evil. Next to Adam, the father of the good, stands Eve, the mother of the evil; next to the righteous Abel, the unrighteous Cain; next to the pious Jacob, the profane Esau; over against the true prophets, the false; over against the true apostles, the deceiving apostles; over against the Christ, the Antichrist. Indeed, in this world evil is foremost: good holds the second place in the several pairs. [Hom., ii. 15-17, 33; iii. 22-27; xx. 2. Compare Recognitions, iii. 59, 61.]

The highest expression of good on earth is the prophetic spirit. This has reappeared again and again. It operated in Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Jesus Christ is the last and perfect embodiment of this spirit. He is simply the ideal Prophet, the infallible Teacher. Christ is a Savior only in virtue of being man's teacher. He saves by enlightening. [Hom., ii. 6, 10, 12; iii. 11-20; xviii. 13, 14. The teaching function receives similar emphasis in the Recognitions. "all evil," it is said, "springs from ignorance " (v. 4).]

The freedom of the will is asserted in sufficiently explicit terms. But the general system is too strongly tinged with dualism to be favorable to real freedom. It is even said that God determined that the present kingdom should be given to the Evil One, [Hom., xx. 2.] and that this Evil One is God's left hand, an agent for accomplishing His will. [Hom., xx. 3.]

In his treatment of the Old Testament, the author of the Homilies pursues a very free method, rejecting as lying interpolations every thing that does not accord with his views. He represents Peter as saying that some of the Scriptures are true and some false, and that one must distinguish between them as a good money-changer distinguishes between coins. [Hom., ii. 38, 51; iii. 42, 50; xviii. 19, 20.] He idealizes the character of Adam and the patriarchs, and denies the sins imputed to them. [Hom., iii. 20, 21.] Sacrifices are discarded, [Hom., iii. 45.] and circumcision is not inculcated. Still, Christianity is essentially identified with Judaism; and it is stated that one may be equally approved, whether he follows the guidance of Moses or of Jesus. [Hom., viii. 6, 7.]

The ecclesiastical stand-point of the work is hierarchical. Great importance is attached to baptism and episcopacy. But James rather than Peter is represented as the head of the hierarchy, the highest authority in the Church. "Remember," Peter is made to say, "to shun apostle or teacher or prophet who does not first accurately compare his preaching with that of James, who was called the brother of my Lord, and to whom was entrusted to administer the Church of the Hebrews in Jerusalem." [Hom., xi. 35. Compare Recognitions, iv. 35.] Paul is unmentioned, and in a few instances there is reason to suspect that a side thrust was aimed at him. [Perhaps this is the case in Hom. xvii. 19.] But the brunt of the author's polemic was not so much against the teaching of Paul as against the anti-Judaic Gnosticism of Marcion.

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