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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Birth of a Myth - Mary The Virgin

Here is an interesting Judeo-Christian sect from the first century CE. Interesting that is not so much because of what they believed in general but because of what they believed in one particular. For people who want to believe that the modern Christian Bible was all written or inspired by the Christian god and so is the gospel truth, this sect represents a major problem.

The sect is the Ebionites whose name is believed to derive from the Hebrew word 'Ebyonim' ('the poor', 'poor ones') reflecting their ascetic life-style, having obeyed Jesus and given all their possessions away. Some scholars think they may have been one and the same as the 'Nazarenes', also an early Judeo-Christian sect.

James the Just, 'brother of Jesus'
The basic belief of the Ebionites was that the Laws of Moses, traditionally believed to have been handed down by Yahweh to Moses in Sinai, were sacrosanct and that Jesus was the Messiah, so anyone who wanted to follow Jesus had to be Jewish and had to follow Jewish laws and rites (and so must be circumcised - I wonder who else can see the misogyny there). In fact, the Ebionites are believed to have been amongst the earliest followers of the 'new' sect of Jesus, of which James the Just (= 'James the brother of Jesus') and Peter (Simon "The Rock" Peter), both early church fathers in Jerusalem. The sect is thought to have arisen around the time of the destruction of the Temple in about 70 CE.

As devout Jews, the Ebionites were strict monotheists and, as such, denied the divinity of Jesus, acknowledging him only as a human who, because of his righteousness, had been chosen by Yahweh as the Messiah. They acknowledged Joseph and Mary as Jesus' natural parents and never claimed Mary was a virgin or that Jesus' father was anyone other than Joseph. It was only when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist that Yahweh 'adopted' him as his son.

Meanwhile, of course, Paul had been assiduously marketing his sect to anyone and everyone and had been keen to stress that:
  1. It wasn't necessary to be Jewish to be a Christian;

  2. It wasn't necessary to be circumcised;

which was diametrically opposed to everything the Ebionites were saying.

So why was there this disagreement?

Didn't the Ebionites have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to read so they could see for themselves that Mary was a virgin impregnated by Yahweh, and so Jesus was a manifestation in human form of the Jewish god? Isn't that what the Bible is for - to relate the truth and settle these sorts of disputes, and aren't two of the four canonical gospels clear on the subject of the virgin birth - the only two which bother to cover it?

You might think that from the beginning, Christianity was always basically one thing: a religion descended from Jesus, as interpreted by Paul, leading to the church of the Middle Ages on down to the present. But things were not at all that simple. About a hundred fifty years after Jesus’ death we find a wide range of different Christian groups claiming to represent the views of Jesus and his disciples but having completely divergent perspectives, far more divergent than anything even that made it into the New Testament.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible
(And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 191).
Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The short answer, is, "No they didn't!". In fact, probably from their formation in around 70 CE, the Ebionites had their own 'Gospel' - the 'Ebionite Gospel' - which may have been very similar to the Gospel of Matthew minus it's first two chapters - the ones telling of Jesus' birth as the literal son of Yahweh, through a virgin. The author of 'Matthew', you may recall if you've read my blogs on the stories of Jesus' ancestry and birth (Christmas! Which Christmas?, Which Genealogy of Jesus? and Pull The Other One Matthew!) was the most Jewish of the Gospel writers who stretched credulity often beyond breaking point to shoehorn the Jesus myth into Jewish prophesy, and on ocassion misrepresenting the 'prophesies', to make it look like Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.

Why would a devout early sect which purported to follow the teachings of Jesus, and which appears to have arisen from the very area in which Jesus is alleged to have lived, taught and died, have the 'wrong' gospel?

The answer is obvious. They had an early form of a gospel. Possibly one of the sources of the four 'canonical' gospels, or even an earlier version of the Gospel of Matthew, before the story of the virgin birth had been added to the myth and incorporated into the Christian sect which Paul had invented almost single-handedly, and the version which 'won' the struggle to be the 'right opinion' or 'Orthodox' version when the Emperor Constantine I adopted it as the state religion in an attempt to hold his disintegrating empire together by taking control of the peoples' religions and merging them into one manageable official one.

Quite simply, the Ebionites had a 'gospel' to which a lot more mythology was yet to be added in the coming century or two to meet the needs of the priesthood and political classes, including the myth of a virgin birth to bring it into line with public expectations of the birth of gods in the Roman Empire, especially the Hellenistic Eastern part. It's an intriguing thought that James 'the brother of Jesus' and Simon 'The Rock' Peter, upon whom the Catholic Church claims to have been built by Jesus himself, may have been early founders of a sect which denied the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus and which insisted that we can only follow Jesus if we are devoutly observant Jews.

As losers in the struggle, the Ebionites, together with their 'Gospel' went the way of all the other 'heresies' such as the Gnostics in the ferocious purge of 'heresies' which was unleashed throughout the Eastern Empire as soon as the Pauline sect won the struggle to be the official version of the doctrine we now call Christianity. So today all we know of them is in the condemnatory writings of the winners - those who wrote and rewrote their preferred versions of these 'gospels', and the odd scrap of an ancient document which had been carefully hidden by a losing sect to avoid the paranoid purge and destruction by those who were terrified of being contradicted.


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3 comments:

  1. Isn't it true that the entire myth of the virgin birth of the (mythical) Jesus is based on mistranslation of the word "Almah" ("young woman" in Hebrew/Aramaic) into "virgin" in Greek?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. However the 'mistranslation' could have been a deliberate distortion.

      Delete

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