Ebionitism’s Dual Christologies

It is frequently claimed that the earliest christology was “adoptionist,” the theological claim that ontologically (by nature)  Jesus was nothing but human, nothing but “mere man.”   This ancient “reductionist-humanistic” concept did, however, allow for an exalted view of Jesus as Messiah, great high priest, the “Prophet like Moses,” and other Jewish-Messianic affirmations.  It also permitted Jesus to be a risen prophet, one whom God raised up from the grave as a seal of approval.  Moreover, it allowed this risen Jesus to be an angelic being, glorified and exalted into heaven and standing at God’s right hand, carrying God’s name in him, and waiting fto carry out a “second coming” in which he will judge the world.  This adoptionist Jesus – properly understood not as a god or God, but as God’s agent – may even be addressed in the Maranatha prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But all of these glorious affirmations still pertain to the monotheistic, Jewish Jesus, a man, a prophet, a righteous Israelite rewarded by God.  God’s reward, as mentioned, was to raise Jesus into heaven.  This heavenly reward is necessarily an aspect of adoptionism.  Clearly, a risen Messiah to whom one can pray has par excellence been adopted (as “Son”) by God.  Yet Ebionites and other early Jewish Christians believed that Jesus’ adoption by God began even earlier, in his earthly life, before his death and resurrection.

It was claimed that Jesus, a devout Israelite, excelled all others in piety, obedience and righteousness (as reflected in Luke 2:51-52), so that, by the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus had reached the pinnacle of holiness, and so was “ripe for adoption.”  Indeed, say  Jewish Christian sources, it was at his baptism that Jesus was “officially” adopted as God’s son: the heavens opened, the holy Spirit descended on Jesus “like a dove,” and God’s voice proclaimed him “Son.”  This early Jewish christological understanding extends even into the canonical Gospels and the Pauline writings.

It is generally maintained among scholars that this “low” adoptionist christology characterised only the early, “Jewish” period of church formation.  So-called “higher” christologies which made more explict divine claims for Jesus, are held to be much later developments in the tradition.  The idea is that the “Jewishness” of low/adoptionist christology indicates its plausibility, because notions of higher christology had not yet had time to evolve.

Adoptionist christology, it is claimed, is in keeping with Jewish perspectives about prophets, inspired or” holy”people, and the monotheistic/singular-unitary nature of God.  Higher christology, it is claimed, is the product of later theological reflection and possible importation of pagan, Hellenistic ideas about god-men and demigods. 

However, some expressions of early Jewish christology actually contain both “high” and “low” concepts about Jesus.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was the adopted son of God, the Prophet like Moses, whose righteousness caused God to embrace him in a filial relationship at his baptism and then to “set the seal” on the act by raising Jesus from the dead.  For the Ebionites, Jesus was the Messiah in the sense of carrying out messianic goals during his ministry.  (Interestingly, they also held that messiahship is potentially everyone’s birthright, maintaining that all Ebionites, and those who enter that fold, are oiled with the same messianic chrism that anointed Jesus.  Adherents can, like Jesus, perform the messianic task.)

Thus far, Ebionitism qualifies as a typically “low” christology.  However, Ebionites also claimed a kind of “high” christology, because they involved their Christ in the field or schema of heavenly pre-existence. Ebionites typically claimed that Jesus, the wholly human but divinely-adopted prophet also embodied God’s holy Spirit.

To return to the baptism scene: Ebionites claimed that the “Spirit Like A Dove” that descended on Jesus was a type of pre-existent, heavenly “Christ” sent down to abide in Jesus.

This spirit was thought to be more or less interchangeable with the Adam Kadmon, or heavenly primal Adam; Yahoel, God’s chief assisting angel; Metatron, the Angel of the Throne; and the Standing One or heavenly Son of Man.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was a man adopted and risen to heaven by God. But he was also the embodiment on earth – or if the term may be used – the incarnation of a pre-existent celestial being.  The Ebionite Jesus thus carries in him the dual dignity 1) of a righteous human being and 2) the numinous character who incarnates a revealing tutelary spirit, who is pre-existent and closely related to God.

To reiterate:  Ebionitism claims a dual christological significance to Jesus’ baptismal adoption, an adoption that   simultanesously consists of:

granting to Jesus a filial relationship to God

– and –

the entering into Jesus of a pre-existent celestial tutelary spirit, perceived, conceptualized and symbolized as a dovelike spirit.

The Ebionite Christ thus exemplifies a synthesis of both “low” and “high” christologies, because:

on the one hand he is the obedient-and-rewarded prophet,

and on the other hand he is the recipient of a pre-existent, heavenly being.

It is therefore possible to think that the Ebionite Jesus speaks in two voices: one, the voice of the Jesus “the carpenter’s son,” the obedient-but-transformed/adopted human mystic, “Jesus the Galilean”;  the other, the self-revealing, incarnating Spirit, or Adam Kadmon, primal Son of Man, holy angel.

This christological paradigm  is worked out in Islam by the separation of the the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) personal voice from the Voice of God speaking through him.  The New Testament does not often or obviously separate the two voices, but a close reading will find them implicit in many texts, most pointedly in John’s Gospel.

John’s Jesus, embodying the Spirit and will of the Father and being the vehicle for the Logos’ incarnation, speaks with the Voice of the Divine, such as in the “I am” statements.  Many of the Johannine Jesus’ statements can be read as self-revelations of the Spirit incarnate in him (“I come from the Father and return to the Father; I know the hidden things of God; before Abraham came to be, I am,” etc.).  Here – theoretically at least -is the incarnate heavenly Spirit speaking through Jesus.

At other times John’s Jesus looks more like a human mystic reflecting on and talking about what it is like to incarnate God’s spirit and to be filially united with that God and his spiritt (“the Father and I are one; when you see me, you see the Father; I am a man who hears and obeys the word of God;  the Father is greater than I; I can do nothing of my own will, only by God’s will,” etc.  Here – theoretically –  Jesus the Galilean mystic is speaking about himself.

These  considerations indicate that the dichotomy between high-late and low-early christologies is at least partially dissolved in Ebionitism’s combination of the two.  For a fascinating discussion of the possible “two voices” of Jesus, the reader is referred to Stevan L. Davies’ book, Jesus the Healer (Continuum Publishing Company, NY 1995,  especially pp. 151-169).

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