Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church, by Keith Akers. Apocryphile Press, Berkeely, 2013.
Keith Akers takes us back to the origins of Christianity in a new way. Disciples delineates in an unprecedented manner the history of the Ebionites – “the Poor” – Jesus’ first Jewish disciples.
The Ebionites represent a religious movement that had its origins in ancient Judaism, a movement that was opposed to animal sacrifice and the temple, and which supported vegetarianism, simple living, compassion, and the cultivation of spiritual wisdom (“knowledge”). This is not some oddball New Age notion. It’s expressed in the Hebrew Bible and by some of the Prophets. Historical Judaism is so associated with the temple and priesthood in the public mind that at first it is hard to accept the idea of an anti-temple form of Judaism. But there it is: in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, and in Ebionite sources … and in Jesus’ ridding the temple of buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals.
Christologically, the Ebionites regarded Jesus not as the founder of Christianity, but rather as the manifestation of the True Prophet, who was sent to elucidate the eternal Ebionite principles for his own generation. As such, in Jesus, the true prophet was seen as a gift from heaven. Similarly, some Ebionites also acknowledged another such gift: the incarnation of a heavenly Christ who came upon Jesus much like the Spirit came upon him in the Gospels. The True Prophet and heavenly Christ incarnated in Jesus; but these immortal figures also incarnated in other people in other eras, as the divine will ordained. Jesus was the most successful, authentic exemplar (but not the only one) of the ancient movement, for which the Ebionites revered him. The book is filled with such exotic information, from christology to “Saint” Paul’s objections to Ebionite dietary concerns. But let’s hear what Keith Akers himself has to say.
Understanding “Jewish Christianity” has been a special project of mine for over 30 years. It became clear to me that the history of these early Christians was not just a vegetarian fantasy. Schoeps himself was neither a Christian nor a vegetarian, but an objective historian of religion with no axe to grind. Other nonvegetarian scholars, such as Walter Wink, also saw the truth of the vegetarianism in early Jewish Christianity (The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. xi).
I have been continually astounded that — with a few exceptions — modern Christians and modern scholars know virtually nothing of Jewish Christianity. Those who are at least aware that it exists typically dismiss Jewish Christianity with statements like “some of Jesus’ followers didn’t understand that Jesus was to liberate us from the confines of Jewish rituals.” This blindness of Christians to their own history is the deeper lesson which the history of Jewish Christianity holds for us today.
Why should people so casually dismiss the idea that the Prince of Peace might make compassion for animals a key part of his program? This idea of compassion is hardly foreign to the history of religion. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism take the idea of vegetarianism seriously. No orthodox Hindu will eat beef, and Buddhists honor as their very first precept “not to take the life of any sentient creature.” In the modern era, even atheists and humanists like Peter Singer understand the vital importance of compassion to animals. Do these people understand something that Jesus didn’t?
Even in the West this philosophy of compassion had a strong presence at the time of Jesus. Pythagoras, who coined the term “philosophy,” was a vegetarian, as well as his follower Plato and at least some sects of the neo-Pythagorean Essenes. The Jewish tradition held that God created the world vegetarian (Genesis 1:29) and would one day return the world to that state from which it had fallen (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 11:6-9). A vegetarian Jesus would hardly be introducing a completely new idea out of the clear blue sky, and there are even hints of these ideas in the gospels, where Jesus declares sympathy for the “least of these,” and says that God will not forget even a single sparrow.
I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Akers’s incisive mind and scholarly data sharpen our picture of “the first church” and disentangle the twisted knots of history, rumor, and speculation that surround this complex subject.
The book is available here:
For volumes of more information, please visit Keith Akers’s excellent website, Compassionate Spirit, at: