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Wikipedia on the Ebionites

The Saga Continues

About a year ago, I wrote an article critical of the Wikipedia article on the Ebionites. I think Wikipedia is a fascinating idea, and on many odd subjects I go right to Wikipedia -- like bee-keeping, R-values, discrepancies between the movie and book versions of The Da Vinci Code, that sort of thing. However, on specialized topics, Wikipedia does less well, and in the case of the Ebionites, it fails spectacularly.

I looked to see if theyíd improved anything since I wrote my first article. I am sorry to say that not only has the article not gotten any better, it has gone downhill significantly in the past year -- in fact disastrously so. I am speaking of the version as of August 19, 2007, which you can get to by clicking here, then going to "history," then clicking on one of the versions for August 19 (they're about the same). 

I started by making a line-by-line commentary but soon gave up.  While there is some good material, there is also a lot of confused and bizarre material, and you have to be an expert to sift out what is what -- which exactly defeats the purpose of such an article. For anyone who wants to "improve" this article, I have the following suggestion: delete it and start over.

Someone may say, "well, anyone can edit this article, why don't you go in and correct it?"  I did that several years ago, spending countless hours editing it, sometimes for weeks at a time.  Almost everything has been edited out and replaced or "enhanced" by confused or sometimes downright silly statements. 

Here is an overview of the main problems.  

(1) Letís start with the sources. Sure, there are lots of references cited, but the sources are obscure to begin with and are sometimes cited without page numbers. (Primary sources are sometimes cited, in explicit violation of Wikipedia's own standards.) There is one frequently cited reference cited here which is in German. Another reference (to Klijn and Reinink) is to a source which gives all the patristic references to the Ebionites or other Jewish Christian groups.  Get a grip, guys!

I'm pretty sure that more than one of these references are flat-out wrong, but it's not worth my while to track it all down (especially without the page numbers!).  

Some of my remaining comments may seem dismissive, but the fact is that the way the article is organized and the use of sources makes the article impossible to check and impossible to establish exactly where the controversies, if any, actually exist.   The strength of an encyclopedia article is that it can be easily checked.  All I can do is indicate the primary areas in which most of what they say is either flat out wrong, or at best highly controversial.  

(2) There is excessive attention paid to the "first century Ebionites."  Sure, the Ebionites may have existed (as such, with that specific name) in the first century, and sure, I think that even if they didn't, there were first-century groups (early Jewish Christians) and even Jesus himself who were very much like the Ebionites in some ways.  But virtually all the scholarly discussion of the Ebionites starts with the second century -- since the earliest specific mention of the Ebionites is from the late second century. Why are we even talking about the first century, except to note that it is, uh, an area of controversy?  Everything they say about first century Ebionites -- including the pompous assumption that first century Ebionites are simply an historical fact -- should probably be eliminated except for a general statement or two that the nature and existence of such first century Ebionites is disputed.  

(3) There is excessive attention paid to the significance of the term "the poor." All that we actually know about the significance of this term can be summarized in a sentence or two.

(4) There is excessive attention paid to the Essenes. It is doubtful that there is any direct relationship at all between the Essenes and the Ebionites, and this is not only my opinion but the opinion of probably almost every scholar there is except Robert Eisenman.  While speculating on the motives and the ideas of the writers of this Wikipedia article is pointless, I strongly suspect that most of the statements here concerning Ebionites and Essenes constitute either (a) original "research" by the Wikipedia authors, or (b) reliance on one respectable but off-beat scholar, Robert Eisenman.  

There is great confusion and controversy, even among scholars, about who the Essenes were; to throw material about the Essenes haphazardly in with equally haphazardly cited information on the Ebionites lends a grotesque, surrealistic air to the proceedings.  

(5) No one seems to even be aware that the pseudo-Clementine literature even exists. The Recognitions and Homilies are actually mentioned in passing in a section which I (in a moment of weakness) wrote for the Wikipedia article, several years ago (maybe they forgot to delete it!). But all of the actual discussion of the Ebionites, which goes on in agonizing detail, proceeds as if the pseudo-Clementine literature did not exist. This literature is the most lengthy and detailed source we have giving information about Jewish Christianity, by scholarly consensus (going back to the nineteenth century) most likely of Ebionite origin. There are plenty of secondary sources that provide abundant commentary on this literature and its relationship to the Ebionites, most notably Hans-Joachim Schoeps.  Use it.  

(6) There is no sense of proportion among the various theories. Off-the-wall theories proposed by this obscure scholar or the other are discussed at length, with pretentious ponderousness.

(7) There is seemingly little awareness among the overall editors (the true Wikipedia people who have no particular axe to grind about the Ebionites) that there is stunningly little modern scholarly material on the Ebionites at all. They allow themselves to be dragged this way or that by references that almost no one can check which seem to validate the point being made.  I think they are assuming that the various people giving input on the article will provide a check on each other, when in fact they are being carried along by tenacious ideologues.  

(8) I think many of the statements alleging agreement between James Tabor and Robert Eisenman, as if they form a single point of view, are seriously overstretched if not downright wrong, but it's not worth it to go back and prove otherwise (since they don't cite page numbers).  

(9) The only time I am mentioned, incidentally, is in a sentence in which I am alleged to have found (with various others) a connection between the Essenes and the Ebionites. This is false and illustrates the sort of slip-shod material with which we are dealing. Nowhere do I allege a direct connection between the Essenes and the Ebionites. What I allege is a possible connection between the Essenes and Jesus, and then Jesus in turn obviously influenced the Ebionites, whom I put in the second century.  See The Lost Religion of Jesus, chapter 3.

Some of what I have written above may seem dismissive.  Sorry.  A badly written article is harder to check than a well-written, but wrong article.  I appreciate those who oppose my views but write clearly.  This article does have  some insights and correct statement here, but it's all a muddle with the good and bad mixed in together.  

How did it get to be this bad?

I think I know how this mess has arrived on the scene.  In the first place, this is a specialized topic.  It is not a hot topic among scholars, in fact, it is sometimes hard to get them interested, to my great annoyance.  So there is a narrow knowledge base, even among unbiased experts with no axe to grind.  

In the second place, it is an emotional topic for people who identify with the Ebionites -- and I am one, so I know the pull directly.  People are looking for spiritual knowledge, and not finding it in accepted religions.  But the Ebionites have been latched onto by several groups which are at ideological loggerheads.  

My guess is that a key destabilizing influence is that there is more than one person who has an active interest in the "ideological direction" of this article, and these people have likely had an undue influence on the article. 

One such group (followers of Hyam Maccoby or Shemayah Phillips, I'm not sure which) seems to be particularly active in the editing process.  They are a sincere group, and on some points I actually agree with them.   Their  distinguishing characteristic is that they donít like any intimation that the Ebionites were not orthodox Jews. They ruthlessly denigrate any suggestions to this effect -- it all becomes controversial, disputed, etc, while what they put forward emerges as the consensus view of mainstream scholars.  Interestingly, except for Maccoby, this point of view does not really have any support in the scholarly community.  And Maccoby, who has now passed on, doesn't really view this as a controversy and cites the evidence on the Ebionites rather casually and selectively to prove his own point of view, almost as an afterthought.

I think there may be other ideological groups involved as well, based on the references to Robert Eisenman, the Essenes, and other subjects, but it's hard for me to tell.  The net result is that references and random bizarre and difficult statements are strewn everywhere, like broken glass in a run-down neighborhood, an open invitation to more disorder.  

And whatís lost in the shuffle? Any reference to the relatively less controversial body of knowledge surrounding the Ebionites from the second century on.   This is what the article should be focused on.

This article, I am sad to say, is now beyond redemption. Some of the material is accurate.  But you have to be an expert to sort this out, and even for an expert it is going to be tough going. If you actually want a quick overview of the Ebionites, check out this short article I wrote a year ago. Itís not perfect, but it is in English.  Compare the two, and draw your own conclusions.

Keith Akers
August 20, 2007 (slightly revised August 24, 2007)