Until recently, though, my understanding of the topic came from what I had heard and the conclusions I had myself come to. I just picked up a book on the subject. Bart D. Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew is an examination of some of the earliest forms of Christianity, occurring throughout the region in the years before the New Testament was collected and one form of the religion, the form we are all familiar with, won out over all the others.
The book so far is wonderful. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, uses myriad primary source material, translated by him from the original (ancient Greek, Coptic, Aramaic) to support his understandings of some of the earliest forms of Christianity. Only one of these groups (Ehrman refers to them as proto-Orthodox) comes out of the early centuries CE in one piece. The rest of them, and they are many and varied, were “lost,” only to be rediscovered in previously unknown texts, found covered in dust in monastic libraries, or, more frequently, covered in sand in the deserts of the Middle East.
One chapter of the book is dedicated to a group of early Jewish-Christians known as the Ebionites. Ehrman makes the point of calling them Jewish-Christians, as these early followers of Jesus saw their budding religion not as something new, but as a simple extension of the Jewish faith. Jesus, of course was Jewish, and he Ebionites held that his appearance did not make null and void the teachings of the Old Testament, God’s Law to his chosen people, which involved keeping the Sabbath, eating only certain things at certain times, and of course, circumcision.
You can imagine that these Ebionites may have had some trouble finding converts. How many, after all, are likely to choose a religion which not only institutes some pretty hefty rules and regulations, but also requires a painful and sensitive surgical procedure? Most of the Ebionites were likely already Jewish, and it is not surprising that this form of Christianity didn’t catch on as the religion of the masses. As Ehrman puts it:
Had Ebionite Christianity “won” the internal battles for dominance, Christianity itself would probably have ended up as a footnote in the history of religion books used in university courses in the West. (p. 110)
This, however, is not the most interesting aspect of this ancient Christian sect, nor have I yet come to the reason for this post. You see, the Ebionites, according to Ehrman, seemed to have given up the sacrifice of animals, considering Jesus’ death on the cross to have been the ultimate sacrifice and thus making any further sacrifice unnecessary. This also lead them to strict vegetarianism, considering any killing of animals as an unnecessary sacrifice. This also led to some interesting developments in their holy book, which Ehrman refers to as the Gospel of the Ebionites:
Probably the most interesting of the changes from the familiar New Testament accounts of Jesus comes in the Gospel of the Ebionites description of John the Baptist, who, evidently, like his successor Jesus, maintained a strictly vegetarian cuisine. In this Gospel, with the change of just one letter of the relevant Greek word, the diet of John the Baptist was said to have consisted not of locusts [meat!] and wild honey (cf. Mark 1:6) but of pancakes and wild honey. (pp. 102-103)
Pancakes! Ha!! I had always pictured John the Baptist as a grizzly, poorly-groomed bear of a man, coming out of the woods like a beast with visions and premonitions of some looming event. He had seemed to me like the first sidewalk caller, unwashed and unfed yelling out the prophetic words of God to anyone who would listen. But reading this put a whole new spin on this image.
I laughed out loud as I imagined John the Baptist coming out of the woods, famished, donning a soiled red flannel shirt, jeans, suspenders and boots, sitting down at the first table he could find to a steaming hot pile of flapjacks and honey as tall as they could be stacked. This seemed to me something that might turn up in a Cohen Brothers “loose adaptation” of the Gospel according to Mark. John the Baptist Lumberjack!
Further, somewhat cursory, research outside Ehrman leads me to the feeling that the Ebionite interpretation may in fact be more accurate. The word in question, which according to Ehrman needs but one letter changed, is the Greek word for locusts, akris. The Ebionites changed this word to egkris, or pancakes made of ground coriander seed. Paula Gott, an Essene Nazarene minister, sites earlier references to this same food, found in the Old Testament descriptions of the Jews’ 40 years in the wilderness (Numbers 11:7-8, Exodus 16:31-32). It seems appropriate that in a New Testament Gospel like Matthew, which is decidedly pro-Jewish (Ehrman 98), parallels would be drawn between John the Baptist’s wanderings in the wilderness and these earlier Jewish experiences there.
Whatever version is “correct,” and Ehrman’s book will lead many people to the conclusion that arguments over Biblical “correctness” may be moot, my own personal version of John the Baptist has been forever changed.