Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Aquila's Bible, the Ebionites and the Elcesaites

Reading N°40 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Jewish nation had just undergone a cruel chastisement under Emperor Hadrian, but the Jewish Synagogue was still free. Its faith was not proscribed in the Roman Empire, its places of prayer were left standing, its meetings were legal.[1]

Reproduction of a 6th century map of Aelia Capitolina

Among the pagans who, under Hadrian, were engaged in the construction of Aelia Capitolina, was - so it was said - a Greek from the province of Pontus, a relative of the Emperor. His name was Aquila. The extent of his knowledge and the energy of his character persuaded the Emperor to appoint him to superintend the immense building project. Impressed at sight of the virtues and miracles that were in evidence among the Christians, he asked for and received Baptism.[2] But, as his heart was not purified by humility, knowledge remained his supreme god. He was reproved on account of his passion for astrology. This angered him. He was excommunicated. No longer wishing to be a Christian, ashamed to become a pagan again, he became a Jew. He imagined a Judaism that would break all the bonds connecting the religion of Moses with the religion of Christ, and that would set up the Old Law in opposition to the New. For this reason, says St. Epiphanius, he wrote a new Greek version of the Bible, "suppressing such parts as bore testimony in favor of Christ."[3] A learned rabbi, Akiba (Akiva), helped him in the undertaking.[4]

Such was the origin of the famous Greek Bible of Aquila, an important work, ingenious, carefully done, showing a deep understanding of the Hebrew language, but slavishly literal and obviously colored in the Messianic passages, as was remarked by St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, Origen, and St. Jerome.[5] The Jews favored it as against the Septuagint, and made use of it in spreading their doctrines in the Greek world. They employed it also to corrupt Christianity and to nourish, in the Church, that Judaizing spirit which, in the teachings of the Ebionites and the Elcesaites, tended to base the religion of Christ on a very gross interpretation of the Old Testament.

The Ebionites, whose origin we observed at the very beginning of Christianity, had, by fusion with the sect of the Essenes, taken on a new development about the year AD 100. We find their doctrine set forth in a series of sermons and adventure stories published under the name of St. Clement of Rome.[6] According to Essenean Ebionitism, God has a form and members, because every being is finite and limited. Created beings are divided into good and bad. So, too, there are good and bad prophets. The latter are descended from Eve, the female, evil element of the world. From Adam are descended the good prophets, the greatest of whom is Jesus. He is the son of God, but he is not God, for God is the Unbegotten, the Innascible, and Jesus is the begotten and the son.[7]

The Elcesaites, whose ideas and practices we learn from Origen, St. Epiphanius, and the Philosophumena, took their doctrine from the Book of Elchasai, which was held to be a revelation made in the third year of Trajan (AD 100) by a gigantic angel, called the Son of God, having at his side a wife of like size, the Holy Spirit. A curious baptism, with magical formulas and odd incantations, was the form of initiation into this sect. All the ritualistic laws of the Jews were kept. Christ, born of Mary, as other human beings are born, was merely a reincarnation, for he had already passed through several bodies and had borne several names. The Philosophumena adds that the Elcesaites had also certain secret beliefs and practices.

These strange sects would count for little in the religious movement of mankind. Before long, they disappeared. It is mostly their oddness that draws attention to them. Yet they have a symbolic significance. The Ebionite, like the Elcesaite, is the proud Jew, inconsolable for the loss of his nationality and for the failure of his gross Messianism, trying to obtain a compensation in a majestic but vain fancy in which he seeks to draw the nations after him.[8]


[1] Champagny, Les Antonins, II, 75. There are preserved some Judeo-Roman tombs of this period, with the palm, the candlestick, the titles of "father" and "mother of the synagogue."
[2] St. Epiphanius, De mensuris et ponderibus, chap. 14.
[3] Ibid.
[4] St. Jerome, In Isaiam, 49.
[5] Cf. Batiffol, art. "Aquila," in the Dict. de la Bible. Aquila's translation is incorporated in Origen's Hexapla.
[6] The Recognitiones is a popular romance. The pseudo-Clementine writings will be found in the first two volumes of Migne's Patrologia Graeca.
[7] Tixeront, History of Dogmas, I, 165 ff.
[8] Ibidem, p. 168 ff.


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