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They were called Nazarenes

All this while I have been referring to the Jerusalem community as Jewish Christians. Strictly speaking, the use of the term "Christian" is incorrect and I have used (and will continue to use) this mainly for want of a more appropriate term. Here we will see that:

  • The name Christian was never used by the Jerusalem Church.
  • The names they called themselves were Nazarenes, taking over the title used by their founder, Jesus.
  • They were also referred to, by themselves and others, as:
We will also engage in a little speculation into the possible meaning of these terms. These speculations however should be seen as secondary to our main aim, which is to show which terms were actually used by the early Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus. Thus I have use bold lettering to note the conclusions that can be drawn with certainty. However our speculative exercise does show that the terms used were pregnant with theological meanings that are no longer clear to us today.


There are only three places in the New Testament where the term "Christian" appears. It's first appearance is in Acts where we are told it was in Antioch that the words "Christian" was first used [4], to describe the followers of Paul!

Acts 11:25
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were first called Christians [Christianos] at Antioch.

The others are:
Acts 26:28
Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?"

I Peter 4:16
Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace...

There is nothing contentious about the assertion in Acts so we can take it that the followers of Jesus were called "Christians" at Antioch sometime during the first century CE, probably around 60 CE. The passive form of the statement in Acts implies that the names were given by outsiders. Thus we can surmise that the term Christianos was a Latinised nickname given by pagans because the followers were continually talking about Christos (Greek for the Hebrew Messiah). [1]

The appearance of the term in I Peter does not mean that it was used by the apostle of that name. We have seen earlier that I Peter was a forgery and was written by a Pauline Christian around 95 CE; i.e. not someone from the community related to the Jerusalem Church. All this document tells us is that the title had become a self-designation to Gentile (Pauline) Christians by the end of the first century.

Three things are significant here. First, nowhere was the designation ever shown to have been applied to the Jerusalem congregation headed by James. Secondly the term Christian would not have been of much use in the Semitic world of the Apostles where the Hebrew messiah (instead of "Christ") would have been the term they used. Thirdly whenever the Jerusalem congregation was referred to in the New Testament and in contemporaneous literature, they were always referred to by other names. These we shall see below.

What we can conclude here is:

the name Christianos (Christian) came from a Latinized form of the Greek word "Christ" and was used as a designation of mainly Gentile believers in Jesus outside Palestine. The term was never used to designate the original followers of Jesus (the Jerusalem church). [2]

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A name by which the Jerusalem church became associated with was Nazarene. In the Greek New Testament it appears in two main forms: Nazarenos (Nazarene) and Nazoraios (Nazorean).

In Acts we are specifically told this was the name of the sect. In Paul's trial before Felix in Caesarea, the lawyer for the prosecution, Tertullus made his remark:

Acts 24:5
"We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is the ring leader of the Nazarene sect."

The setting here is significant, because the charges that Tertullus referred to there were made by the Jews in Jerusalem (Ananias, the high priests and others). Thus the tradition available to Luke was that the name by which the Jews in Jerusalem called the followers of Jesus there was Nazarene. [3]

We know that Jesus was also called the Nazarene in all four gospels. We see one example this use in the earliest gospel, Mark:

Mark 1:24
and he [a man possessed with an unclean spirit-PT] said "What have you to do with us Jesus, Nazarene?"

Most English translations renders the Greek Iesou Nazarene as "Jesus of Nazareth", yet strictly speaking, this is not accurate and the form that I have placed above reflects the original meaning more closely. Apart from that passage above, we find that the form "Jesus the Nazarene" appears in many places in the gospels (Mark 10:47; 14:67; Luke 4:34; 24:19; John 18:5) [4]

Matthew even asserted that the name was in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy:

Matthew 2:23
So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, "He will be called a Nazarene."

It is interesting to note here that unlike Matthew's other prophecy allusions-this one is to be found nowhere in the Old Testament. [5] We will discuss this later.

However now we must conclude what we know for sure:

Nazarenos or Nazoraios was the title used by Jesus and later, in its plural form, by his Jewish followers in Palestine.

It is obvious that all the evangelists believed that the reason Jesus was called "The Nazarene" was simply because he was from Nazareth. Mark, for instance, before he mentioned the meeting with the possessed man, related that Jesus came from Nazareth (Mark 1:9). Matthew made the connection even clearer. For just before the verse we have seen above, he mentioned that Jesus' family had settled down in Nazareth. (Matthew 2:23a) The other evangelists of course were agreed in mentioning that Jesus was from Nazareth (Luke 1:26; John 1:45-6). And since they did not try to provide an explanation for the term "The Nazarene", one may reasonably conclude that they too share the same opinion. [6]

Indeed this seems to be the prevailing opinion among Christians in the past and today, as we can see from the Bible translations. However there are a few problems with such an interpretation, obvious though it may seem prima facie:

  • Firstly we note that Nazareth was an obscure little town in Galilee. [It was not mentioned in Josephus' work, nor the Hebrew Bible nor is it found in the later Talmud. The earliest Jewish reference to the place is found in an inscription discovered in 1962 by an excavation by the Hebrew University in Caesarea. The earliest date for the inscription would be end of the third century CE.] To use an insignificant location to denote his homeland is strange, as Guignebert remarked "a reference to Nazareth conveys no information." Similarly we do not find Simon or Andrew referred to as "of Capernaum". Only when the town or village is well known would such a designation make sense [e.g. Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21)] . For Jesus surely it would have been more natural to refer to him as Jesus the Galilean. Galilee was certainly well known enough for such a task. [e.g. The founder of the Zealot movement was referred to as Judas the Galilean.]

  • Secondly, a more correct derivation of "man of Nazareth" would be either Nazarethenos or Nazarethaios. The dropping of the final "t" or "th", while possible, would be quite unlikely.

  • Finally it is by no means clear that Nazoriaos can derived from Nazareth. We know from later Jewish writings that the letter represented by "z" (or the equivalent zeta in Greek) in Nazareth was originally the letter tsade in the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet. This normally carries the sound "ts" as in the English word nets. This is normally transliterated in Greek as "sigma" (which would normally be rendered in English as an "s" or "ts".). However in the case of Nazareth there was an error in transliteration and the tsade had been erroneously represented by the Greek letter zeta (or in English "z"). Thus had the name been transliterated correctly, instead of Nazareth, the name of the village should have been rendered as Natsareth or Nasareth.

    For Nazarenos or Nazoriaos, the Greek alphabet given in the New Testament for "z" here is also zeta. However we do not have the original Aramaic form of the name. It is highly unlikely that here we have two cases of mistransliteration. So if we assume a correct transliteration in this case, this would mean that the equivalent Hebrew alphabet would be zayin (the sound is pure "z" as in zeal). [Having one correct transliteration could explain why Nazareth was mistransliterated. With Jesus title being "The Nazarene", it was natural for the evangelists to assume that Nazareth was also spelled with a zeta.]

    So if compare the names with each other - Natsareth and Nazoraios - they no longer look, or sound, like they were derived from one another. This makes it unlikely that "The Nazarene" means "man from Nazareth". [7] [a]

This is another strong argument for the historicity of the title as it applied to Jesus; for if the evangelists had misunderstood the meaning, then they must have taken it from a tradition that was quite some distance removed from them in time and space!

Let us continue our speculative exercise a little longer. If Nazarene does not mean "man from Nazareth" what could it have meant? When one surveys the literature here, theories proliferate as to the origins of the word. [8]

  1. It comes from the word netzer meaning branch or off-shoot. According to this hypothesis, the Old Testament passage Matthew could be alluding to would be:

    Isaiah 11:1
    There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse [father of King David] and a branch [Hebrew: netzer] shall grow out of his roots.

    In this sense "Nazarene" could mean "descendent of David". This is the hypothesis favored by Ray Pritz in his book Nazarene Jewish Christianity. [9]

  2. It comes from the word nosri which means "one who keeps (guard over)" or "one who observes". Hans-Joachim Schoeps chose this interpretation in his book Jewish Christianity. [10]

  3. It comes from the word nazir which designates a man who is consecrated and bound by a vow to God. One of the Old Testament text which could have been meant by Matthew, if nazir is the term would be:

    Judges 13:5
    [Angel speaking to Samson's mother-to-be] "...the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out from the hand of the Philistines."

    The Nazirite vow is also given in detail in Numbers 6:1-21 This was preferred by Guignebert in his book Jesus and more recently, by Robert Eisenmann in his highly speculative but extremely interesting James the Brother of Jesus [11].

Certainly the three theories are all speculative to some extent and none can be considered proven. But in my opinion, the third theory has the most going for it for a few reasons: [12]

  • Both notzer and nosri (although rendered differently) are spelled with a tsade, transliterated consistently they look like notser and notsri. Nazir on the other hand is spelled with a zayin, which, as we have seen above is consistent with the Nazarene. [b]

  • The Greek equivalent of nazir is hagios which means "holy one of God," which was the title given to Jesus. Indeed in the Markan episode of the possessed man we saw earlier, the demons in him were made to call Jesus "the holy one of god", immediately after identifying him as a Nazarene. (Mark 1:24)

  • In the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (Lamentations 4:7), Nazirites was translated into Greek as Naziraioi, which is quite similar to one of the renditions in the gospels: Nazoraios.

  • We have seen elsewhere that both James, the Brother of Jesus and at least some members of the Jerusalem church undertook Nazirite vows. [c]
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There are two occasions in the letters of Paul where the designation "The Poor" is used to refer to the whole (or part of) the Jerusalem congregation.

In the first, after narrating the Jerusalem meeting Paul wrote of this agreement he had with the pillars:

Galatians 2:1-10
only they would have us remember The Poor, which very thing I was eager to do.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul again mentioned the collection for "The Poor" in Jerusalem:

Romans 15:25-26
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry for the saints; for Macedonia and Archaia have been pleased to share their resources with The Poor among the saints in Jerusalem.

Opinions differ among scholars whether the term merely described the socio-economic conditions among some members of the Jerusalem Church [13] or whether it was an "almost technical term" (Chadwick) or honorific title (Ludemann) for the whole Jerusalem community. [14]

Argument for the former includes the evidence of the earlier failure of "proto-communism" experimented with by the Jerusalem community (Acts 2:44-45; 5:1-11) which could have resulted in economic hardship for most of the community. [15]

We find the sayings of Jesus in Q with respect to the same subject:

Luke 4:18 (=Matthew 11:5)
The Spirit of the Lord...has anointed me to bring the good news to The Poor

Luke 6:20 (=Matthew 5:3)
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are Poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven."

These sayings, like above, could mean simply the socio-economically less well off or it could mean something more technical. Hans-Joachim Schoeps had suggested that the remnants of the church that fled Jerusalem after the war probably adopted this as an honorific title for themselves (perhaps due to their own destitute situation). [16]

In the epistle of James we have something that sounds similar to Jesus' saying above:

James 2:5-6
Has not God chosen The Poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs to the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored The Poor

It is surely significant that documents that are considered to have Jewish Christian origins (Q and James) are those that have this designation.

The Hebrew for the term "The Poor" is ebionim. The use of ebionim as an honorific designation permeates the religious culture of Judaism during the same period. The Hebrew Bible has many allusions to this term as an honorific designation (e.g. Psalms 86:1; 132:15; Isaiah 61:1). [17]

In the Qumran ("Dead Sea") Scrolls too the term ebionim is used in a very technical self-designatory sense. The term "Poor in Spirit" which we find in Matthew 5:3 is also found at Qumran (War Scroll 9:10 ; Community Rule: 4:3). As Eisenmann and Wise noted in their book Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: [18]

The use of Ebionim as a term of self designation at Qumran is widespread, most notably in the pesharim, but the...War Scroll.

The use of ebionim as a technical self-designatory term in Qumran does not necessarily suggests identity between the Qumran community and the original Jerusalem community led by James. [d] It does however tell us that the term was used as an honorific term to designate an almost contemporaneous group in a parallel theological system. Thus it is likely that there is more to the designation Ebionim than meets the eye. We can conclude:

Regardless of whether it was used in a technical or socio-economic sense, the important thing to note here is that the term was used in some instances to refer to all, or a part of, the Jerusalem community. The recurring theme of "the Poor" or "Poor in Spirit" in New Testament documents associated with the Jerusalem church showed that the term ebionim would have cropped up on many occasions in their theology.

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The Way

Acts supplied another title used to designate the early community of the church:

Acts 9:1
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to The Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Acts 24:22
[During Paul's trial] But Felix who was rather well informed about The Way, adjourned the hearing...

In conclusion:

There is no reason to doubt that this too was a term used to designate the early community in Palestine around 40-60 CE. [19]

Speculations about the meaning of "The Way" are rife. I merely want to point out some tantalizing similarities between this designation and the Nazirite above. The term comes from Isaiah 40:3 "the Way in the Wilderness" which was connected in some way with John the Baptist. (Mark 1:1-4) In the Qumran Documents, Isaiah 40:3 (for instance in the Community Rule 1QS 8:14; 9:19-20) was interpreted as "to separate from the settlement of the Unrighteous men and go out in the wilderness and prepare The Way of God". The term Nazirite means "consecrated" or "separated one". This suggests a close relationship in the designation "The Way" and "The Nazarenes". [20]

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a.Note that I am not here saying that Jesus did not come from Nazareth or that the town did not exists during Jesus' time (as some Jesus Mythist might claim). Indeed I have shown elsewhere that the evidence is quite compelling that Jesus came from there. All I am arguing for above is that "The Nazarene" did not mean "man from Nazareth".
b.Some readers may be surprised by this assertion that Nazarene is closer to Nazirite than Nazareth, even if the latter is spelt as Natsareth. For one could ask, don't the vowels between Nazarene and Nazirite differ more? The answer is straightforward. Ancient Hebrew (prior to the so-called Massoretic text which came into existence around the sixth century CE) had no vowels! So actually Nazirite would be written N-Z-R (the equivalent of "ite" does not appear in the Hebrew: "The Nazirite" is simply rendered "ha-nazir"), while Nazarene would probably also be N-Z-R and Nazareth would be N-Ts-R-T. So we can see how Nazirite and Nazerene share the same root (N-Z-R) but Nazareth does not (N-Ts-R-T).
c.Because the Nazirite vows requires separation of the person taking the vow and the avoidance of defilement and wine, the most common objection to the hypothesis that Nazarene is a rendition of Nazirite was that Jesus mixed with the dregs of society and freely drank wine (e.g. Luke 7:34). [21] However this observation loses much of its force due to two considerations. Firstly Nazirite vows can be taken for a lifetime or for a limited period of time only. A Nazirite can drink wine when their vow has been released. Furthermore we have an example in the Old Testament on a Nazirite from birth, Samson (Judges 13:5) who drank freely (Judges 14:10), defiled himself (Judges 14:10) and allowed his hair to be cut (Judges 16:15-19)! [22]
d.This identity was indeed suggested by Robert Eisenmann in his book James the Brother of Jesus.

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1.Armstrong, The First Christian: p68
Chadwick, The Early Church: p16
Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: p88
Guignebert, The Christ: p158
Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles: p367-368
Ludemann, Heretics: p39
Maccoby, The Mythmaker: p175
Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: p11,15n18
2.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p236
Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: p13
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p199
3.Pritz, ibid.: p14-15
4.Guignebert, Jesus: p82-83
5.Pritz, op. cit.: p11-12
6.Guignebert, Jesus: p78-86
7. Finegan, Archeology of the New Testament: p46
Guignebert, Jesus: 82-83, 89
Wilson, Jesus the Evidence: p58
8.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p801-802
Eisenmann, James the Brother of Jesus: p242
Guignebert, Jesus: p86-88
9.Pritz, op. cit.: p12
10.Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: p11
11.Eisenmann, James the Brother of Jesus: p242 (among others!)
Guignebert, Jesus: p87-88
12.Guignebert, Jesus: p86-89
13.F. Stanley Jones, Ebionites, in "Encyclopedia of Early Christianity": p359
14.Chadwick, The Early Church: p23
Ludemann, Heretics: p42
15.Painter, Just James: p249
16.Schoeps, op. cit: p11
17.Ludemann, Heretics: p53
18.Eisenmann & Wise, Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: p233-235
19.Eisenmann, James the Brother of Jesus: p599
Eisenmann & Wise, Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: p33
20.Eisenmann, James the Brother of Jesus: 82, 161, 243
21.Pritz, op. cit.: p12
22.Metzger & Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible: p12

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