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Nazarenes and Christians

It would probably come as a shock to most Christians today that the original followers of Jesus were never called Christians. They were called Nazarenes. [1] The gospels showed that the Galilean was normally referred to as Jesus the Nazarene (Mark 1:24; John 18:5). [2] Most modern New Testament translations render this as "Jesus of Nazareth" but the former represents the more common form of words in the original Greek version. [3]

It was in Antioch that the words "Christian" was first used [4], to describe the followers of Paul! (Acts 11:25)

The term Nazarene could have had meaning or meanings to the first followers of Jesus which are no longer know to us. At the simplest level, it could simply mean someone from the town of Nazareth. [6] In its Hebrew form the word Nazarene could take on a few different meanings apart from the normal meaning of the man from Nazareth. Depending on how it is actually spelled in Hebrew, it could take these forms: netzer, nazir or nosri. Netzer means branch or offshoot, which may signify a belief in Jesus' messianic descent from David (Isaiah 11:1). Nazir means "a holy man of God". Nosri can mean "one who guards or watches over." [7] All these possibilities goes to show that the original term for followers of Jesus was one that was heavily loaded with meanings which were different from the term "Christian".

We do not know very much about the Nazarenes. The early Christians were very zealous in stamping out heretical beliefs. Our knowledge about them comes almost entirely from the writings of the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr (c100-165), Ireneaus (c130-200), Hippolytus (c185-254), Origen (c185-254), Hegesippus (2nd cent), Eusebius (c260-340), Epiphanus (c315-403)and Jerome (c342-420) who considered the Nazarenes as a heretical Christian sect. [a] [8] As a consequence we have very scarce and sometimes distorted information about them.

The first leader of the Nazarene sect was James the Just, the brother of Jesus. [10] We find hints of his primacy over Peter (which tradition and the gospels ascribed as the leader as the apostles) in the epistles of Paul and in Acts. We find, even in Luke's largely reworked account of the Jerusalem council that James' leadership was implied. For it was he who decided on the issue with the words "I rule" or "My judgment is" (Acts 15:19). We find in Galatians the incident where Peter was ordered by James to stay away from the Gentiles (Galatians 2:12). It was James, who was the leader of the first church of Jesus in Jerusalem. [11]

Initially, the Nazarenes were never considered heretical by the Pharisees. In fact they were so zealous for the law of Moses that the Nazarenes (or Jerusalem "Christians") were considered an ultra-pious group of Jews. [12] As the early Church Father, Hegesippus, relates, James was famous for his strict observance of the Jewish law and for undertaking vows which are normally taken only by the most devout Pharisee. [13] As James, Peter and, presumably, many of their followers knew the earthly Jesus, it is hard to imagine that these actions would be contrary to Jesus' teachings. It was more likely that they were doing what Jesus, when he was alive, commanded them to do. In fact these original apostles of Jesus, headed by James and Peter, never accepted Paul as a true apostle. The uneasy relationship forged after the Jerusalem council was broken off at Antioch and was never mended. Despite Paul's attempts to bribe his way back with an offering of cash collection from his Gentile congregations, James and his church never accepted Paul back into the fold.

When the Nazarenes were persecuted they were persecuted by the Sadducees, a sect already hostile to the Pharisees. In fact Acts preserved an incident in which Peter was saved by Gamaliel, the leader of the Pharisees, from being sentenced to death (Acts 5:37). [14] And when James was condemned by the Sadducees in AD62, the Pharisees protested on his behalf. The Pharisees eventually succeeded in having the high priest, who was a Sadducee, removed for this illegal execution. [15] The Jewish scholar, Hyam Maccoby (b. 1924) has this to add:

The accusations made in Acts that the Pharisees persecuted the Nazarene are just as untrue as the similar accusations made in the gospels in connection with Jesus himself. The Pharisees had no reason to persecute the Nazarenes. They were not teaching any doctrine which was opposed to Pharisaic Judaism. [16]

As Hegesippus tells us, after the death of James, the surviving apostles met with Jesus' family and selected Symeon, son of Cleophas, to be the new leader of the Nazarenes. Our sources tell us that Symeon was the first cousin of Jesus. The Nazarene leadership apparently followed a dynastic line (echoing the zealot tradition) for we also know that the grandson of Jesus brother Jude, James and Sokker, were associated with the leadership of the sect. [17] There were fifteen leaders of the Nazarene sect (including James and Symeon), all of which were circumcised Jews. Their line was finally extirpated in AD132 during the second Jewish revolt. [18]

The beliefs of the Nazarenes (soon deprecatorily called the Ebionites-the poor ones-by the developing orthodox-catholic church) [19] were all we would have expected based on our earlier analysis of Jesus and his actual teachings. Their beliefs contradicted those of the Christians on many points.

According to Justin Martyr (c100-165) and Epiphanus (c315-403), the Nazarenes did not believe in the virgin birth. They considered Jesus to be born of normal parentage [20]. And although they believed Jesus to be the messiah [21], they rejected the genealogies that show Jesus ancestry from David. [22] They continued to follow the precepts of the Jewish law, just like Peter and James had done. [23] The Nazarenes never considered Jesus to be divine (i.e. God the Son) but that he was given the messiahship after his baptism by John. [24] The Nazarenes never accepted the teachings and writings of Paul. [25] In fact, they looked upon Paul as an apostate who was not of pure Jewish blood. [26]

We know from Saint Jerome (c342-420) that the Nazarenes even have their own gospel in Aramaic, known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes or the Gospel of the Hebrews, which contained saying attributed to Jesus not found in the canonical gospels. The sayings were such that they were very likely to have been based on the actual utterance of the historical Jesus. Some fragments of this gospel still survive today. [27] Some scholars believe that the author of the canonical gospel of Matthew used the gospel of the Nazarenes as one of his sources. It could well be that Q was also a Nazarene document. [28] In the Nazarene gospel, Jesus was considered to be a prophetically inspired man but a man nevertheless. In no way was he considered divine. [29]

The basic doctrine of the Nazarene was that Jesus would return soon to liberate the Jews from foreign oppression and inaugurate God's kingdom on earth. They were expecting the parousia. [30] It was this expectation of the imminent second coming that actually brought about the weakening and eventual disappearance of the sect. [31]

The Jewish revolt of AD70 led to the death of many Nazarenes, for being loyal Jews, they stayed back and defended the city of Jerusalem against the Romans. [32] There is a tradition that some of the Nazarenes may have fled to Pella, across the River Jordan, during the siege. [33] That tradition may or may not be true, but the fact remains that the majority of Nazarenes along with other Jews perished during the Jewish war. [34] The remaining Nazarenes probably expected Jesus to come in his glory during the war, and the defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. How will Jesus return to Jerusalem if the city was no more? [35]

The remaining number of Nazarenes after the war were too small for the sect to have a significant presence outside of Palestine. Paul and his Christianity had a free reign outside Palestine among the Gentiles. It flourished and developed pagan ideas, unchecked by the historical Jesus of the Nazarenes. Now the whole of Judaism, including the Pharisees, started to turn against the Nazarenes. The development of Pauline Christianity took an anti-Semitic bias, which was taken as proof by the Pharisees that Jesus could not have been the messiah. [36] By AD90 the Nazarenes were excluded from the synagogues by their congregational prayers which refers to the Nazarenes as minim (Hebrew for heretic).[b] As Christianity began to develop in the major cities of the Roman world; in Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus and Corinth; the infusion of pagan ideas into these churches soon made them doubt the orthodoxy of the Nazarenes. [37] Thus the Nazarenes became isolated from both Judaism and Christianity.

The number of Nazarenes began to dwindle even further. Their slow and irreversible journey to complete extinction had begun. We still read about the Nazarenes during the third century AD, worshipping at what used to be Peter's house in Capernaum.[38] By around 400AD the Nazarene sect had ceased to exist. The few remaining believers declaring to the last man that Jesus was the messiah but not God and that Paul was a deceiver who taught his own theology, not Jesus'. [39]

Jesus, in a way, was a founder of a religious movement. He founded, through his apostles, the sect of the Nazarenes within Judaism. The sect did not last more than four centuries. It was another religion, Christianity, which claimed him not only as its founder but also as God incarnate. It was something the historical Jesus would have probably been shocked to hear, as we can vouched from the reaction of the Nazarenes to it. The sect he founded dwindled and disappeared form the face of the earth. One man, Paul, took his name and expounded his own theology that developed the heretical doctrine which was called Christianity. The historian Hugh Schonfield summarized the situation thus:

[I]t is to the Nazarene records that we ought chiefly to look for our knowledge of Jesus, and we must regard Nazarenism as the true Christianity. As the Nazarenes throughout the period of personal recollection and down to the third generation, that is to say at least seventy five years after the death of Jesus, denied his deity and his virgin birth, we must recognize that these are alien doctrines subsequently introduced by a partly paganized Church, as Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century more or less admits. The Church which received them had no other course open than to belittle the Nazarenes and denounce them as heretics. The historian here has no difficulty in detecting the real heretics...[40]

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a.Like these church fathers many Christian scholars still resist the view that the Nazarenes were the sect that followed the original followers of Jesus. They preferred the official Catholic position that the Nazarenes were a later heresy. [9] The reader will see that this view is erroneous. Many historians have accepted the fact that the original Jewish followers of Jesus did not intend to leave Judaism and form a new religion. See for instance Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church p22-23, Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity p33-34, Karen Armstrong’s The First Christian p46, Hugh Schonfield’s Saints Against Caesar p152 and J.M. Roberts’ The Pelican History of the World p 265. All that we know of the Nazarenes shows that their beliefs to be essentially what the original apostles taught
b.The use of the word minim in the congregational prayer cursing the Nazarenes is important here. For it means that the Jews looked upon the Nazarenes as heretics. A heretic, by definition is someone who still remain within the faith, but believes in elements not acceptable to the orthodox. Thus the Jews never considered the Nazarenes as a separate faith altogether.


1.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p88
Guignebert, Jesus: p89
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p231
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p199
2.Guignebert, Jesus: p84
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p199
3.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p58
4.Armstrong, The First Christian: p68
5.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p231
6.Guignebert, Jesus: p80
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p58
7.Guignebert, Jesus: p87
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p199
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p58
8.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p286
9.Ibid: p286
10.Armstrong, The First Christian: p45
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p232
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p204
11.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p126-127
12.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p232
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p188
13.Eusebius, History of the Church: 23:11-18
14.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p232
15.Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1 quoted from: Armstrong, The First Christian: p45-46
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p232-233
16.Ibid: p233
17.Eusebius, History of the Church:3:11
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p237
18.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p231
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p127-129
19.Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged version) : p149
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p231
20.Guignebert, Jesus: p120
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p132
21.Ibid: p132
22.Guignebert, Jesus: p111
23.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p352
24.Ibid: p165-166
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p141
25.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p132
26.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p158,161
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p132
27.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p233
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p286
28.Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p242
29.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p312
30.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p231
31.Armstrong, The First Christian: p91
32.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p237
33.Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p186
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p132
34.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p237
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p186
35.Armstrong, The First Christian: p91
36.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p237
37.Ibid: p238
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p71
38.Armstrong, The First Christian: p90-91
39.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p238
40.Schonfield, Saints Against Caesar: p152

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