The Nazarene sect: a sect of Jewish Christians – Were they the original followers of Jesus

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The Nazarene sect (ἡ τῶν Ναζωραίων αἵρεσις), is a term used to refer to the followers of Jesus. It is also the name of followers of John the Baptist who saw him as a prophet. After the Crucifixion, James the Just succeeded his brother Jesus of Nazareth as the leader of the new Jewish sect which was to become Christianity.[1] It was located in and about Jerusalem and proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The term Nazarene was first applied to Jesus.[2] After his death, it was the term used to identify the Jewish Sect that believed Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. [3][4][5][6][7][8]




The issue of whether Nazarene is derived from Nazareth has been the subject of much scholarly conjecture since the 19th century.[9] “Nazareth”, in turn, may be derived from either na·tsar, נָצַר, meaning “to watch,”[10] or from ne·tser, נֵ֫צֶר, meaning branch.[11]

Although the historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100) mentions 45 towns in Galilee, he never mentions Nazareth. But Josephus also writes that Galilee had 219 villages in all,[12] so it is clear that most village names have gone unrecorded in surviving literature. Nazareth was overshadowed by nearby Japhia in his time, so Josephus might not have thought of it as a separate town.[13] The earliest known reference to Nazareth outside the New Testament and as a contemporary town is by Julius Africanus, who wrote around AD 200.[14] Writers who question the association of Nazareth with the life of Jesus suggest that “Nazorean” was originally a religious title and was later reinterpreted as referring to a town.[15] This process would assign Nazareth as a hometown. At one point, Mark states the home of Jesus was in Capernaum, possibly the remnant of an older tradition that is otherwise lost.[16]


The Nazarenes were originally Jewish converts of the Apostles[17] who fled Jerusalem because of Jesus’ warning of its coming siege. They fled to Pella, Peraea (which is northeast of Jerusalem), and eventually spread outwards to Beroea and Bashanitis, where they permanently settled.[18] It is close to a historical certainty that Matthew belonged to this group, as both the Gospels (pro-Christian) and the early Talmud [19] (anti-Christian) affirm this to be true.[20]

One account of the life and teachings of Jesus, dating from this time was written by a person named Matthew.[21] According to the Church Fathers, he was the same person as the Apostle Matthew, and his account was written in Hebrew [22] Origen wrote, “The very first account to be written was by Matthew, once a tax collector, but later an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Matthew published it for the converts from Judaism and composed it in Hebrew letters.” [23] Eusebius adds insight by explaining that the Apostles “were led to write only under the pressure of necessity. Matthew, who had first preached the Gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going to other nations, committed the gospel to writing in his native language. Therefore he supplied the written word to make up for the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.” [24]

Irenaeus gives us further insight into both the date and circumstances of this gospel by explaining, “Matthew also issued a written Gospel of the Hebrews in their own language while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the Church.” [25]

St.Jerome wrote that Matthew, the tax collector and later an Apostle, composed his gospel near Jerusalem for Hebrew Christians. It was then translated into Greek but the Greek copy was lost. The Hebrew original was preserved at the Library of Caesarea, which Pamphilus diligently gathered. The Nazarenes transcribed a copy for Jerome which he used in his work. [26] Jerome adds that Matthew’s gospel was called the Gospel according to the Hebrews or sometimes the Gospel of the Apostles, and was used by the Nazarene communities.[27]Jerome and Epiphanius both wrote how the Nazarene sect existed in their day, [28][29]. However, little is known how their sect disappeared or what happened to the Gospel of the Nazarenes.[30]

Views and practices

See also Jewish Gospels

Patristic references to “Nazarenes”

In the 4th century Jerome also refers to Nazarenes as those “…who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.” In his Epistle 79, to Augustine, he said:

“What shall I say of the Ebionites who pretend to be Christians? To-day there still exists among the Jews in all the synagogues of the East a heresy which is called that of the Minæans, and which is still condemned by the Pharisees; [its followers] are ordinarily called ‘Nasarenes’; they believe that Christ, the son of God, was born of the Virgin Mary, and they hold him to be the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate and ascended to heaven, and in whom we also believe. But while they pretend to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither.” [31]

Jerome viewed a distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites, a different Jewish sect, but does not comment on whether Nazarene Jews considered themselves to be “Christian” or not or how they viewed themselves as fitting into the descriptions he uses. His criticism of the Nazarenes is noticeably more direct and critical than that of Epiphanius.

The following creed is that of a church at Constantinople at the same period:

“I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads & sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and Synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom and if afterwards I shall wish to deny and return to Jewish superstition, or shall be found eating with the Jews, or feasting with them, or secretly conversing and condemning the Christian religion instead of openly confuting them and condemning their vain faith, then let the trembling of Gehazi cleave to me, as well as the legal punishments to which I acknowledge myself liable. And may I be anathema in the world to come, and may my soul be set down with Satan and the devils.” [32]

“Nazarenes” are referenced past the fourth century AD as well. Jacobus de Voragine (1230–1298) described James as a “Nazarene” in The Golden Legend, vol 7. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) quotes Augustine of Hippo who was given an apocryphal book called Hieremias by a “Hebrew of the Nazarene Sect” in Catena Aurea – Gospel of Matthew, chapter 27. So this terminology seems to have remained at least through the 13th century in European discussions.

Belief in Jesus as Messiah

The Nazarenes… accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.

Jerome, On. Is. 8:14

Belief in the Virgin Birth

They believe that Messiah, the Son of God, was born of the Virgin Mary.

Jerome, Letter 75 Jerome to Augustine

Belief in Jesus as the Son of God

Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” and “for he shall be called a Nazarene.”

Jerome, Lives of Illustrius Men Ch.3

They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion – except for their belief in Christ, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2

(It is interesting to note what beliefs Epiphanius contrasts between the Jews and Nazarenes, for the Jews as a whole, excluding the Sadducees, confirm the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things. It is quite possible that the distinction between them was their belief that Jesus will be the one to raise the dead (see John 6:40,44,54) and created all things (see Colossians 1:15-16), thus calling him divine yet the Son of God)

Torah Observant

They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Christ; but since they are still fettered by the Law – circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest – they are not in accord with the Christians.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.4

Use of Old Testament and New Testament

They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2

Use of Hebrew and Aramaic New Testament source texts

They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.4

And he [Heggesippus the Nazarene] quotes some passages from the Gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Syriac [the Aramaic], and some particulars from the Hebrew tongue, showing that he was a convert from the Hebrews, and he mentions other matters as taken from the oral tradition of the Jews.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 4.22

Frequency of the Passover

He [Philo of Alexandria] arrived during Passover and observed their customs, and how some of them kept the holy week of Passover (only) after a postponement of it, but others by eating every other day – though others, indeed, ate each evening.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.5.1

Modern Nazarenes

Starting in the nineteenth century, a number of modern movements have revived the term “Nazarene” among English speaking communities, usually for the following reasons:

  • To reject modern Christianity, as having been led astray from “normative” Judaism by Paul of Tarsus.
  • To lay claim to an authentically Torah-based and Jewish structure of belief—in which sometimes some Mosaic book sections are rejected and some are more emphasized in a “non-normative” way.
  • Because of a belief that the term was used to describe both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus in earliest times, even though they believe they are in unity with the modern Christian faith.

An exception to this is the Church of the Nazarene, which emphasizes Christian activism in the Arminian tradition of John Wesley, and which is accepted as a mainstream Christian (Protestant) denomination that was born out of the Holiness Movement of the early 20th Century. The Church of the Nazarene took their name in order to associate itself with the humbleness of Christ’s town of origin, as they seek to reach the “humble” in society. Various branches of the Apostolic Christian Church also use the term “Nazarene” or “Nazarean” in their name.

Greek Etymology

According to the standard reference for Koine Greek, the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Ναζωραῖος / Nazoraios (plural: Nazoraioi) is translated into English as:

Nazoraean, Nazarene, quite predominantly a designation of Jesus, in Mt, J, Ac and Lk 18:37, while Mk has Ναζαρηνός (“coming from Nazareth”). Of the two places where the later form occurs in Lk, the one, Lk 4:34, apparently comes from Mk (1:24), the other, 24:19, perhaps from a special source. Where the author of Lk-Ac writes without influence from another source he uses Ναζωραῖος. Mt says expressly 2:23 that Jesus was so called because he grew up in Nazareth. In addition, the other NT writers who call Jesus Ναζωραῖος know Nazareth as his home. But linguistically the transition from Ναζαρέτ (Nazareth) to Ναζωραῖος is difficult … and it is to be borne in mind that Ναζωραῖος meant something different before it was connected with Nazareth … According to Ac 24:5 the Christians were so called;” [33]

In the New American Standard Bible translation, Jesus is called the Nazarene in Matthew 2:23; Mark 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Luke 24:19; John 18:5; 18:7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 22:8. According to Acts  24:1-9, Paul of Tarsus was apprehended and accused by the attorney of the Jerusalem High Priest Ananias and Pharisaic Jews of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes”.

In all, the following derivations have been suggested:

  • The place-name Nazara (which later became Nazareth), as in the Greek form Iesous Nazarenos. This is the traditional interpretation within mainstream Christianity, and it still seems the obvious interpretation to many modern Christians. Matthew 2:23 reads that “and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene”” (NIV) (Greek is Ναζωραῖος/Nazoraios).
  • The word nazur means separate in Aramaic. The word is related to Nazir. There are a number of references to Nazirites/Nazarites in the Old Testament and New Testament. A Nazarite (נְזִיר) was an Israelite who had taken special vows of dedication to Yahweh whereby he abstained for a specified period of time from using alcohol and grape products, cutting his hair, and approaching corpses. At the end of the period he was required to immerse himself in water[citation needed]. Thus the baptism of Jesus (Matthew  3:13-15) by his relative John the Baptist could have been done “to fulfil all righteousness” at the ending of a nazirite vow. However, following his baptism, the gospels give no reason to suppose Jesus took another Nazirite vow until The Last Supper, (see Mark 14:25). Luke  1:15 describes John the Baptist as a Nazarite from birth. James the Just was described as a Nazarite in Epiphanius of Salamis‘ Panarion 29.4.1. In Acts  21:23-26 Paul of Tarsus is advised to accompany four men having “a vow on them” (a Nazarite vow) to Herod’s Temple and to purify himself in order that it might appear that “that you yourself also walk orderly”. This event was the reason why in Acts  24:5-18 Paul was accused of being a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (and further verifies that the term Nazarene was connected to the term Nazarite). However, Epiphanius specifically rejects the connection between the terms Nazarene and Nazarite[34].
  • The word nazara, “truth”, another gnostic concept popularized through the Gospel of Philip: “The apostles that came before us called him Jesus Nazarene the Christ …”Nazara” is the “Truth”. Therefore ‘Nazarenos’ is “The One of the Truth” …” (Gospel of Philip, 47)

Alongside the three traditional explanations above, two more recent explanations have been suggested:

  • The word nosri which means “one who keeps (guard over)” or “one who observes” the same name used by spiritual leaders (see for example Yeshu Ha-Notzri) of a pre-Christian gnostic sect which evolved into the Mandaean religion (as in Jeremiah 31:5-6 נֹצְרִים). This explanation had become popular among Protestants towards the end of the 20th century. However, the Greek letter ζ (zeta) is always used in Koine transliterations of ז (zayin) but never צ (tsade) which is always represented by a σ (sigma) instead.
  • The Greek transliteration Ναζαρηνος (Nazareinos, from which the English “Nazarene” derived) of Neitzër (נצר), which is the Hebrew term meaning “offshoot(s)”, especially from the branches of an olive tree (instead referring to a wicker in Modern Hebrew). which appears in Isaiah chapters 11.1 and 60.21. This derivation is popular among some of the late 20th century’s Messianic Jewish groups. But again, the same problem arises with the Greek letter ζ (zeta) being the Koine transliteration of ז (zayin) but never צ (tsade) (always represented by a σ (sigma) instead).

Modern Hebrew usage

In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, the term “Notzri” (נוצרי) – likely to be derived from or related to “Nazarene” – is the general word for “Christian”.

In Arabic Language

In Arabic language Christians are called “Naṣara” “نصارى”(Plural of Naṣrani نصراني). The term “Naṣara” is used many times in the Qur’an when referring to Christians, which may be a modification of the word Nazarene[citation needed]. For example, Surat AL-BAQARA (Verse No. 113) says:

2:113. The Jews say the (Naṣara) Nazarenes are not on anything, and the (Naṣara) Nazarenes say it is the Jews who are not on anything. Yet they both read the Book. And those who do not know say like their saying. Allah will judge between them their disputes on the Day of Resurrection.

Hassan Al Fathi Qaribullah Qur’an Translation, AL-BAQARA 113

It may also be mentioned that the Quran clearly alludes to the fact that the word Naṣaara has its origin in the Arabic word Naṣr which means to bring victory. This is made clear in Surat Al Saff (the 61st chapter of the Quran) when Jesus is quoted as saying, “Who are my ansaar (victors) to Allah. The disciples said we are the ansaar (victors) of Allah.” And so they called themselves Naṣaara because of that. This would suggest that the origin of the word does not relate to the place of Nazareth but to the concept of giving victory to God.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Gospel of Matthew 2:23
  3. ^ F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston (1988-92)The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, p 597&722.
  4. ^ (Acts 24:5)
  5. ^ “According to Ac 24:5 the Christians were so called” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1979)
  6. ^ Thayers’s Lexicon: Ναζωραῖος (Nazōraios), Strong’s G3480, at Blue Letter Bible
  7. ^ Krauss, Samuel. Nazarenes. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2007-08-23 
  8. ^ Hegg, Tim (2007). The Virgin Birth – An Inquiry into the Biblical Doctrine. TorahResource. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  9. ^ Kittel, G, “Nazarenos, Nazoraios”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, pp. 875 ff.
    “The name has obvious reference to Nazareth,” (“Nazarene“, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911.)
    Schaeder, H., “Nazarenos, Nazoraios” in G. Kittel, “Theological Dict. of the New Testament,” p. 874.
    Albright, W., “Nazareth and Nazoraean,” J. of Biblical Lit. 65:2 (June 1946), pp.397–401.
  10. ^ The Maneans call themselves Nasoreans and talk about a place called Nazirutha.They predated christianity. This would seem to be why Jesus was called a Nazerene from Nazirutha. They venerated John the baptist. The Catholic church exagerrates and says they hated Jesus. It is not true they just say John the baptist as their leader as he held to their doctrine. So, John the Baptist, leader of the Nasoreans baptised Jesus into their group on the bank of the Jordon. Read their text called ginza Rabba for more details about their ways.The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1906/2003), p. 665.
    “Some, however, think that the name of the city must be connected with the name of the hill behind it, from which one of the finest prospects in Palestine is obtained, and accordingly they derive it from the Hebrew notserah, i.e., one guarding or watching.” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, (1897)).
    “…if the word Nazareth is be derived from Hebrew at all, it must come from this root [i.e. נֹצְרִ, nostri, to watch]” (Merrill, Selah, (1881) Galilee in the Time of Christ, p. 116.
  11. ^ “The etymology of Nazara is neser” (“Nazareth“, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911.)
    “NAZARETH, NAZARENE – Place name meaning, ‘branch.'” (Holman’s Bible Dictionary, 1994.)
    “Generally supposed to be the Greek form of the Hebrew netser, a “shoot” or “sprout.” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, (1897)).
  12. ^ Josephus, Vita, 45.
  13. ^Nazareth“, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906.
  14. ^ Eusebius, Church History 1.7.14.
  15. ^ Loisy, Alfred; L. P. Jacks. The Birth of the Christian Religion. London: George Allen & Unwin. p. 413. OCLC 2037483. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  16. ^ Mark  2:1
  17. ^ Panarion 29.5.6
  18. ^ Panarion 29.3.3
  19. ^ NB Later editions of the Talmud removed all references to Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus
  20. ^ Bernhard Pick (2006) The Talmud: What It Is and What It Knows of Jesus and His Followers, Kessinger Publishing, p 116
  21. ^ Bernhard Pick, (2006)The Talmud: What It Is and What It Knows of Jesus and His Followers, Kessinger Publishing, pp 122, 125-129
  22. ^ Eusebius Church History 3 . 39 . 14.
  23. ^ Eusebius Church History, 6 . 25 . 4
  24. ^ Eusebius Church History, 3 . 24 . 6
  25. ^ Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3 . i . 1
  26. ^ Jerome, On Illustrious Men 3
  27. ^ Jerome, Against Pelagius 3 . 2
  28. ^ Lives of Illustrius Men Ch.3
  29. ^ Panarion 29.7.7
  30. ^ The Anchor Bible Dictionary , Vol. 4. New York, NY : Doubleday , 1992. PP 1049-1052
  31. ^ “Jewish Encyclopedia: Jerome’s Account”. 
  32. ^ Parks, James The Conflict Of The Church And The Synagogue Atheneum, New York, 1974, pp. 397 – 398.
  33. ^ Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1979:
  34. ^ Panarion 29.5.7

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