Netzarim, Original followers of Yeshua & His 12
The following article is a superb article on Nazarene Judaism:
By J. Jury.
Here’s a fact that may come as a surprise to some: the earliest followers of Yeshua the Messiah did not call themselves “Christians,” but “Nazarenes.”
You may be asking yourself, “Why is this important?” and “How does this impact my faith?” This article will give a general overview of who the Nazarenes were, what they believed, and most importantly, why it all matters.
Who were the Nazarenes?
There were several sects of Judaism in ancient times; most prominently featured in the New Testament is, perhaps, the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and, from historical record, we also know the Essenes took a place of prominence during the first century AD. It may come as a surprise to some that the origin of the Christian church was actually a sect of Judaism- like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes- known as the Nazarenes, of which Paul is said in Acts 24:5 to be “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.”
Prior to the establishment of gentile Christianity, but after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Yeshua into the heavens, the message that Yeshua gave his apostles to carry out to the nations began to spread like wildfire. One major factor that contributed to the rapid growth of this Nazarene sect was their openness to the inclusion of non-Jews into their community. Unlike the other Jewish sects of the day, which did not share this fervency for the inclusion of non-Jews, the Nazarenes identified Yeshua as the “light for the nations” mentioned in Isaiah 9:2, 42:6, 49:6, and 51:4, and they recognized that God desired for His kingdom to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) The Hebrew version of Matthew 16:18, from which the Nazarenes most likely read, even records Yeshua as having said, “I will build My House of Prayer,” rather than “church.”
So while it is true that the Nazarenes were most definitely a Jewish sect in terms of their functions and society, it is also true that they were open to the acceptance of non Jews.
What did the Nazarenes believe?
The Apostle Paul, being a ringleader of the Nazarenes, and being the most prolific author of the New Testament letters, was recognized by the leadership of the Jerusalem assembly as a missionary to those from the outside nations. While James was left with the governing oversight of the Jewish side of the Nazarene movement, the apostle Paul held the distinct responsibility of bridging the gap between the Jewish and the non-Jewish adherents of the Nazarene movement. He did this, like his rabbinic contemporaries from the Pharisees, by writing halachic observances of the Torah, specifically pertaining to inclusion of non-Jews in the community.
This puts the New Testament in a very interesting light, as a book of Nazarene doctrines, taught by the Nazarene ringleaders. One might even say that the New Testament was to the Nazarenes what the Talmud was to the Pharisees, or the Dead Sea Scrolls was to the Essenes: a collection of sacred texts that was never meant to replace the Old Testament, but was meant to properly interpret it for application to daily sectarian life.
While we know extensively about the belief systems of Christianity, we will have to dig deep into historical sources to get a glimpse into the belief systems of the ancient sect of the Nazarenes, the predecessors of Christianity. So without further ado, the following is a list of quotations from historical accounts, documenting some of the beliefs of Nazarene Judaism.
The Nazarenes kept the Torah
“[The Nazarenes] accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.” – Jerome, On Isaiah 8:14
“[The Nazarenes] have no different views, but confess everything in full accord with the doctrine of the Law, like the Jews, except that they are supposedly believers in Christ.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2
The Nazarenes believed in Yeshua as the Messiah
“[The Nazarenes] 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.” – From Jerome to Augustine (Letter 75)
“[The Nazarenes] acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and that all things have been created by God, and they declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.3
The Nazarenes read from the Hebrew Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments
“[The Nazarenes] read from the Gospel which is of the Hebrews.” – Jerome, On Isaiah preface to book 18; see also On Isaiah 11.2; On Ezekiel 18.7; Dialogue against Pelagius 3.2; and On Matthew 12.13, 23.35.
“[The Nazarenes] use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do. For they do not repudiate the Law, the Prophets, and the books which are called Writings, by the Jews and by themselves.” – Epiphanius of Salamis,Panarion 29.7.2
“[The Nazarenes] are perfectly versed in the Hebrew language, for the entire Law, the Prophets, and the so-called Writings- I mean the poetic books, Kings, Chronicles, Esther and all the rest- are read in Hebrew among them, as of course they are among the Jews.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.4
“[The Nazarenes] have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this as it was originally written, in the Hebrew alphabet.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.4
“[Heggesippus the Nazarene] quoted some passages in the Hebrew tongue from the Syriac (Aramaic) Gospel according to the Hebrews, showing that he was a convert from the Hebrews, and he mentions other matters as taken from the unwritten tradition of the Jews.” – Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 4.22.7
The Nazarenes were a sect of Judaism
“[The Nazarenes] were Jewish, were attached to the Law, and had circumcision.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.5.4
“[The Nazarenes] are easy to detect and, rather than being heretical Christians, are Jews and nothing else.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.1
The Nazarenes were not called “Christians”
“[The Nazarenes] did not give themselves the name of ‘Christ’ or Jesus’ own name, but that of “Nazarenes.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.1.2
“But at that time all Christians alike were called Nazarenes.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.1.3
“[The Nazarenes] found that he had been conceived at Nazareth and brought up in Joseph’s home, and for this reason is called “Jesus the Nazarene” in the Gospel… they adopted this name, so as to be called ‘Nazarenes.’” – Epiphanius of Salamis,Panarion 29.5.6
“No wonder the apostle [Paul] admitted to being a Nazarene! In those days everyone called Christians this because of the city of Nazareth- there was no other usage of the name at the time. And so people gave the name of ‘Nazarenes’ to believers in Christ, of whom it is written, ‘he shall be called a Nazarene.’ (Matthew 2:23) Even today in fact, people call all the sects- I mean Manichaeans, Marcionites, Gnostics, and others- by the common name of ‘Christians,’ though they are not Christians. However, although each sect has another name, it still allows this one with pleasure, since the name is an ornament to it. For they think they can preen themselves on Christ’s name- certainly not on Christ’s faith and works!” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.6.5-6
The Nazarenes were not accepted by the Pharisees
“[The Nazarenes] are different from Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following ways. They disagree with Jews because of their belief in Christ; but they are not in accord with Christians because they are still fettered by the Law- circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest.” – Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.5
“To the Jews [the Nazarenes] are very much enemies. Not only do Jewish people bear hatred against them; they even stand up at dawn, at midday, and toward evening, three times a day when they recite their prayers in the synagogues, and curse and anathematize them, saying three times a day, ‘God curse the Nazarenes.’ For they harbor a further grudge against them, if you please, because despite their Jewish origin, they preach that Jesus is the Christ.” – Epiphanius of Salamis,Panarion 29.9.2-3
The Corruption of the Nazarene Sect
It was not significantly after the death of James, Paul, and the rest of the original leadership of the Nazarene community that widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between Yeshua’s followers and mainstream Judaism entered the church. Early on in the transition from “Nazarene Judaism” to “gentile Christianity,” a pagan movement known as Gnosticism began to prevalently infiltrate the assembly. They derived their name from the Greek word for “knowledge,” and believed, among other things, that salvation came from the acquisition of esoteric knowledge apart from works or lifestyle (Garr 49). This belief in salvation-by-knowledge was diametrically opposed to the understanding of salvation in both Rabbinic and Nazarene Judaism, that salvation comes by faith in God, as evidenced by a lifestyle of dedication and perpetual observance of God’s commandments and goodness towards fellow mankind. (Micah 6:8, Ecclesiastes 12:13, Mishnah Avoth 1:2).
Marcion, an early second century Gnostic teacher, was among the earlier pioneers of the Gnostic infiltration of the Nazarenes. The ideas he introduced merged Gnostic ideals with Jewish principals, creating a theology that was sharply dualistic and violently antagonistic toward Judaism. The result was a portrayal of God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures as both harsh and legalistic, and distinct from Yeshua, who was identified as the God of love depicted in the writings of the Apostles. 1 This schism was furthered by the fact that the harsh God of the “Old Testament” was labeled as the “Jewish God,” in sharp contrast to Yeshua, who came to be known as the “Christian God.” Although Marcion himself was branded as a heretic, and was subsequently removed from the church, the influence of his teachings, as well as other Gnostic ideals, continues to remain to this day, especially his efforts to remove all evidence of Judaism from Christianity.
Upon the removal of Marcion, his followers, and all the other Gnostics from the church, one would assume that the relationship between Judaism and early Nazaenes would continue in peaceful bliss. Ideally, the Nazarene assembly should have continued to be an active part of the Jewish synagogue. Professor Joseph Tyson at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, noted that, under the established system, “Christians would continue to hear readings from the OT and thus be led to understand the story of ancient Israel as part of their own history… They would be able to see Jesus as part of an ongoing history and as a participant in an ancient and vibrant Jewish culture.” 2 But this is not exactly how events unfolded. Marcion was not alone in his dualistic approach to the Hebrew Scriptures and Yeshua, and the next wave of change would come from inside the assembly.
Justin Martyr, a non-Jewish church father in the mid-second century CE, presented a very similar approach, one which, though less disdainful of Judaism and the Torah than Marcion, nonetheless called for separation between Christianity, as religion exclusively of non-Jews, and Judaism. His sole mission was to undo the unifying work of the Apostle Paul; instead of bringing together the Jews and those from other nations, Martyr focused on an absolute divorce of one from the other.
Martyr, along with later church fathers, laid the foundation for the separation between the Nazarene assembly and the separate and distinct Christian religion. The “gentile church” was then officially formed when the Roman Emperor Constantine, in an attempt to unify his kingdom, merged the Greco-Roman culture of the pagans with the culture of an ever-growing people group who had accepted Yeshua as the Messiah and had kept God’s commandments contained in the Torah. The result of this unholy merger was the coming about of a new religion based upon gnostic, pagan, and Jewish theologies and ideologies, and this religious hodge-podge came to be known as “gentile Christianity.” It became a crime against Roman law not to profess Christianity, even to the point of death; so naturally, the pagans chose to “convert” to the new religion rather than to suffer the death penalty. Hence, their “conversions,” done in name only, brought with them a strong pagan influence into the assembly.
As a result of the massive influx of pagans into the theological diversity pool, pagan concepts and holy days were now both recognized and “Christianized”, to the exclusion of anything considered remotely “Jewish”, which was to be rejected and replaced by pagan Roman principals.
The following examples show how the Scriptural principals that God laid down for His people mingled with pagan practices and beliefs and became “Christianized” for the gentile church.
|The Scriptural principals that God laid down for His people…||…mingled with pagan practices and beliefs…||…and became “Christianized” for the gentile church.|
|The seventh-day Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11, Hebrews 4:9).||Worshiping the sun god on the first day of the week (Sunday).||Based upon the assumption that Jesus came out of the tomb Sunday morning, Sunday became known as “the Lord’s Day” and by 363 CE keeping the seventh-day Sabbath was outlawed by Roman authorities.|
|Celebrating Passover (Exodus 12:1-28, 1st Corinthians 5:8) as a symbol of God’s grace, followed up by the First Fruits offering (Leviticus 23:10-14).||Worshiping the fish god (Dagon) on the sixth day of the week (Friday), and celebrating the festival to the queen of heaven named Easter (aka Ishtar, Astarte, Asherah, etc). This pagan festival involving (among other things) sacrificing newborns and dipping eggs in their blood as a fertility ritual.||“Good Friday” was instituted, using Jesus’ death as a scapegoat. Easter was affixed to always fall on a Sunday, transitioning from worshiping the queen of heaven to being centered around Jesus’ resurrection, but many of the practices and observances thereof remained the same.|
|Circumcision- a token sign of the Abrahamic covenant, made in the flesh, also representing circumcision of the heart (Genesis 17, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4, Acts 16:1-3).||Circumcision of the flesh was both foreign and repugnant to the Greco-Roman culture, and was outlawed by Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the early 2nd century BCE. Although the Maccabean revolts temporarily restored peace to the Jewish way of life, the hostile pagan attitude toward circumcision continued.||Circumcision became exclusively of the heart- and those who practiced circumcision of the flesh became legalists and Judaizers.|
|Eating clean meats- God instructed a diet that is beneficial for the human body that He Himself designed. Additionally, He only permitted clean meat to be sacrificed in His temple to Himself, and called unclean meat “an abomination” (Leviticus 11).||Unclean meats were ritually consumed by pagan cultures, who recognized no distinction between what God calls “clean” and “unclean”. In fact, sacrifices to pagan gods (as opposed to YHWH) were frequently unclean meat; Antiochus Epiphanes IV specifically sacrificed a pig upon the alter of God in an effort to desecrate the Temple of YHWH.||Jesus’ statement in Mark 7:18 that “…whatever goes into the man from outside can not defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, then into the latrine, thus purging all foods” was grossly misinterpreted to indicate that Jesus had declared all foods clean. The fact is that Jesus had just rebuked the Pharisees for placing their ritual cleanliness traditions over the actual commandments of God. The specific issue Jesus taught here was that ritual hand washing could not render oneself unclean, since the body itself purges all food, and had nothing to do whatsoever with the consumption of unclean meats.|
|Worship of YHWH as God alone- based on the oneness of God.“YHWH is our God; YHWH is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)||Many ancient pagan cultures worshiped a pantheon of deities, but frequently a pattern of three stood out. In elements of Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian mythology these generally consisted of a sort of primal self-proclaimed god (Osiris / Baal / Nimrod), with the queen of heaven by his side (Isis / Semiramis / Astarte), and their resurrected son (Horus / Tammuz).||This pattern spread also to Christianity, and came to encompass the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus.|
This is the origin of “gentile Christianity” as it is known today.
Why do the Nazarenes matter?
The historical record, which has been discussed above, shows us very clearly that “Christians” and “Nazarenes” are not simply two terms for the same thing. Now I would like you to stop and think about this for a moment. If the majority of the Messiah-following world adheres to the principles of gentile Christianity, yet the Messiah’s first followers followed the religion of Nazarene Judaism, then we are faced with a pandemic of misunderstanding- on an epic scale- of the character of the Messiah. We have just discovered that the “first Christians,” for lack of better term, believed and practiced things that are vastly far removed from the practice of the church today.
Historically, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed help to shake out many of the pagan institutions that were inherited from the merging together of Nazarene Judaism and Roman paganism. While the Protestant Reformation was a good first step, it cannot be our only step in coming out of Babylon. If we are to seriously evaluate our faith, and sincerely desire to return to the path laid out by God, we must be willing to take the next step away from the pagan practices that have been forced into the church.
How do we make the next step?
We must embrace the Torah as the path to God’s instructions in righteousness; not for salvation, for it is true that man has always been saved by faith, and yet faith without obedience to God’s commandments is meaningless; for if we love God, we will keep His commandments! We must celebrate not the pagan holy days, but God’s Biblical holidays! We must hold firm to the covenants of our forefathers, in keeping the Sabbath, as a Sabbath, and on the right day; circumcision, not only of the heart, but of the flesh also; and the kosher diet; for if we believe that our bodies are the temples of God, then we need to be treating them in the manner that He expressed His temple was to be kept.
Ultimately, we must abandon the institutions of gentile Christianity, and return to our roots: Nazarene Judaism.