What is a Nazarene?
He shall be called a Nazarene. ~Matt 2:23
Nazarene is the title by which Jesus and his followers were referred to. The word 'Christian' was never used by Jesus or used to describe those who followed him.
In the New Testament book of Acts, Paul is tried in Caesarea, and Tertullus is reported as saying:
"We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5, New Revised Standard Version).
It is clear that "Christian" was not the earliest term for the followers of Jesus, since Acts 11:26 reports its first use in Antioch - at a time and in a place at least 10 and possibly 20 or more years after the death of Jesus.
Many authors have argued that "Nazarene" was not just one term that was used, but the dominant term, and that it was also used to describe Jesus himself. The chief argument for this claim rests on an interpretation of the way Jesus is referred to by the writers of the gospels. The original Greek forms of all four gospels call him, in places, "Iesou Nazarene" (e.g. Matthew 26:71; Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67; Luke 4:34; John 17:5; Acts 2:22).
Translations of the Bible, from the fifth century Vulgate on, have generally rendered this into a form equivalent to "Jesus of Nazareth." However, it is not the only possible translation. Linguistically, "Jesus the Nazarene" would be at least as correct, and some critics have argued that it is more plausible given that city of Nazareth seems to have not existed at the time of Jesus; it is unmentioned in any contemporary history and it is not possible to prove its early existence other than by reference to the gospels.
The Vulgate does use a form equivalent to "Nazarene" in one verse (Matthew 2:23), where its reading is Nazaroeus (Nazoraios), but here the original Greek has the word Nazarene on its own, without Iesou.
However we translate these verses from the gospels, the evidence from Acts 24 does support the claim that "Nazarene" was an early term for the followers of Jesus. But it does not appear to have been the term most used by those followers: the earliest Christian writings we have, the letters of Paul (which predate the gospels by ten to forty years), use the phrase "followers of the way" or, by far the most common, "the church."
Derivations of "Nazarene"
Regardless of these issues of translation, it seems clear that the term "Nazarenes" had at least some currency as a description of some followers of Jesus. What, therefore, does the word mean? The word Nazarene might come from at least four different sources:
1) The place-name Nazareth, via the Greek form Iesou Nazarene; this is the traditional interpretation within mainstream Christianity. In support of this interpretation is that Iesou Nazarene is applied to Jesus in the Gospels only by those who are outside the circle of his intimate friends, as would be natural if a place-name was meant. However in Acts it is employed by Peter and Paul, and attributed by Paul to the risen Christ (Acts, 22:8). Matthew 2:23 reads that "coming he dwelt in a city said by the prophets: That he shall be called a Nazarene," though no convincing identification of the prophecy concerned has been brought forward, the phrasing again strongly suggests that Matthew meant Nazarene to refer to a place name.
2) The word netzer meaning "branch" or "off-shoot." This could in turn refer to the claim that Jesus was a "descendant of David," or to the view that Jesus (or rather the teachings he or his followers advocated) were an offshoot from Judaism.
3) The word nosri which means "one who keeps (guard over)" or "one who observes".
4) The word nazir which refers to a man who is consecrated and bound by a vow to God, symbolized by avoiding cutting his hair, eating meat or drinking alcohol. Such a man is usually referred to as a Nazirite in English translations, and there are a number of references to Nazirites in the Old Testament.
None of these interpretations is unproblematic. It is therefore, quite possible that "Nazarene" was simply a deliberate play on words combining Nazirite with Essene.
Nazarenes: Jewish Christians
After the word "Christian" had become established as the standard term for the followers of Jesus, there appear to have been one or more groups calling themselves "Nazarenes", perhaps because they wished to lay claim to a more authentic and/or a more Jewish way of following Jesus.
Descriptions of groups with this title are given by the fourth century church father Epiphanius (flourished 370 CE), and Jerome. On the basis of their accounts, the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911 stated definitely that the name Nazarenes specifically identified an obscure Jewish-Christian sect, existing at the time of Epiphanius.
Epiphanius gives the more detailed, though thoroughly disapproving, description, calling the Nazarenes neither more nor less than Jews pure and simple. He mentions them in his Panarion (xxix. 7) as existing in Syria, Decapolis (Pella) and Basanitis (Cocabe).
According to Epiphanius they dated their settlement in Pella from the time of the flight of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, immediately before the siege in 70 CE. He describes them as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." Epiphanius adds, however, that they recognized the new covenant as well as the old, and believed in the resurrection, and in the one God and His Son Jesus Christ.
He cannot say whether their christological views were identical with those of Cerinthus and his followers, or whether they differed at all from his own.
Jerome (Epistle 79, to Augustine), on the other hand, says that though the Nazarenes believed in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, desiring to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other.
They used the Aramaic Gospel of the Hebrews, also known as the Gospel of the Holy Twelve, but while adhering as far as possible to the Mosaic economy as regarded circumcision, Sabbaths, vegetarian foods and the like, they did refuse to recognize the apostolicity of Paul. (Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah, ix. I).
Jerome's description, taken along with the name (cf. Acts 24:5) and geographical position of the sect, strongly suggest that the Nazarenes of the 4th century interacted with the Ebionites in spite of Epiphanius' distinction.
Earlier church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Origen and Eusebius mention other groups who, to varying extent, accepted Jesus as Messiah while continuing to observe the Jewish Law. It is often suggested that these are the same as the groups identified by Jerome and Epiphanius as Nazarenes. One such group were the Ebionites, referred to in second century writings. There Epiphanius draws a comparative distinction between the Nazarenes and the Ebionites.
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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