A speculative enquiry into Christian origins

"When you see the Torah is forgotten in Israel and not

everyone pays attention to it, you gather it in."

Hillel the Elder

circa 50 BC/BCE - 10 AD/CE

© Copyright A.M.Bain 1989


This work is an attempt to make an objective enquiry into the beginnings of the Christian religion before anyone had thought to call it such. As an enquiry it is concerned mainly with speculative history rather than any form of particular religious belief which has developed from that history. History, it has been said, is written by the victors, yet at the very beginning of the story of the Nazarenes, immediately after the crucifixion of the Nazarene teacher, it seemed to his followers to have been a failure, as the gospels themselves record. Its survival depended upon the truth of reported events concerning his, through resurrection of the dead, however that may be interpreted, and about which there is dispute to this day.

Religious truth is not however about history, even though history may give it a number of ways by which it may be expressed and understood. The title Christ, which means "anointed" in the sense of being set apart by God, was given both to Jesus, the Nazarene, who as a human being did not live to hear himself described by this Greek word, and to the universal church (if such there be) which still claims to function "in his name". The religious truth that he taught remains, I believe, just as he taught it, though what that is can also be a matter of dispute.

One thing is certain: many of the doctrines taught by later churches claiming to speak on his behalf would be totally foreign to him. The writings of an unknown fourteenth century Christian mystic who, I believe, understood the essence of the Nazarene teaching begins thus:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding, four degrees and forms of Christian men's living: and they be these, Common, Special, Singular, and Perfect. Three of these may be begun and ended in this life; and the fourth may by grace be begun here, but it shall ever last without end in the bliss of heaven. [The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Evelyn Underhill. John M. Watkins, London 1956.]

In the late twentieth century, Ihave taught much the same thing, though not perhaps in the same way.

Down the centuries "Christian" followers have fought, argued, and excommunicated each other with a vigour of which only human frailty and - dare I use the word? - sinfulness is capable. None, however bitter the quarrel, has dared to tamper with the essential elements of the simple "communion" rite, and all, I am sure, have in their own way experienced the same spiritual reality that I and others have experienced when wehave done the same.

The only thing that is certain in this transitory life is the certainty of change. The spiritual experience of the unknown mystic of the fourteenth century, of the unknown number of Nazarenes and Christians long dead to this world, and to us in this temporal and temporary dwelling is the same experience of the same spiritual fact. It matters not who is on the throne of any nation, or presiding at its head, nor who is hailed as the spiritual leader of any particular sect or denomination or which political philosophy governs the thinking in any part of the world; the spiritual truth remains the same truth brought by Moses from Sinai, delivered by Jesus in Galilee, and followed by an unknown hermit in fourteenth century England. The language and the method of approach may vary from age to age, as needs it must, but the truth remains the truth - if we wish to change the world, then we must begin by changing ourselves.

Bristol, January 1st 1989.

Important Note

Many of the ideas offered in this work are controversial. Whilst, as a seeker after truth - and facts - I deem it a duty to ask the questions one is not supposed to ask, it does not follow that speculative answers I may offer are necessarily answers that I personally believe or accept, only that I think they are worthy of consideration, hopefully by those better qualified on the one hand than I am to investigate the possibilities, and on the other, who are at least reasonably free from religious doctrinal, as distinct from scholarly bias. It is my sincere hope that some such rare person or persons may find something in this work to fire their enthusiasm for further research.

Alan Bain, August 1996.



In the gospel according to Matthew we are informed that:

'And he [Joseph] went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." [Matt. 2:23].'

The question has exercised a number of Christian theologians as to which of the prophets was being referred to, as there exists no such sect or grouping identifiable as "Nazarenes" in any of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Marginal references in printed New Testaments often refer to Isaiah 11:1, which states:

'And a rod proceeds from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will bear fruit out of his roots.'

The second verse, which is no doubt intended to establish the justification for the reference back to Isaiah reads:

'And the spirit of [YHWH] shall rest upon him; the spirit of Wisdom and Understanding; the spirit of Counsel and Might; the spirit of Knowledge and the fear of YHWH.'

The text following these verses makes it clear why this statement in Isaiah can be taken as a "prophecy" relating to a Jewish Messiah, and thus Jesus. Unfortunately, the entire idea rests more upon the desire of the author of Matthew's gospel to find in the writings of the prophets some form of prefiguring of the future advent of Jesus as Messiah in order to add prestige and stature among potential Jewish converts to Christianity, and in later centuries, where the Church has wished to show its roots in the greatest and most authentic antiquity.

The justification for the reference back rests upon the apparent identity between the Greek rendering "Nazarene" and a Hebrew word in the prophets of similar sound or pronunciation. In Isaiah this word would be "branch" which is spelt [Nun, Tzaddi, Resh] and would most nearly be pronounced "Natzir" rather than the softer sound of the Greek "Z". Even if a correspondence is admitted, any connection with Jesus remains very remote, and falls in the area of wish-fulfilment rather than a clear and unmistakeable portent of things to come.

A more obvious reference would be to those individuals (and perhaps sects) known to the Jews of the time of Jesus, as well as from the records of their own history, by the term "Nazarite". If however, interpreted in the light of the common understanding from both ancient and later Jews, Jesus had been a Nazarite, various factors in the reported life of Jesus in the gospels would have been to say the least incongruous. The Jewish Nazarite was someone who had taken a solemn vow, much as the apostle Paul is reported as having done in Acts, [21:23-4] where Paul accompanies four men into the Temple who, having been under just such a vow, were now to shave their heads and purify themselves, thus ending the obligations associated with the presumably Nazarite vow, which required, among other things, that the hair should not be cut whilst under the vow. Other things forbidden to Nazarites were the drinking of wine, or becoming polluted by contact or association with dead bodies. As, it is reasonably argued, Jesus is clearly reported as having done both, drinking wine at the Last Supper (and on previous occasions) and in raising Lazarus from the dead, he could hardly have been a Nazarite - at least, not in the conventional sense, though he may well have been a "vow-taker" in some other manner, as we may venture to speculate in due course.

Apart from other considerations to follow, it does not seem to have been common among the Jews, then or earlier, to take perpetual vows, as for example a modern Christian monk might do; rather they were taken for a specific period, or for a specific reason. Once the period of the vow was ended, then purification was required, and cutting the hair to indicate that the avowed period was now over, as exhibited in the case of the apostle Paul and the four men under a vow reported in the book of Acts. [21:23] In other words, under normal circumstances Jesus would not be bound by any "Nazarite" prohibitions, but only at such times as he, like any other Jew, chose to take such a vow under the circumstances usual in such cases. which are enumerated in some detail in chapter six of the Old Testament book of Numbers.

One exception would seem to be that of the Essenes, although their form of vow was of a different order, but still emphasizing their consecration to God. Uncommonly, but seemingly on occasion, a child could be designated or nominated a "Nazarite" from birth, and this is clearly the inference in Matthew 2:23, especially when we know, as modern investigation and archaeological research has shown, that there may have been no geographical town or city called Nazareth in the days of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

A further complication appears when we come to consider the origin of the term "Nazarite" itself. The word does not exist in Hebrew, but is clearly an idiomatic rendering of the actual term which is used in the Old Testament. [Numbers 6:2ff; Judges 13:5,7, 16:17; plural in Lamentations 4:7 and Amos 2:11,12)]. The Hebrew, or possibly Aramaic word rendered by the translators as "Nazarite" is the word Nazar (NZR). The "Z" is a soft sound, as in the last letter of the English alphabet. The plural form in Hebrew is Nazarim. Of equal significance is the fact that the use of the term "Nazarite" does not occur at all in the Greek New Testament, not even by way of interpretation. What does occur in the Greek are references to Jesus' origins as being "of Nazareth". This is rendered in Greek in two ways, either "Nazareth" as transliterated directly into English, or "Nazaret", the word ending in either a Greek theta or the equivalent of the English letter "t".

One thing is certain. In recording and transmitting the information relating to the life and teaching of Jesus, the Greek texts are passing on information about a person (Jesus) and his followers from Galilee and Judea who spoke not Greek, but probably Aramaic. At that time Hebrew was no longer the spoken language of the people of the region, having become reserved almost entirely for scriptural and possibly legal use. Aramaic is very similar to Hebrew in many ways. Its alphabet has the same number of letters, and it can be written in the same square characters as printed Hebrew, but more commonly - especially in its modern form - resembles the kind of script common to Arabic-speaking peoples, and Arabic is likewise a descendant of the same semitic tongue. Aramaic is also commonly called Syriac, no doubt from its standard usage in the regions in and around ancient Syria, of which Galilee was one, being north of Judea, and close to Syria as we still know it today. The territory originally known as Aram, from which the word Aramaic derives, at one time extended from the north right down the coast of the area later known as Aram-Syria, and later still as Palestine.

In his book, The Syrian Christ, [Andrew Melrose, London 1927] Abraham Rihbany recounts (p.12):

"... the mother and the father vow that the child shall be a "nedher"; that is, consecrated to the saint who made the promise to the mother. The vow may mean one of several things. Either that a sum of money be "given to the saint" upon the advent of the child, or that a child be carried to the same sanctuary on another zeara with gifts, and so forth, or that his hair will not be cut until he is seven years old, and then cut for the first time before the image of his patron saint at the shrine, or some other act of pious fulfilment."

"The last form of a vow, the consecration of the hair of the head for a certain period, is practised by men of all ages. The vow is made as a petition for healing from a serious illness, rescue from danger, or purely as an act of consecration ."

A little later on (p.13) the author goes on to state:

"The last service of this kind which I attended in Syria was for a cousin of mine, a boy of twelve, who was a "nedher", or as the word is rendered in the English Bible, a Nazarite."

He refers elsewhere to the word for "vow". This word he renders "Nezer". As is clear from these passages, the ancient Jewish practice has continued among Syrian Christians in much the same form, even down to very recent times, and the modern word "nedher" remains, in spite of the passage of many centuries, very close in pronunciation to the form most certainly known in the time of Jesus. It is equally probable that the earliest oral tradition which was handed on by the Greek-writing authors of the New Testament and Acts would have been received by them initially at least partly, if not largely in Aramaic rather than Greek, whether directly or indirectly from the followers and witnesses of Jesus himself.

As we have seen from the above, the modern Syrian word is very similar to the ancient Hebrew "Nazar". The same word exists in Aramaic, but is closer in pronunciation to the Hebrew, and spelt in the same way, although, so far as can at present be established, with a rather more explicit reference to someone under a vow than the Hebrew term as used in the Old Testament, where it can indicate more than one kind of "setting apart" though usually in a religious context or consecration. [The term Pharisee also has a similar connotation].

Aramaic grammar however is different from Hebrew, and can take two plural forms. In the case of a masculine noun, such as "Nazar" the plural from could be either "Nazarin" or "Nazarah". It is known from New Testament references that the speech of Jesus and his disciples was less precise than that spoken further south in Judea and Jerusalem, and it would not be unreasonable to suppose that Galilean speech was rather similar, analogously, to a country dialect, as distinct from that of a city. This is clear from Matthew 26:73, in the scene where Peter denies Jesus:

'After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Certainly you are one of them, for your accent betrays you."'

Given the peculiarities of dialect and accent, a number of quite real possibilities ensue. If the earliest disciples came largely from Galilee, then their Aramaic dialect would likely have featured largely in the transmission of the story. In passing from mouth to mouth, so to speak, variant Aramaic pronunciations would not have been at all unlikely; if written down in that language, it does not follow that the writers would have written perfect Aramaic any more than an average English person would write perfect English.

Feminine Aramaic nouns, like Hebrew nouns, more often than not end in an "ah" sound, rather like one of the Aramaic plural forms mentioned above. An Aramaic-speaking dialect might well have added this guttural "ah" - rather like adding an unnecessary "h" (or dropping one) occurs among less well-educated English. Another Aramaic speaker, of a different dialect or accent, might interpret this word, incorrectly perhaps, as a feminine noun. Rendering the same word as the feminine plural (in both Aramaic and Hebrew) would add a terminal letter "th". The resultant word, whether spoken or written, would then appear as "Nazareth" or "NZRWTh" [The Hebrew-Aramaic letter vau is rendered in this work as "W"] The Greek alternative spelling of "Nazaret" would merely reflect a similar tendency to that exhibited today even by Hebrew-speaking Jews, where a final Hebrew letter "Tau" may be pronounced (and transliterated) either way. We can see from these considerations just how simply and how plausibly the idea of a possibly non-existent place called Nazareth could have found its way into the New Testament accounts, especially if at the time of writing or editing the actual documents of our received texts such a place had indeed come into being. [Modern archaeology, I understand, places the earliest evidence for human habitation at the site of the present-day Nazareth somewhere in the third century - the same period from which our actual Greek documents mostly date].

Another possibility is that the term could refer not to a town or city, but to a district. These actual documents are historically quite late in relation to the events and history which they seek to describe, though it is clear that they contain material which, in itself, clearly dates from a time much closer to the events and circumstances concerned. What we cannot be certain of however is how much of the primitive tradition and oral transmission has been retained as originally given, and how much has been added, possibly in good faith, by later editors and scribes. A great deal of New Testament literary criticism does in fact address itself to this very problem, but as long as this work is undertaken primarily by Christian or religious believers alone, who inevitably, even if unconsciously, are likely to be biased in their findings due to the nature of their own religious beliefs, then such findings cannot be said to be 100% reliable. The search for truth needs to be as objective as humanly possible.

[NOTE: Bias in translation. This work began as a series of notes on a theme, so to speak, with the consequence that not as much attention was paid to certain matters of detail which seemed less important at the time than the general concept and its possible conclusions. In compiling relevant data, I originally contented myself with taking the references to Nazareth verbatim from Strong's Concordance. This, while being the most comprehensive English concordance to the Bible, can easily lead one into a false sense of security. All Strong's references are given in the English of the King James, or Authorized Version of the Bible. As a direct consequence of this I may have been a little unfair to the original Greek texts upon which it is based. On checking the references to Nazareth against the Greek text as given in the Interlinear Bible, I found that very few refer to Nazareth by this name, and that the majority consist of various Greek renderings of the word "Nazarene".

This strongly reinforces the argument, and further highlights the problem of scripture translation being biased by the religious affiliations of the translators. In modern times a number of revised versions of the New Testament have appeared. They all vary according to the religious and theological perspectives of those who have produced them, a fact which in the eyes of a totally impartial observer would, I conjecture, render them all suspect in some measure.]

For some years now the Revised Standard Version first produced in 1946 has been accepted by most (religious) authorities as the one most faithful to the Greek New Testament, and has even become the agreed basis for the ecumenical "Common Bible" first published in 1973. In the course of quoting the longer texts in this work, I therefore went to this version in large measure for my references. All of those referring to "Nazarene" translated by the King James Version as "Nazareth" are repeated there. According to the Greek text, Pilate had inscribed above the cross, JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The recorded teaching of this same Jesus the Nazarene has guided a major portion of the people of the world for over nineteen centuries, among whom I count myself. To, in effect, tell lies about him in the interests of theological "purity" - as it seems to me - and to perpetuate them, is a major insult to millions of Christians, living, departed, and yet to come.

Within the constraints imposed by just such problems, modern scholarship has established fairly reliably that of the four Gospel authors, who alone among the New Testament writings mention Nazareth, the version of Mark is the most primitive, and is therefore most likely to reflect a more accurate transmission of the original accounts. Also, in the light of what has been said above. Mark may not have mentioned Nazareth at all. (The book of Acts, which also mentions Nazareth specifically, is generally agreed to be the work of the author of Luke's Gospel).

Matthew mentions Nazareth as a city only once, in the passage quoted earlier, and Luke perhaps three times. In Mark, as in John, where the inference of a place may be implied, it is not described specifically as a town or city, nor is this the case in Acts. Let us first consider the few references to a city that there are. These are (a) Matthew 2:23, (b) Luke 1:26, (c) Luke 2:4, and (d) Luke 2:39:

(a) And having come, he dwelt in a city called Nazareth.

(b) Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee called Nazareth.

(c) Joseph also went from Galilee, out of Nazareth city to Judea.

(d) They returned to Galilee, to their city, Nazareth.

All four references have one thing in common: they occur in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. The chief and glaringly obvious characteristic of these stories of the early life of Jesus is that both versions end abruptly, leaving an unexplained gap between these accounts and the start of Jesus' ministry. If these accounts are set aside as belonging to a different and incomplete strand of the original oral tradition, possibly based upon originally separate documents, [The genealogies of Matthew and Luke, for example, are different] then all four of our gospels would begin at exactly the same point, namely the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. All other references to "Nazareth" in English translations are of a different order, and it to these that we shall now give our attention:

[The two references marked ** are rendered in other recensions by the term "Nazara". All of the remainder can be rendered "Nazarene" except for Matt. 21:11, Mark 1:9, John 1:45 and 1:46.]

** ... having left Nazareth ..... he lived in Capernaum [Mt. 4:13]

Jesus the prophet, the [one] from Nazareth of Galilee [Mt. 21:11]

This one was also with Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Mt. 26:71]

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee [Mk 1:9].

What [is it] to us and to you, Jesus of Nazareth? (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Mk 1:24]

Having heard that is was Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Mk 10:47]

You were with Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Mk 14:67]

You seek Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Mk 16:6]

** And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up [Lk 4:16] (We shall return more fully to this text).

What [is it] to you and to us, Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Lk 4:34] (identical to Mk 1:24 above).

They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) is passing by [Lk 18:37]

Concerning Jesus of Nazareth ..... (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Lk 24:19]

Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth [Jn 1:45]

Out of Nazareth can any good be? [Jn 1:46]

They answered him, "Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene)"[Jn 18:5]

And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene)" [Jn 18:7]

Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene), the King of the Jews [Jn 19:19]

Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene), a man from God [Acts 2:22]

In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (or Jesus Christ the Nazarene) [Acts 3:6]

By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (or Jesus Christ the Nazarene) [Acts 4:10]

This Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) ... [Acts 6:14]

Jesus from Nazareth ... God anointed with the Holy Spirit [Acts 10:38]

I am Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Acts 22:8]

Contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene) [Acts 26:9]

Of these references, only two give a specific sense of location. The first of these is that of Mark, who refers to "Nazareth of Galilee". The second is Luke 4:16, to which we said we would return. A fuller extract reads: 'And he came to Nazareth (Nazara), where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as was his custom, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read: and there was given to him a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He ... found the place where it was written, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to release the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the scroll, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.'

And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

In an unpublished manuscript by Fr. C. Ramon Allee, the author writes:

[The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Essenes, and Early Christianity. Fr.Ramon is a member of the American Academy of Religion.]

"It has generally been assumed that in each of the cities of Palestine at this period there was a synagogue in each city, of which all the inhabitants who wished to do so made use ... the primary (meaning of the word) is that of an assembly rather than a building.

"Where then did Jesus go when he went to the synagogue? Was it to a synagogue of the Pharisees? It seems hardly likely. He was sharply opposed to the Pharisees and criticized them freely ... it is all but certain that he went to a meeting place of an Essene order - indeed, the very community where, to use Luke's phrase, he was brought up."

The significant fact for us here is that in his work Fr. Ramon establishes a link between Jesus and the Essenes, and possibly the sect of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. What we now have to consider is the likelihood of this in the light of our present considerations.

The most notable feature of the Essenes of the Dead Sea community (or assembly, or synagogue) was the fact of their separation both physically and doctrinally from the Pharisees and Sadducees who, according to the Gospels, were the frequent subjects of Jesus' condemnation. And the very essence of the Hebrew word "Nazar" means precisely that. In the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Brown, Driver and Briggs, Oxford 1978] the root verb is given as:

"Dedicate, consecrate, separate, in religious and ceremonial sense ... Aramaic (nedher): vow."

Like Christian D. Ginsberg in his essay on the Essenes, [The Essenes, The Kabbalah, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956] Fr. Ramon establishes beyond reasonable doubt an Essene connection on the part of Jesus, of whose teaching, if not his practice, a large part is almost identical with what is known of Essene teachings generally, rather than those of the Dead Sea sect exclusively.

Following our own considerations, and allowing for an all too possible, if slight distortion in the original transmission of the story of Jesus and his ministry from an oral/written Aramaic tradition predating our Greek documents by some two centuries, then, to adopt the New Testament term, the ancient Hebrew vow-takers or "Nazarites", the followers of Jesus (and especially his brother Jacob, known to us as James, who is specifically recorded as having taken a vow) and Jesus himself were all "Nazarenes". And Jesus, if coming from such a background is "of the "Nazarenes" in the same sense as Paul is spoken of in Acts 24:5:

"For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and agitator among the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes."

Certainly, in the sense of the original Hebrew verb, the ancient practices of the Jewish People, and even, as Rihbany [Op. cit.] has shown, among modern Eastern Christians in Syria, together with the Essenes of Qumran and elsewhere, as reported by the Jewish Historian Josephus, Pliny the Elder, Eusebius and Hippolytus, all were Nazirim, i.e., consecrated, dedicated, and set apart for the service of God.

In A History of the Jews in Babylonia; 1. The Parthian Period [Brown Judaic Studies 62, Scholars Press, Chico, California] the author, Professor Jacob Neusner states:

"According to Tannaitic tradition, a Parthian embassy was sent to the court of Alexander Jannaeus (104-78 b.c.e.). The embassy was not mentioned by Josephus. The source is as follows:

"'It was taught, Three hundred Nezirim came up [to Jerusalem] in the time of R. Shimeon b. Shetach. For one hundred fifty of them he found a means of freeing them from their vow of Nezirut ....'"

The source is given as Pal. Talmud Berakhot 7.2, Nazir 5.3. The Aramaic text which is all we have been able to consult renders "Nezirim" as "Nazirin" but does not contain the reference to the vow of Nezirut. What is nonetheless of immediate interest, assuming Prof. Neusner has an alternative recension, is the use of terms which reflect a definite use of such terminology applied to Jews in the first century before the advent of Jesus, [of the Nazirin of Nezirut!]

To sum up, the original history as first recorded by the Aramaic-speaking disciples of Jesus, slightly distorted in its transmission, and ending up in Greek documents of the third century, probably spoke in their own tongue not of "Jesus of Nazareth" but of Jesus of (the) Nazarin(es). In the same language, the Dead Sea sect would also have been "Nazarenes" as would any Jew (like James, and probably themselves) who had taken a vow to serve God is a special and unique way. Nazarites, Nazarenes, and Nazareth are most probably, in generic terms, one and the same kind of people, all with a single religious purpose of dedication to the one true God of Israel, "Jehovah" - the "Eternal Being" or "That-which-is" of Exodus 6:

"And YHWH said to Moses, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will drive them [i.e., the sons of Israel] out from his land." And God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I [am] YHWH; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty (Heb. Al Shaddai), and by my name YHWH I never made myself known to them."

We shall now return to the reference in Matthew 2:23, "He shall be called a Nazarene." As previously noted, the usual reference back is to Isaiah 11:1, which, however, uses no such words.

Given the apparent, and even in some instances obvious ignorance of early redactors and editors of the Greek New Testament writings, it is not at all improbable that like many Christians today, they did not make or were unaware of the traditional view of their own scriptures - our Old Testament - taken by the Jewish people themselves, who referred to them (and still do) as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. To many Christians even today, the Old Testament is a book of prophecy, primarily concerned with predicting the future advent of the saviour of the world, i.e., Jesus, or in Jewish terms, the Messiah of Israel.

Sad though such ignorance may be, it is less astonishing in the earlier centuries of the common era, when all documents had to be copied by hand, and information was spread among the ordinary people largely by word of mouth. To many a Greek copyist or editor of documents and transmitter of traditions not his own, it may well have seemed that anything written in the Old Testament was the writing of "The Prophets" - especially if the copyist or editor was primarily one of the "new" Christians whose only living contact with his religion was among fellow Greeks, and among whom a knowledge of Jewish tradition and Law may well have been regarded as of little account other than for its value in bolstering his own church's claims.

Added to this is the fact of early Christian prejudice which blamed "The Jews" for the crucifixion of Jesus, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus and his disciples were themselves of "The Jews".

Where then, in the Old Testament, might such a Greek editor have looked for a source which could be used to claim that a "prophecy" existed which foretold that "He shall be called a Nazarene."? Not to the Hebrew scriptures, but to the Greek translation of them known to scholars as the Septuagint (socalled because it was said to be the result of the work of seventy Jewish translators).

[Many scholars believe that this version rests upon an earlier Hebrew foundation than the form in which we find the Hebrew texts today].

In the received Hebrew text of our Old Testament there are twelve references to either "Nazarite" or "Nazarites", In the Greek text, however, the Hebrew word is rendered literally (by transliteration) only once. All other eleven references are translated into the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, i.e., consecrated, dedicated, separated etc. This single reference is to be found not in the books of "The Prophets" but from the Book of Judges [13:5]:

"For behold, thou art with child and shall bring forth a son; and there shall come no razor upon his head, for the child shall be called a Nazir to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines."

As in the birth stories about Jesus, an angel appears to the mother of the unborn child. This child was Samson, who was, in his time, a saviour of Israel (Jesus=Joshua="Saviour"). Samson destroyed the house in which the Philistines had met to worship their own god by pulling down the pillars of their temple around them, giving up his life in the process. A parallel with the Jesus story is clear here, if anyone cares to see one. At the crucifixion of Jesus the veil of the Jewish temple was said to have been "torn in two", and not too many years later the temple itself was totally destroyed, and has never been rebuilt. Might not this have seemed to a Greek scribe or editor a veritable "type" or "prophecy" relating to his own Messiah, his own Christ, Jesus of the Nazirin of Naziruth?

Whatever else the man Jesus may or may not have been, he was a Jew, he was dedicated to God, and he was separate, both in his life and his teaching, from the majority of the Jewish people of his time. He was, in short, a Nazir.

"The "Hebraists" or "Hebrews of Acts would ... provide the general connection between the movement and tradition of non-conformist baptizing Judaism and the Primitive Church. A closer connection still would be through the so-called "sect of the Nazarenes" of Acts xxiv.5, if there is a historical foundation for Epiphanius's Jewish Nasarenes of Trans-Jordan. On the whole, the cumulative evidence seemed to support Epiphanius. The oldest roots of the Christian movement were certainly in Galilee and the North; and one of these may well have sprung from a group of dedicated Nazirites, sectarians who continued the ancient Israelite institution of the life-long Nazirate. There would then be the closest of connections between John the Baptist and the Galilaean movement; and a similar close tie would exist with the priestly "Nazirites" of Qumran. There is certainly a Nazirite element in Christian origins, as is witnessed, for instance, by Matthew ii.23.' - ("... that what was said by the prophet might be fulfilled: he shall be called a Nazarene.")"

From The Scrolls and Christian Origins, Matthew Black, Scholars Press 1983 reprint of 1961 edition (Nelson and Scribner).



"And having come, he dwelt in a city called Nazareth; thus to fulfil that spoken by the prophet: A Nazarene shall he be called."

and in Greek:

"Kai eltheon, katokesen eis polis legomenen Nazareth; opos plerothe to pethen dia propheton oti Nazaraios klethesetai."

According to Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan; p. 421/2, under Nazaret] the Talmud refers to Jesus as Ben Natsar (not Nazar or Nazir). This may be because the author of the talmudic text(s) in question has adopted the existing Christian polemical reference back to Isaiah 11:1 previously mentioned. Other connections with Hebrew relate it to the Hebrew word for sentinel or watchtower. Apart from the likelihood that the name has an Aramaic, rather than a Hebrew origin, this would seem unlikely for reasons already discussed. It would be interesting to know whether any Jewish scholars have made the connection with Nazir rather than the theologically conventional association with Natsar in Isaiah.

The Greek word polis is frequently used in relation to a city, and our own word, metropolis, is derived from it. The primary sense of the word however is that of a dwelling place, which need not carry the connotations of "city" in the sense that we would understand the term today. It is also used in the Greek Septuagint for two Hebrew words which can carry connotations of nakedness, bareness, as well as of hide or skin, being used in the latter sense concerning the covering of the tabernacle, itself a kind of dwelling place, as in Exodus 25. Another sense is that of a desert waste, such as the area north of Engedi, home of the Qumran sect, or still further north in Galilee. The second Hebrew word, less frequently rendered as polis can mean a gate or entrance to a meeting place - hence again, a dwelling of sorts.

Variant readings in ancient times were more likely than now, as the later guide to Hebrew pronunciation, and thus meaning (known as "pointing") was not to be developed for many centuries. Returning to the specifically Greek polis, it is not impossible, owing to the nature of the transmission of information in ancient times being largely by word of mouth, that poliscould be an error for the alternative term polus. This word relates to the sense of numerous, or many. As we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, "The Many" is a term that occurs in the Qumran material in connection with the Essene sect.

I do not think it can be emphasized enough that in dealing with comparatively late Greek documents which give accounts of matters which took place some two centuries earlier than the probable date of the documents themselves; of events in a non-Greek land in which the common language was neither Greek nor Hebrew, but Aramaic, then the likelihood of just this kind of misunderstanding, compounded by the fact of much of the original story having been transmitted originally in the same Aramaic, such conjecture is altogether a most reasonable line of enquiry. That it may not "fit in" with the neatly dovetailed expositions of often theologically biased scholars does not render it invalid, and the real history of people and events is never such a neatly defined affair, as we can see even in our own time, when the histories of the Eastern and Western nations give quite different and often totally opposite versions of the same historical events. It is important for just such reasons to bear in mind that in dealing with the writings of scripture we are looking at the results of partisan renderings on the part of Jewish (in the case of the Old Testament) and Christian (in the case of the New) editors of original texts who have left us, in the form in which we receive them, documents whose purpose is primarily theological, and not historical. An interesting example of "prophetic" theological writing occurs in the book of Ezekiel, 8:14, where an angel shows him a vision:

"And he brought me to the opening of the gate of the house of YHWH [i.e., the Temple] which was towards the north; and behold, women were sitting there, weeping for Tammuz. And he said to me, "Have you seen, son of man?" [Note the use of "Son of man" in a Jewish context here].

Whether the author of this passage in Ezekiel is using the "vision" method of warning the Israelites of the dangers of paganism as a literary convention, or he truly had such a vision, the inference and purpose is clear enough: it is an attack upon a perceived and (to Ezekiel) very probably present threat to the monotheistic worship of YHWH. Tammuz was himself a god, the son of the Ancient Near-Eastern Mother Goddess Astarte or Ishtar, and after whom one of the Hebrew months (corresponding roughly to July) is still named. Reading, as one often must, between the lines, it seems likely that the worship of the more ancient Hebrews was far less monotheistic as people commonly suppose, and much of the Old Testament writings reveal this conflict between the religion of Moses and that of the ancient world. Some of the adventures of the legendary king Solomon suggest a less than perfect devotion to YHWH than later expositors would have us believe.

Returning from this digression, it is clear that earlier sources from which we might derive a more accurate form of the original tradition are likely to be found not in Greek or Hebrew texts, but in Aramaic/Syriac versions. Some of these, even if late, contain tantalizing references to otherwise little-known traditions. A work called The Teaching of Addai mentioned by Eusebius in his History [1.10] finds the emissary of Abgar, king of Edessa, visiting Jesus in Jerusalem, finding him at the house of the famous rabbi Gamaliel, teacher of the apostle Paul. (In the Syriac text, but not in Eusebius) [The Teaching of Addai, George Howard, tr.; Scholars Press, 1981]. It could be that we still have a great deal to discover about the origins of Jesus, the Nazarene of Galilee.



The first Christians were not, in their own time and place, called Christians at all, but like their founder were known, as the accusation against Peter has shown, as Nazarenes. This was not their only common feature, they were equally, if not more so, known as Galileans, and it is interesting to wonder if there might have been other kinds of Nazarenes who came from elsewhere, and whose "vow" might have been of a different order. Our texts speak of both Jesus and his disciples as Galileans, and of Jesus himself coming from "Nazareth of Galilee". If a city or town, as we would understand it, did not exist at that period, then what or where is this place "Nazareth" from which the gospel writers seem to be agreed that he came? Was it perhaps a district rather than a specific location? If so, where was this district?

One thing is clear: if such a district or area existed, it was not further south, in Judea, but in northern Galilee or thereabouts, and it is to this area we must look for any indication of possible descriptions of the place of his origin. We do not have to look far; no further in fact, in the light of our conjectures, than the same gospel accounts, which we can place in the same context as the accounts themselves, i.e., Galilee.

Galilee is the name of the sea or lake by which the entire territory was known. In more ancient times this water was known by a different name, but by the time of Jesus it had also acquired the title of the Sea of Gennasaret. Exactly when this name was first bestowed we do not know, but the earliest reference to it in scriptural writings seems to occur in the first book of Maccabees, where the RSV "Common Bible" gives it this name. In the Greek Septuagint itis rendered as "Gennesar".

If, as we have done earlier, we consider not so much the literal word, but rather the sound it expresses - and speech or sound always comes before its written expression - it is not a large step from "Gennesaret" (sometimes spelt "Gennesareth") or "Gennesar" to "Nazaret", "Nazareth" or "Nazara". Hebrew and Aramaic contain many letters whose pronunciation is of a guttural kind which can sound to foreign ears like a number of alternative letters in their own tongue. Allowing, as is clear we must, for such differences of rendering, the Hebrew-Aramaic sounds which fall into this category, together with differences in local dialect such as already mentioned in the case of Peter, it is not unreasonable to postulate that Nazareth and Gennesaret are one and the same place. We know that a town or city called Nazareth may not have existed in Jesus' day, but we do know that Gennesaret did.

Was Jesus an Essene from Qumran? This is really two questions, not one. Although the greater part of his teaching may have considerable affinities with that of the Qumran sect, it was also far more liberal and tolerant. This is one reason to reject Qumran as his place of origin, as also is its location. Qumran was to the south, in Judea; Jesus came from Galilee, in the north. Could there have been another, more liberal sect of Essenes in Galilee? Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish writer who lived in this period wrote (in Greek):

"Palestine, and Syria too, which are inhabited by no slight portion of the numerous population of the Jews, are not barren of virtue. There are some among them called Essaioi - in number more than four thousand ... because they are worshippers of God ... they in the first place live in villages, avoiding cities ... some of them cultivate the earth, others are engaged in those diverse arts which promote peace." [In Ginsburg, The Essenes; The Kabbalah - Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1956].

Philo goes on to enumerate the many virtues of the Essenes which are recounted elsewhere. The Jewish historian Josephus, another contemporary writer tells us that "They have no separate city." Elsewhere he says:

"There is also another order of Essenes, who, in their way of living, customs and laws exactly agree with the others, excepting only that they differ from them about marriage."

The Qumran sectarians were a group who did not allow marriage, [though female remains have been found on the site] and although Jesus stresses the absence of the institution in heaven, he has definite advice to offer about divorce in this, our less exalted territory. If indeed he was an Essene, it may well have been as a member of the "other order" mentioned by Josephus, especially when we consider, putting Christian theology aside, that he appears in the gospel accounts complete with mother and brothers. His earthly, if not his heavenly father appears early in the story with Mary and Jesus as coming from "Nazareth of Galilee". It is not therefore beyond the bounds of possibility that the entire family, including his brother Jacob (our "James"), head of the first Nazarene community in Jerusalem, may have come from the ranks of just such an Essene group.

To return to the possible association of Gennesaret with Nazareth, what have the gospel writers to tell us?

"And crossing over, they came to the land of Gennesaret, and drew to shore; and when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him." [Mark 6:53].

"And having passed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret, and having recognized him, the men of that place sent to all the surrounding country, and brought to him all those who were diseased." [Matt. 14:34].

... and he was standing by Lake Gennasaret. [Luke 5:1].

These are the only three references to Gennesaret in the gospel accounts, which in itself is interesting, particularly as the place was clearly well known at that period by this name. When mentioning the lake, it is more often referred to as the Sea of Galilee. This reinforces the suggestion that since the time of the Maccabees the use of the name had passed from the lake to the district immediately surrounding it. Luke uses the older term for the lake, and the authors or editors of Mark and Matthew are almost certainly drawing upon an identical source, or as is often suggested, Matthew is using Mark as his source.

In any event, both the Mark and Matthew texts speak of the land of Gennesaret, which in this one basic account is clearly a district (polis) in the immediate vicinity of the Sea of Galilee, which is precisely the area allocated to the supposed "City of Nazareth". The connection, in terms of our current speculation, is obvious.

Let us suppose that this is the true starting point for both the life of Jesus, as well as the district wherein might have been found one of the more liberal Essene communities spoken of by Philo and Josephus. As remarked earlier, when the birth stories concerning Jesus are set aside as part of another strand of the tradition [there are no other references to this tradition anywhere else in the New Testament] then all four gospels begin with John the Baptist preaching a doctrine of repentance, and baptizing in the river Jordan, which flows into the Sea of Galilee in this very region. The allusions concerning John taken from Isaiah 40 could have been taken verbatim from the writings of the Dead Sea sect further south in Qumran, but John is baptizing in Galilee, not Judea. Could he too have come from the ranks of this "other order" of Essenes to the north? When we read the accounts of the baptism of Jesus - which suggest, unhappily for later Church doctrine, that Jesus had sins to repent of - there is a sense that these two men already know each other, which comes across in the reported interchange of words between them. In suggesting to Jesus that the baptism should really be performed the other way round, i.e., that Jesus should baptize John, the conversation, even in translation, is almost casual.

What do we know of this Galilean area that might suggest it as a possible site for a more liberal-minded Essene group, in contrast to the more ascetic Qumran community?

"The physical characteristics ... are principally two: (a) abundance of water, and (b) fertility of soil.

"Large quantities of water are collected during the rainy season among the higher slopes and plateaus, and are thence dispersed by the rivers and streams over the lower-lying tracts, where they become stored in springs and wells.

"The Galileans were thoroughly and patriotically Jewish during the first century of the Christian era.

"There does not seem to be any sufficient ground for the dislike and contempt in which they were held by their religiously stricter brethren of Judea. Possibly they were less exact in their observance of tradition. But they were devoted to the Law, and their country was well supplied with synagogues, schools, and teachers. If they were less orthodox, from the Pharisaic viewpoint, the Messianic hope burned brightly in their souls, and they crowded to the ministry of Jesus. They were certainly more tolerant and open-minded than the Judeans..." [Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, T. & T.Clark, Edinburgh 1918, p. 438.]

All the ingredients were there. Patriotism: the Qumran Essenes actually had a "War Rule". Devotion to the Law: an indispensable requirement in Qumran. An abundance of water: this was clearly essential for Essene practices, which required frequent lustrations. Finally, the "Messianic hope" is the constant theme of the stricter Dead Sea sect. Given the predominately Essene nature of much of the teaching of Jesus, coupled with his more liberal attitude in respect of the stricter observances of Israelite religion, the likelihood of such a community existing in the Land of Gennesaret - or Nazaret - is strong. True, the evidence is circumstantial, but given that we know nothing whatever of the many groups of Essenes who, according to our ancient authors were so widespread, it is more than we might otherwise hope for.

We do know from the documents found at Qumran that this group had a "Damascus Rule" which differed somewhat from their own "Manual of Discipline". It seems more than likely that there was, at some period, an Essene group in the area of Damascus to which this document specifically applied, and which varied in some important respects from that of the Dead Sea sect. Its most notable feature is its reference to a "New Covenant" which was made "in the Land of Damascus". "New Covenant" is of course synonymous with "New Testament".

Geographically, Damascus is roughly a similar distance from Gennesaret or Nazaret as the latter is from Qumran. In ancient times the entire area would have been known as "Syria" or "Aram-Syria" and is the region in which the Aramaic language finds its roots, traces of which remain to this day. If the Nazarene disciples of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself, could and did travel as far south as Jerusalem, it is quite possible that at an earlier or even during the same period, Damascus Essenes could have travelled a similar distance to their brethren by the Sea of Galilee.

There seems to be little or no trace of an Essene group in the area of Damascus itself, although who knows what archaeological and other research may yet reveal. It may even be that the Essenes in Damascus moved south to the rich and fertile area of Gennesaret- Nazaret, where all the requirements of their particular disciplines could more readily be met, and that Jesus and his disciples were a slightly later generation or those mentioned in the Qumran related document. It may even be that the New Covenant of Damascus was essentially the same as that which later gave its name to the Christian scriptures. What might the chances of this be? An almost final "clincher" comes from professor Geza Vermes' translation of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English: [Penguin Books, London 1987 (3rd edition) p. 71.]

"There are, to my knowledge, no writings in ancient Jewish sources parallel to the Community Rule, but a similar type of literature flourished among Christians between the second and fourth centuries, the so-called "Church Orders" represented by the Didache, the Didascalia, the Apostolic Constitutions etc."

In this translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the members of the Community refer to themselves as "saints" - which is precisely the term of reference used by the apostle Paul in his letters to the various Nazarene communities, viz., "All the saints greet you." [2. Cor.13:13].

The probationary period during which a potential Essene had to prove himself and receive the necessary tuition in the tenets of the Community lasted, in total, for a period of three years, only after which period was he admitted to the full rights and privileges of the order. Exactly the same probationary period was employed in the Christian communities of the early Church, a fact well attested by the writings of the Christian Church fathers.

In Jerusalem, the very fist "Church" or Community of the Nazarenes, only later to be called Christians, we find not Peter, as we might suppose from the high position accorded to him in later Church tradition, but Jacob, or James the brother of Jesus, at the head of a community so important to the sect that after a number of years working without any official supervision even the great apostle Paul feels it necessary to go there to gain official approval of his own version of the teaching, and ratification of his own even more liberal attitude towards Gentile converts from the mother house of the order, as we would say of a modern Christian religious community. The head of this Jerusalem "mother church" was already famous for his holiness and piety, and is known to have taken the "Nazarite" vow. And in early twentieth century Syria we find similar versions and identical vows, even down to the language used to describe them, as regular features of Christian communities in the very same "land of Damascus," its present-day capital.

All Christian denominations, even in the divided state of Christendom toady, agree on the utterly basic Law of Ancient Israel upon which they base their common faith, namely the two "Great Commandments" which are quoted in the Christian "New Testament", either by Jesus or by one of his questioners, namely to love God and neighbour as oneself. This Law is found in the "Old Testament" in Deuteronomy and Exodus. Whether we take it from the Old, or from the New Covenant, it is prefaced with the same words:


THE NAZARENES A speculative enquiry into Christian origins - © Copyright A.M.Bain 1989 Nazarenes Part 1, Nazarenes Part 2, Nazarenes Part 3, Nazarenes Part 4.

The Nazarenes of  Mount Carmel
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