Nazarene Space

What is Nazarene Judaism?

What is Nazarene Judaism
James Scott Trimm

The first believers in Y'shua were a Jewish sect known as "Nazarenes" or in Hebrew "N'tzarim" (Acts 11:19; 24:5). The "church father" Jerome (4th Cent.) described these Nazarenes as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." (Jerome; On. Is. 8:14). The fourth century "church father" Epiphanius gives a more detailed description:

But these sectarians... did not call themselves Christians--but "Nazarenes," ... However they are simply complete Jews. They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do... They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion-- except for their belief in Messiah, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that G-d is one, and that his son is Y'shua the Messiah. They are trained to a nicety in Hebrew. For among them the entire Law, the Prophets, and the... Writings... are read in Hebrew, as they surely are by the Jews. They are different from the Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following. They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Messiah; but since they are still fettered by the Law--circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest-- they are not in accord with Christians.... they are nothing but Jews.... They have the Goodnews 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; Panarion 29)

Nazarene Judaism maintains a belief in Y'shua as the Messiah. We do not leave the Jewish identity, heritage and culture to "convert" to a new or foreign religion. To some the concept of Jews believing in Y'shua and practicing Judaism to a contradiction in terms. The common wisdom is that on the one side you have Jews and Judaism, and on the other you have Gentiles and Christianity. However in the first century there were literally hundreds of thousands of Jewish followers of Y'shua (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:7; 9:31; 21:20) they were zealous for the Torah (Acts 15:19-21; 21:17-27) and met in synagogues (James 1:1, 2:2). The big question then was, had Y'shua come for the Gentiles as well (Acts 10; Acts 15). The greatest paradox in history eventually occured, for today people question how one can follow Y'shua and remain Jewish.

Today we are seeking to put Y'shua back into the context of first century Judaism. Nazarene Judaism is a spiritual renaissance, a revival, a return to the pure faith of first century Nazarenes. A return to the Tenach and to the root of the olive tree (Rom. 11).

As the prophet Jeremiah tells us:

Thus says YHWH, "Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it: And you shall find rest for your souls...."

(Jer. 6:16)

Nazarenes refrain from calling themselves Christians. The first use of the term Christian was in Antioch, among the first Gentile followers of Y'shua (Acts 11:26) to describe the Gentile followers of Y'shua. Nazarenes are Yahwists and do not feel compelled to completely censor the use of the Name (Jer. 23:27). They were in some cases martyred for publicly reciting a drash of Ps.110:1-2 in which the Name was used while connecting Y'shua to the right hand of YHWH. Nazarenes recognize the seventh day-- Friday evening to Saturday evening-- as being the Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; 32:12-17). We still observe the rite of circumcision for Israelites. We observe the Holy Days described in Lev. 23 which are to be "celebrated as a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places... forever" (Lev. 23:14; 21; 31; 41).


John the Baptist and Qumran

To trace the origin of the Nazrenes we must first examine the figure of John (Yochanan) the Baptist. As the Goodnews according to Mark begins:

The beginning of the goodnews of Y'shua the Messiah,... John came immersing in the wilderness...

(Mk. 1:1, 4)

As George Howard has pointed out, "...there was a John the Baptist sect that existed from early times and continued perhaps for centuries." (The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text by George Howard; 1987; p. 205; see Acts 18:5-19:7; Justin, Trypho 80; Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1:54:60) Such a sect still exists in Iraq today. Howard has also noted:

In Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew John the Baptist emerges as a much more important figure than in Greek Matthew. The Greek Matthew may well represent a later corrective to the more primitive statements made about John the Baptist in Hebrew Matthew before the followers of John the Baptist were seen as a threat to trunkline Christianity."

(ibid).

A careful reading of the Gospels will show that John the Baptist had his own "disciples" (Jn. 1:35) who continued on as such, apart from the Y'shua movement even after John and Y'shua had died (Acts 19:1-3). The flavor of John chapter one also indicates that John did not live alone in the wilderness, but lived with a comunity of followers near Bethabara (Jn. 1:28) a town just eight miles from Qumran.

Now one of the most important similarities between John the Baptist and his disciples, and the Qumran community is quite obviously that of geography. As mentioned, John and his disciples resided "in the wilderness" near a town just eight miles from Qumran. Infact the caves in which the scrolls were found are just five miles from the location along the Jordan at which John was baptizing. Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament use the phrase "in the wilderness" (drawn from Is. 40:3) almost as a proper noun, to describe this area. One NT passage in particular seemed a mystery until the discovery of the Scrolls. Luke 1:80 states "...the child [John the Baptist] grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel." What would a child be doing "in the wilderness?" Could John have been raised at the Qumran community? An apocraphal tradition once circulated in the Church of the East may offer some insight. The Protevangelion of James, once read in some eastern churches, records a tradition that at the time of the slaughter of the innocents, Elizabeth took her son and went up unto the mountains, and looked around for a place to hide him; and there was no secret place to be found. Then she groaned within herself, and said, O mountain of YHWH, receive the mother with the child.  For Elizabeth could not climb up. And instantly the mountain was divided and received them. And there appeared to them an angel (or messenger) of YHWH, to preserve them." -Protevangelion 16:3-8

Could this tradition be preserving an ancient tradition that John and his mother were taken in through an opening in the mountains (a cave) and a "messenger of YHWH" at Qumran took them in. This possibility is stengthened by the fact that Hugh Schonfield has shown that there are a number of parallelisms between DuTillet Hebrew Matthew and the Protevangelion, "which cannot be accidental." (An Old Hebrew Text of Matthew's Gospel by Hugh Schonfield; 1927; p. 25-30, 40). Moreover Joesphus tells us that the Essenes commonly raised other peoples children (Josephus; 2:8:3). Thus it would seem that John the Baptist was raised up in the Qumran community.

As a Levite, and decendant of Zadock, John would have held a prominant place in the Qumran community, which favored the priesthood heirs. However, John's normal life at Qumran was interupted when "the word of G-d came to John... in the wilderness" (Lk. 3:2). In a rigid community where everyone had a rank and no one spoke out of turn, John's message may not have been welcome. This would explain why John and his disciples relocated near nearby Bethabara.

Both Matthew and Mark tell us that John ate locusts (Mt. 3:4; Mk. 1:6).  Of course, Lev. 11:20-23 lists these insects as kosher. Now The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us that the Qumran community also made locusts as part of their diet. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls even tell us how they were to be cooked (Dam. Doc. xii, 11-15).

Both the Qumran community, and John quoted Is. 40:3 as being a prophecy fortelling of their work (Mt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4; Jn 1:23; Dam. Doc. viii, 12-14; ix, 20). This verse appears in most New Testament as:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d."

However, the contor markings in the Masoretic Text give us the understanding:

The voice of one crying "In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d."

As a result of their use of this verse, both John and the Qumran community referred to themselves as being "in the wilderness" and both the Qumran community and the early believers in Y'shua called their movement "the way".

Another strong parallel between John and the Qumran community is that of the importance given to the practice of water immersion/baptism (Heb: T'vilah). The Torah requires "washing" for "uncleaness" (Lev. 16-18) and "uncleaness" can result from sin (Lev. 18:1ff for example.) King David spoke of this practice in the Psalms (Ps. 51:2, 7). In the Qumran comunity this practice was given great importance (Man. Disc. iii, 4f; v, 13; Dam. Doc. x, 10-13) and it was certainly regarded as of high priority to John (Mt. 3:6, 11; Mk. 1:4-5; Lk. 3:2-3, 7; Acts 19:3-4). Both believed that water baptism was only symbolic of a greater cleansing of wickedness performed by the Ruach HaKodesh (Man. Disc. iv, 12-13).

One final similarity between John and the Qumran community was that both stressed that the day of fiery judgement was eminently aproaching.

Now having discussed the similarities between John the Baptist and the Qumran community, let us note the differences. Essenes always wore white (Josephus; 2:8:3) yet John wore camel's hair (Mt. 3:4). Secondly, the Qumram community only ate food provided by their community yet John foreged for himself (Mt. 3:4). Finally and most importantly the Qumran community was not even a little bit evangelical. The Manual of Discipline specificly commands its adherents to "bear unremitting hatred towards all men of ill repute... to leave it to them to pursue wealth and mercenary gain... truckling to a depot." (Man. Disc. ix 21-26). But John called these men of ill repute to "Repent, for the Kingdom of G-d is offered." (Mt. 3:2). This new teaching must have been the "word of G-d" which John "received in the wilderness" (Lk. 3:2) since it is later echoed by Y'shua (Mt. 4:17) and Y'shua's disciples (Mt. 10:7).

As a result of the new light shined on the NT by the Dead Sea Scrolls, we may now conclude that John the Baptist was raised in the very community which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. That the word of G-d came to John, and he began teaching an evangelical message of repentance. A message which was unacceptable to the Qumran community. That message probably caused a schism which resulted in John the Baptist and his disciples relocating to Bethabara, just eight miles from Qumran. This new group became a John the Baptist sect which has continued to this very day, and which held a close relationship to the Messianic movement surrounding Y'shua.


Y'shua the Messiah

Y'shua came to be immersed by John in the wilderness at about the age of 30 and was proclaimed by John to be the "lamb" of Isaiah 53:7 (Jn. 1:29). Certain of John's students then became students of Y'shua (Jn. 1:35-51). Y'shua then began to proclaim, as John had proclaimed: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is offered." (Mt. 3:17). Later He sent his twelve students out with the same proclamation (Mt. 10).

Y'shua, however, differed somewhat from John (Mt. 11:18-19). Whereas John was primarily of an Essene background, Y'shua's teaching was largely Pharisaic. Y'shua largely endorsed the Pharisee movement saying:

The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do,...

(Mt. 23:2-3)

Not only was Y'shua's teaching largely Pharisaic, but it largely followed that of the School of Hillel rather than that of the School of Shamai. For example, Y'shua's famous "golden rule":

Whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets.

(Mt. 7:12)

This reads very closely with Hillel's famous statement:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour that is the whole Torah...

(b.Shabbat 31a)

Despite the fact that Y'shua's teachings largely agreed with that of the Pharisaic School of Hillel, there were occasions where Y'shua's teachings agreed with the School of Shammai agains the School of Hillel. An important example of this is the issue of divorce where Y'shua agreed with Shammai against Hillel (Mt. 5:31-32 & m.Gittin 9:10).

There were also occasions when Y'shua's teachings agreed with that of the Essenes against that of the Pharisees. One example is on the issue of oaths (compare Mt. 5:33-37 & Damascus Document- Geniza A; Col. 15; Lines 1-3).


James the Just

Another important figure to the ancient Nazarenes was that of James the Just (Ya'akov HaTzadik). After the death of Y'shua, the Nazarenes recognized his brother James the Just as legal heir to the throne of David. For this reason the Nazarenes recognized James the Just as the Nasi of their Nazarene Sanhedrin (Acts 15).

It is likely that James the Just had students of his own, and that his movement merged into the Y'shua movement after Y'shua's death. This is evident because there is scarecely any mention of James the Just prior to Y'shua's death, however very early on he became leader of the Nazarene movement (Acts12:17; 15:13-29; 21:18-26 & Gal. 1:19; Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 2:23). According to the Goodnews of Thomas, it was Y'shua himself who named James the Just as their new leader:

The students said to Y'shua: "We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?" Y'shua said to them:"No matter where you reside, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

(Goodnews of Thomas saying 12)

The Goodnews according to the Hebrews relates the following regarding James the Just:

Now the L-rd, when he had given the linen cloth to the servent of the priest, went to James and appeared to him (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the L-rd's cup until he should see him rise again from among them that sleep), and again after a little, "Bring you," said the L-rd, a table and bread", and immediately it is added", "He took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to James the Just and said to him: "My brother, eat your bread, for the son of Man is risen from among them that sleep."

(Quoted by Jerome; Of Illustrius Men 2)

This is likely the event Paul refers to in 1Cor. 15:7 and it likely had a profound effect upon James.

The Nazarene historian Hegesippus (c. 180 C.E.) is quoted by Eusebius (4th century) as describing James the Just this way:

But James, the brother of the L-rd, who, as there were many of his name, was surnamed the Just by all, from the days of our L-rd until now, received the government of the assembly with the emissaries. This emissary was consecrated from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor fermented liquors, and abstained from animal food. A razor never came upon his head, he never anointed with oil, and never used a bath. He alone was allowed to enter the sanctuary. He never wore woolen, but linen garments. He was in the habit of entering the Temple alone, and was often found upon his bent knees, and interceding for forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as camel's. in consequence of his habitual supplication and kneeling before G-d. And indeed, on account of his exceeding great piety, he was called the Just, and Oblias (or Tzadik and Ozleam) which signifies justice and protection of the people; as the prophets declare concerning him.

(Hegesippus in the fifth book of his [lost] commentaries, quoted by Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 2:23)

James the Just was very popular with the Jewish community in general. Under his inflence the Nazarene movement grew until his death in 63 C.E, as Hegesippus goes on to say:

Some of the seven sects, therefore, of the people, mentioned by me above in my commentaries, asked him what was the door to Y'shua? and he answered: "That he was the Saviour." From which, some believed that Y'shua is the Messiah. But the aforementioned heresies did not believe either a resurrection, or that he was coming to give to every one according to his works; as many however, as did believe, did so on account of James. As there were many therefore of the rulers that believed, there arose a tumult among the Jews, Scribes and Pharisees, saying that there was danger, that the people would now expect Y'shua as the Messiah. They came therefore together, and said to James: "We entreat you, restrain the people, who are led astray after Y'shua, as if he were the Messiah. We entreat you to persuade all that are coming to the feast of the Passover rightly concerning Y'shua; for we all have confidence in you. For we and all the people hear the testimony that you are just, and you respect not persons. Persuade therefore the people not to be led astray by Y'shua, for we and all the people have great confidence in you. Stand therefore upon a wing of the Temple, that you may be conspicuous on high, and your words may be easily heard by all the people; for all the tribes have come together on account of the Passover, with some of the Gentiles also. The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees, therefore, placed James upon a wing of the Temple, and cried out to him: "Oh you just man, whom we ought all to believe, since the people are led astray after Y'shua that was crucified, declare to us what is the door to Y'shua that was crucified." And he answered with a loud voice, "Why do you ask me respecting Y'shua the Son of Man? He is now sitting in the heavens, on the right hand of Great Power, and is about to come on the clouds of heaven." (Ps. 110:1 & Dan. 7:13). And as many were confirmed, and glorified in this testimony of James, and said, Hosanna to the son of David, these same priests ans Pharisees said to one another: "We have done badly in affording such testimony to Y'shua, but let us go up and cast him down, that they may dread to believe in him." And they cried out: "Oh, oh, the Just himself is deceived," and they fulfilled that which is written in Isaiah: Let us take away the just, because he is offensive to us; wherefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.

(Is. 3:10)

Going up therefore, they cast down the just man, saying to one another: "Let us stone James the Just." And they began to stone him, as he did not die immediately when cast down; but turning round, he knelt down saying, "I entreat you, O L-rd G-d and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Thus they were stoning him, when one of the priests of the sons of Recheb, a son of the Rechabites, spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out saying: "Cease, what are you doing?   Justus is praying for you." And one of them, a fuller, beat out the brains of Justus with the club that he used to beat out clothes. Thus he suffered martyrdom, and they buried him on the spot where his tombstone is still remaining, by the Temple. He bacame a faithful witness, both to the Jews and the Greeks, that Y'shua is the Messiah. Immediately after this, Vespian invaded and took Judea.

(Hegesippus as quoted by Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 2:23)

Josephus also records the death of James the Just this way:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus the High Priest] assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Y'shua, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done.

(Josephus; Antiquities 20:9:1)

According to Eusebius, his version of Josephus's works contained the following in relation to the destruction of Jeusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E.:

These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was brother of him that is called the Messiah, and whom the Jews had slain, not withstanding his pre-eminant justice.

(Josephus quoted by Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 2:23)


Paul the Pharisee

Another important figure to the early Nazarenes was Paul. Paul was a ringleader of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5). Paul was of Pharisaic background (Acts. 23:6) and had been a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) the grandson of Hillel. Paul was at first an enemy of the Nazarene movement, however after his vision on the road to Damascus, he became a ringleader of the movement.

Peter tells us that Paul's writings are "hard to understand" (2Pt. 3:15-16). Paul knew that his teachings were being twisted and that he was misunderstood as teaching against the Torah (Rom. 3:8; 6:1-2, 15). Paul went to great lengths to prove that this was not true (Acts 21:20-26).


70 C.E. The Coalition Divides

70 C.E. was a very important year to the Nazarenes. In this year the Romans laid seige to Jerusalem and after five months, invaded the city. This event had many profound effects on the Nazarenes.

When the city was brought under siege, the Nazarenes remembered the words of Y'shua:

And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains...

- Luke 21:20-21a

The Nazarenes heeded these words and fled to Pella, mostlikely dwelling in the caves of the wilderness outside of Pella. It is likely that the Pharisees and other Jews resented the Nazarene flight to Pella as an act of cowardice.

The flight to Pella itself also had a profound effect on the Nazarenes. A great deal of confusion resulted and the coalition fell appart. It was at Pella that the Ebionites first emerged as a seperate sect.


90 C.E. Cast out of the Synagogues

In 90 C.E. Samuel the Lesser was commisioned to add what came to be called the Birkat haMinim to the Eighteen Benedictions of the Amidah. The Talmud records the event this way:

Our Rabbis taught: Simeon ha-Pakuli arranged the eighteen benedictions in order before Rabban Gamaliel in Jabneh. Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Sages: "Can any one among you frame a benediction relating to the Minim?" Samuel the Lesser arose and composed it.

(b.Berakot 29a)

The Birkat haMinim as it appears today reads:

And for slanderers let there be no hope, and let all wickedness perish as in a moment; let all thine enemies be speedily cut off, and the dominion of arrogance do you uproot and crush, cast down and humble speedily in our days. Blessed are you, O L-rd, who breakest the enemies and humbles the arrogant.

However an old copy of the Birkat haMinim found at the Cairo Genizah reads:

For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the Minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed are you, O L-rd, who humbles the arrogant.

This benediction was in the form of a curse on the Nazarenes which would have the effect of casting them out of the synagogues (Jn. 16:2) since Nazarenes who attended would be expected to recite a curse upon themselves. As Epiphanius records in the fouth century:

Not only do Jewish people have a hatred of 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 anathemize them. Three times a day they say, "G-d curse the Nazarenes." For they harbor an extra grudge against them, if you please, because despite their Jewishness, they proclaim that Y'shua is Messiah...

(Epiphanius Panarion 29)


132 C.E. The Bar Kokhba Revolt

In 132 a second Jewish revolt against Rome began. The Emporer Hadrian banned circumcision. In reaction the Jews, Nazarenes and Pharisees alike, took up arms. During the revolt Akiva, a leading Pharisee Rabbi at the time, decaled the leading Jewish general known as Bar Kosiba to be the Messiah. Bar Kosiba was renamed Bar Kochba (son of the star) and was declared the Messiah based on Num. 24:17. The Nazarenes could not accept Bar Kokhba as the Messiah and so they left the army. From this time forward Nazarenes were labled "meshumed" (traitor). Though the Pharisees later admitted Bar Kokhba was not the Messiah, their resentment toward the Nazarenes for refusing to follow him continued.

After the Romans defeated the Jews around 132 C.E. Y'huda the last of recorded Nazarene Nasi was exiled with the rest of the Jews from Jerusalem. A Gentile Christian named Markus was made Bishop of Jerusalem in his stead.


The Council of Nicea

In 325 C.E. A Pagan Gentile named Constantine conqured Rome and made himself emperor. Constantine , although a Pagan himself, declared Christianity to be the Catholic (Latin: universal) religion, thus making Christianity the enforced state religion of the Roman empire. Constantine, who was an anti-Semite called the council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to standardize Christianity. Nazarenes were excluded from the meeting. Jewish practices were banned. For the first time Gentile Christianity officially labled the Nazarenes as apostates. From this time forward Nazarenes begin to be listed in the catalogs of apostate movements (the first of these to include the Nazarenes was Epiphanius's "Panarion" (around 370 C.E.).


The Assimilation

By the fourth century the Nazarenes had communities in Beorea near Colesyria, in the Decapolis near Pella, and at Bashanitis at the place called Kokhba. (Epiphanius; Pan. 29). However, the Nazarenes by this time were a small sect which Epiphanius described as "small," "like an insect." (ibid)

According to a tradition preserved by the Assyrian Christians known as Nestorians, these Nazarenes escaped the Roman empire into the Parthian Empire to its east. Here they either assimilated into the Nestorian Church of the East, finding fellowship with there fellow Semite Assyrians, or they were wiped out by the rise of Islam.

Today many of us are working to reconstruct the ancient sect of Nazarene Judaism.


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