THE NAZARENES
Dr. Michael Lebowitz
Spiritual Leader of Adat Tikvat Yisrael

THE PURPOSE of this study is to look at a history of the Jewish believers in Yeshua, from approximately 35 AD-150 AD, their beliefs and practices, relationship to other Jews and to the later gentile congregations. There is a lot we will not go into because you can read it yourself in the book of Acts, though we will touch on some of what it says there.

We know from historians, prophecies in Daniel, the Targums (Aramaic loose interpretations of the Tanach), etc., that many of the Jews in Yeshua's time were waiting for the messiah. There were many sects of Judaism-the best known being the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots-and all of these groups had many subgroups (probably 24-40 in all according to historians). Each group had their own distinct doctrines and Judaism was much more diverse than it was in later centuries. They had different ideas on how to keep Torah, the inspiration of the rest of the Scriptures and books that now are not in the Tanach, the calendar, the Messiah, resurrection, etc. They often persecuted each other, while at times they united against an outside common enemy. They all, however, acknowledged each other as being legitimately a part of Judaism, not different religions. The Jews that believed in Yeshua as the Messiah were one of these sects, totally accepted as part of Judaism.

Their earliest name may have been "disciples of the Way" (Acts 19:9, 24:14). This is what Shaul calls it. They eventually more commonly became known as the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5). Usually names are given by others. The Hebrew word for Nazarene in Notzrim. This word is not the same word root as Nazarite (like Samson) or someone from Nazareth. Many scholars think it came from the word netzer which means branch. Many of the prophecies of the Messiah (for example Isaiah 11:1) use the word Netzer or branch to refer to the Messiah. It could be that many of the believers in Yeshua quoted these verses a lot and became known as "the branch people" and eventually Notzrim. It could also be derived from some unknown source. The word Christian appears in Acts 11:26, 26:26, and 1 Peter 4:16, but at first it was probably a derogatory name called them by others. Believers in Yeshua didn't routinely call themselves Christians until 180 AD and by then it was a totally different group than the group in Acts.

Just like between other groups of Judaism, there were occasional conflicts between the Nazarenes and other sects of Judaism (just like different sects of Judaism or different sects of Christianity feud today). At times they even got violent (like today also-look at Northern Ireland). In the approximately 25 year period the book of Acts took place in, if we study the Nazarene congregation (the main one in Jerusalem), we see 5 recorded conflicts with other sects of Judaism (5 in 25 years isn't bad). These were all disagreements within Judaism-no one was claiming the Nazarenes weren't a legitimate part of Judaism. Just as Yeshua argued with the Pharisees-they too were "in house" arguments and He was harsh with them because He was close to them theologically and felt they could best understand His views. We will briefly look at two of these conflicts in Acts to get an understanding.

First read Acts 3:1-16. We see Peter and Yohanan at the Temple. Why were they there? It was 3 PM and time to daven mincha and they were observant Jews. There is a crippled man at the gate. Why? He can't go inside the Temple compound because people with his disability were not allowed to. Not being allowed, he still got as close as he could. They heal him and the first thing he does is go to the Temple to express his love for God and show the people (possibly the priests). People see this miracle and Peter used it as an opportunity to share about Yeshua. There are no problems so far.

Let's go on and read Acts 4:1-2. Why were the priests and Sadducees annoyed? They were annoyed because they preached resurrection which was a doctrine the Sadducees (the priests too were Sadducees) did not believe in. Eventually they released him. This was a theological argument about resurrection. The Nazarenes were not preaching a new religion; it was still Judaism. If the Pharisees would teach resurrection in the Temple compound, probably the same thing would happen.

Let us look now at another conflict. First read Acts 5:12-17. Again we have arrests by the Sadducees. This time though, they were taken to the Sanhedrin which was a mixed body of Pharisees and Sadducees. Let's read verses 29-40. Who was on their side? A Pharisee! He was pro-resurrection. Resurrection was the problem (see verse 30). They weren't accused of starting a new religion, if they were the Pharisees would have sided with the Sadducees. It was still all within the context of Judaism.

AS WE GO through Acts we see Shaul (Paul) going through the Diaspora mainly preaching in synagogues to mixed congregations of Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. There was a disagreement over how much Torah these Gentiles needed to initially keep before being admitted into fellowship where they could learn more (see my Acts 15 article which covers this in detail). The council in Acts 15 took a very tolerant stance, which allowed more Gentiles to enter into fellowship (interestingly enough, 250 years later Gentile Christianity took an intolerant stance said Jews who believe in Yeshua had to give up Torah to enter in as "true" believers). By 70 AD the Gentile believers in Yeshua probably outnumbered the Jews.

Let us back up a little. What did this sect of Judaism called the Notzrim believe?

a) Like Pharisaism they believed in a Messiah, resurrection, angels, spirits, HaSatan, and the supernatural.
b) They attended synagogue, Temple, still took Nazarite vows with the sacrifices they entailed (sin and guilt offerings), kept the feasts
c) They accepted the Torah and obeyed it. They also believed in the other books in the Tanach and the writings of the Brit Hadasha as they became available. (They knew their proper context, which often alludes us.)
d) They accepted the customs of Judaism. By customs we mean the Greek word ethos and it relates to the laws of Moses (Acts 6:14, 21:21).
e) They did not in all cases accept the traditions (Greek is paradoses) or Halacha as laid down by the Pharisees.
f) They were evangelistic to both Jews and Gentiles (some sects of Pharisaism did the same).
g) They believed that Yeshua was the Messiah, divine, and eternal.

All of these beliefs fit into Judaism as a whole.

This sect flourished and many Jews and Gentiles joined (Acts 6:7. These may have been Essene priests, as they believed in resurrection, Acts 21:20). Most of the early G entile believers were God-fearers who heard Shaul (Paul) preach in the synagogues (Acts 17:1-4, 18:4, etc).

Lets go now to about 60 AD. Ya'acov, Yeshua's brother, was leader of the Nazarene sect and had been for probably 20 years or more. In 62 AD, according to Josephus, Ya'acov was arrested by the chief priest (a Sadducee) at a time that there was no Roman ruler in Jerusalem. The chief priest had him thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple and since that did not kill him, he was then clubbed to death. Ya'acov had been well respected by non-Yeshua believers. He spent much time at the Temple in prayer. When the new governor came to Jerusalem, Ya'acov's death was protested. By whom? The Pharisees! Would they have done this if he wasn't a part of Judaism and was part of a heretical new religion? Of course not! His death was a blow to the Nazarene community because he had been its leader for so long. He was replaced by a cousin of Yeshua's-Shimon ben Clopha-who was chosen by the elders. Ben Clopha served for about 50 years. In the last 18 years until the Bar Kochba rebellion the Nazarenes had 13 different leaders (all Jewish). After bar Kochba Gentiles headed the believers in Yeshua in Jerusalem.

In 66 AD we have the revolt against Rome. Believers in Yeshua may or may not have taken part. Historians are unclear on this. We do know the believers in Yeshua received a revelation (one source said from Yeshua and another source said from an angel) that Jerusalem would be destroyed and they should flee to Pella. This was their 2nd warning, the first being in Matthew 24:15-16. Pella was a city in the Decapolis (it is now part of Jordan). It was a Greek city about 15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, fairly near Skitopolis now called Bet Shean. Yeshua had passed through there, as it was on the main road from the Galilee to Jerusalem if you do not pass through Samaria. We know Yeshua preached in the Decapolis, and we also know Pella had a sizeable Jewish population and was at an intersection of major trade routes. It is probable then that He preached in Pella and that by 66 AD it had a community of Nazarenes already.

We know that most of the Nazarenes in Jerusalem during the revolt were able to escape to Pella. After the war many returned to Jerusalem. Some stayed in Pella, and some moved elsewhere. Some scholars say Revelation 12:1-6 is about the flight to Pella and the Nazarenes are identified at the end of verse 17. The Nazarenes continued to keep Torah, though not necessarily the Pharisaic way.

Lets look at Matthew 16:19: "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven". We know that the word bind is a Hebrew idiom for forbid, while loose is a Hebrew idiom for permit. This verse has nothing to do with spiritual warfare as it is often used today. Yeshua was giving his disciples the authority to make halachic decisions. In other words the decisions you make theologically will be accepted in heaven. Torah has the instructions of God to His people, though often all the details are not mentioned. Exactly how do we keep Shabbat (can we drive?), or Passover? How do we kosher the meat? There are hundreds of questions like this. As a result the Pharisees (and others) developed a set of oral traditions that were very elaborate on how to do these. Some of their traditions (Halacha) were excellent, some neutral, and some went too far and even violated the letter and/or spirit of the command-ment (but that is another talk). The Nazarenes rejected the rabbis (Pharisaic Halacha) as the final authority in setting Halacha. They did adopt some of it, but rejected some and made their own. They did this because:

1) Yeshua gave them the authority to do so (Matt 16:19),
2) Yeshua and the disciples did not always agree with Oral tradition (Matt 15:1-11, Matt 12:1-8, etc.),
3) Yeshua had promised them the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to help them make decisions (John 16:13, etc.)

The Nazarenes did not leave Judaism. They continued to observe Torah, just not always the way the Pharisees or other sects did. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Sadducees ceased to exist, as did the Essenes (Qumran was destroyed too). The only sizeable remaining groups of Judaism were the Pharisees and the Notzrim.

The Seeds of Orthodox Judaism

What was going on with the Pharisees? The leader of the group during 66-70 was Yohanan ben Zakkai. He too saw that the destruction of Jerusalem was imminent and escaped with many of his disciples. He hid in a coffin and they took him out of Jerusalem to conduct "his funeral". At that time the Romans were letting Jews leave but the Zealots were not letting them leave, as they needed help fighting, so Yohanan planned this ruse. After leaving Jerusalem, he went to the governor Vespasian. As the story goes, he addressed Vespasian as "emperor," and before Vespasian could correct him, a messenger came and said the emperor was dead and that Vespasian was the new emperor (this is a very abbreviated version). Yohanan won Vespasian's favor and was allowed to move to Yavneh on the coast, and start a school there to study Torah.

Before 70 AD there were many more Jews and they could afford the luxury of diverse sects and opinions. With their numbers greatly reduced and the Temple destroyed, Yohanan felt that for Judaism to survive they need to unite (can we learn from this?). They felt they needed to start codifying the Oral traditions and agree in theology and doctrine. This took many years and there were many feuds as there were many beliefs among the Pharisees. The biggest feud was perhaps between Gamiliel II and Rabbi Akiva in the early 2nd century. Gamiliel II felt that Pharisaism need some minor reforms while Akiva felt it was necessary to make a system that gave all power and authority to the rabbis. He brought in the doctrine that the Oral law was given at the same time as the Torah and that Moses, David, etc. were rabbis. He won out over Gamiliel II in a battle that got pretty nasty and deceitful on both sides. With Akiva in charge, eventually they ruled that the rabbis could change Torah if necessary and that a majority of rabbis (all Akiva's buddies) even could supercede the Bat Kol (voice of God). They made a new Greek translation of the Tanach to replace the Septuagint and a new Aramaic Targum (Onkelos), both of which fit Akiva's theology better. They couldn't change the Hebrew version but their commentaries in the Oral law on the Tanach became the final authority. They were able to discard any rabbi's rulings they didn't like. From all this we have the Orthodox Judaism of today. (That is why today we need a consecrated group of Messianic Torah observant rabbis to struggle with Halacha. Without Halacha we can have confusion and Orthodox Halacha, according to many rabbis has too many problems.)

To recap, the Pharisees were in Yavneh and the Nazarenes were in Pella. The schism before was just an in house argument. It was now widening considerably and a total split would be inevitable. The rabbis under Akiva started to bring in many new rulings and theology. This was in part necessary so you could have Judaism without a Temple and blood sacrifices. Before the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisaic school of Shammai (with whom Yeshua had major disagreements with) predominated. At Yavneh they decided that from then on, the school of Hillel would predominate. Prayer and acts of piety replaced sacrifice. Not all their rulings were bad by any means. They had a hard job and there were power struggles and many decisions were problematic.

The Nazarenes who beforehand they basically tolerated (of course there was some conflict) were now thought of as a major threat to the unity and survival of Judaism because they did not accept the final authority of the Pharisaic rabbis. Also the growing numbers of Gentiles who were joining the Nazarenes were thought of as being problematic.

There were many rules to consider. Without a Temple, do you blow the shofar on Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah? Before it was only done in the Temple. Do you carry a lulav outside of Jerusalem on Sukkot? There were hundreds of these decisions to be made and the Pharisees wanted to make them for all of Judaism.

The Growing Separation

Going back to 80-90 AD, in many places the Nazarenes were still worshipping in the synagogue along side the Pharisees, and again they were viewed as a threat. To remedy the situation, the Pharisees added a 19th benediction to the Amidah. It was inserted as number twelve and it was called the Birkot Ha-Minim. It was not universally practiced in all synagogues but it was a "blessing" against the minim and said something close to "May the sectarians and Nazarenes die in a moment if they do not return to you and your Torah. May they be erased from the book of life and not be inscribed with the righteous." The Nazarenes did obey Torah but not in the Pharisaic way. This benediction was inserted to separate out the Nazarenes from mainstream Judaism. Unlike the rest of the Amidah, which was done silently or very softly; this benediction had to be recited loud and clear. If you were a Nazarene your choices were to either leave the synagogue or curse yourself. This of course separated the Nazarenes and Pharisees further but to some degree they still dialogued until the mid 2nd century and you can read some of it in the Talmud.

Between the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the Bar Kochba revolt around 135 AD the schism between the Pharisees and Nazarenes continued to grow (remember they were the only 2 groups left in Judaism). The Birkot Ha-minim also caused other problems for believers in Yeshua. Judaism was a religion permitted by Rome. The Romans exempted them from working on Shabbat and from offering sacrifices to Caesar (they did offer sacrifices on Caesar's behalf). Nazarenes were included as Jews of course. Gentiles that joined the Nazarenes were still viewed by Rome as Gentiles unless they underwent a full conversion. Also, Rome looked at Nazarenes kicked out of the synagogue with suspicion. Often their exemptions were removed. So some people either had to hide, accept punishment, offer sacrifices to Caesar or lie about being Jews (this last one was something only Gentiles could do). Rome would not accept a new religion. Some of the gentiles did lie and say they were Jewish (Rev 2:9, 3:9). (A word of advice- do not call yourself Jewish if you aren't. God loves you just as much as a Gentile and it is an awful witness to secular Jews).

Also because of the increased number of Gentile believers in Yeshua, some of their pagan customs began to creep in (you can see this as early as in Paul's letters and in early works like the Didache written about 96 AD). Some of these Gentile believers tried to convince Rome that they had succeeded Judaism and should have the exemptions offered to Jews. They said they were the true heirs to Judaism and we have our first emergence of Replacement Theology and anti-Semitism among believers in Yeshua.

In 135 AD, we had the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome. Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba the messiah (some say this was to make the split final with the Nazarenes, as they would not fight under the banner of another messiah). Many Pharisees also didn't accept Bar Kochba as messiah but many did still fight (since they did not have Yeshua as messiah). In that general time period, the rabbis declared that reading any books of the minim (including what now is the New Testament) made you unclean and the books should be burned. Akiva said those that read the books of the minim would have no part in the world to come (in direct contradiction to the Mishna that states all Jews have a place in the world to come). Even Torah scrolls written by minim they considered worthy of burning. The separation was complete.

Interestingly enough, after Bar Kochba, Jews were barred from Jerusalem except on the 9th of Av, when they could return for the day to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Rome still considered the Nazarenes to be Jews and let them in.

By then the Gentile church was up and running with a kind of Jewish pagan amalgamation. What did they think of the Nazarenes? The Nazarenes accepted the divinity, virgin birth, and pre-existence of Yeshua. The church, though, said they are not "true believers" because even though they believe in Yeshua, the fact that they keep the Torah invalidates them. On the other side the rabbis now said they are not "true believers" because they do not keep Torah our way. There is nothing in the New Testament that says Jews should not keep Torah. In fact, it says the opposite. Paul as studied in the book of Acts is a Torah keeping (Acts 28:17), synagogue attending (Acts 13, 14, etc.), vow taking (Acts 18:18 and 21:24), festival observing (Acts 20:6,16), sacrifice offering (Acts 21:26) Jew and stayed so his whole life. Even if you pull Paul out of context and twist him (2 Peter 3:14-16), his letters were written to non-Jews (read each letter to see who it is addressed to).

The church fathers went on to say that Peter, James, John, etc did not keep Torah but faked it to win converts This sounds worse than the rabbis, and was written by Jerome to Augustine in the 5th century. Experts disagree on when the Nazarene sect died out (anywhere between the 4th and 10th century) and some say a remnant always lived on who "keep the commandments of God and exercise Yeshua's faithfulness (Stern Rev 14:12). May we be part of the remnant.

(I would like to give credit to Ray Pritz, Hebrew University, the Caspari Center, and others for their research that I availed myself of.)