The Nazarenes are often referred to synonymously with the Ebionites. Jean Danielou is the most noted for this. This reference is only fair if you define Ebionism as the name for the entire Jewish Christian movement of which the Nazarenes were a part. S.G.F. Brandon feels there were Jewish Christians (Ebionites) living in Syria and Transjordan before 70 A.D. Indeed there were Ebionites who adopted Gnosticism (including rejecting portions of the Old Testament and embracing vegetarianism), Essenic notions, the theosophic stamp of the Elkesaites (in which we find the groundwork of the pseudo-Clementine system (P. Schaff, Hist. of Christian Church, Grand Rapids, 1950, p. 434)), the mysteries of the Mandeans, etc. The most numerous body of Ebionites, and most commonly referred to by that appellation, is the group which may well have arisen out of the Nazarene group, from the schisms occurring among the Jewish Christians in Transjordan following the Bar Cochba war of 135 A.D. This was the group which came to believe that Jesus was only a physical man, but became the Messiah as a result of his perfect obedience to the law of Moses. Based on the pseudo-Clementine documents, many historians conclude that they also felt that the whole ritual Law of Moses was necessary to salvation for all men and that Paul was an apostate heretic whose epistles should be discarded.
The Nazarenes, often called “moderate” Ebionites, were the legitimate remains of the apostolic Church — both ethnically and theologically. They united the Mosaic law with belief in the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ Messiahship. They practiced circumcision and the Sabbath in addition to the New Covenant Sacraments, and services of the Christian Church.
The Gospel in Aramaic, and possibly Hebrew, was used and there was no antipathy to Paul. Their eschatology focused on the resurrection from the dead, a future conversion of all Israel, and a millennial reign of Christ on earth (Ibid., pp. 430-432. See also Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah 9:1).
After the Bar Cochba revolt of 132-135 A.D., the Nazarenes would not go back to Aelia and become part of a Gentile Church. It was at this time that the Catholic Church began to call them heretics, primarily due to their continued observance of the Sabbath, the Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan, and the annual Sabbaths, as well as dietary laws. Epiphanius suggests that, until 135 A.D., Christians everywhere observed Passover irrespective of the day of the week (Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 70, 10). W.D. Davies states that the Jewish Christians still observed the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles — understanding that the New Covenant through Jesus did not negate these aspects of the Old — and that, the Jewish Christians were the dominant element in Christianity until 70 A.D. (W.D. Davies, “Paul and Jewish Christianity,” Jewish Christians, 1972, p. 72).
The years 70 and 135 A.D., were times of crisis for the Nazarenes. The next time of crisis came at the time the Roman emperor Constantine was baptized into the Catholic Church. An era of pagan persecution was passing away only to be replaced by the more terrible and prolonged persecutions by Christian Romans of any who would keep the Law of Moses (H. Schonfield, History, p. 97).
In the fourth-fifth century source attributed to the Nazarenes (or the remains of them) by Shlomo Pines, the Nazarenes attack the Romans (Catholic Christians) for abandoning the Mosaic law and for replacing it with different laws and customs. They also attack the Christology of the Catholic Church because of the emphasis on the person of Christ as opposed to their emphasis on Christ as prophet, proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Another charge against the “Great Church” is that they have replaced the Fast (Day of Atonement) with other fasts such as Lent. The descendants of the Nazarenes in this text further take to task the “Church Fathers” for their idea about Christ doing away with the Sabbath and instituting Sunday observance. They explain that Christ came to magnify the law (here in regard to how to observe the Sabbath) not to change or to do away with it. The Council of Nicea was viewed as a death warrant for Jewish Christians. Any who would observe the Sabbath rather than Sunday were to be executed. Under the sway of force — according to the text:
“. . . people who professed the religion of Christ came to do all that is reprehensible: they worshipped the cross, observed the Roman religious rites, and ate pork. Those who did not eat it were killed” (S. Pines, Jewish Christians, pp. 3-5, 31, 32, 34. For an analysis of the “salvation understanding” of the Nazarenes from this source see: D. Flugger, “Salvation Past and Future,” Numan. 16:139-55, sp. 1969. 40. Ibid. p. 65).
Another condemnation of the Roman Church was that they had taken the Roman and Greek feast, called the “Nativity of Time,” which celebrated the return of the sun in January, and had introduced various modifications into it and called it the “Nativity of Christ” (later observed in the West on December 25 — “Christmas”). The text denounces many additional customs in the Christian churches as pagan (S. Pines, etc. ibid.).
It is interesting that the same period as the writing of this text, is also that of John Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish sermons in Antioch, in which, he vehemently denounced the Judaizing tendencies of Christians who celebrate the Jewish rather than the Christian feasts. This well could have been in reaction to the group responsible for the writing of our text.
The author of our text claims that the Catholic Church hated the Jews because with their understanding of the Old Testament, they could see through the pretensions of the Catholics.
It would appear that, in the Nazarenes, apart from some later schisms and heretical movements, we have the true members of the Jerusalem Church led by the successors of James and the family of Jesus. They preserved, in the face of overwhelming persecution, the beliefs and customs transmitted to them by the Apostles. Their theological understanding from Jesus and James was that Jesus had not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to refine it — making it a way of life not based on a temple and sacrificial system. While not antagonistic to the Gentile Christians, they warned of false leaders who would claim apostolic authority in replacing the Mosaic law with false customs and doctrines. They indicted the “Church Fathers” for their Alexandrian allegory, Platonic dualism, and antipathy to the Law of Moses. Out of an anti-Semitic bias, the “Great Church” labeled these true Christians as heretics and sought their destruction.
Though persecuted from without and troubled from within, they clung to their faith to death. Finally forced either to flight or to a clandestine existence, they almost disappeared; but, as individuals or as small groups, they hid among other “heretics,” always clinging to their faith in Christ and their observance of the Law of Moses.
It is indeed ironic that the faith and family of Jesus came to be rejected as heretical while a syncretic blend of New Testament teaching, Gnosticism, paganism, Platonism, and allegory replaced it and became known as “orthodox Christianity.” — by Dan Rogers Ω