I want to take a week or so to attempt to describe the contours of the early Jesus movement. In particular, I want to explore the faith and practice of Jesus’ earliest Jewish followers and those who came after them.
The first hurdle to cross in exploring the early Jewish community of Jesus-followers is that of terminology. What shall we call these Jewish believers in Jesus? We must note at the outset that the term “Christian” (as in “Jewish Christian”) is technically anachronistic (arising only some time after the birth of the Jesus movement) and culturally misplaced (it first applying to Gentile converts in Antioch, Ac 11:26). Prior to the coining of this new term, Jewish believers in Jesus referred to themselves and their community by a variety of terms: disciples, holy ones (i.e., saints), the followers of the Way, etc. The modern term “Messianic Jew,” while perhaps more accurate, is equally anachronistic—if not more. Fortunately, the church fathers have provided some options. In ancient sources, two terms in particular seem to rise to the surface: Ebionites and Nazarenes.
The term Ebionite (from Hebrew Evyonim) means “Poor Ones,” possibly a reference to Jesus beatitude on “the poor.” It seems not to have been used prior to Irenaeus (ca. AD 180), unless we find it in the Jerusalem church’s request that Paul “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10): a reference to Paul’s benevolence collection for the believers in Jerusalem. The name “the poor” as a designation for the primitive Jesus movement has not won universal scholarly acceptance, yet it seems to Wright to be the most likely possibility (D. F. Wright, “Ebionites,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids [InterVarsity, 1997] 315). On the other hand, the usage in Romans 15:26, which speaks of “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” would seem to mitigate against “the poor” as a technical term for members of the Jesus movement.
Even if this term were of first-century vintage, it was saddled with unfortunate connotations in later times. When the term “Ebionite” appears in later writings, it designates only a cross-section of the Jewish Jesus movement: a group that denied Jesus’ divinity and was accused of various other heresies by Gentile Christians. As we shall see, the Jewish Jesus movement was much broader than those communities the church fathers identified as Ebionites.
The other term, Nazorean (or Nazarene), is of disputed derivation. It may come from the Hebrew word netzer, meaning “branch.” Isaiah 11:1 speaks of a “Branch” that would grow from the roots of Jesse, which was interpreted as a messianic prophecy (see also Jer 33:15). Thus the Nazoreans (Hebrew Natzrim) were the “Branchites‚” followers of the One they believed to be the promised Branch. Epiphanius apparently believed that this was the explanation for the self-designation of Jesus’ followers:
They did not give themselves the name of Christ, or that of Jesus, but they called themselves Nazarenes. All Christians were called Nazarenes once. For a short time they were also given the name Iessaeians, before the disciples in Antioch began to be called Christians. And they were called Iessaeians because of Jesse, it seems to me, since David was from Jesse, and by lineage Mary was of the seed of David, fulfilling the holy scriptures according to the Old Testament when the Lord said to David [Psalm 131:11], “From the fruit of your loins will I set upon your throne” (Panarion 29:1,2-4).
Alternately, Nazorean may be derived from the Hebrew verb natzar, meaning “to watch” or “to guard.” By this interpretation, the members of the early Jewish Jesus movement may have thought of themselves as something like “Natzrei ha-Torah,” “Guardians of the Torah”—similar to how the Samaritans called themselves not Shomronim (“people from Samaria”) but Shamerim, “Keepers,” that is, Keepers of the Torah.
A more prosaic interpretation derives the term from Natzray (plural Natzraye), an Aramaic adjective for a person from the village of Nazara, the Aramaic name for Nazareth (found in the NT in Mt 4:13; Lk 4:16). In the New Testament, when we read of Jesus “of Nazareth,” the original Greek is often Nazoraios (occasionally it is Nazarenos; never is it apo tes Nazareth or the equivalent). Iesous ho Nazoraios translates Yeshua Natzraya, “Jesus the Nazarene.” This possibility does not ultimately refute a possible connection with Isaiah’s prophecy or with the idea of guardianship. Jewish exegesis delights in wordplays, and this may well be one of them that was quickly embraced by the fledgling Jesus movement.
In every New Testament occurrence but one, this term is applied to Jesus himself, but in Acts 24:5, the term is used to refer to Jesus followers. Calling all followers of Jesus “Nazarenes” or “People from Nazareth” may seem unusual, but it is not unheard of for followers of a sect to be named after that sect’s birthplace, especially by outsiders, as is the case in Acts 24. Some early church fathers, for example, referred to the Montanists as “Phrygians” after the region where their sect began or “Pepuzians” after the town of Pepuza. In the Middle Ages, the Gnostic Albigenses were so named for the French town of Albi (Latin Albiga). In his Panarion, Epiphanius even noted the heresies of “Scythianism” and “Hellenism.” Closer to home, one might note the term “Roman” as it is sometimes used by Protestants to denote Roman Catholics.
Nazorean was thus an early term for Jewish believers in Jesus. It was also a term that persisted in Jewish usage. In the rabbinic corpus, one encounters two particular kinds of heretics or schismatics, the Minim and the Natzrim. (The Hebrew term is transliterated in various ways: Netzarim, Natzorim, Notzrim, etc.) Minim might designate heretics generally and include even early Jewish Gnostic sects that may or may not have been connected to the Jesus movement. Natzrim seems in most cases to be a later interpolation into the texts—and thus may not have been used with perfect accuracy—that almost certainly intends to denote followers of Jesus. In fact, the modern Hebrew word for “Christian” is still Natzri.
The term “Nazorean” (or its Aramaic or Hebrew equivalents) is therefore probably the best and broadest term for the entire early Jewish Jesus movement. While “Nazarene” is an equally valid English rendition, its use might cause confusion with the modern Protestant denomination, the Church of the Nazarenes.
In later church fathers, a distinction is drawn between “Ebionites,” who were heretical, and “Nazoreans,” who were generally credited with orthodox beliefs about Christ (Wright, 316). This distinction is anachronistic for the earliest decades. Terminology was amazingly fluid in the earliest decades of the Jesus movement. In this study, “Nazorean” is used to encompass many disparate groups of Jewish believers in Jesus, some of which were orthodox by the standards of Gentile Christianity and some of which were not.
Next: Pre-Christian Origins