Good Question...

...are the Nazarenes and Ebionites the only TRUE "Christians"?


[created Dec 27/97]


Over the past year I have received a number of inquiries about this subject, ranging from basic questions to quite developed positions. I would like to address several of these in this post. This question often comes up in Christian-Muslim discussions/arguments and I will accordingly be responding to some of the less polemical pieces on this...

The first small post is from a Christian who maintains a substantial site focused on Answering Islam--dealing with the issues involved in the encounter between these two faiths:

Dear Glenn,

I think I have seen that you have something about the early Christians and who they really were. The Muslims are pushing big time for Nazarenes and Ebionites as the only true Christians. Have you done any more detailed writing on this?

I will get into those two groups in just a moment, but let's first try to make some sense out of any claim that this or that group comprises the "only true Christians".

This is not as simple a task as one would assume, for although it would be easy to come up with a list of 'authentic criteria' it might be extremely difficult to defend such a list from being arbitrary or self-serving. For example, if someone said that 'true Christians' only wore blue jeans, we would want some kind of argument or evidence to support such a defining trait. Even if every member of the 1st century church wore blue jeans all of the time, this MIGHT not be a defining characteristic at all--it could be incidental and not substantial.

If, on the other hand, that same group had incorporated that behavior into a central belief of the group, then it could reasonably be assumed to be closer to (if not an example of) a defining trait or authentic criterion.

But many things may show up in belief-statements, since beliefs can show up in a variety of literatures: creeds, catechism instructions, hymns, ritual elements (e.g. baptismal formula). What we need, though, is some expression of the belief structure that the group itself uses to determine membership or non-membership.

In our hypothetical example, if the group had a creed that said that only those who confessed publicly that blue jeans were to be worn at all times could become members, and they APPLIED THAT CREED as a test for membership (or excommunicated people from the group for wearing dress slacks to a meeting), then we could consider this a 'defining trait' of the group.

So one major trait of being a 'true Christian' is whether a present group of "true Christians" publicly recognized the group in question as one. But this raises an obvious problem--how do we authenticate this PRESENT GROUP?

If we might call the above criterion 'synchronic' (referring to its occurrence in a point in time--either the group recognizes you in the present or it doesn't recognize you in the present), what we also need is a 'diachronic' criterion (referring to the authentication of a present group as being 'true to' the defining traits of the prior or founding group).

Now, this concept of 'true to' is somewhat fuzzy (for most groups--esp. religious ones), but not altogether unworkable. It is useful when it is seen in two contexts: (1) the purpose for the founding of the group and (2) the transformations of the group.

The first context would be obvious for many of the world religions. Some leader (e.g. Jesus, Moses, Mohammad, Buddha, Mani) had a particularly powerful and transforming view of certain aspects of reality, and that leader and vision captured the ultimate loyalties of followers. This is a 'normal' aspect of leadership dynamics (often seen in the business and institutional world), but the religious dimension transforms operating loyalties into ultimate loyalties. In other words, people do not generally suffer violent deaths as martyrs for the mission statements of Microsoft or the U.S. Census Bureau, but they do die and have died willingly for Mohammed's vision or Jesus' claims.

Vision is primarily cognitive (involving beliefs) but the 'system' will invariably have behavioral components (e.g. pray five times a day, don't eat meat offered to idols, honor your father and mother). But, remember ritual observance must be a means for determining exclusion or inclusion for it to be a defining trait of what constitutes a 'true believer' or follower of the founder.

The second context also shows up in ALL world religions--as they 'develop' from the founding set of beliefs. In every case, a religious community will encounter new issues, new questions, and new challenges to its identity/survival. It will attempt (generally) to 'unpack' what the founder explicitly taught, implicitly believed, and/or deliberately lived.

In the case of Islam, there were many gaps in the belief structure that had to be filled in after the Prophet's death, and the process of filling this out was accomplished by the development of hadith and sunna (or at least certain parts of it). There were the challenges of expressing Islam in non-Islamic cultures (e.g. Tunis, in which polygamy was abolished), of dealing with changing contexts of missionary endeavor (e.g. the very recent translation of the Quran into non-Arabic languages!), or of allowing the expression of personal interpretation differences among followers (cf. the four schools of interpreting the Sunnis, Sufi mysticism, or the 'liberal' Islam of Sayyid Amir Ali, Sir Muhammed Iqbal and A. A. Fyzee). When a situation requiring a 'new ruling' would present itself, the "true Islam" would attempt to formulate a position 'true to' the Prophet's intention. (Generally, the leadership of a group is the best organ for articulating a group's core values/vision. This implies, however, that leadership should generally be distributed among a 'committee' or 'ruling body' to avoid idiosyncratic directions arising from a dominant leader.) In any group there are typically multiple suggestions made, and the group (formally or informally) will decide which ones are 'true to' the founding and defining themes. Those dissenting from the majority consensus (e.g. ijma) either submit to the will of the body or break off to form schismatic or splinter groups (e.g. Kharijites/Khawarij, who argued, among other things, that "not all the Quran has the status of revelation" [WR:Eliade, p. 149]).

The case with the earliest followers of Jesus' is similar, but with one added element--explicit fidelity to the Law and the Prophets which pointed to Jesus' coming. Since Jesus was very clear that He understood Himself in that Judaic context (c.f. Luke 24.44: "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.'"), His followers would have to be true to that base. Since Jesus understood His death as inaugurating the New Covenant (cf. Luke 22.20: "In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you'"), His disciples were to understand it in this way. In other words, the defining traits were defined by Jesus in His words and works.

These defining characteristics of the young 'church' would likewise face interpretive and expansive challenges. How would it deal with the promises in the OT about salvation to the Gentiles? How would it deal with the destruction of the nation of Israel? How would it deal with rejection by the leadership of the Jewish people of the time? How would it deal with the New Covenant as replacement for the Old Covenant? As before, we would expect to find multiple voices raised, the majority group (generally in the leadership) deciding on what was 'true to' the founding message, and the possible break off of any hard-line dissenting groups.

These kinds of issues are not simple ones at all! Let's look briefly at two incidents in apostolic history to show the complexity.

The first is recorded by Paul in Galatians 2:11ff (NAS):

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

Think about this from Peter's position. He KNOWS from (1) his experience in Acts 10-11; and (2) from Jesus' eating with 'sinners and tax collectors' (Mark 2.15) that it is quite okay to eat with Gentiles (esp. believing Gentiles!). At the same time, he remembers Jesus' personalized comment about not giving offense (Mt 17.27; echoed by Paul in Rom 14.20; 1 Cor 10.32; 2 Cor 6.3). He is caught between two difficult alternatives. He picks one, but made a mistake--he simply had not encountered that situation before and didn't have time to work the implications of the gospel out to that situation. Paul had already worked through the issue, since He faced the issue daily as the "apostle to the Gentiles", and since he understood the issue as much broader than just food. When you later get to the Jerusalem council (one to three years later, Acts 15), Peter is in perfect agreement with Paul on the matter of the Law:

"Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 "And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 "But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."

[Note that Peter's image of the "yoke of the Law" is similar to Paul's use of "yoke" in Gal 5:1.]

In this case, one of the major leaders of the foundational group saw that the Paul's view of grace was 'true to' the original vision/teaching of the Founder Jesus, and so the church developed.

The second case is the decision of the Jerusalem council(Acts 15). The church had largely been confined to Jews, many (if not most) of whom kept the Mosaic Law and customs routinely. As Diaspora Jewry (less rigorous in its practice of the Law) and as non-Jews came into the church, the issue of obligatory Law observance naturally came up. [One of the interesting side issues here concerns 'whose standards' of observance will be used, for the various groups in Judaism of the day had varying definitions of "observance": Pharisees, regular priests, regular Hebraists, Jerusalem Hellenists, Galileans, Diaspora Jews, Essenes, Sadducees.]

This was NOT an issue the church had faced earlier (at least not the Jerusalem Church), so what was she to do? What principles of Jesus or the OT (or even providential acts of God) could help them through this? Just as a Muslim would try to 'unpack' some Surah in the Quran to apply to this, just as a Jewish Rabbi would 'unpack' the Torah (often through midrash) to apply to novel situations, so too the Jerusalem church had to 'unpack' the OT, the words of Jesus, and the acts of God in the New Covenant age for application.

Although there was considerable heated discussion and debate (v.7)--which would happen in ANY context of religious or ultimate commitment--James gives the consensus opinion, basing it on four factors/arguments:

1. The events of and implications of Peter's experience with the Gentiles in Acts 10-11;

2. The OT witness to the salvation of the Gentiles AFTER the advent of the Davidic Messiah (Amos 9)

3. The practicality of 'not troubling' those Gentiles who were responding to God.

4. The 'peacekeeping' effect of having the Gentiles at least do these few items. So the NT:BBC (v.21):

"James's statement here could mean that Moses already has enough observers of his law; but more likely it means that believers are to abstain from the practices in verse 20 lest they offend the many people of verse 21"

(Notice how this last point of 'giving no offense in love' also shows up in Paul's argument in Romans 14 and in the James-Paul joint plan/activity in Acts 21.20-26.)

When he then writes the decree to send to the Gentiles, he adds the following elements:

    1. They distanced themselves from the 'circumcision party' (v.24: "Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, ")
    2. They stated that the view of the letter was NOW the new consensus view (v.25: "it seemed good to us, having become of one mind")
    3. Their wholesale endorsement of Paul and Barnabas (v.25f: " to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ")
    4. Additional proof of this novel decision (v.27: "Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth").
    5. Divine approval for this decision (v.28: "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials")
    6. These Gentile believers (who had NOT been circumcised) were nevertheless called 'brethren' by the Jerusalem church in v.23!
    7. The NT:BBC comments on this tiny list of specific restrictions (in.loc.):

"The few requirements James suggests they impose are representative of the handful of laws Jewish tradition declared that God gave Noah. According to the more lenient Jewish position, any righteous Gentiles who kept those basic laws would have a share in the world to come. Because even stricter Pharisees had to get along with the majority of more lenient people, these teachers did not try to invalidate other teachers' rulings if they had majority consent."

8. James is careful in his wording (v.29) about the benefits of doing these--the Gentiles will 'do well' as opposed to 'be saved'!

Here we see a major development undertaken by the majority of leadership (totally or predominantly Jewish Law-keepers) of the church at the time. The issue is NOT a simple one--hence the debate--but one in which the church makes a decision that 'not requiring the Law' is MORE 'true to' the foundational, defining traits of the followers of Jesus THAN IS the 'you must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses' position of a internal faction of the group. (Obviously, this faction was NOT the majority faction or the outcome would have been MUCH different, and we would not be having this discussion!)

It is important to note that this was NOT a gentile group called a Law-keeping Jewish group 'heretics'; this is a majority group of Law-keeping Jews called a minority group of Law-keeping Jews "wrong".

Such much for the two examples of development by adaptation/unpacking of the heritage to face new situations.

But what about 'local differences'? What about two branches of the same parent stock, but that develop different traits? For example, a Galilean church and a Jerusalem church--assuming both sprang from the same set of Jesus' followers-- would have different attitudes (probably) toward Pharisaic authority. If they both made claims to being the 'true church' how would we sort through this controversy?

Well, first of all, we would have to ask how 'germane' the issue was. If they are quibbling over something like the mode of baptism (e.g. sprinkling, immersion, anointing), we might dismiss it as internecine squabbles--and say that they are BOTH 'true churches' but just differing over non-pivotal issues. [Because they are 'true' does not mean that they are not PETTY(!)--since ALL believers are in this process we call 'progressive sanctification' (a euphemism for 'God is not finished changing me yet!')] For example, if someone asked the group if they considered the OTHER group to be 'Christians' (however 'confused' they might consider them), all but the most obsessive among them would probably say "yes, but...". In other words, they recognize the difference between defining traits and important traits.

However, in some cases the differences might be reversed--the external appearances and terminology might look the same, but the content be so radically different that the answer would be "no, even though...".

This latter scenario was the case with the Gnostics, generally. They adopted Christian 'words' and put them onto Plotinian views of emanations and Pythagorean theories of transmigration of souls (sorta like human-only reincarnation). The content was not even close, but the language was very, very misleading.

An example from Islam might be instructive here as well. The Nusairi sect (also called the 'Aliwite) is a minority sect of Shi'ite Muslims living in Syria today. They are considered heretical by many mainstream Muslims today, but were legally declared Muslims by the Lebanese leader of the Twelver group. They are second in number in Syria to the Sunnite sect. The basic doctrine of the 'Alawite faith is the deification of Ali. He is one member of a trinity corresponding roughly to the Christian Father, Son, and Spirit. They interpret the Pillars of Islam as symbols and thus do not practice the Islamic duties. They do not believe that women will be resurrected, since women do not have souls. Yet, they consider themselves to be moderate Shi'ites! How "Islamic" would such a group be? How close is the content to the original formulation (or development) of Muslim belief? Does the legal recognition carry adequate weight? This example shows again how difficult fringe situations can be.

So, again, we have an aspect of consensus recognition of pivotal and defining traits.

So, where does this net out for the definition or delineation of what 'true Christianity' was?

Simply put, for a group to be considered 'truly Christian', it had to manifest ALL of the following criteria:

    1. It had to carry forward the original message of the OT background and the teachings of Jesus (even those about Himself).
    2. It had to develop itself in continuity with that background/message/vision (as judged by the consensus of the group).
    3. The members must not vary on the pivotal beliefs (original or derived) of the group; but they could vary on ANYTHING else and still be members of the group. (There is still some range of imprecision of understanding on the pivotal terms though--several mistakes in Christian church history were cases of over-precision in my opinion).
    4. Major shifts in membership profiles (e.g. ethnic mix, socio-economic mix, geographical mix) must result in belief statements that are STILL accepted by minority members of the larger group.
    5. Culturally diverse groups must still admit that other groups are cases of "yes, but..." instead of "no, even though..."
    6. And obviously, the group under question must be claiming that it is a 'true church' or claiming that it can use the name 'Christian' legitimately. For example, some gnostics never even claimed to be Christians, yet some writers have made the historical mistake of calling this group 'early Jesus movements' (e.g. The Jesus Seminar).

Practically put, this will imply that minority theological viewpoints will have to eventually triumph over, or at least transform, the majority position, in order to be judged as being 'true'--but only for pivotal beliefs.

So, with this starting point for understanding 'true Christianity', let's dive into the next poster's statements...

I wonder if Jochen would be willing to spend as much time researching the pre-Pauline religious movements such as the Nazarenes and ebionites.

Here we will find some rather interesting data about early expressions of Jewish Christianity (esp. Palestinian Jewish Christianity).

But first let's try to set the framework in what the poster called the 'pre-Pauline' period. What are the time frames in Paul's life we are roughly setting up here? (I am using Wenham's dating, RMML:xxv, with some mods]:

1. The crucifixion of Jesus (circa 30 ad)

2. "Conversion" of Saul to Paul (circa 33 ad) [Acts 9.1-22; Gal 1.15-17]

3. Years in Damascus (35-37) [Gal 1.17-18]

3. Paul's first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem (38 ad) [Acts 9.26-30; Gal 1.18-20]

4. Peter goes to Antioch (44 ad) [Acts 10-11]

5. Letter to Galatians (c.48)

6. Apostolic Council at Jerusalem (c.49) [Acts 15.6-29]

7. Letter to the Thessalonians (c.50)

[By 54-55ad, Much of the synoptic materials are circulating.]

8. Letters to the Corinthians (c.55-56)

9. Letter to the Romans (c.57)

10. Paul's detention and trial at Caesarea (c.57-59) [Acts 23.23-26.32]

11. Paul arrives at Rome (c.60) [Acts 28.14-16]

So, the obvious question concerns what is the 'pre-Pauline' period referring to?

    1. Before Saul's conversion (a period of only three years after the Crucifixion)?
    2. The Period before he makes the first trip to Jerusalem (a period of 5 years after the Crucifixion)?
    3. The Period before the Apostolic Council, validating Paul's gospel (a period of 20 years after the Crucifixion)?
    4. The Period before the 'domination' of Pauline thought (Marcion? Constantine?)

The first option--of only three years--has little impact on this question, although there are some beginning seeds of development. Paul begins preaching immediately after his conversion--that Jesus was the Messiah--in the synagogues (Acts 9.22: "But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ"). His basic method is apparent from the verse--he 'proved' it through reference to the Tanakh/OT.

The makeup of the Jerusalem church, however, was quite varied, and not without internal consistency issues. The creation of the office of deacon was related to the mix of Hellenistic Jews and native Palestinian Jewry (Acts 6), and the socio-economic mix was very widespread. Fiensy [BAFCSP:226ff] lists some of the various classes of folk known to be in that group:

1. The Wealthy or Semi-wealthy (Simon of Cyrene, Barnabas, Ananias & Sapphira, Mary mother of John Mark, Manaen, Levi/Matthew)

2. The lower class (some of the disciples, James)

3. Ordinary temple priests (but not from High Priestly family)

4. One Levite (Joseph Barnabas, Acts 4.36)

5. Submerged classes (e.g. beggars, impoverished widows, and healed people)

6. Women of various classes

7. Hebraists (Jews who spoke both Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek) and Hellenists (Jews who only spoke Greek).

8. Pharisees (Acts 15.5)

What is interesting about this group (and its representation in the text) is that the mix is wide but not drawn attention to [Fiensy, op. Cit.]

"What is striking about our main source for early Jerusalem Christianity--the book of Acts--is that so little is said about socio-economic class distinctions. The wealthy are hardly noticed at all except for a few cases of extraordinary generosity. We cannot document that any of the High Priestly family or any of the governing elite were members of the earliest church. The lower class has the fewest references, although one could speculate that they had the largest representation. The submerged class enters the story only to indicate that the church is caring for them. The central figures are those that perform ministries of some kind, whether they come from the upper or lower class. One should stop short of concluding that class went unnoticed in this religious community, but the traditions we have certainly de-emphasise it."

"Second, we should note, however, that all the classes were represented. Neither the wealthy nor the impoverished were excluded. Earliest Christianity was not a movement within one socio-economic class, but from the beginning, was as pluralistic as the city of Jerusalem. The observation made by G. Theissen and others about the Pauline churches is also true for the Jerusalem church. Christianity was no proletarian movement. It appealed to a broad spectrum of classes."

The significance of this for us is that the defining traits were by definition narrower than the 'total traits' of the community at the outset of the movement! The cultural trappings, such as language spoken or ritual purity, were NOT uniform in the earliest, "pre-Pauline" group. As noted above, several of these groups would have had different understandings of was delineated 'ritual purity'. This argues that the defining traits were centered about confessional or creedal elements--as articulated by them thus far--surrounding the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, the defining traits of this earliest church would have been the preaching and teaching of the Twelve in the earliest chapters of the Book of Acts.

The earliest pre-Pauline sermons consisted of the following elements (all pre-Acts 9):

    1. Jesus was a man attested by God via miracles and signs (Acts 2.22)
    2. Jesus was delivered by God into the hands of those who crucified Him (2.23; 3.15; 4.10; 5.30; 7.52), both Jews and Gentiles (4.28)
    3. God raised Jesus from the dead (2.24, 32; 3.15; 4.10; 5.30)
    4. Jesus was the Davidic descendant of the prophetic OT (2.29-31)
    5. Jesus ascended to heaven, to the right hand of God (2.33-34; 5.31; 7.56)
    6. Jesus is both Messiah AND "Lord" -- (2.36; 5.42) [Notice that the two terms are NOT interchangeable--"Lord" is a much more exalted term/title than Messiah (i.e. implicit "more-than-man" due to divine sonship), although the implications of this would not be worked out for a while.]
    7. Jesus had authority to receive and pour out the Holy Spirit(!)--(2.33)
    8. The offer was specifically for forgiveness of sins (2.38; 3.19; 5.31)
    9. Proper response was a change of mind (i.e. repentance) and sometimes baptism (2.38; 3.19; 8.12).
    10. This offer of forgiveness is for a wider group of Jews than just those at Pentecost (2.39), and extending beyond the Jew (but 'first' to the Jew, 3.26).
    11. Jesus was gloried by the Covenant YHWH (3.13)
    12. Jesus is called the Holy One (3.14f), the Righteous One (3.14-15; 7.52), the Prince of Life (3.14-15), the Prophet-like-Moses (3.22; 7.37), the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (3.25), the Stone of Stumbling in Psalm 118.22 (4.11), the fulfillment of Psalm 2 (4.25), the Holy Servant (4.28-30), a Prince and Savior (5.31), the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (8.35)
    13. Healing and power came through faith in the name of Jesus (3.16; 4.10)
    14. The sufferings of Christ were foretold by ALL the OT prophets and fulfilled in the life of Jesus (3.18, 24; 7.52; 8.35)
    15. Acceptance of Jesus by Israel at that time would have resulted in the return of Christ to fulfill the OTHER prophecies in the OT, of the full restoration of Israel and the world (3.20-21)
    16. He is the exclusive means of salvation (4.12)
    17. Jesus had authority in heaven to 'receive souls' (as His Father did His own on the Cross). [7.59]
    18. The kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ (8.12)
    19. One of the benefits of the Messiah would be 'fewer sins' (3.26).
    20. This outbreak of the Spirit at Pentecost was prophesied in fulfillment of the promise (connected with the New Covt in the Tanakh/OT) in Joel 2 (2.16).

What is missing from this list?

1. Anything about the Law of Moses (but Stephen pointed out that the Jews didn't keep it anyway in 7.53!).

2. Anything about Circumcision.

Now, it might be argued that these items were presupposed by the message (notice, however, that this is an argument from silence), but the fact that faith and a non-Mosaic institution are mentioned (i.e. baptism) is significant. The main point of the content of the pre-Pauline sermons is the identity, exalted status, and work of Jesus Christ, as fulfillment of the Tanakh/OT promises to Abraham and David. The focus is on His person and work, not the Law. Moses is brought in only as a witness to Christ, via the Deut 18 passage!

[Notice that I am here assuming the historicity of early Acts. I do this here for two reasons. First, the historical data to support this is immense (see Helmer [NT:BASHH] and the series [BAFCS*] in my Booklist). And, secondly, because much of the argument that Paul was a 'heretic' comes from the Book of Acts, specifically in chapters 15 and 21, in his interchanges with James and the Jerusalem church. If we 'throw out Acts' from the discussion, the "Paul vs. James" camp loses much of its material, and I want to make sure that we BOTH get to analyse that data.]

But notice one other thing about this period--the Samaritan expansion. In Act 8 we have the evangelization of Samaria by Philip and the subsequent visit by the apostles. The message is explicitly said to be about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus (8.12). What is important here is that the Samaritans, although completely Kosher in many respects, did NOT obey Torah on the required visits to Jerusalem. They had a 'rival' religious center at Mt. Gerazim, and THEIR versions of the Pentateuch (the only part of the Tanakh/OT they accepted) substituted Gerazim in most of the places the text had Jerusalem! The significance should be obvious: a message of Jesus PLUS 'Law' would have had to 'correct' the Samaritan error, but we have no indication that the evangelists did this. We DO have positive mention that they focused on the person and message of Jesus.

So, if we had to define the Church before Paul's conversion, it would be defined in terms of response to Jesus--irrespective of cultural or religious ritual:

1. His being prophesied about by ALL the OT prophets.

2. His being crucified, raised, and exalted by the Covenant God of Israel--in accordance with the long-term plan of God.

3. His being the fulfillment of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenant promises(!).

4. His being an absolutely unique figure (2nd Moses, Suffering Servant, intersection of all messianic strains, at Right Hand of God!)

5. His super-human aspects (e.g. "Lord", receiver of souls, pouring out of Holy Spirit, Right Hand of God, Holy One, etc.)

Israel (both Palestinian and Diaspora) was to respond to God's answer to their needs. This response was to be in acceptance of God's Savior, a change of mind about their lifestyles, and public identification with this new life/community (e.g. through baptism).

So, at Pre-Pauline Period One (the first three years of the church), there is not much that could be considered Pauline or anti-Pauline, and certainly nothing Paul would need to 'change' via persuasion etc.

Pre-Pauline Period Two (the first 5-7 years after the Crucifixion) was essentially the same, except the church community had expanded considerably into the Diaspora, and the Jerusalem church was persecuted. James the son of Zebedee was put to death by the new leader Herod Agrippa I. Paul is in Damascus and Arabia, preaching, teaching, and thinking. His influence was minimal on the theology of the church at this point.

The specific content of his preaching was essentially along the same lines as Peter. He proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ (9.22) and using the same Psalm 2 that Peter used in Acts 4.25, he pointed out that the Psalm called Jesus the "Son of God". [Of course, Peter had also called Jesus the "Son of the Living God" in Matt 16.16: "And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."").

By this time (c.40-41ad) one or more of the gospels had been written, and there are many references to Jesus (pre-Crucifixion) as being the 'Son of God' (e.g. Matt 4.3; 14.33; 26.63 [Jesus' own words about Himself!], Mark 3.11; Mark 5.7; Luke 1.35; and esp. Mark 1.1). This means that Paul's early message was no different that the apostolic preaching of the "pre-Pauline church" at this point.

Pre-Pauline Period Three (20 years or so after the Crucifixion) saw the expansion of the church to the Gentiles, via the preaching of Peter in Acts 10-11. This story (which is only a couple of years before the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem) has Peter preaching the same message he always did (10.36ff):

The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)- 37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 "You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. 39 "And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 "God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 "And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."

Notice:

1. Jesus is "Lord of All" (this would have meant something really BIG to this Roman centurion!)

2. Jesus had power and the special anointing of God.

3. Jesus' death (by crucifixion) and bodily resurrection.

4. Jesus will be the ultimate judge of all people of history. [Is this something a mere man--no matter HOW good he was--can do?!]

5. ALL the prophets witnessed to Jesus.

6. The offer is for forgiveness of sins.

7. The offer comes through 'believing in Him'.

We have a "human-plus" figure (e.g. Lord of Everything(!), ultimate judge of ALL history!, the sole criterion for forgiveness!), a message then centers around Him, and no mention of the Law.

And this is before the major visit of Paul to Jerusalem, or even his letters to the churches.

So, I am not sure what to make of the poster's point about 'pre-Pauline' movements. The pre-Pauline early church did not seem very different (in preaching) than did the 'post-Pauline' church of Acts 15 (which we looked at above).

Now, the possible Pre-Pauline Period Four (after Paul's death and some nebulous time when Pauline Christianity became dominant): This might be when his epistles were accepted as canonical (no later than Marcion's canon in 160ad) or perhaps when Christianity became the "state religion" under Constantine (4th century).

By either of these times, of course, the church is largely Gentile. But ALL of the heresies of the Church occurred before this time--Jewish, Gnostic, libertine, legalism--so this time frame adds nothing to the discussion. For good or ill, the issue of the Law (esp. for Gentiles) was settled during the time of Acts--long before either of these points could be reached. By the time we get to Marcion or Constantine, the rift between the Jew and Christian--set in motion during the years 60-135--have long since reduced the issue of the Law to the trivial. All the data we have indicates that the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 settled the issue for mainstream Christianity.

But the poster gives us two names that he/she apparently considers being 'pre-Pauline': Nazarenes and ebionites.

So, let's look at these carefully.


First the Nazarenes...

ONE: The Name "Nazarene":

We are fortunate to have a recent work of serious scholarship on this specific topic, often listed by Muslims in their booklists: Nazarene Jewish Christianity, by Ray A. Pritz (NT:NJC). It is frequently cited in scholarly works, and ONLY deals with the conclusions that can be reached with a high degree of confidence. This limits his range of conclusions, of course, since the more speculative studies of the PseudoClementine literature (for example) is excluded for that reason, but his conclusions will provide firm handholds for us as we climb our way through this data.

"The earliest documentary reference to 'Nazarene' as applied to a person is in the New Testament, and refers to Jesus. We do not find it in Paul's writings, which are commonly acknowledged to to be the earliest of the New Testament canon, just as we do not find there the name 'Christian' which is found only in Acts 11.26, 26.28, and 1 Pet. 4.16). Likewise, the earliest reference to a sect of Nazarenes occurs in Acts 24:5, when it is used by Tertullus, Paul's 'prosecutor.' While it can be argued that the lawyer Tertullus invented the name for the occasion, there is a tradition as early as Tertullian that an early name for Christians was Nazarenes, and his claim is borne out by the earliest name in the various semitic languages. Obviously the name of the sect came from the title NAZORAIOS/NAZARENOS." (NT:NJC:11).

The derivation of this name is obscure. Most commentators related it to 'netzer' (branch) of Isaiah 11.1-10, but I personally reject this view in favor of a 'disparaging use' of the term, something like 'rejected' or 'not esteemed'.

The first usage of this term for a group is Acts 24:

And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders, with a certain attorney named Tertullus; and they brought charges to the governor against Paul. 2 And after Paul had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying to the governor, "Since we have through you attained much peace, and since by your providence reforms are being carried out for this nation, 3 we acknowledge this in every way and everywhere, most excellent Felix, with all thankfulness. 4 "But, that I may not weary you any further, I beg you to grant us, by your kindness, a brief hearing. 5 "For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 "And he even tried to desecrate the temple; and then we arrested him. [And we wanted to judge him according to our own Law. 7 "But Lysias the commander came along, and with much violence took him out of our hands, 8 ordering his accusers to come before you.] And by examining him yourself concerning all these matters, you will be able to ascertain the things of which we accuse him." 9 And the Jews also joined in the attack, asserting that these things were so.

It is clear from this that the term 'Nazarenes' does not apply to a sect within followers of Jesus, but to a sect within Judaism itself.

Paul does not shrink from associating himself with this group (important to notice!), but prefers to use the believers' favorite term for themselves (24.14):

"But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets;

It is important to note that Jesus did NOT give any such name to His group. He refers to them as disciples and believers and followers and friends and students, but does NOT give them a 'group name'. He does refer to the group as a generic 'church' or 'assembly' (Matt 16.18: "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.").The believers normally refer to themselves as 'the church' (75+ times in the NT).

But the enemies of the new group found a name--the 'despised' name of its Founder--Nazarene. It shows up in negative usage in the period (e.g. the lawyer above, Pilate's title on the Cross, the Talmuds). But the church arrived at something more neutral (but still of obscure derivation)--'followers of the Way':

This self-designation may be based on Jesus' statements about being the Way (John 14.4-6) , the effect of the movement ("way of salvation" Acts 16.7), or simply a reference to the 'correct' Way of the Lord (Acts 18.25-26). In any event, we do not know where it came from, nor does it really matter. It is only important to note that the church did NOT call itself 'Nazarene' during this time period.

With 'Christian' being the term used by Gentiles to describe believers, we get the following terms within the first 15 years of the Cross:

1. "Nazarenes" was the term used by Jewish 'enemies' about the Church.

2. "Christian" was the term used by Gentiles about the Church.

3. "Followers of the Way" was the term sometimes used by the church about herself.

4. "The church" is the most common way the believers described the group of Jesus' followers (some 75+ references in the NT)

Now, this is all the data we have from the NT, but the Church Fathers provide some data that gets closer to the poster's intent. However, it should be recognized that the NT documents (mostly 'post-Pauline' to use the idea of the poster) do NOT indicate the existence of an internal sect called the Nazarenes. There are many and varied factions and 'parties' described as comprising the church (e.g. Acts 23.9; Gal 2.12; I Cor 3) but NONE of them are called 'Nazarene' or 'Ebionite' etc. It is therefore unwarranted to label the early church as 'Nazarene' in the same sense as the Nazarene sect of the post-apostolic era.

Wilson [RS:157] suggests this:

"This evidence suggests the following: that the term 'Nazarene' was originally a general term for early Christians in Semitic circles; that it was soon superseded by the term Christianoi among the increasingly dominant Greek-speaking converts; that it lingered on in Jewish usage as a traditional term for Christians; and that it was preserved by one group of Jewish Christians as a self-designation because it had deep historical roots."

TWO: The Data from the Church Fathers on the Nazarenes.

The main Christian sources that have data relevant to, and close enough to, the issue of Nazarenes are: Justin Martyr , Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius (315-402 ad), Jerome (b. 342)and Filaster (d.397).

To begin with we must notice that the Nazarenes are NOT mentioned in the Patristic writings before Epiphanius (writing late 4th century) and Jerome, so the data will be very indirect, as Pritz notes [NT:NJC:19]:

"In setting the literary background for the notices of Epiphanius and Jerome by determining earlier patristic knowledge of the Nazarene sect, we must first note that no source mentions the Nazarenes by name as a distinct group. Necessarily, then, any evidence will be derived or inferred and not obtained from direct testimony."

Our only approach to this--given this rather severe limitation--is to find references in pre-Epiphanius writings to un-named Jewish sects and then compare their teachings to what we can learn about the Nazarenes from Epiphanius and Jerome.

1. Justin Martyr.

"But if some, even now, wish to live in the observance of the institutions given by Moses, and yet believe in this Jesus who was crucified, recognising Him to be the Christ of God, and that it is given to Him to be absolute Judge of all, and that His is the everlasting kingdom, can they also be saved? "he inquired of me." (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 46:1)

"And Trypho again inquired, "But if some one, knowing that this is so, after he recognises that this man is Christ, and has believed in and obeys Him, wishes, however, to observe these [institutions], will he be saved? "....I said, "In my opinion, Trypho, such an one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men,-I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so" (Dialogue, 47.1)

The above passages show that some Jews accepted Jesus as the Christ, and yet observed the Mosaic institutions. These were equal brethren, according to Justin, and differed in custom, not Christology. But there might have been another, smaller group who accepted Christ publicly but apparently tried to make others obey the Law--to be saved (notice how this belief is held by the "Christian Pharisees" in Acts 15,5).

But did this first group of Law-keeping (but not Pharisaical) Jews 'deify' Christ? They were obviously believers, and Justin is explicit in saying that they recognized "Him to be the Christ of God". But what did that phrase "Christ of God" mean to Justin? If it meant 'accepting the deity of Jesus', then these Jews DID 'deify' Jesus. On the other hand, if 'Christ of God' merely meant 'an annointed man' or 'the best prophet' then we would be unwarranted in saying these Jews believed in the deity of Christ.

Fortunately, we only have to go a couple of paragraphs later in the Dialogue for a full explication of what Justin meant by the phrase. He first puts the words in Trypho the Jew's mouth and then gives it himself in more detail.

"And Trypho said, "We have heard what you think of these matters. Resume the discourse where you left off, and bring it to an end. For some of it appears to me to be paradoxical, and wholly incapable of proof. For when you say that this Christ existed as God before the ages, then that He submitted to be born and become man, yet that He is not man of man, this [assertion] appears to me to be not merely paradoxical, but also foolish."

"And I replied to this, "I know that the statement does appear to be paradoxical, especially to those of your race, who are ever unwilling to understand or to perform the [requirements] of God, but [ready to perform] those of your teachers, as God Himself declares. Now assuredly, Trypho," I continued," [the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father's will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends," I said, "of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, (Dialogue, 48)

A simple inspection of the passage above reveals a 'high Christology' for Justin, relative to the phrase 'Christ of God'. Listed above is deity, divine Sonship, pre-existent before time, and not 'simply human'. Since this complex of beliefs was held by Law-keeping Jews (above), it would be quite safe to say that such Jews DEFINITELY "deified" Jesus. Justin does mention at the end of the citation that some people (it is not clear whether the 'our race' refers to Jews or Gentiles) DO hold Christ to be a mere man, but Justin is very intolerant of this view (as opposed to his attitude toward the Jews who were Law-keepers). [These 'mere man' and 'Law-absolutely' views will show up in the later Ebionites, which are sometimes confused in the Fathers with the Nazarenes. So Pritz [NT:NJC:9]:

"To the student of early Christianity one thing becomes quickly apparent: in the early centuries there were many offshoot sects having some connection both to New Testament and to Jewish thought...Even in the writings of some of the Church Fathers from the third and fourth centuries and later, this proliferation of 'Jewish Christian' sects led to confusion and to the confounding of different sects under the name 'Ebionite.' So convenient (and subtle) was this that it has caused not a few modern scholars to make the mistake of thinking that if we can box in the phenomenon known as Ebionism we will have defined Jewish Christianity. But Ebionism was not the direct heir of the Jewish apostolic church; it was at best only third generation, and to reconcile its doctrines with those of the New Testament requires no small amount of mental gymnastics."

So, the data from Justin indicates (155-160 A.D.) that there were two types of self-called Christians of the Jewish race, which he distinguishes on the basis of Christology. The smaller group holds to a 'mere man' and 'Law-absolutely' view (which will look like the later Ebionite view) and is rejected by Justin as being non-Christian. The other group of Jewish believers looks just like Justin, with a high Christology , yet with the practice of keeping the Law (without pushing it on others as being necessary for salvation).

2. Origen

Origen (about a century later) makes one reference to Jewish believers, but mistakenly calls them 'Ebionites'. But he ALSO indicates this two-fold distinction noted by Justin--again, with regard to Christology [Contra Celsus, V.61]:

"And let it be admitted further, that there are some who give themselves out as Gnostics, in the same way as those Epicureans who call themselves philosophers: yet neither will they who annihilate the doctrine of providence be deemed true philosophers, nor those true Christians who introduce monstrous inventions, which are disapproved of by those who are the disciples of Jesus. Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus, and who boast on that account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law,-and these are the twofold sect of Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings,-what does that avail by way of charge against such as belong to the Church, and whom Celsus has styled "those of the multitude? " He adds, also, that certain of the Christians are believers in the Sibyl, having probably misunderstood some who blamed such as believed in the existence of a prophetic Sibyl, and termed those who held this belief Sibyllists."

Notice in this section, he makes the point that just because someone calls himself an 'epicurean' doesn't mean he is one; nor also just because someone calls himself a 'christian' doesn't imply that either.

But our interest in the passage is that one group of these 'ebionites' accept the virgin birth (which always implied the divine sonship in the Fathers). [Later we will see that the REAL Ebionites did NOT accept the virgin birth, so Origen must be confusing the Nazarenes with one branch of the Ebionites.]

But this data is not very helpful, for Origen seems genuinely confused about these Ebionites (and contradicts later testimony of Jerome). [We come back to Origen's testimony to Ebionites when we cover that topic.] Pritz concludes thus [NT:NJC:21]:

"If the more orthodox Jewish Christians (who can only be faulted for keeping the Law) are Nazarenes, then we have an early misuse of the name Ebionite to include all Jewish Christian Law-keepers."

We do know that Origen (and Celsus) knew some Jewish Christians, but we do not know if either had first-hand knowledge of the Palestinian Jewish Christian communities that are called 'Nazarenes' by Jerome.

3. Eusebius

Eusebius seems dependent on a multiplicity of sources and is therefore multiply confused. His passage on the Ebionites (which we will consider later) seems based on a confusion of Ireneaus, Justin, and Origen. Here is the passage (HE III 27):

"1 The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.

2 For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.

3 There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name, but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavored to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.

4 These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law; and they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.

5 The Sabbath and the rest of the discipline of the Jews they observed just like them, but at the same time, like us, they celebrated the Lord's days as a memorial of the resurrection of the Saviour"

Pritz points out the problems with taking this at face value [NT:NJC:27]:

"The important point is that he [Eusibius] has mixed together more than one source, and perhaps even several sources from several authors. The result is confused and confusing. While Eusebius is aware of more than one kind of 'Ebionite' in his sources, he has not succeeded very well in distinguishing their traits. So in III 27, 1-2, we find the known, unorthodox kind of Ebionite, but in the following section (3-6) some of the traits which rightly belonged to the first group are erroneously assigned to the second, as indeed is the very name of the sect."

Again, this is not necessarily related to the Nazarenes--since they are not mentioned in the literature until Epiphanius.

Summary of the pre-Epiphanius material (from Pritz [NT:NJC:28]):

"In summary we may say that Justin knows of two divisions of Jewish Christians, one of whom held an orthodox Christology with regard to the virgin birth and pre-existence of Jesus. Origen, who also knows of two groups, identifies the unorthodox group of Justin as Ebionites. While he calls his more orthodox Jewish Christian Ebionites also, he is inconsistent in this, and we may be justified in concluding that the two groups did not carry the same name. Eusebius, in his turn, cannot avoid seeing--in his sources, if not also from hearsay--two distinguishable Jewish Christian groups, but he does not succeed very well in discerning the beliefs which separate them. For him there is only one name, Ebionite.

"This establishes the continued existence, into the third century at least, if not later, of a Jewish Christian entity whose doctrines tend to distinguish it--in the directory of 'orthodoxy'--from the Ebionites. These the Nazarenes."

4. Epiphanius.

When we come to Epiphanius (born and raised in Palestine), we finally get a by-name mention of the Nazarenes. His Panarion (generally known as the Refutation of All Heresies) was written during the period 374-376. Panarion 29 is a rather extensive treatment of his sources and data on the Nazarenes, and the salient facts about them are listed below:

a. The use both the Old and New Testaments, without excluding any books known to Epiphanius (7,2):

"For they use not only the New Testament but also the Old, like the Jews. For the Legislation and the Prophets and the Scriptures, which are called the Bible by the Jews, are not rejected by them as they are by those mentioned above [Manicheans, Marcionites, Gnostics]. "

b. They have a good knowledge of Hebrew and read the OT and at least one gospel in that language (7,4; 9,4):

"They a good mastery of the Hebrew language. For the entire Law and the Prophets and what is called the Scriptures, I mention the poetical books, Kings, Chronicles and Ester and all the others, are read by them in Hebrew as in the case with the Jews, of course."

"They have the entire Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. It is carefully preserved by them in Hebrew letters."

c. They believe in the resurrection of the dead (7,3):

"For they also accept the resurrection of the dead "

d. They believe that God is the creator of all things (7,3):

"...and that everything has its origin in God"

e. They believe in One God and His Son Jesus Christ (remember the patristic defn. of divine Son!) (7,3; 7,5):

"They proclaim one God and his Son Jesus Christ."

"Only in this respect they differ from the Jews and Christians: with the Jews they do not agree because of their belief in Christ, with the Christians because they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath, and the other things." (Note how significant this is--they did NOT differ from Christians in Christology! This demonstrates a High Christology on their part!).

f. They observe the Law of Moses (7,5; 5,4; 8,1ff)

"Only in this respect they differ from the Jews and Christians: with the Jews they do not agree because of their belief in Christ, with the Christians because they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath, and the other things."

"By birth they are Jews and they dedicate themselves to the Law and submit to circumcision."

g. They are hated by the Jews and are officially ostracized in the synagogue prayer--probably the birkat ha-minim (9,2-3):

"However, they are very much hated by the Jews. For not only the Jewish children cherish hate against them but the people also stand up in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, three times a day and they pronounce curses and maledictions over them when they say their prayers in the synagogues. Three times a day they say: 'May God curse the Nazarenes.' For they are more hostile against them because they proclaim as Jews that Jesus is the Christ."

Pritz summarizes the data from the most important section of Epiphanius (Panarion 29,7) [NT:NJC:44]:

"The data in this section present us with a body in every way 'orthodox' except for its adherence to the Law of Moses. If we remember that the Jewish Church of Jerusalem also kept the Law through the period covered by the books of Acts, then we have a picture of the earliest Jewish Christian community...The picture is not full, certainly, but what we are given in very way confirms the identity of the Nazarenes as the heirs of the earliest Jerusalem congregation."

Thus, Epiphanius is our first source on the Nazarenes, and he describes them as decidedly orthodox in all matters (including the deity of Christ), except that of observance of Jewish customs.

5. Jerome

Jerome is one of our more important sources, especially since he quotes from Nazarene written works. Let's look at his testimony about them first.

Pritz summarizes [NT:NJC:55]:

"According to Jerome, then, Nazarene Christology is basically what we have noted previously, a belief in the divine origins and virgin birth of Jesus in accordance with accepted doctrines of the great Church. Here we also see an express avowal of Jesus' death and resurrection.

In Jerome's commentary on Isaiah, he gives 5 citations or comments from a Nazarene commentary on the book. These five selections preserve some interesting data about the group:

1. (on Isaiah 8.14): "The Nazarenes, who accept Christ in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old law, explain the two houses as the two families, viz. Of Shammai and Hillel, from whom originated the Scribes and the Pharisees." [In this passage, Jerome does not even hint at censure of the Nazarenes, but rather uses them as a source. The data in the subsequent Nazarene discussion of the Shammai and Hillel show that they had significant antipathy toward the rabbis.]

2. (on Isaiah 8.20-21). "For the rest the Nazarenes explain the passage in this way: when the Scribes and Pharisees tell you to listen to them, men who do everything for the love of the belly and who hiss during their incantations in the way of magicians in order to deceive you, you must answer them like this..." [Note again the strong anti-rabbinical polemic, and the appeal to scripture--not halakah--for proof.]

3. (on Isaiah 9.1-4). "The Nazarenes, whose opinion I have set forth above, try to explain this passage in the following way: When Christ came and this preaching shone out, the land of Zebulon and Naphtali first of all were freed from the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees and he shook off their shoulders the very heavy yoke of the Jewish traditions. Later, however, the preaching became more dominant, that means the preaching was multiplied, through the Gospel of the apostle Paul who was the last of all the apostles. And the Gospel of Christ shone to the most distant tribes and the way of the whole sea. Finally the whole world, which earlier walked or sat in darkness and was imprisoned in the bonds of idolatry and death, has seen the clear light of the Gospel."

This is a crucial passage and Pritz' careful statement brings out the import and implications [NT:NJC:64-65]:

"Let us note once again the polemic against Scribes and Pharisees and the Jewish traditions. The two most significant things about this excerpt from the Nazarene work are its positive view of Paul, and the refusal to bind Gentile Christians to keeping the Law. We see here that the Nazarene view of Paul's mission corresponded very closely to that of Paul himself (Gal 2.2-9). In none of the remains of Nazarene doctrine can one find a clear rejection of Paul or his mission or his message. This, of course, is quite the opposite of what we usually hear described as 'Jewish Christian,' which almost by definition opposes itself to Paul. What we have here, then, is an endorsement of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. This spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles was, according to the Nazarenes, a natural, even a glorious development. One is often led to expect a sort of bitterness on the part of the Jewish Christians that they were swamped, their position usurped by the Gentile Church. But here we find only a positive reaction to the flow events."

Needless to say, this data about the pro-Pauline and high-Christology Nazarenes would not sit well with Jochen's disputant!

4. (on Isaiah 29.20-21): "What we have understood to have been written about the devil and his angels, the Nazarenes believe to have been said against the Scribes and the Pharisees...who made men sin against the Word of God in order that they should deny that Christ was the Son of God" [We have referred to this passage earlier, in pointing out that the Nazarx held to a divine Sonship, of patristic content.]

5. (on Isaiah 31.6-9): "The Nazarenes understand this passage in this way: O Sons of Israel, who deny the Son of God with a most vicious opinion, turn to him and his apostles..." [Note the 'Sonship' Christology and the evangelistic appeal to their people.]

The data from Jerome is significant for many reasons, but not the least of which is that it contains the self-testimony of the Nazarenes. The excerpts from their Commentary on Isaiah show an incredibly 'orthodox', evangelistic, and universal outlook on God's actions in the world. As such, the best data we have indicates that the Nazarene 'sect' was unquestionably mainstream 'Christian' and exalted Jesus as the pre-existent and absolutely unique Son of God (in the Patristic understanding).

6. Filaster

Filaster was a bishop who wrote his work (Book of Diverse Heresies) roughly at the same time of Epiphanius. He discusses 156 heresies or heretical teachers (some very borderline heresies, to be sure!), but omits the Nazarenes! Pritz points out this amazing fact, before analysing Filaster sources [NT:NJC:71]:

"His diversarum haereseon liber was written in 385...and covered 156 heresies or heretical teachings. The Jewish Christian Nazarene sect is not mentioned by Filaster. This fact naturally causes one to wonder why the Nazarenes were omitted from so extensive a work when Filaster went so far as to condemn even those who differed from the Church only in their belief that the stars occupied fixed positions in the heavens (as against the then-current teaching that God set them in place every evening)."

After analyzing Filaster's sources [Hippolytus, drawing from Ireneaus, drawing from Justin and/or Theophilus of Antioch], Pritz comes to the following position [NT:NJC:75]:

"Where does all this leave us? In tracing Filaster's literary heritage back to near its beginnings, we may at least hazard the suggestion that the earliest hersiographers did not include the Nazarenes for the simple reason that they did not consider them heretics. This, of course, was not true of the offshoot Ebionites, who even by the time of Irenaeus (and earlier Justin, who, however, does not mention them by name) had been recognized as heretics. If we extend this logic into the late fourth century, we arrive at this important conclusion: the lack of polemic against the Nazarenes until the fourth century does not show that they were a later phenomenon; rather, it shows that no one until Epiphanius considered them heretical enough to add them to older catalogues. The very existence of Filaster's contemporary anti-heretical work with its omission of the Nazarenes in accord with his inherited tradition lends weight to the suggestion that Epiphanius is solely responsible for their inclusion in his own heresiography, and this despite the fact that he could not deny their ancient beginnings. While each author used the lists of his predecessors and added to them where he saw fit, no one until Epiphanius felt it necessary to include the Nazarenes, even though they had existed from the earliest times and their gospel was known."

Unfortunately, this scenario changed with Augustine. He accepted the verdict of Epiphanius, and his authority swayed the rest of the church after that. The confusion of Nazarene and Ebionite in Epiphanius is still operative. So Pritz (NT:NJC:82]:

"The most important conclusion of this chapter is that the Nazarenes were not mentioned by earlier fathers not because they did not exist by rather because they were still generally considered to be acceptably orthodox. The history of the Nazarene sect must be clearly distinguished from that of the Ebionites. Once Epiphanius failed to do so, he introduced a confusion which continues to the present day."

Summary of the data from the Church Fathers:

The Nazarene sect is a very orthodox group of believers. They hold to a very high Christology (i.e. virgin birth, pre-existence, more-than-man, divine sonship, deity of Christ). They have a high regard of Paul and the ministry to the Gentiles. They are both in polemic with and witnessing to, the Jewish people in mainline Palestine. They accept the Tanakh/OT and New Testament. They were not considered heretical until the mistake of Epiphanius (who confused them with the Ebionites).

THREE: Data from the "Gospel According to the Hebrews"

The "Gospel according to the Hebrews" is a catch-all title for a confusion of texts. Generally it looks like it is the Gospel of Matthew, but sometimes it looks like an apocryphal work. We cannot assume that every patristic reference to a gospel "written in Hebrew" is a reference to this "gospel according to the Hebrews." Its relevance to our study is that sometimes it is cited with the clause "which is used by the Nazarenes." In these cases, it will yield (perhaps) additional data about them--assuming the source is somewhat reliable.

There are only a handful of such citations that relate to the Nazarenes, so let's look at some of the more important ones:

1. The first is given in Jerome's commentary on Isaiah 11.2:

"According to the Gospel written in Hebrew speech, which the Nazarenes read, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit shall descend upon him...Further in the Gospel which we have just mentioned we find the following written: And it came to pass when the Lord was come up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My Son, in all the prophets was I waiting for thee that thou shouldest come and I might rest in thee. For thou art my rest; thou are my first-begotten Son that reignest for ever."

Note: (1) a high Christology, Jesus is called 'the Lord' (!), the Holy Spirit is a person ('said'), prophetic inspiration of the Tanakh/OT prophets, unique sonship, eternal dominion, and involvement of the Spirit in the sonship relation of Jesus(?).

2. A curious one is given in Jerome at Isaiah 40.9:

"But in that Gospel written according to the Hebrews, which is read by the Nazarenes, the Lord says: 'A moment ago my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me up'"

This saying occurs elsewhere in Jerome's commentaries (Ez 16.13; Micah 7.6) and in Origen' commentary on John 2.12 and his homily on Jeremiah 15.4. Jerome only notes that the Hebrew word for 'spirit' is feminine (ruah), but comments that there is 'no gender in the Godhead'.

This passage is not very revealing, but Pritz assesses it thus:

"The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was the slowest to develop in the doctrine of the trinity in the Church catholic, and there is no reason to assume that it was otherwise among the Nazarenes. This passage reveals a primitive pneumatology but not some developed heretical view of the Holy Spirit." [NT:NJC:90]

3. From Jerome (De Viris Illustribus, 2):

"The Gospel called according to the Hebrews which was recently translated by me into Greek and Latin, which Origen frequently uses, records after the resurrection of the Savior: And when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, he went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep. And shortly thereafter the Lord said: Bring a table and bread! And immediately it is added: he took bread, blessed it and brake it and gave it to James the Just and said to him: My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among them that sleep."

Note: (1) strong belief in the bodily resurrection and re-appearances of Jesus; ; (2) used the title 'Lord' of Jesus (not just 'Messiah'); (3) respectful treatment of James (the same one who approved Paul's ministry in Acts 15; no anti-Pauline rhetoric here!).

This story about James is interesting in that it looks similar to the 'doubting Thomas' story. The Fathers sometimes so embellish the stories of James as to make him into a larger-than-life figure. As a brother of Jesus, James would have had a less than distinguished beginning (!), being (1) among those that did NOT accept Jesus before the resurrection (John 7.3-5: " His brothers therefore said to Him, "Depart from here, and go into Judea, that Your disciples also may behold Your works which You are doing. 4 "For no one does anything in secret, when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world." 5 For not even His brothers were believing in Him. 6 Jesus therefore *said to them, "My time is not yet at hand, but your time is always opportune. 7 "The world cannot hate you; but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.) and being (2) among those who called Him 'delirious' (Mark 3.20:"Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind.").

James did become a great leader, with a beautiful heart, and we will see more of him when we get into the issue of Paul and the Law. Especially noteworthy is that this James--James the Just--was brought to trial by the Jerusalem authorities for "violating the Law"! Josephus has the account in the section in which he is vilifying the High Priest Ananus (Ant. 20.199):

"but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; (200) when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, 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; "

We will explore this a bit when we later try to understand James and Law-keeping, but it is an interesting piece of data for now. (The Pharisees end up rescuing him, but their motives are unclear.) The Nazarenes apparently held the wise and gentle leadership of James in respect. His Christology (from the Epistle of James) is reflective of the earliest thought--he calls Jesus "Lord" in the opening, and then you cannot tell throughout the rest of the letter whether "Lord" refers to YHWH or to Jesus--the two are so closely identified! This was the mark of proto-trinitarian practice.

4. In Jerome, Against the Pelagians (3,2):

"In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters, and is used by the Nazarenes to this day...we find, "Behold, the mother of our Lord and His brethren said to Him, John Baptist baptizes for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. But He said to them, what sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, haply, the very words which I have said are only ignorance." And in the same volume, "If thy brother sin against thee in word, and make amends to thee, receive him seven times in a day." Simon, His disciple, said to Him, "Seven times in a day?" The Lord answered and said to him, "I say unto thee until seventy times seven." Even the prophets, after they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, were guilty of sinful words."

Note: (1) Jesus' awareness of sinlessness; (2) His contrast to the holy prophets, who, although inspired, were nonetheless still sinful men; (3) Jesus is called 'Lord'; (4) Jesus' appeal to His own authority (not Moses or the Law); (5) clear endorsement of the divine inspiration of the prophets.

Summary of the Data from the "Gospel" used by the Nazarenes:

(1) a high Christology, Jesus is called 'the Lord', not just "Messiah",

(2) Pneumatology: the Holy Spirit is a person ,

(3) Prophetic inspiration of the Tanakh/OT prophets,

(4) Jesus' unique sonship,

(5) Jesus' eternal dominion

(6) Pneumatology: involvement of the Spirit in the sonship relation of Jesus

(7) strong belief in the bodily resurrection and re-appearances of Jesus;

(8) respectful treatment of James (the same one who approved Paul's ministry in Acts 15; no anti-Pauline rhetoric here!);

(9) Jesus' awareness of His sinlessness;

(10) His contrast to the holy prophets, who, although inspired, were nonetheless still sinful men;

(11) Jesus' appeal to His own authority (not Moses or the Law);

These are rather clear marks of a decidedly 'Christian' group.

FOUR: Data from Jewish Sources.

In this category is the talmudic literature, but there are only a dozen or so refs to 'Nazarene' and all but two of these refer to Jesus. The two references that DO seem to refer to Nazarenes (Avodah Zarah 6a and Taanit 27b), refer to Christians generally, but cannot be placed any earlier than the 3rd century [CTM; NT:NJC:98ff].

From a historical standpoint, the most important issue here concerns the Birkat ha-minim, in the twelfth benediction of the amidah prayer. The phrase minim is used in the rabbinix to denote (generally) Jews who reckon themselves to be Jews but who are excluded by the Rabbis. Many of these references will be to Christians, but one must be very careful in making the reference this precise. [For an extended discussion in favor of most minim refs being to Christians, see the oft-cited work by Herford, CTM.] One special class of minim were the Christians. The Christians were part of 2nd Temple Judaism and practiced their faith in the Temple and synagogue. Before the Jewish Revolt, there was much more diversity in Judaism (as witnessed by the wide variety of beliefs of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Christians), but after this the need for Jewish unity became more acute. In the wake of this rise of "Formative Judaism" (Neusner's phrase), the Nazarenes (Christians) were forced out of the synagogues by modification of one of the standard prayers. Julius Scott ("Glimpses of Jewish Christianity from the End of Acts to Justin Martyr", unpublished paper presented at ETS meeting, Novemeber 1997) summarizes the situation:

"It was fear of these dangers that must have prompted Rabbi Gamaliel and his associates, sometime before the end of the first century, to alter the Jewish synagogue liturgy. This involved a change in the twelfth benediction of the Shemonesh 'Esreh (The Eighteen Benedictions [berakhoth] of The Daily Prayer) to contain a condemnation of Jewish Christians. This effectively excluded them from synagogue worship and continuing participation in Jewish life -- their enthusiasm for corporate prayer would be understandably dampened if in doing so they prayed for their own damnation. From that time onward the break between Judaism and Christianity was final; as far as the synagogue was concerned, the Church was banned."

Interestingly, this curse-prayer exists in many different forms. The modern version has effectively been censored (as were forms in the Ashkenazi liturgies--but the Shepardi rites do preserve the term minim). Of the older versions of this curse, the two best ones are the Palestinian (found in the Cairo Geniza) and the Babylonian:

The Babylonian version: "And for informers let there be no hope; and let all who do wickedness quickly perish; and let them all be speedily destroyed; and root and crush and hurl down and humble the insolent, speedily in our days..."

The Palestinian versions: "And for apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted, in our days. And may the Nazarenes and heretics (minim) perish quickly; and may they be erased from the Book of Life; and may they not be inscribed with the righteous...

Textually, there are ancient versions of this curse that (1) include BOTH nozari and minim; (2) either one or the other; and (3) have neither. The actual wording seems to be vary according to the local situation (NT:NJC:105), with the more direct references occurring as one gets 'closer' to Judea.

The Church fathers show an interesting pattern about this as well. Those who spent time in the East (i.e. Epiphanius and Jerome) know of the synagogue curse, but Western Fathers do not. Epiphanius refers to it in Panarion 29.9.2 ("Three times a day they say: 'May God curse the Nazarenes'). Jerome describes it at least five times, using the word "Nazarenes" (epistle to Augustine 112.13; Amos 1.11-12; Is 5.18-19; Is 49.7; Is 52.4-6). In the letter to Augustine, he localizes the phenomenon to the 'synagogues in the East'.

Pritz summarizes [NT:NJC:106]:

"We note here that any knowledge of the cursing of Christ or Christians is only to be found among Christian writers who had spent time in the East. This observation is highlighted by the fact that Jerome in the East found it necessary to explain the whole matter to his younger western contemporary Augustine. The suggestion is that western fathers knew nothing of a synagogue cursing because it fact such a curse was not uttered in the synagogues of the West...Jerome evidently took it for granted that Augustine would not know about this curse, which he himself only discovered since moving eastward. Add this to Schafer's suggestion that the wording of the twelfth Benediction varied according to locality, and we may conclude that the name nozrim appeared only in places where there were (or had been) Nazarenes threatening synagogue life."

The relevance of the twelfth benediction for our study is simply this: a sect that that was only different from mainstream rabbinical, Pharisaical Judaism by acceptance of Jesus as just another anointed prophet would not 'threaten' synagogue life in the least. Similarly, acceptance of Jesus as a human messianic figure (a la Ebionite?) would perhaps cause trouble with Roman authorities, but not be an issue of synagogue heresy. [The modification of the benediction was a response for weeding out 'heresy', Brach 28b--older versions.] Without some MAJOR discontinuities between the Nazarenes and Formative Judaism, such drastic action as changing the liturgy would not have been necessary. At this time in Israel's history, there could be no middle ground--you were either a rabbincal Jew or you were not. The dominant association of nozrim with Yeshua in the rabbinix indicated that alignment with THE Nazarene was a watershed issue for the religious leaders of the time.

OVERALL SUMMARY of the Nazarenes:

First, I want to note some of the statements in Pritz' summary chapter (pp.108ff):

Now, let me cite some conclusions made in another scholarly assessment of the Nazarenes, Stephen Wilson [RS:155-156]:

  1. They use the Old and New Testaments.
  2. They knew Hebrew and one gospel written in Hebrew.
  3. They accepted resurrection from the dead.
  4. They believed in one God, the creator, and his Son Jesus Christ.
  5. They observed the law.
  6. They originated among the Christians who fled from Jerusalem and were located in Pella, Cochaba, and Coele-Syria.
  7. They were hated and cursed by the jews for their messianic beliefs.
  8. They held an orthodox Christology (by Jerome's standards), including virgin birth and divine sonship.
  9. They disputed the value of Jewish 'tradition' (halakah)
  10. They endorsed Paul and his Gentile mission.
  11. They called for reconciliation with and repentance from the Jews.
  12. "In most aspects the Nazarenes look like a mainstream Christian group."

Overall, I would have to say that the data is overwhelmingly in favor of the Nazarenes being VERY orthodox, VERY early, and VERY 'universal' in outlook.



Next the Ebionites...

The Ebionites are a distinctly different group from the Nazarenes--the differences are so striking that it is difficult to identify them as members of the same 'group' called "Jewish Christians". They are also somewhat easier to deal with since they are a later phenomenon (although their data is still very confusing).

Unlike the Nazarenes, who are spoken favorably of in the Fathers for the first 3 centuries, the Ebionites are NEVER recognized as being legitimate Christians by ANY major group [see the criteria for 'true Christians' above].

Let's note some of the salient facts about the "Ebionites" (in some cases, contrasted with the Nazarenes):

1. They were late-comers to the scene, arising in mid-to-late second century [ECH:117; RC:251].

2. Irenaeus first names them as a group in 190 AD, in Against Heresies 1.26.1-22 [ECH:117], pointing out that they had a definite Gnostic background:

"1. Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.

"2. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular (or 'speculative') manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God."

Note:

1. One can see in this usage of the word "Christ" a distinctly non-Jewish understanding of Messiah and "Anointed"! [Unlike the Nazarenes].
2. They reject all of the NT except the Gospel of Matthew. [Unlike the Nazarenes.]
3. They repudiate Paul. [Unlike the Nazarenes.]
4. They have their 'own' hermeneutic for the Tanakh/OT prophetic writings.
5. They practice circumcision and the Law.
6. They have a fascination with the city of Jerusalem (even though they do not live there).

3. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.22 (230 AD, written from Rome) demonstrates their rather un-Jewish understanding of the word "Christ" plus a rather strange Christology:

"The Ebionaeans, however, acknowledge that the world was made by Him Who is in reality God, but they propound legends concerning the Christ similarly with Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They live conformably to the customs of the Jews, alleging that they are justified according to the law, and saying that Jesus was justified by fulfilling the law. And therefore it was, (according to the Ebionaeans,) that (the Saviour) was named (the) Christ of God and Jesus, since not one of the rest (of mankind) had observed completely the law. For if even any other had fulfilled the commandments (contained) in the law, he would have been that Christ. And the (Ebionaeans allege) that they themselves also, when in like manner they fulfil (the law), are able to become Christs; for they assert that our Lord Himself was a man in a like sense with all (the rest of the human family).

Note:

1. The linkage with the Gnostics is also here, but this may be due to a dependence on Irenaeus.
2. Notice that justification is by the Law (which is different from both Paul AND James' epistles--by ANY reading of them!). [Unlike the Nazarenes]
3. They believed Jesus needed 'justifying' (a very, very low Christology!) [Unlike the Nazarenes]
4. The have that odd view of 'Christ', since they believe they can become 'Christs'. (This argues strongly that these folk did not have a very sound understanding of the uniqueness of Israel's view of her coming messiah!). [Unlike the Nazarenes]
5. A "human-only" view of Jesus. [Unlike the Nazarenes]
6. They believed NO ONE had completely observed the Law (until Jesus).

4. Epipanius, in his Panarion (section 30), has a number of details about the group, some of which are disputed today. Some new bits of information we may note here:

1. "According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites occupied a wide-ranging spectrum regarding Jesus on the one hand as a mere man with an adopted divine Spirit, and on the other as a sometimes-incarnate archangel (following a Gnostic thread)." [ECH:121]

2. He claims that they arose from the Nazarenes [1.1 and 2.1], although his accounts about a founder 'Ebion' are generally rejected.

3. Some of them have a normal Joseph-Mary birth view of Jesus [2.1] [Unlike the Nazarenes]

4. They not only keep the Jewish law, but they ADD new elements: (1) no touching of foreigners; (2) washing after intercourse; (3) bathing in their clothes. [2.3-6] [Unlike the Nazarenes]

5. They celebrate the Lord's Supper with unleavened bread [16.1]

6. "Their sect began after the capture of Jerusalem" [2.7], somewhere after the 70-135 AD time frame. [The Nazarenes had been in continuous existence during the entire time.]

7. They only use the Gospel of Matthew [3.7] [Unlike the Nazarenes.]

8. They thought that "Paul's failed attempt to become a proselyte in order to marry a Jewish woman (he was originally Gentile!) fired his antipathy to Judaism" [RS:148]. [Unlike EVERYONE!]

9. Required marriage (and forbade long-term virginity).

10. Rejected the OT prophets [30.18,4-5; discussed in NT:NJC:93] [Unlike the Nazarenes]

5. The mainstream church had been well established by the time they even had a chance to disrupt it. So, Frend [RC:251]:

"The measure of unity achieved in the church by c. 180 depended on its government staying in the hands of like-minded Greek-speaking bishops, whether resident in the cities of the Aegean or in Rome, able and willing to communicate with each other by letter or in council. This situation, however, was not to last. Among the Gnostic, Marcionites, and Ebionites were a fair number of those who called themselves Christians."

6. James G. Dunn points out that Ebionism grew up later and in completely different situations than the early Jerusalem church [UDNT:244]:

"The primitive Jerusalem faith and practice was the first tentative attempt to express the newness of belief in Jesus as Messiah, risen and coming again--to express it, that is, in a totally Jewish environment. Ebionism came to expression in quite different circumstances--when Christianity had expanded right out of Judaism, had become predominantly Gentile--and, most importantly, after at least several crucial debates and controversies on the relationship between the new faith and the Judaism which cradled it in infancy.

7. The Ebionite issue, as a much later controvery, cannot with confidence even be linked to the controversies in the first century, as Robinson points out [BTE:86]:

"Although we know that distinct Jewish-Christian groups did exist(the Ebionites are the classic example), it is not clear that the later groups accurately reflect the earlier tensions in the Jerusalem community related to the admission of gentiles into the church. Surely the series of striking setbacks and defeats experienced by Judaism in the second half of the first century must have had a profound effect on these Jewish-Christian groups--with Jerusalem devastated by the Romans and the temple destroyed. We know from the book of Acts that as late as the late fifties the temple still played an important role in the lives of Jewish Christians, and nothing suggests a radical change in that attitude in the sixties. A further stress on Christian Jews would have been the stunning success of the Christian mission to the Gentiles, as compared to the mission to the Jews. This reduction of Jewish Christianity to the status of a minority element in the church must have had some impact on the shape and direction of Jewish Christianity.

"The structure of later Jewish-Christian groups would likely reflect an attempt by these Jews to preserve as much of their threatened culture as possible. That concern would not have been as conscious a concern in the early years. Even the schism at Antioch (whatever its nature) was not an Ebionite phenomenon. That is not to dismiss outright the hypothesis that the later Jewish-Christian groups like the Ebionites might have represented the most original form of the Christian message. It is simply to point out that the fundamental factors in the shaping of the later Jewish-Christian groups are sufficiently changed from those affecting the original Jewish-Christian communities of Palestine to make such a hypothesis suspect and in need of rigorous support.

[This, of course, means that for someone to assert continuity between mid/late 2nd century Ebionism and mid 1st century controversies requires proof and argument, not simple assumption.]

To be frank, all the data we have (that is generally accepted by a wide range of scholarship) points to Ebionism as late, highly diverse, and radically discontinuous with 'true' Jewish Christianity--the very orthodox Nazarenes. They differ in every major area with the Nazarenes--views of God that vary from harsh, "anthropomorphic monotheism" to Gnostic gradiations, low Christology--in both deity AND humanity(!), denial of virgin birth, low view of Tanakh/OT scriptures, acceptance of only one book of the twenty-seven in the NT as legitimate, rejection of Paul AND the mission to the Gentiles, and a distinctively un-Jewish concept of the Messiah/Christ.

And, although someone might immediately object and argue that they had observance of the Law in common, even this is not actually true. Not only did they have an obviously different view of the inspiration of Torah, but, as we have seen above, the Ebionites added many 'new requirements' to the Law and deleted the requirements having to do with sacrifice [RS:148-149]. Dunn points this discontinuity out [UDNT:243]:

"...the Ebionites were markedly hostile to the sacrificial cult of the temple. This does not seem to reflect the views of the first Christians.. "

(Dunn cites as references for this Epiphanius Panarion 19.3.6; 30.16.5,7; et.al.)

This presents us with a HUGE puzzle, actually. There seems to be no reason at all for assuming the Ebionites were 'offshoots' to the Nazarenes--there simply are no significant points of continuity! So, how could the later belief that they were (even to the point of assigning a name of Ebion to the mythic founder of the group!) arise? And how could their be so many 'variants' of ebionism--it certainly was no well-defined or monolithic system!

The geography, timing, and thoughts of the sect MAY allow us to construct a model:

1. The Ebionites do not show up until the main group of the Nazarene community has fled Jerusalem in the last half of the 1st century.

2. The flight was to Pella, one of the Hellenized cities of the Decapolis east of the Jordan River, not a Jewish community. [CRJ:96].

3. As such there might have been a Gentile Christian community there (to help with the reception), and definitely Diaspora Jewry and Gnostic influences (we know of Gnostic-Jewish hybrids in Asia Minor by this time!), and even Essene influence (survivors/escapees).

[Qumran sometimes called itself the 'community of the poor' and the word "ebion" means "poor". One commonly argued derivation of the name "Ebion" is from such a 'ritual poverty' motif, exemplified in the Qumran community. Qumranic linkages (although weak) to the Ebionites--esp. the abolition of cultic sacrifice--is generally assumed in current scholarship [e.g. Bruce in BNTH:391, Wilson in RS:149, and Pelikan in The Emergence of The Catholic Tradition, Uchicago:1971, p. 24].

[I must point out here that one should be very careful and critical of using the work of Eisenman, Allegro, Baigent&Leigh, or Thiering on the Dead Sea Scrolls--the scholarly community has decidedly rejected their positions.]

4. The period between 70 ad (the capture of Jerusalem) and 135 (explusion of the Jews from Jerusalem) was marked by growing development of 'formative Judaism'. The birkhat ha-minim was constructed during this time, indicating that an increased sense of national and cultural unity was deemed to be important by the authorities. When this break between Christian and Jews made itself visible in the synagogues of Palestine, the cultural disruption in the trade cities would have been obvious. This would have resulted in economic and social pressure in some cases to 're-adopt' Judaism (resulting in "Jewish-looking" Ebionite hybrids) and in some cases to 'un-adopt' Jewish-looking doctrines (resulting in "Gnostic-looking" Ebionite hybrids).

5. These newly developed/developing systems of thought were NOT "organic growth" but radical departures from the core stock of beliefs held in common between the Nazarenes and the Gentile Christians. These new systems would need new literature--and specifically 'hybrid' literature to link them to the past (note that the Roman empire only approved of 'old' religions, not 'new ones'). In this context--the need for new sacred literature in the context of increasingly developed Judaism--Howard Kee argues [CRJ:96f]:

"In the second century and later, certain Christians in Syria and Egypt rejected or radically revised the reports of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. They denied the virgin birth and insisted on full conformity to the Law of Moses. Their reworked gospels--they claimed their versions were the original Gospel of Matthew--are the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Nazoreans, or Nazireans. Both of these survive only in fragmentary quotations in works attacking their views. The most plausible theory is that these groups developed within Christianity during precisely the centuries--second to fifth--when the Mishnah and Talmud were taking shape as post-Temple Judaism reconstituted itself. The contrast between such later splinter groups and the views of the first-century Christians in marked." (emphasis mine)

6. Thus the Pella community (and its surrounding cities, over time) would have had many different aberrations of the 'true church'--some more rabbinical; some more Gnostic. Hence the confusion in the Fathers over the wide range of beliefs ascribed to these 'Ebionites'. So, a frustrated Epiphanius can say "I have already explained that each of them has his own variant theory about Christ..." (Pan. 30.34.6)

Now, it is not really important to resolve this specific issue; it is sufficient to point out that Ebionism is not 'descendant' of an orthodox Jewish Church (nor of an orthodox Judaism, either!). And it cannot in ANY SENSE of the word be called "pre-Pauline" (it is at least a century too late!).

So, with this background on the Nazarenes and Ebionites, let's get on with the question...


Jochen's poster continues...

If he had, he would have discovered that these groups and many like them did not deify Jesus, but only worshiped the one God. Moreover, Jochen would have discovered that many of these groups kept and obeyed the Jewish laws and worshipped in the Jewish temples.

Well, given what we have looked at so far, we can make a couple of comments:

1. About the "many like them" comment: There are really only two other possible "Jewish Christian" sects we have more than a sentence of information about before the 4th century--the Jacobites and Elkesaites (see below). So the word 'many' is completely wrong, and to assume that we can have any firm idea what the Christology of these two groups would be (based on the incredibly scant info we have) is naive. Even if we are sure they 'kept the Law', this would in no way inform us of how they viewed that Law--as necessary for salvation or as beneficial for life.

2. About the "did not deify Jesus" comment: We have already seen that the Nazarenes DID hold to a very high (deified) view of Christ. And, we have seen that the Ebionites cannot even be remotely considered to be (1) placed in the apostolic age and (2) be placed within 'true Christian' camp.

3. About the "kept and obeyed the Jewish laws...and temples" comment: This is not surprising at all, and I am not sure why this is raised here. We know the early church folk and leaders participated in Jewish worship and life for several decades, and many Messianic Believers today still observe much of traditional Jewish law/ritual (especially the holy days). This is not news at all. Paul himself said it was a matter of 'free choice and conscience':

One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.(Rom 14.5ff)

And he himself followed the Law on occasion: "And Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow."(Acts 18.18).

What is interesting about this Nazirite vow is that it was fulfilled under the Jewish standards of Diaspora Judaism--NOT the more strict Palestinian version. So, BBC (in loc):

"But Jewish people shaved their heads after completing a Nazirite vow, and Paul's faith in Jesus had not diminished his own Jewishness in the least (21:23-24). That Palestinian teachers demanded that Nazirites fulfill the vows in Jerusalem shows only that Paul had taken the less Jerusalem-centered approach of Diaspora (non-Palestinian) Jews who had not the time or money to travel to Jerusalem very frequently."

The believers DID frequent the Temple as long as they were allowed to, and were obviously part of the Palestinian synagogue worship until the implementation of the birkhat ha'minim. And for a while, the Jewish believers in the Diaspora still participated in synagogue activities--in addition to their 'church' life.

But the main issue here is this: the Law was no longer believed to be essential for salvation from God. This is crystal clear from the NT: Paul affirmed this, the Jerusalem Church, Peter, and James affirmed this at the Council in Acts 15, and the "sect" of the Nazarenes affirmed this for centuries!

So, the remark--as it stands--is a combination of minor inaccuracies, anachronisms, and irrelevant items

He/she continues...

"I wonder if Jochen and other Christains ever wondered why if the Nazarenes (who were eyewitnesses to Jesus) never deified him, then why is it Paul is to be believed when he was not an eyewitness to Jesus' mission but only claimed to have had a vision of him on the road to Damascus. After all, who would you believe...a person(group) that personally followed Jesus or a person who CLAIMED to have received the real message/teachings of Jesus but was never an eyewitness to his mission.

A couple of points here, as well:

1. Obviously we have already shown that the Nazarenes DID hold to the deity of Christ--both the early and the late ones!

2. Jesus Himself taught a very high "Christology"! in both the the Synopics and in the Gospel of John

3. Every scrap of gospel data from the initial followers of Jesus we have--both Synoptics and John--clearly teaches a high Christology.

4. In light of this, we are not forced to decide between the testimony of Paul and the testimony of the Eleven, as to the deity of Christ. Paul is extremely familiar with both the life and words of the pre-Resurrection Jesus. Scholars have found an incredible amount of this in the Pauline writings. So, moderate W. D. Davies can say (The Sermon on the Mount, CambridgeUP:1966,p97):

"a careful reading of the Pauline Epistles reveals again and again that there are echoes of the Sayings of Jesus constantly creeping into the apostle's words. For example it has been estimated that at over a thousand points the words of Paul recall those of Jesus."

It is simply futile to try to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul--the continuity in words and teachings (esp. on the New Covenant) are impressive. [But this is for later...]

5. In fact, Paul was accepted by those other authorities as being a "peer apostle", and this is clearly manifested in the NT (and amply, but predictably, argued by the Fathers in the various anti-heretical endeavors they were forced into in the first 3-5 centuries of the church). Consider some of the NT data:

What these quotes should do is cause a 'reality check' on some of the more speculative reconstructions of the early church "politics". The primary data we have indicates a healthy interaction, discussion, argument, dialogue, AND resolution of issues within a group of impassioned, diverse, and committed followers of Jesus Christ. They will argue and debate--as the church has always done and always will--but they came out at a place of agreement on those defining traits/pivotal issues. Paul was accepted by the Jerusalem church, and he also accepted them as well. There is simply no adequate reason for making their views into a harsh theological dichotomy.

[This file is too large now...I will have to continue the analysis later...I have more of the poster's comments to do, and an extended discussion on James, Paul, Jesus, the OT, and the "Law".]


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