Church History: The Ancient Nazarenes

The apostle Paul was identified as being the leader of the sect of the Nazarenes. Just who were these people, and what lessons can we learn from them today?

Among the many accusations presented to the Roman governor Felix about Paul was that he was “a creator of dissension … and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).

This is the only place found in the Bible that recognizes this group. Just who were these people? From the context of this chapter, it appears that certain ones in the community defined the Church that Jesus had founded by the name Nazarenes.

The ancient Nazarenes

Paul was asked to defend himself, and notice what he said in Acts 24:14: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets.”

So the sect of the Nazarenes was also known as “the Way,” which referred to the Church of God.

The Bible tells us Felix the governor had “more accurate knowledge of the Way” (verse 22). So, the Church was known, not only as a “sect,” but also as a way of life for those involved in it. That “Way,” of course, was describing the early Christians’ practice of following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ—“He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).

Why the name Nazarenes?

First, it is important to know that the name Church of God was the name the early Christians used to define themselves. (See the article “True Church: What Is Its Name?”) The name Nazarene was apparently applied to them by some in the community, and that name wasn’t looked upon with respect or honor.

Its origin comes from the town of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It was in the territory of Galilee, and many people in that society had the bigoted idea that Nathanael expressed in John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Before His ministry, Jesus lived there along with His parents, and He was called a Nazarene as the prophets had foretold (see Matthew 2:23).

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says this about Nazareth: “The character of the people of Nazareth was such that they were proverbially despised … John 1:46. To come from Nazareth, therefore, or to be a Nazarene, was the same as to be despised, or to be esteemed of low birth; to be a root out of dry ground, having no form or comeliness. This was what had been predicted by all the prophets. When Matthew says, therefore, that the prophecies were ‘fulfilled,’ his meaning is, that the predictions of the prophets that he would be of a low and despised condition, and would be rejected, were fully accomplished in his being an inhabitant of Nazareth, and despised as such” (comments on Matthew 2:23).

Vincent’s Word Studies says, “The very name of Nazareth suggested insignificance. In Hebrew it meant sprout or shoot. The name is prophetically given to the Messiah (Isaiah 11:1).”

Based on the Hebrew word netzer, the Nazarenes were also referred to as the “Branchites,” or followers of the One they believed to be the Branch—Jesus Christ.

The beliefs of the ancient Nazarenes

There is very little secular history available on their beliefs. However, the historian Epiphanius, born and raised in Palestine, wrote about these people. One of his writings, called the Panarion (generally known as Against Heresies), was written during the period 374-377. Panarion #29 contains his view of the early Nazarenes.

Following are a few of their beliefs, as viewed by Epiphanius, who actually wrote this as a criticism against them. In reading accounts from secular historians, we have to keep in mind that they usually were strongly prejudiced against the true Church, but we also see in those writings glimpses of what the early Church believed.

“6:7—Thus Christ’s holy disciples too called themselves ‘disciples of Jesus’ then, as indeed they were. But when others called them Nazoraeans they did not reject it, being aware of the intent of those who were calling them that. They were calling them Nazoraeans because of Christ, since our Lord Jesus was called ‘the Nazoraean’ himself—as the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles say. …

“7:2—They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do. For they do not repudiate the legislation, the prophets, and the books which are called Writings by the Jews and by themselves. They have no different views but confess everything in full accord with the doctrine of the Law and like the Jews, except that they are supposedly believers in Christ.

“7:3—For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and that all things have been created by God, and they declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ.

“7:4—They are perfectly versed in the Hebrew language, for the entire Law, the prophets, and the so-called Writings—I mean the poetic books, Kings, Chronicles, Esther and all the rest—are read in Hebrew among them, as of course they are among the Jews.

“7:5—They are different from Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following ways. They disagree with Jews because of their belief in Christ; but they are not in accord with Christians because they are still fettered by the Law—circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest.”

In other words, the Nazarenes were keeping the Sabbath, but were being criticized by Epiphanius and others of his time, as being “still fettered by the Law.” (See our articles “Jesus and the Law” and “Galatians 5: What Does ‘Yoke of Bondage’ Mean?”)

The Nazarenes were also persecuted by the Jews for their beliefs:

“9.2-9.3—Yet to the Jews they are very much enemies. Not only do Jewish people bear hatred against them; they even stand up at dawn, at midday, and toward evening, three times a day when they recite their prayers in the synagogues, and curse and anathematize them—saying three times a day, ‘God curse the Nazoraeans.’ For they harbour a further grudge against them, because despite their Jewish origin, they preach that Jesus is the Christ—something that is the opposite of those who are still Jews and have not accepted Jesus.”

What happened to the Nazarenes?

So the early Church of God, referred to by some as the Nazarenes, left Jerusalem just before the Roman armies of Titus destroyed the city in A.D. 70. The Church of God then continued to settle and migrate throughout the areas of Asia Minor and later into Europe.The above beliefs, seen through the lens of a critic, are consistent with the beliefs held by the members of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 2). Even though some contemporary religious groups claim their origins go back to these ancient Nazarenes, their doctrines today are much different. (Read the article “Was Christianity Designed to Evolve?”)

So what happened to those early Nazarenes? Epiphanius wrote another interesting statement:

“7:7—This sect of Nazoraeans is to be found in Beroea near Coelesyria, in the Decapolis near Pella, and in Bashanitis at the place called Cocabe—Khokhabe in Hebrew.”

These places were located in Syria and also in Jordan.

“7:8—For that was its place of origin, since all the disciples had settled in Pella after their remove from Jerusalem—Christ having told them to abandon Jerusalem and withdraw from it because of the siege it was about to undergo. And they settled in Peraea [in Jordan] for this reason and, as I said, lived their lives there.”

So the early Church of God, referred to by some as the Nazarenes, left Jerusalem just before the Roman armies of Titus destroyed the city in A.D. 70. The Church of God then continued to settle and migrate throughout the areas of Asia Minor and later into Europe. 

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Lesson for us today

In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus Christ presents a historical review of His Church and gives us instructions on how to live: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7). (For more on this passage, see our articles on the “Seven Churches of Revelation.”)

We have an obligation to learn and apply what we read. The first church discussed in Revelation 2 was Ephesus. The warning was, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

As we track the history of the New Testament Church around the A.D. 90s, we find that the Church received a lot of persecution from Rome, from the Jews and from other groups that called themselves Christian, and so the apostle John had to remind the true Christians to be strong in the faith. The Nazarenes stayed faithful to many of the original truths—such as the seventh-day Sabbath, the spiritual laws in both the Old and New Testaments, and the belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Today Christians need to remain loyal to the Way—the teachings of Jesus Christ—as well. We need to be careful not to forget or neglect the teachings found in the Word of God. We must not lose that first love of God’s truth.

For more information about the teachings of the Church Jesus founded, please read our article “The Church: What Is It?

About the Author

John Foster

John Foster

John Foster grew up in the Chicago, Illinois, area and began attending the Church of God with his parents in 1958.

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