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Nazarene is a title by which the Jewish followers of Jesus were referred to in the early years after his death.

In the New Testament book of Acts Paul is tried in Caesarea, and Tertullus is reported as saying:

"We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5, New Revised Standard Version).

Table of contents
1 "Jesus the Nazarene"
2 Derivations of "Nazarene"
3 Nazarenes: Jewish Christians
4 Modern Church of the Nazarene
5 The Nazarene movement in painting
6 External links

"Jesus the Nazarene"

It seems clear that "Christian" was not the earliest term for the followers of Jesus, since Acts 11:26 reports its first use, in Antioch - at a time and in a place at least 10 and possibly 20 or more years after the death of Jesus. Many authors have argued that "Nazarene" was not just one term that was used, but the dominant term, and that it was also used to describe Jesus himself.

The chief argument for this claim rests on an interpretation of the way Jesus is referred to by the writers of the gospels. The original Greek forms of all four gospels call him, in places, "Iesou Nazarene" (e.g. Matthew 26:71; Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67; Luke 4:34; John 17:5; Acts 2:22). Translations of the Bible, from the fifth century Vulgate on, have generally rendered this into a form equivalent to "Jesus of Nazareth". This is a reasonable translation given that it is clear that all four evangelists did believe that Jesus came from Nazareth. However, it is not the only possible translation. Linguistically, "Jesus the Nazarene" would be at least as correct, and some critics have argued that it is more plausible given that Nazareth seems to have been a place of no significance at the time; it is unmentioned in contemporary history, and it is not even possible to prove, other than by reference to the gospels, that it even existed in Jesus's time. The Vulgate does use a form equivalent to "Nazarene" in one verse (Matthew 2:23), where its reading is Nazaroeus (Nazoraios), but here the original Greek has the word Nazarene on its own, without Iesou.

However we translate these verses from the gospels, the evidence from Acts 24 does support the claim that "Nazarene" was an early term for the followers of Jesus. But it does not appear to have been the term most used by those followers: the earliest Christian writings we have, the letters of Paul (which predate the gospels by ten to forty years), use the phrase "followers of the way" or, by far the most common, "the church".

Derivations of "Nazarene"

However, regardless of these issues of translation, it seems clear that the term "Nazarenes" had at least some currency as a description of some followers of Jesus. What, therefore, does the word mean? The word Nazarene might come from at least four different sources:

None of these interpretations is unproblematic (for example, the gospels describe Jesus as avoiding ascetic practices, which would make it odd to describe him as a Nazirite). Possibly "Nazarene" was a deliberate play on words that suggested more than one of these interpretations.

Nazarenes: Jewish Christians

After the word "Christian" had become established as the standard term for the followers of Jesus, there appear to have been one or more groups calling themselves "Nazarenes", perhaps because they wished to lay claim to a more authentic and/or a more Jewish way of following Jesus. Descriptions of groups with this title are given by the fourth century church father Epiphanius (flourished 370 CE), and Jerome. On the basis of their accounts, the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911 stated definitely that the name Nazarenes specifically identified an obscure Jewish-Christian sect, existing at the time of Epiphanius.

Epiphanius gives the more detailed, though thoroughly disapproving, description, calling the Nazarenes neither more nor less than Jews pure and simple. He mentions them in his Panarion (xxix. 7) as existing in Syria, Decapolis (Pella) and Basanitis (Cocabe). According to Epiphanius they dated their settlement in Pella from the time of the flight of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, immediately before the siege in 70 CE. He describes them as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." Epiphanius adds, however, that they recognized the new covenant as well as the old, and believed in the resurrection, and in the one God and His Son Jesus Christ. He cannot say whether their christological views were identical with those of Cerinthus and his followers, or whether they differed at all from his own.

Jerome (Epistle 79, to Augustine), on the other hand, says that though the Nazarenes believed in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, desiring to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other. They used the Aramaic Gospel of the Hebrews, but, while adhering as far as possible to the Mosaic economy as regarded circumcision, sabbaths, foods and the like, they did not refuse to recognize the apostolicity of Paul or the rights of Gentile Christians (Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah, ix. I). Jerome's description, taken along with the name (cf. Acts 24:5) and geographical position of the sect, strongly suggest that the Nazarenes of the 4th century interacted with the Ebionites in spite of Epiphanius' distinction.

These two references are all we know of groups calling themselves Nazarenes in the early centuries of the church. Earlier church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Origen and Eusebius mention groups who, to varying extent, accepted Jesus as Messiah while continuing to observe the Jewish Law. It is often suggested that these are the same as the groups identified by Jerome and Epiphanius as Nazarenes, but that can only be speculation. One such group were the Ebionites, referred to in second century writings; Epiphanius draws a distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites (he is even more disapproving of the latter). Some scholars have argued that there was no real distinction, but again this can only be speculation since there is no documentary evidence.

The modern sects of Nazarene Judaism and Notzrim attempt to take what is believed to have been the position of the historic Nazarenes. The term is also used by a number of other groups, mostly very small, with views that involve some kind of synthesis of Judaism and Christianity, often involving unorthodox versions of both.

Modern Church of the Nazarene

In the modern era, some Christian denominations have revived the word "Nazarene" as a description of Jesus, or of themselves as his followers: the best known of these is the Church of the Nazarene.

The Nazarene movement in painting

The name Nazarene was also adopted by a group of early nineteenth century German Romantic painters who attempted to revive a Christian art using as models late Gothic German painters and the Italian painters of the early Renaissance. In 1809, J. F. Overbeck and Franz Pforr formed an art cooperative in Vienna called the Brotherhood of St. Luke. The group moved to Rome and established themselves in a disused monastery. They were joined by Philipp Veit, Peter von Cornelius, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Schadow-Godenhaus. They lived simply, devoting the mornings to household tasks and the afternoons to painting. Many of them collaborated on the frescoes in the Casa Bartholdy (1816?17; now in Berlin) and the Casino Massimo (1822?32, Rome). Using early Italian and late medieval German pictures as models, they worked within the limits of religious dogma and not from nature. Although their paintings were uncomfortably composed, poorly colored, and lacking in imagination, the Nazarenes exerted considerable influence in Germany and in England upon the Pre-Raphaelites.

External links