The Natsarene (“Nazarene”) Religion – Pt. 3

The background

In the first two posts in this series I argued that a human prophet lay at the root of the Christian religion—certainly not ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ This prophet taught a rigorous code of personal fulfillment out of step with both Hellenism and Judaism, yet conforming in fundamental ways with the uncompromising ethics and search for enlightenment (gnosis) found in Buddhism. The proof of these statements lies in a body of sayings preserved in the Christian scriptures themselves. Those sayings—which I have numbered at about 150—comprise a coherent body of material in tension with both the Jewish worship of Yahweh and with the Hellenist ethos of man’s domination over the material world. These “core” sayings are inward-looking and socially impractical.

In this post we will begin to look more closely at those sayings which, I submit, form the core of the Nazarene religion—the pre-Christian religion of those known to history as the Ebionim (Heb. “the poor”) and hoi hagioi (Gk. “the saints”). Nazarene is simply a term used for convenience, because it is familiar from the Greek Christian corpus. However, the term is a transliteration from the semitic root N-Ts-R, that is, nun-tsade-resh, with the general meaning “watch, guard, preserve” (BDB 665). The form netsur+ is used in the Old Testament for “secret things” (Is 48:6) and it is here that we should probably look for the origin of the Greek Christian Nazoraios (Mt 2:23) as an appellation for Jesus. The root is very old, predating Christianity by thousands of years and appearing already in Akkadian religious writings, where N-Ts-R is associated with secret wisdom, e.g., in the story of Atrahasis (“Ultra-Wise”), the primeval Noah. (Cf. The Natsarene and Hidden Gnosis.)

Before the First Jewish Revolt, the Nazarenes were centered in Jerusalem under “James the Just” or “James the Righteous.” They were the object of a donation of money collected by Paul (1 Cor 16:1 ff.). Besides being a well-intentioned charity, this collection was probably also a peace offering, for tensions between Paul and the Jerusalem Church are evident in the Pauline epistles. I won’t investigate here whether the “false brethren” of Gal. 2:4 or the “super apostles” in Corinth (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11) were related to the Nazarenes. This may be the case, however. A major issue separating Paul’s teaching from theirs was that Paul received his teaching from “revelation,” (Gal 1:11-12; 2:2)—a source which the Nazarenes did not acknowledge. They appear to have received their secret teachings from an esoteric tradition handed down from an original prophet. At least some of the Nazarenes fled Palestine before the fall of the Temple, heading northeast. Traditions regarding this flight are preserved in Jewish Christian and in Mandean writings. Indeed, the Nazarenes appear to have been the precursors of the Mandeans, whose “priests” are called natsuraiia or ‘keepers of secret knowledge’ (Drower and Macuch, A Mandaic Dictionary 285). The Mandeans claim to follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They revile “Jesus,” whom they consider an impostor. Thus, the Nazarenes-Mandeans may have been the first Jesus mythicists (“docetists”)—people who denied the reality of “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Nazorean teachings

It is possible to form a contour of Nazorean teachings by studying the body of sayings preserved in the Christian tradition according to the three criteria alluded to above: dissimilarity, coherence, and impracticality. Mandean writings provide further sources, but I don’t include them in this introductory series of posts.

Karma. One theme dominates the “core” Nazorean sayings and parables—almost to the exclusion of all other themes. Fundamental also to Buddhism, this theme is known to us as karma. Over and over, in various ways, Jesus teaches the Golden Rule: as you do to others, so it will be done to you (Mt 7:12). The Golden Rule appears in virtually all religions, so there is nothing unique here. However, in Nazorean teaching (as also in Buddhism) karma is not merely an ethical injunction—it is an immutable spiritual law, one by which we all live whether we know it or not.

The number of karmic sayings in the Christian scriptures is great, and includes all the beatitudes. For reference, I list them here as numbered in Crossan’s Sayings Parallels: 9, 36-41, 50, 60-63, 65-68, 70, 81, 85, 87, 123, 140, 170, 217-22, 225, 228, 318, 319 (total = 33). Some examples follow:



“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:37-38)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
(Mt 5:6-7)

“Love your enemies and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great.” (Lk 6:35)

“Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Mt 7:7-8)

The slayer receives a slayer in turn.
The conqueror will surely be defeated.
The abuser will reap abuse, and the reviler be reviled.
Thus, by growth of the very deed, one who injures is injured in turn.
(S 1.3.15)

“When a fool does evil work, he forgets that he is lighting a fire wherein he must burn some day.” (Dh 136)

For one’s deeds are not lost, they will surely return.
Their master will meet with them.
The fool who commits sin will come to feel the pain himself. (Sn 666)

If you fear pain, if anguish is hateful,
Then do no evil, neither openly nor in secret.
Do evil tomorrow, or do it today, and there is no escaping suffering
Even though you spring up and flee. (Ud 5.4)

Other themes. A number of other themes—closely related to karma (see next post)—characterize the “core” teaching of Jesus. They can be broadly grouped under the rubrics “Wisdom” and “Ethics” (Gnosis and Behavior below). All of these themes have parallels in Buddhist scripture. I list only some of them here with Crossan’s numbers. They are not in order of importance:

Need for gnosis: 76, 85, 254, 272, 292, 328. [6]
Need for earnestness/taking thought: 20, 21, 33, 364. [4]
Parables of accomplishment: 3-7, 15, 16, 19. [10]
The syzygy or law of opposites: 36-41, 293. [7]

Need for chastity (encratism): 56, 236, 313, 348, 357, POxy 840. [6]
Need for self-control: 17, 53, 59, 60, 61. [5]
Need for self-watchfulness: 17, 45, 76, 203, 205-07, 235. [8]
Need for renunciation: 57, 121-23, 170, 229, 349, 352, 429. [9]
Need for honesty: 59, 276. [2]
Need for humility: 27, 38, 60, 134, 159, 172, 180, 227, 430. [9]
Need for love: 13, 62, 209, 286, 328. [5 +many]
Need for perfection: 52-56, 64, 250. [7]
Need for separation from the world: 155, 281, 287, 291, 361, 454, Jn 4:24; 6:63; 8:23b. [9]
Uselessness of wealth: 18, 25, 36, 74, 78, 103, 217, 349-50, 482, 486. [11]
Against cant, ritual, and ostentation: 152, 176-89. [15]

Together with the doctrine of karma, the above themes furnish the basic theology of the pre-Christian Nazarenes. Nothing in this list refers to God, nothing to a final judgment, nothing to atonement nor redemption, nothing to vicarious salvation though a redeemer figure—all hallmarks of the Pauline kerygma. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgment of central Jewish tenets: obedience to Yahweh, the chosen status of the Hebrew people, the impassable chasm between man and God. On the contrary: in these “core” Christian sayings there is an inherent tension with Judaism, as seen in the plethora of sayings/parables against cant and ritual (“phariseeism” and Temple) and in the basic “gnostic” outlook. The entire body of the above teachings rests on the belief that understanding of life (gnosis or Manda d’Hayye) is necessary, attainable, and fulfilling. The focus is sapiential and ethical: finding gnosis through effort, and treating your neighbor as yourself—through renunciation and egolessness.

This was the gnostic theology of the Nazarenes, certainly based on the teaching of a “lost” prophet who inspired Christianity.

Next: Gnostic-encratite spirituality…

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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