The Natsarene (“Nazarene”) Religion – Pt. 5

What’s in a name?

In the preceding post I suggested that a number of “core” sayings found in the Christian scriptures have already been extensively redacted. They are not the ipsissima verba of the “lost” prophet whom I propose existed in history (certainly not Jesus of Nazareth). Rather, those sayings are the product of a fairly complex and sophisticated religious tradition. For convenience I may sometimes call that tradition “Nazoreanism” and the movement to which it refers the “Nazarene” movement. This terminology is somewhat incorrect, however, for the movement that these posts describe was never Hellenist but existed purely in the Semitic realm. Hence, it should not be referred to by a term derived from Greek which contains the “z” sound—a definite marker of the normative Hellenist Christian tradition.

It appears that the Hellenists strategically effected an artificial nomenclature at an early stage of Christianity. They were confronted with a pre-existing Semitic religious movement on the ground which referred to itself as the Netsarim or Netsurim from the root nun-tsade-resh, “watch, keep, preserve.” Translated, then, we have a group which called itself The Watchers, Keepers, or Preservers. I have pointed out elsewhere that N-ts-r is a very old and rather exalted root in semitic religion, one going back at least to the second millennium BCE. The root also lies behind the “Watchers” of the Enochian traditions, a connection we will look at in a future post.1

These Natsarenes (as I call them) espoused a rigorous ethical code and laid claim to the teachings of an astonishing prophet of recent history who had given impetus to their movement. At first they held all the cards in their favor. Already in existence, the Natsarenes had every claim to authority through an unbroken (and probably short) chain of links to the “lost” prophet. At the time the Hellenists were just organizing (mid-I CE?), the Natsarenes had a fairly subtle theology, as we see from the surviving “core” sayings—e.g., the Parable of the Ten Maidens (post #4).

The Hellenists, however, appear to have rebuffed the impracticality of the Natsarene movement, which was gnostic and inward-looking. Focusing on the Hellenist world, they incorporated the sayings of the prophet into their theology (the Pauline kerygma) and added a wonderfully grandiose biography (Jesus of Nazareth).

One might ask: Why did the Paulines (the incipient Great Church) find it so important to repudiate gnosticism? This repudiation, it should be noted, is hardly limited to Christianity—it has repeated over and over in history. The answer is rarely recognized and purely practical: gnosticism is fundamentally and irrevocably incompatible with institution building. Any religion which seeks broad-based popular support must repudiate gnosticism. This is because gnosis requires outward sacrifice and repudiates ‘the world.’ This places gnosticism diametrically at odds with the purposes of every institution, for institutions require not the rejection but the support of society. In sum, the world is the price of gnosis, and this is essentially the teaching of “Jesus.” Gnostic salvation is individual. No corporate element whatsoever is required nor even admissible. The gnostic goes his own path—usually into the ‘wilderness.’ He has no use for sacraments, rites, bishops, or a vicarious savior. Obviously, the gnostic is of no use to any church. On the contrary, he is a weakening agent, a force of diffusion, decentralisation, and confusion. Anyone who wishes to amass power will be the enemy of the gnostic.

Gnosis is closely associated with the root N-Ts-R, for (as we shall see) the Natsarenes interpreted the root to signify “be awake,” i.e., “be enlightened.” Natsarene theology is built around this understanding and goal. The Pauline kerygma, however, repudiates gnosis and, in its place, substitutes faith. Thus, in seeking to excise gnostic teachings, the Hellenists also excised any allusion to the term N-Ts-R.

This explains the use, first employed by Mark, of the Greek term Nazarêne. The (aspirated/voiced) “zeta” in the Greek word does not conform linguistically with the (unaspirated/unvoiced) tsade found in the pre-existing Semitic cognates. This is but one of myriad changes, small and large, effected by the evangelist. The intent is clear: it points future readers/hearers to an entirely different Semitic term—the nazir, that is, the “nazirite.”

Samson and Samuel were both lifelong nazirites. Numerous parallels can be drawn between the newly invented prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, and those two Old Testament figures. The birth of Samson is especially instructive in this regard. The Septuagint passage (Judges 13) reads:

/2/ And there was a man of Saraa, of the family of the kindred of Dan, and his name was Manoe, and his wife was barren, and bore not. /3/ And an angel of the Lord appreared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are with child, and you shall conceive a son. /4/ And now be very cautious and drink no wine nor strong drink, and eat no unclean thing, /5/ for behold you are with child and shall bring forth a son, and there shall come no razor upon his head for the child shall be a nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

… /24/ And the woman brought forth a son, and she called his name Samson; and the child grew and the Lord blessed him. /25/ And the Spirit of the Lord began to go out with him…

Here we have the annunciation of an angel to a woman, she will bear a particularly distinguished son, and he will be a nazirite, that is, “separated to the Lord” from birth. In fact, the Greek term used in this passage for “Nazirite” (Alexandrian text) is Nazeiraion—the only place in the Septuagint where this term occurs. It would appear that the Matthean evangelist noted this. He continued the Markan usage of the “z” sound—thus perpetuating the connection of Jesus to the Jewish nazirite tradition. But he also wrote:

And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazoraios.” (Mt 2:23)

Nazoraios is not precisely the Nazeiraio[s] of the Septuagint, but given the florid invention of the evangelists, precision was hardly of interest. It is evident that “Nazareth” also goes hand-in-hand with removing any allusion between the invented figure of Jesus and the Natsarenes. By assigning Jesus’ hometown to Nazareth, Matthew did exactly this and further divorced Jesus from the Natsarenes. As it happens, the town of Natsareth came into being ca. 100 CE—precisely when the Matthean redactor was active.

In the cognates under discussion, Semitic speakers uniformly use unvoiced sibilants: Natsareth (the continuing name of the town in Israel), Natsraiia (Mandean priests), Nasrani (the Arabic name for Christians to this day). On the other hand, Hellenist Christianity uniformly uses the voiced sibilant “z” and has from its inception: Nazara, Nazareth, Nazarêne, Nazôraios. The linguistic divide may here seem slight, yet it offers a clue to the immense theological and conceptual gulf separating the Natsarenes from the Pauline “Nazarenes.”

Rupture in the fellowship

Thus, we have a two-stage process whereby the Hellenist Christians separated their savior-hero Jesus from the hated Natsarenes. I write “hated” because the Natsarenes were perfectly positioned to give the lie to the Hellenists. Intimately acquainted as they were with the prophet (whose biography is still lost to us) and with his gnostic-encratite teachings which they followed rigorously, the Natsarenes were surely appalled at the crass invention of “Jesus of Nazareth.” Thus, the actual followers of the prophet were doubtless the first Jesus mythicists—in existence already at the earliest stage of Christianity.

In Acts 6:1 ff. we read of bickering between two factions in the earliest Church: the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews.” This reflects a stage of growing tensions within the Jerusalem church, that is, within the Natsarene movement itself, elsewhere referred to as “The Way.” Hellenism was a perennial cause of tension in late antiquity, not only cultural but also religious, being an unavoidable part of the general culture of Palestine. We can imagine that some Hellenists—those who preferred the Greek language, Greek ways, and who were theologically less wedded to Jewish tradition—were in the minority among the Natsarenes and suffered the onus of continually being more or less ‘reprobate.’ They would never rise to leadership positions in the movement and it was clear that their path forward was blocked. The widows of Hellenist members who had died were being neglected, and one can infer that the Hellenists were given the servant positions of ‘waiting on tables’ (all the names in Acts 6:5 are Hellenist).

We can infer that some Hellenists broke away from this one-sided arrangement. One can only speculate as to the exact circumstances. It is very possible that they were seduced by a radical new conception—the Pauline kerygma—perhaps at the aegis of Paul himself when he was in Jerusalem. At an early stage Paul was persecuting the Way. He may have been trying to seduce some Hellenists away from the movement with rather exotic ideas about a divine man sent by God who died for our sins. Regardless of Paul’s own inner convictions and sincerity, one can have no doubt that he himself contributed to a split within the Natsarene movement, whether he did so before the rupture and/or was vigorously active after the fact.

In any case, we can infer that some Hellenists broke away from the Natsarene movement and adopted/developed the theology we know today as the Pauline kerygma. They would have brought with them acquaintance of Natsarene teachings, including intimate familiarity with the prophet’s sayings. Thus, we find many of those sayings in Christian scripture—now much redacted and adapted to the Pauline kerygma.

Ample clues reveal the handiwork of the Hellenists in regard to “Nazareth/Nazarene.” First of all, the town of Nazareth was not yet in existence at the turn of the era when Jesus supposedly lived. Secondly, the Semitic name of the town is inconveniently spelled with a tsade. Thus, it does not reflect the name in the New Testament—a clear sign that the “Nazareth” of the gospels is an awkward invention. Thirdly, in Acts 24:5 Paul is called “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” It would be most curious if he were a leader of inhabitants of Nazareth…

Part 6: Secret Mark


1. The Aramaic Book of Enoch preserved in the DSS uses ayin-yod-resh for “watcher,” which is the Aramaic form of Heb. N-Ts-R. On the rather complex linguistic issues which unite the apparently different Aramaic and Hebrew roots (via Ugaritic), see R. Murray, “The Origin of Aramaic ‘ir, Angel” (Orientalia 53 [1984] 303-17).

About René Salm

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

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