The Natsarene (“Nazarene”) Religion – Pt. 6

In the fourth post of this series I looked at the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Mt 25:1-13) and concluded that it was an allegory—certainly not the ipsissima verba from the mouth of the human prophet who lies at the origins of Christianity. The incipient Great Church needed to erase that flesh and blood prophet to make room for its invented and grandiose “Jesus of Nazareth.” It needed to do this because the gnostic doctrine of the “Nazarene” (Natsarene) prophet was diametrically opposed to its doctrine of faith which lay at the heart of the Pauline kerygma (“proclamation”).

Erasing the prophet from history was a fairly easy task, for that prophet has—as we can see—left few if any traces. However, one can infer from the surviving sayings that he was poor, a teacher of secret/hidden wisdom, had a small circle of disciples, and was opposed to normative Judaism. It is also very possible that he was killed by the state on trumped up charges of sedition and with the collusion of the Jewish authorities.

The Paulines (as I characterize those who authored the New Testament and who built the Great Church) created “Jesus of Nazareth,” a divine man designed to spread their religion of an atoning savior among the gentiles. Meanwhile, the most oblique allusion to the original prophet was retained in the form of Jesus’ contemporary, “John the Baptist” (a moniker, not a name)—though what we read of John in the New Testament can hardly be trusted.1

Though it was possible to “erase” the prophet from history, it was not possible—nor desirable—to entirely jettison his teachings which were formidable, trenchant, and pithy. The Paulines had the sense to make as much use as possible of remarkable teachings which they received—already elaborated and modulated—from the Natsarene movement. After all, the Paulines were a breakaway from the Natsarenes (see Part 5: Rupture in the fellowship). Where the teachings dealt with gnosis, the Paulines substituted “faith.” After all, in Natsarene religion gnosis is the active agent:

And [Jesus] said, “Whoever finds the meaning of these sayings will not experience death.” (Th 1)

But in Pauline Christianity, faith is the active agent:

And [Jesus] said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mk 5:34)

The Natsarenes were strictly interested in the spiritual realm, and they sought to transcend (or overcome) the world (Th 56, 80-81, 110-11; Jn 16:33). For the Paulines, on the other hand, the efficacy of Jesus extends to the physical plane, as we see in his many theatrical healings.

Natsarene spirituality

In Part 4 we looked at the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Mt 25:1-13), which I described as “encratite.” It has a number of symbols that would have been understandable only to an “in” group (bridegroom, maidens, midnight, oil, lamp). As it stands, the parable conforms neither to Jewish nor to gentile customs and its allegorical nature is patent. This parable could not have been spoken by the prophet—it is, rather, a Natsarene theological elaboration based on the teachings of the prophet.

The appearance of a bridegroom at midnight and his association (read: marriage) with maidens is the theology of the bridal chamber, a theology particularly associated with Valentinian gnosis (II CE). The Gospel of Philip is a Valentinian work where we read: “The Lord did everything in a mystery, a baptism, and a chrism, and a eucharist, and a redemption, and a bridal chamber” (Ph 67). In the same gospel we read that “The Nazarene is he who reveals what is hidden” (56), and also “Nazara is the truth. The Nazarene, then, is the truth” (62). This understanding of the terms “Nazara” and “Nazarene” conflicts with the association of Jesus with the settlement of Nazareth (II CE). On the other hand, it supports the view that “Jesus of Nazara” (the earliest literary form of the town’s name)2 may originally have signified “Jesus of Truth.”

In the bridal chamber, the groom obviously unites with his bride. Generally this signifies a sexual union, yet encratism is violently anti-sexual: it erases gender difference and endorses sexual continence, egkrateia. As intimated in Post 4, religious encratism seeks to replace pleasure with understanding. This is based on the view that the two are incompatible and, hence, one must choose. That choice is the gnostic krisis.

In a gnostic encratite context, the “bridal chamber” is purely metaphorical. it has nothing at all to do with sexual union. Quite the contrary: it has to do with the union of the disciple (the bride, virgin, maiden, young man) with gnosis (the groom).

In the Parable of the Ten Maidens, those maidens (disciples) who had no oil in their lamps were not prepared for the acquisition of the groom (gnosis). In other words, they “missed” the wedding feast for they were unworthy to themselves become his brides. The oil and the lamps evidently signify those attributes which are required to attain gnosis: chastity, effort, and perseverance.

Thus it is that sexual imagery actually conveys the opposite. This is the key to finding the “hidden” meaning in encratite works. It is the reason that orthodoxy has been unable to penetrate such works and has continually misunderstood them, even to the point of caricaturing gnostic groups as “libertine.” Outsiders were misled by the overt sexual imagery. It is clear that encratite groups relished their hidden knowledge and did not mind being misunderstood by outsiders.

Secret Mark

We are now able to appreciate the theological context behind the Secret Gospel of Mark, a passage discovered in 1973 by Morton Smith. I have no doubts at all that the document is authentic—it fits in perfectly with the encratite spirituality that we have been discussing. The Greek text is part of a previously lost letter of Clement of Alexandria. It reads as follows:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.

A second short excerpt is to be inserted, according to Clement, in Mark 10:46:

And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.

In the main passage of the Secret Gospel we read of a “youth” (neaniskos) whom Jesus “raises from the dead.” In gnostic-encratite symbolism, the youth is the equivalent of the maiden in Matthew’s parable, i.e., the disciple/gnostic aspirant. “Jesus” is a symbol for gnosis, i.e., for the “Truth” as the Gospel of Philip defines Jesus of “Nazara” (see above). It is no surprise that nuptial imagery would be chosen to express the acquisition of gnosis, for such acquisition was, for the gnostic, the most desirable as well as the most intimate of all life events—one which brings happiness ever after. I also have no doubt that the gnostics knew they were misleading outsiders with their hidden symbolism. They viewed those outsiders as crass materialists who could not appreciate the higher spirituality of “hidden gnosis.”

Of course, the youth “loves” Jesus—for he loves gnosis/Truth. He will “beseech [Jesus] that he might be with him.” Indeed, he wishes to be with Jesus [gnosis] forevermore. The “six days” that Jesus stays with the youth is a symbolic timespan which leads up to the perfect number seven. The Jews, of course, venerate the seventh day. So did the Therapeutae described by Philo,3 and the next post in this series will discuss parallels between the Therapeutae and Natsarene spirituality. The “linen cloth” (sindon) is also an encratite symbol. It represents the state of ignorance that must be abandoned when acquiring gnosis, symbolized by the “robe” (stolê). All these are technical terms in Natsarene spirituality: youth, maiden/virgin, linen cloth, robe, lamp, oil, wedding, groom, etc.

Once we are familiar with the encratite worldview, we readily perceive its symbols surviving in the canonical writings. The Parable of the Ten Maidens has been discussed, but many other passages echo Natsarene religion and form a backdrop to the gospels, e.g.:

And a young man [neaniskos] followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth [sindon] about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. (Mk 14:51-52)

Leaving the linen cloth behind is symbolic for leaving the old self of ignorance behind. Mark describes this as having occurred before the crucifixion/resurrection, which suggests that the evangelist viewed the crucifixion/resurrection as the critical events in salvation—precisely as the Pauline kerygma maintains. This is an indication that the Marcan evangelist is midway between Nazoreanism and Paulinism.

And having entered the tomb, they saw a young man [neaniskos] sitting on the right, clothed with a white robe [stolê], and they were greatly amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here… (Mk 16:5-6)

Of course, “risen” in a gnostic context meant “came to gnosis.” Familiarity with Natsarene/encratite symbolism now allows one to make several equivalences which were certainly pre-Christian: baptism = resurrection = marriage = acquiring gnosis.

The Natsarenes employed the imagery of detested sexuality/sensuality to convey their most cherished ideals. One can be sure they were quite aware of the acute irony of this veiled theological symbolism. It may also be mentioned that a critical element in their “marriage feast” was the kiss. It symbolized the passage of gnosis through teaching, from master to pupil, i.e., mouth to mouth. The kiss is a euphemism for “imparting/learning gnosis, becoming wise.” When Jesus kisses Mary Magdalene on the mouth (Gospel of Philip 63) it is by no means sexual—except to outsiders.4

PART 7: “Watchfulness”


1. For example, at Mt 11:7-10 John is described. However, the parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (L. 78) applies that description to Jesus himself.

2. “Nazara” is in the putative Q source at Lk 4:16 (cf. Mt 4:13).

3. Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 36.

4. “Jamesian” works are particularly endowed with this Natsarene theology of the kiss, also known as the “door” or “gate.” Cf. The Apocryphon of James, The First Apocalypse of James, The Second Apocalypse of James, all in the Nag Hammadi library.

About René Salm

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

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