Nazarene Jewish Christianity,
From the End of the New Testament Period
Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century
E.J. Brill and The Magnes
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
this concise and comprehensive review of all the early patristic references to
"Nazarene" Jewish Christian sectarians, Ray A. Pritz sketches in the
lines of a significant stage of Christian and Christological evolution. The
work is quite helpful even if one does not agree with the author's assumptions
and readings of the evidence at every point. Pritz concludes concerning the
Nazarenes that they were a Jewish sect retaining one of the names given to
Jesus-believers before the invention of the label "Christian."
"Nazarene" denoted both "follower of the prophesied messianic
Branch" (as in the recently deceased "Branch Davidian" sect) and
"follower of Jesus of Nazareth." These Nazarenes are to be carefully
distinguished from their estranged cousins the Ebionites, the latter having
separated from the former over issues either of Christology or of leadership.
Pritz makes the Nazarenes the prior group, direct descendants of the first
followers of Jesus. Nonetheless, these Nazarenes were in full accord with
developing Catholic Christianity saving only that they continued to observe the
commandments of the Torah.
Unlike the Ebionites, they embraced a
"Trinitarian" Christology and venerated Paul, his mission, and his
epistles. They read the same New Testament we do except for their use of the
Nazarene or Hebrew Gospel, of which there was probably only one, not three (the
Gospels of the Hebrews, the Nazarenes, and the Ebionites) often enumerated by
scholars of Apocryphal Christian literature.
One must wonder if here we do not have a
reconstruction of Jewish Christian history implicitly tailored to fit the
apologetical model of church history according to which the theological
catholic purity of the church was only lately besmirched by the mischief of
heretical interlopers and innovators. At
several points one suspects that Pritz's judgments stem from the anachronistic
imposition of earlier evidence by the doctrinal canons of a later era, whether
of Pritz's own or that of Eusebius. For instance, Justin rejects the view of
certain Jews or Samaritans who deem Jesus to have been the Messiah but only
"a man of men." From this terse note, may we infer as Pritz does
Justin knew of other Jewish Christians who held a pre-existence Christology? I
am not sure we know that Justin would have condemned any and every
non-pre-existence Christology as heretical.
Perhaps the point of "a man of men" is the notorious denial of
the virgin birth. The comment is obscure. Pritz feels certain that Epiphanius'
sources of information would have mentioned any Christological deficiency on
the part of the Nazarenes he describes, so the silence of the sources must mean
they embraced pre-existence Christology. But the shibboleths of orthodoxy for
the sources may not have been the same as Epiphanius' own. Had the sources been
sniffing for the same heresies as the writer of the "Panarion", we might have
heard of all manner of heresies of which the sources were in fact silent.
And is it Trinitarian Christology when the
Nazarenes are said to echo Colossians 1:9, recognizing in Jesus the bodily
dwelling of the fullness of the Godhead? Not necessarily, when the most obvious
reference is to the passage in the Hebrew Gospel, "The whole fount of the
Holy Spirit came upon him," which may naturally be read as denoting
adoptionism. Does the passage where
resists his mother's suggestion that the whole family go to receive John's
baptism ("Wherein have I sinned, unless this saying itself be a sin of
ignorance?") evidence the Nazarene Jesus'
self-awareness of a 'dual nature'"? Hardly. We can say no more than that
it is an apologetic device occasioned by the belief in the immaculate
sinlessness of the Redeemer.
Pritz is happy to shovel all the Christological
heresies of the Jewish Christians discussed by the early church fathers into
the “Ebionite" category, suggesting that it was precisely such
gnosticizing notions that led to their severance from the orthodox Nazarenes.
But what did the Ebionites believe? Were they adoptionists pure and simple? Was
their Jesus simply a man without a virgin birth who won divine adoption by his
exemplary Torah obedience? Or was he the (re-) incarnation of the True Prophet
of whom we read in the supposedly Ebionite Kerygmata
Petrou source of the Pseudo-Clementines? Whatever Christological view they
held, Pritz wants to make them a secondary mutation from the orthodox parent
stock. And here one may note two difficulties.
one wonders if Pritz is not altogether too hasty in sorting the various
patristic references to Jewish Christians into two categories. Based on the
observation just made, can we even speak of a single type of Ebionites? When
the traits of the groups discussed by this or that patristic writer do not
match Pritz's ideal types, he suggests that the writer confused the Ebionites
with the Nazarenes. This is risky business. Maybe we are not dealing with a
phenomena easy to pigeonhole. As Robert
argues in Maccobees, Zealots, Christians
Qumran, it may be more natural
to regard all such nomenclature as synonymous labels for the whole sectarian
hydra. "Ebionites" and "Nazarenes" might well refer to the
same general movement within which many distinct variations might be discovered
here and there.
Second, even if we posit a schism between two
well-defined groups, henceforth to be known as Ebionites and Nazarenes, and even
if we agree the Ebionites are the splitters, this hardly
their doctrines are innovations. The Ebionites may have left the group in
disgust, protesting the semi-pagan assimilations of the Nazarenes (much as F.C.
Baur once suggested). The Azal'is split from the Baha'is, but they were the
followers of Subh-i-Azal, the first caretaker named by the Bab, resisters of the
new messianic claims of Baha-ullah. The Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints
were nonetheless the possessors of the succession as originally planned by the
Prophet Joseph Smith. Louis Farrakhan was the splitter, but his version of the
Nation of Islam was in fact the original, that of Warith Deen Muhammad the innovation.
If Pritz may be suspected of over-artificially
segregating the Nazarenes from Ebionites, he similarly wants to seal off the Nazarenes
from earlier and later sectarian groups associated with them yesterday by
Gressmann, Guignebert, Eisler, Hugh J. Schonfield and others. Mustn't there be
some sort of connection between the Jewish-Christian Nazarenes and the Nazerini
of Pliny, the Nasaraioi of Epiphanius, the Nazorei/Rechabites of Filaster, and
even the Nusairi/Alawi sect of
Syria? All mere coincidence, concludes
Pritz, just as Creationists put down the similarities
animal species to mere chance. No connection. He judges, for example, that
Pliny's Nazerini must have been pre-Christian, and thus can have had no
connection with the followers
Jesus the Nazarene.Unless of course, as he himself notes some scholars suggest,
Jesus' own epithet "the Nazarene" were a badge of sectarian
allegiance, not a reference to the town he
from. Pritz's argument for rejecting a Nazerini-Nazarene link thus seems
circular. What is wrong with the Schonfield-Eisler theory that what we have
here is a designation for a type
long-lived sectarianism that took many forms over many centuries, just as we
speak of many diametrically opposed "Hindu" sects today?
Pritz is similarly dismissive of Epiphanius'
striking identification of the early Jesus-believers as having once been called
Essenes. Noting that Epiphanius equates
Iessaioi with Philo's Therapeutae,
Pritz correctly reminds us that Philo never makes the Therapeutae Essenes,
though he describes both in similar terms. He says Epiphanius is the first
forge the conjectural link. But how do we know Epiphanius does not here have
independent access to a known link between the two? Why must we see this
passage in Epiphanius as conjecture rather than evidence?
Pritz notes that "Iessaioi" is never otherwise used as a variant for
"Essenes" (Essaioi); if
they were the same, why the difference in spelling here? Why would Epiphanius
alter the spelling?
obvious answer presents itself: precisely to provide himself a peg on which to
hang his Christianizing etymologies of the name: Jesseans (followers of the Son
of the Son of Jesse) or followers of Jesus. "Iessaioi" would sound a
bit closer to either. Perhaps what Epiphanius felt uncomfortable with was the
implicit suggestion that the Jesus-believers had been a sectarian offshoot from
the broader Essene movement, which also seems to be the option Pritz would like
to avoid. Were the Nazarenes so safely pro-Pauline as Pritz's reads them? If
so, this would distance them from the heretical Ebionites yet again. First,
Pritz takes Epiphanius's note that the Nazarenes
both Old and New Testaments to mean that they must have used Paul's letters.
Yet as Pritz himself realizes elsewhere, the Nazarenes are said only to use
their own Hebrew Gospel, not our
so whatever it means, Epiphanius statement cannot convince us that the
Nazarenes used any particular document he does not actually specifically list.
And Epiphanius says nothing of any
Second, Jerome passes on a bit of Nazarene
exegesis of Isaiah 9:1-4 according to which the light shining on Zebulun and
Naphtali means that "When Christ came and his preaching shone out,
Zebulun and Naphtali first of
all were freed from the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees and he shook off
their shoulders the very heavy yoke of the Jewish traditions. Later, however,
the preaching became more dominant, that means the preaching was multiplied,
through the Gospel of the apostle Paul... Finally the whole world... had seen
the clear light of the Gospel." If this is indeed what the Nazarenes told
Jerome, then all right, case closed. But let us not too swiftly bypass the
epexegetical phrase "that means." Does this not perhaps mark the end
of the Nazarene exegesis and the beginning of Jerome's own inferences on the basis of it? Would it
not rather seem more natural for the Nazarene exegesis to have contrasted the
beginning of the preaching in the territory of only two tribes of Israel with
the eventual extension of Jesus' preaching to the whole nation?
Third, do we in fact find Pauline theology in
the fragment of Nazarene exegesis Jerome quotes on Isaiah 31:6-9: "not
because of human powers but because of God's mercy"? Pritz thinks so:
"To be sure, the words in question... are triggered by the text of Isaiah,
but the very decision of the Nazarenes to highlight them in such a way must be
taken as an indication that they were not
to Paul's gospel" (69). Surely this is overinterpretation. And does the
reference in the same commentary to "his apostles" rather than to
Peter or James alone imply the inclusion of Paul among their number? Hardly.
Was there but a single Nazarene Gospel rather
than three? Pritz knows he must reckon with various patches of text which
cannot all have occurred in the same book. He does not want to return to the
pre-Vielhauer position, so he suggests a single Hebrew Gospel, based on
Matthew, which continually mutated, sooner or later containing the various
passages we know in the patristic quotations. But mustn't we envision copies of
each recension continuing to exist here and there, side by side? The redaction
of a new version needn't have altogether supplanted the earlier versions. And
then we are in effect talking about various gospels, unless we want to say that
Matthew and Luke are not different gospels, but merely variant editions of
Mark. Take your pick.
Early Christianity, like the Judaism
from which it evolved, was aconfusingly diverse phenomenon. The danger of a
systematic scholarly scrutiny of it is to oversystematize the phenomena, and thus
to oversimplify them. But, as Pritz's engaging and informative work manifestly
shows, it is well worth the effort.
Robert M Price
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