An Anthropologist Looks at the Judeo-Christian Scriptures

14.  The Fate of the Notzrim
The Messianic Milieu

Yashua bar Joseph

Yeshua ha-Mashiakh


The Trial

 The Execution

The Notzrim

Originally, the followers of Jesus were not called "Christians". This name was first coined among Paul's converts in Antioch. In Jerusalem, those who followed Jesus were called Nasarenes and Ebionites. As mentioned in Acts 24:5, the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem were known as the  Nasarenes (Hebrew n'tzrim, meaning "set apart". The word comes from the root for "righteousness" and implies set apart from sinful things.)  Though they were followers of Jesus, the Nasarenes were Jews, and their religious beliefs did not depart as radically from the traditional teachings of Judaism as did the Christianity of the gentile converts of Paul in other countries. The Nasarenes held Jesus to be the promised Messiah of Israel, and they viewed him as calling them to return to the pure Law of Moses and to become "set apart" from the polluting things of the Gentile world.  Thus, the Nasarenes remained true to the Law.  They did not see themselves as followers of a new religion, one that superceded Judaism, but as zealous adherents to Judaism. The Nasarene community in Jerusalem was led by James, the brother of Jesus who was also called James the Just (Ya'akov HaTsadik) who became the first bishop of Jerusalem.  James designation as a Tsakik, or "Righteous One", is a Hebrew title that is reserved for those who were zealous followers of the Law of Moses, a title that emphasizes the pro-Law theology of the early Nasarenes.

 Jesus and his followers can be numbered among these anti-Herodian parties that sought a return to a Judaism that was uncorrupted by the Hellenic world.  This can be seen in Jesus's first political act--purifying the Temple of the profane uses that the Sadducees permitted within its precincts. His overturning of the tables of the money changers and offering salesmen was a direct affront to the Sadducess and their High Priest, and is generally seen as the act for which his death was  plotted. *****

In the first century there were of thousands of  Jewish followers of  "Yashua" before the rise of Gentile "Christianity" (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:7; 9:31; 21:20). These "pre-Christian" followers of the Jesus movement within Judaism were, like other Jews, zealous for the Torah (Acts 15:19-21; 21:17-27) and met in synagogues (James 1:1, 2:2). The question raised by Paul and debated among the Nasarenes was whether their messiah, Y'shua, had come for the Gentiles as well (Acts 10; Acts 15) and, if so, whether Gentile converts had to become Jews with respect to following the Law in order to be followers of Y'shua.

Two of the controversies between Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem was whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised (i.e., become Jews and live the Law of Moses) to join those who followed Jesus and whether the Jewish members should abstain (as required by the Law of Moses) from eating with Gentiles.  Paul, the upstart who had not been sent out to preach by the community of believers in Jerusalem, said no, while others, like Peter (until the Table Cloth revelation) said yes.  This shows us that while the church was in its infancy, members (including the leadership) still viewed themselves as a Jewish religion and the customs of Judaism--including the Law of Moses as taught in the Torah--had not been rejected by those Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. In other words, the Nasarenes followed Jewish customs and observed the Law of Moses, including the traditional Sabbath, which they observed from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.

Eisenman's View of the Notzrim

According to Patristic writers such as Eusebius, after Jesus was crucified James appointed the first Bishop of the Jerusalem assembly which consisted of the Jewish followers of Jesus.  Several New Testament books speak of "James, Cephas, and John" as the leading authorities of the church rather than "Peter, James, and John", and it is James, not Peter, who sends letters of authorizations to confirm the legitimacy of various missionaries, including Apostles.  This leadership structure of a body of three presiding officials and a separate group of Twelve Apostles is similar to the leadership structure of the Qumran community as described in the "Community Rule" (formerly "Manual of Discipline") document which says that the Qumran community was governed by a council of Twelve Israelites and a separate body of Three Priests.

The earliest Patristic authors  such as Hegesippus (as quoted by Eusebius and ***) refer to James (not the brother of John, but James the Less) as "the brother of Jesus in the flesh" before the rise of the doctrine of the "perpetual virginity of Mary". Similarly, at least Eusebius refers to Judas Thomas by the same phrase.  As Christianity was hellenized during the early centuries of the Common Era, the later Patristic writers tried to eliminate the evidence of these relationships by introducing the various pseudonyms or substituting a Greek equivalent for the Hebrew names of Jesus brothers.

According to Eisenman, Paul, who was originally named Saul, was the Saulus referred to in Josephus.  This Saulus was the brother of Costobarus, the son of Cypros (wife of Antipater II, whose sister Bernice (1) is the grandmother of the Bernice (2) who, along with Agrippa,  interviews Paul in Rome--as reported in Acts). This makes Paul the grandson of Costobarus (the Idumaean) who married Salome the sister of Herod the Great and explains Paul's reference to himself as having kinsmen among the Herodians and, of course, Paul's efforts to root out and kill the Christians in Jerusalem before his conversion.   Saulus had a brother Costobarus (2) and sister Cypros (3). Their mother Cypros (2) was married to Antipater (2) (the son of Costobarus (1), the Idumaean, who married Salome (1), the sister of Herod the Great (which Salome had also been married to Joseph, the uncle of Herod (a brother of Antipater (1) whose wife was also named Cypros). Bernice was married to Aristobulus (4) the son of Herod the Great and his wife Mariamme (1) who was executed by his father, when Herod was trying to kill off all those who might lay claim to the Maccabaean High Priest's office. Mariamme was the Maccabean princess and sister of the High Priest Jonathan whom Herod had drowned just after he was installed as HP (and she too was killed by Herod--kicked to death, I think--who had accused her of infidelity with his uncle Joseph, the husband of Salome (1)). Bernice (2) was reputed to be the wealthiest woman in Palestine. Paul dignifies her by referring to her as a "Jew" in Acts although she had, in fact, already renounced Judaism as her religion by that time.

Paul's Herodian background, a connection that Paul himself makes in his writings, explains the protection he gets from the Romans when he's assailed by Jews who are out to get him,  and his various references to other Herodians, like Bernice, who seem somewhat sympathetic towards him. Paul's acquaintance and friend Epaphroditas, might well be  the person of the same name who was a secretary to Nero (and who helped Nero commit suicide). He's greeted in one of Paul's letters (Phil. 2:25-30; 4:10-18)  along with "Caesar's household".  Epaphroditus served the next two Caesars but was put to death by the second one (Domitian) around AD 95 for his role in Nero's "suicide" (there was some suspicion that he may not merely have "helped" Nero fall on his sword, but may have actually killed him) and perhaps for being a secret Christian as well. He was, by the way, the reputed publisher of Josephus's works, and Josephus disappears from history about the same time.

Eisenman also believes Paul to have been the "Liar" referred to in several of the Qumran scrolls, the enemy of the "Teacher of Righteousness" (who is, of course, according to Eisenman, none else but James the brother of Jesus).  This equating of the early following of Jesus with the Qumran community is unorthodox, but if one accepts this claim, it does really cast some of the writings of Paul and their stark contrasts with the Epistle of James into an intriguing light. Paul clearly did find himself at odds with James and the "Jerusalem Assembly" as reported in Acts over issues such as whether Gentile converts had to conform to the Law (eg., whether they had to be circumcised to be "Christians" and over the issue of whether it is polluting to eat with Gentiles, even converted ones). Paul's enmity with Peter, whom he calls a hypocrite for the fact that he customarily ate with Greek Christians _until_ other Brethren showed up from Jerusalem. Paul repeatedly asserts that he is a true apostle even though he lacks the supporting paperwork from James and is not "an Apostle of men" and that he should be seen as having the same rights as do the other Apostles and he denies repeatedly that he is an Enemy of a "liar", while James (who Eisenman portrays as an upholder of the Law) condemns as an "Enemy" those (like Paul) who make themselves "friends of the world". Eisenman plays on all this as being a manifestation of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness versus the "Enemy" or "Liar". Whether they were synonymous or not, the parallels between the Qumran writings and early Christian views intriguing. Throwing out his claim that they were the same people, the scrolls still give us a lot of interesting information about the social and religious context within which Christianity arose.

The Gospels of the N'tzrim

According to John Painter (1997, pp. 183-184), there is evidence of the onetime existence of three different Gospels that were followed by those who recognized James as the head of the Jerusalem church.  The first, a Synoptic Gospel known as the Gospel of the Nasarenes, is attested in Origen's commentary on Matthew, and in the writings of Eusebius and Jerome.  It was a written in Aramaic as a translation of parts of Matthew with additions to that material.  The second Gospel of the Hebrew followers of Jesus was the Gospel of the Ebionites.  It too was based on Matthew, but it was written in Greek and omitted the infancy narrative.  It portrayed Jesus as a man who was elevated to divinity when the Holy Spirit descended upon him at his baptism.  Also written in Greek, the third, called the Gospel of the Hebrews, is believed to have been written in the first half of the second century because it was, according to Eusebius, referred to by Hegbesippus.  It had Gnostic characteristics and is believed to have been written in Egypt.  It taught that Jesus was the Holy Spirit, a doctrine also taught in the Apocryphon of James.  Jerome also made reference to this third Hebrew Gospel.

The Fall of Jerusalem

As the number of Gentile converts grew, they eventually eclipsed the number of Jewish converts, Paul's view that Christians did not need to follow Jewish practices prevailed.  Now comes an interesting twist. The Jerusalem church was largely scattered after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Luke had written  "And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its       desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains..." (Luke 21:20-21a). The Nasarenes did precisely this.  The fourth century church historian Epiphanius writes: "When the city was about to be conquered by the Romans all the disciples were warned by an angel to remove from the city which was shortly to be destroyed. They became refugees and settled in Pella, a town in Transjordan belonging to the Decapolis" which lies about fifty miles north of Khirbit Qumran.  The Damascus Document of the Qumran sect provides a possible link between them and the Nasarenes who fled Jerusalem, since its authors describe themselves as "those who escaped to the north" and formed a "New Covenant in the Land of Damascus" which includes the territory from the city of Damascus about 85 miles north of Pella and Pella itself.  The possible identity of the Qumran sect as a branch of the Nasarenes is intriguing but elusive.  Both fled to land in Coele-Syria, the Syrian frontier lands north of Jerusalem.  Both spoke of a New Covenant.  Though it cannot be said with certainty, and though it is a minority view, the possibility should not be dismissed.

Abandoning Jerusalem when it was threatened is likely to have caused those who remained behind to defend their city to see the Nasarenes as traitors or cowards.  After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Judaism underwent an important transformation that adapted it to life within the Empire as the Pharisees evolved into the Rabbinic Judaism centered on the synagogue rather than the Temple.   The Talmud explains that in 90 CE, "Our Rabbis taught: Simeon ha-Pakuli arranged the eighteen benedictions in order before Rabban Gamaliel in Jabneh. Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Sages:  `Can any one among you frame a benediction relating to the Minim [sects]?' Samuel the Lesser arose and composed it." (b.Berakot 29a).  What Samuel the Lesser composed was a prayer that effectively excluded the Nasarenes from worship within the synagogues.  This is clearest in an early copy of his  Birkat haMinim found at the Cairo Genizah reads:  "For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nasarenes and the Minim perish as in a
moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed are you, O L-rd, who humbles the arrogant."  The Nasarenes continued to be stigmatized by other Jews into the fourth century, when Epiphanius reported about 370 CE that,  "Not only do Jewish people have a hatred of them; they even stand up at dawn, at midday, and toward evening, three times a day when they recite their prayers in the synagogues, and curse and anathemize them. Three times a day they say, "G-d curse the Nasarenes." For they harbor an extra grudge against them, if you please, because despite their Jewishness, they proclaim that Y'shua is Messiah. . ." (Panarion, 29).

The Nasarenes "gathered" especially to Syria, where it endured for some time with its own distinctive style that differed from that of Gentile Christianity elsewhere. Remember that in those days, the church was not unified the way we expect it to be in these days of mass communication and rapid travel around the globe. Rather each community of believers was isolated, a religious assembly of its own. So with the death of the Apostles something interesting happened:  the Christian communities in the dominant centers of Roman culture were the ones that played the dominant roles in eventually forming the Church that was unified under the encouragement of Constantine that the Church be united. The Nasarenes, still predominantly located in the backwaters of Syria, with their more "Jewish" style came to be labelled "heritics" by the Catholic church. They eventually became extinct, but we can read about them in the writings of some of the Apostolic Fathers. In the fourth century, the Church Father Jerome described these Nasarenes as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law" (Jerome; On. Is. 8:14). In the same century,  Epiphanius describes them in more detail this way:

 But these sectarians... did not call themselves Christians--but "Nasarenes,"   . . . However they are simply complete Jews. They use not only the New  Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do. . . They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion-- except for their belief in Messiah, if you please!  For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that God is one, and that his son is Y'shua the Messiah. They are trained to a nicety in Hebrew. For among them the entire Law, the Prophets, and the... Writings... are read in Hebrew, as they surely are by the Jews. They are different from the Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following. They disagree with Jews because they have come to  faith in Messiah; but since they are still fettered by the Law--circumcision, the  Sabbath, and the rest--they are not in accord with Christians.... they are nothing but Jews.... They have the Goodnews according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written. (Panarion 29)
The Damascus Document of the Qumran sect provides further details about this exodus from Jerusalem by the Nasarenes.  It speaks of "... the converts of Israel, who left the land of Judah and lived in the Land of Damascus all of whom God called princes" (DD-VI) and of a faction that "... despised the covenant [of God] and the pact which they established in the land of Damascus, which is the first covenant. And neither for them nor their families shall there be a part in the house of the law.... And from the day of the gathering in [killing] of the Unique Teacher, until the destruction of all the men of war who turned back with the man of lies, there shall be about 40 years.... And in this age the wrath of God will be kindled against Israel" (DD-XX).  In other words, some time about 70 CE, a faction developed within the Nasarenes whose loyalties impelled them to return to Jerusalem to defend it against the Roman attack.

Rejection of the Nasarenes by their fellow Jews was exacerbated by the revolt of the Jews against Rome in 135 CE.  This revolt was led by Simon Ben Cosiba, who changed his name to  Simon Bar Kochba ("Son of the
Star') and declared himself the promised Messiah who would lead the Jews to independence from Roman domination.  His status as the Messiah was supported by Rabbi Akiba, whose great prestige led to general support for the cause of  the revolt.  Nasarenes, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, were unwilling to participate, so once again they were seen as traitors to their own Judaism.   On the other hand, their loyalty to their own Jewish roots continued to set themselves off from nonPalestinian Christianity, where they were viewed as heretics for not abandoning the Law of Moses.  As Jews, the growing anti-Semitism of second century Christianity also attached to them.  This marginal position with respect to Christianity continued to exist down to the time of the Council of Nicea, in which Christianity formalized its doctrine of the Trinity.  As heretics, the Nasarenes were not allowed to participate in that council, so they remained uninfluential in affecting the course of future Christianity.  By 450 CE they disappear from history.

The Ebionim

It was at the time of the flight from Jerusalem that a new branch of the Nasarenes emerged who called themselves the Ebionites  The Ebionites (from Hebrew ebionim meant "the poor" or "the meek") contrasted themselves by their appelation with the establishment denominations of the day, and probably resonated with Jesus reference to "the poor in spirit" in the Sermon on the mount too.  The were described by later church historians, who regarded their views as heretical, as having been strict adherants of the Law of Moses who practiced vegetarianism and who regarded Jesus as a man chosen by God to be the Messiah of Israel.  They affirmed that he was born of a virgin but denied that he was God, although they believed that he was elevated in some measure to divine stature when the Holy Ghost came upon him at his baptism by John.  The Ebionites settled in Trans-Jordan, where they remained isolated from Gentile Christianity.  It was known to still exist after the Bar Kochba revolt was put down in 135 CE, but eventually disappeared from history, like the Nasarenes after 450 CE.

According to Iraeneus, in Against Heresy (ca. 180-199 CE), the Ebionites were strict adherants of the Law of Moses:

"Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only the Gospel of the Ebionites,, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God" (Against Herersies, Book I, Chapter 26, Paragraph 2)
Iraeneus' description must be amended in one particular.  Having no firsthand knowledge of the Ebionites, he confused what Epiphanius called the Gospel of the Ebionites with the canonical Gospel of Matthew.  Although the two were related, they were not identical.  For instance, the Ebionite version lacked Matthew's assertion that Mary's pregnancy was a miraculous event.  As Iraeneus further explains that the Ebionites rejected the claim that Jesus was born of Mary and considered him to have been the natural son of Joseph.  This, of course, branded them heretics by the standards of nonPalestinian Christianity.

James The Just

Another important figure to the ancient Nasarenes was that of James the Just (Ya'akov HaTzadik). James who was called "the Just" is referred to in the writings attributed to Paul, Mark, and John as one of the brothers of Jesus.  In the canonical sources James is always referred to by the word "brother" and never as a "cousin" of Jesus, as Jerome and later tradition portrayed him.  There is hardly any mention of James the Just prior to the death of Jesus.  Some have concluded that he may not have been among those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah who would free the Jews from Roman domination. For instance, John 7:3-5 and Mark 3:21,31-35 have been taken as evidence that James and Jesus other brothers were not believers in the beginning.

The Palestinian historian Hegesippus (ca 90-180 CE) is quoted by the fourth century Church Father Eusebius as describing James the Just this way:

After Jesus' death James became the leader of the Nasarene movement (Acts12:17; 15:13-29; 21:18-26 & Gal. 1:19; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:23).  According to I Corinthians 15:7, James was one of those to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection.

In I Corinthians 15:7, it is recorded that Jesus appeared to his brother James after the resurrection.  The Gospel according to the Hebrews also provides more detailed information about this event:

"Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, went to James and appeared to him (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the Lord's cup until he should see him rise again from among them that sleep), and again after a little, "Bring you," said the Lord, a table and bread", and immediately it is added", "He took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to James the Just and said to him: "My brother, eat your bread, for the son of Man is risen from among them that sleep"  (from the Gospel of the Hebrews, as quoted by Jerome in Of Illustrius Men 2).
According to the Gospel of Thomas, after the death of Jesus, leadership of his followers fell to his brother, James:

          The students said to Y'shua: "We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?"
          Y'shua said to them: "No matter where you reside, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake
          heaven and earth came into being." (The Gospel of Thomas, saying 12)

The leadership role referred to here is explained as that of the first Bishop of the Jerusalem church by Eusebius and other second century writers. The Gospel According to the Hebrews, in a story that may also be referred to in 1 Cor. 15:17, also affirms James the Just as the leader of the Nasarenes after the crucifixion:

James the Just was very popular with the Jewish community in general. Under his influence the Nasarene movement grew until his death in 63 C.E, as Hegesippus goes on to say:
"Going up therefore, they cast down the just man, saying to one another: "Let us stone James the Just." And they began to stone him, as he did not die immediately when cast down; but turning round, he knelt down saying, "I entreat you, O Lord God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Thus they were stoning him, when one of the priests of the sons of Recheb, a son of the Rechabites, spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out saying: "Cease, what are you doing?  Justus is praying for you." And one of them, a fuller, beat out the brains of Justus with the club that he used to beat out clothes. Thus he suffered martyrdom, and they buried him on the spot where his tombstone is still remaining, by the Temple.  He became a faithful witness, both to the Jews and the Greeks, that Y'shua is the Messiah. Immediately after this, Vespian invaded and took Judea. (Hegesippus as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:23)
Josephus also records the death of James the Just this way:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [the High Priest Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Y'shua, who was called Messiah, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done.  (Josephus, Antiquities 20:9:1)
According to Eusebius, his version of Josephus's works contained the following in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E.:

"These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was brother of him that is called the Messiah, and whom the Jews had slain, not withstanding his pre-eminent justice." (Josephus quoted by Eusebius; Eccl. Hist. 2:23)



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Copyright © 1999, Richley H. Crapo.

The Nazarenes of  Mount Carmel
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