Nazarene may also mean a member of the Church of the Nazarene.

Three uses of the term Nazarene are discussed here :

The name "Nazarene" was also taken by a group of early nineteenth century German Romantic painters: for this usage, see the article Nazarene movement.


"Jesus the Nazarene"

There is scriptural evidence that the word "Nazarene" was applied to the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament book of Acts Paul is tried in Caesarea, and Tertullus is reported as saying:

"We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5, New Revised Standard Version).

According to the New Testament, "Christian" was not the earliest term for the followers of Jesus, since Acts 11:26 reports its first use, in Antioch - at a time and in a place at least 10 and possibly 20 or more years after the death of Jesus. Many authors have argued that "Nazarene" was not just one term that was used before "Christian" came into use, but the dominant term, and that it was also used to describe Jesus himself.

The chief argument for this claim rests on an interpretation of the way Jesus is referred to by the writers of the gospels. The original Greek forms of all four gospels call him, in places, "Iesou Nazarene" (e.g. Matthew 26:71; Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67; Luke 4:34; John 17:5; Acts 2:22). Translations of the Bible, from the fifth century Vulgate on, have generally rendered this into a form equivalent to "Jesus of Nazareth". This is a reasonable translation given that it is clear that all four evangelists did believe that Jesus came from Nazareth. However, it is not the only possible translation. Linguistically, "Jesus the Nazarene" would be at least as correct, and some critics have argued that it is more plausible, given that Nazareth seems to have been a place of no significance at the time; it is unmentioned in contemporary history, and there is no evidence outside the gospels that it even existed in Jesus' time. The Vulgate does use a form equivalent to "Nazarene" in one verse (Matthew 2:23), where its reading is Nazaroeus (Nazoraios), but here the original Greek has the word Nazarene on its own, without Iesou.

It is noteworthy that the name "Iesou Nazarene" is applied to Jesus in the Gospels only by those who are outside the circle of his intimate friends. In Acts, however, it is employed by Peter and Paul— and even attributed to the risen Christ himself, in Paul's account of his conversion that he gave to the multitude of angry Jews who had attacked him in the Temple (Acts 22:8).

However we translate these verses from the gospels, the evidence from Acts 24 does support the claim that "Nazarene" was an early outsiders' term for the followers of Jesus. But it does not appear to have been the term most used by those followers: the earliest Christian writings we have, the letters of Paul (which predate the gospels by ten to forty years), use the phrase "followers of the way" or, by far the most common, "the church" from the Greek ecclesia or assembly.

Derivations of the word "Nazarene"

Regardless of these issues of translation, it seems clear that the term "Nazarenes" had at least some currency as a description of the early followers of Jesus. What, therefore, is the origin of the word? The following derivations have been suggested:

  • The place-name Nazareth, via the Greek form Iesou Nazarene. This is the traditional interpretation within mainstream Christianity, and it still seems the obvious interpretation to many modern Christians. In support of this interpretation is that Iesou Nazarene is applied to Jesus in the Gospels only by those who are outside the circle of his intimate friends, as would be natural if a place-name was meant. However in Acts it is employed by Peter and Paul, and attributed by Paul to the risen Christ (Acts, 22:8). Matthew 2:23 reads that "coming he dwelt in a city said by the prophets: That he shall be called a Nazarene". Although no convincing identification of the prophecy concerned has been found, either in the canonical books of the Old Testament or in the midrash traditions, the phrasing again strongly suggests that the author of Matthew meant Nazarene to refer to a place name.
  • The word netzer meaning "branch" or "off-shoot" (as in Isaiah 11:1 נֵצֶר). This could in turn refer to the claim that Jesus was a "descendant of David", or to the view that Jesus (or rather the teachings he or his followers advocated) were an offshoot from Judaism.
  • The word nosri which means "one who keeps (guard over)" or "one who observes" (as in Jeremiah 31:5-6 נֹצְרִים)
  • The word nazir, meaning separated. There are a number of references to Nazirites in the Old Testament. A Nazirite (נְזִיר) was a Jew who had taken special vows of dedication to the Lord whereby he abstained from alcohol and grape-products, cutting his hair, and approaching corpses for a specified period of time. At the end of the period he was required to immerse himself in water. Luke 1:15 describes John the Baptist as a Nazirite. James the Just was described as a Nazirite in Epiphanius' Panarion 29.4 . In Acts 21 Paul of Tarsus takes four Nazirite pledges to the Temple of Jerusalem.

None of these interpretations is unproblematic (for example, the gospels describe Jesus as avoiding ascetic practices, which would make it odd to describe him as a Nazirite). The word translated into English as "Nazarene" was possibly a deliberate play on words that suggested more than one of these interpretations.

Versions of the word "Nazarene"

Matthew 2:23 uses the Greek word Nazoraios to refer to Jesus; in English this has traditionally (e.g. in the King James Bible) been translated as "Nazarene" (plural "Nazarenes"). However Mark 1:24 refers to Jesus as Nazarenos; in English this has traditionally (e.g. in the King James Bible) been translated as "of Nazareth"; however, because the correct Greek form of "of Nazareth" would be Nazarethenos or Nazarethaios, most modern translators prefer "Nazarene" here as well. "Nazarene" is also spelled in a variety of ways, including "Nazarean", "Nasarean", "Nazorean", "Nasorean", "Nazaraean", "Nasaraean" (plural "Nazarean", "Nasareans", "Nazoreans", "Nasoreans", "Nazaraeans", "Nasaraeans"). Modern groups which relate the Greek words Nazoraios and Nazarenos to the Hebrew Netzer (branch or shoot) prefer to use the transliteration Netzarim, the plural form of Netzer. A common Arabic word for "Christian" is Nasrani, believed to be derived from the same root as Nazorean, ultimately Nozrim.

Patristic references to "Nazarenes"

After the word "Christian" had become established as the standard term for the followers of Jesus in Hellenistic and Roman cultural circles, there appear to have been one or more groups who continued or reverted to calling themselves "Nazarenes", perhaps because they wished to lay claim to a more authentic and/or a more Jewish way of following Jesus. Some of the Church fathers refer to groups with this title.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica noted in 1911 that "Nazarenes", rather than a general term, specifically identified an obscure Jewish-Christian sect, existing at the time of Epiphanius (flourished 370), who mentioned them in his Panarion (xxix. 7) as existing in Syria, Decapolis (Pella) and Basanitis (Cocabe). According to Epiphanius they dated their settlement in Pella from the time of the flight of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, immediately before the Siege of Jerusalem in year 70. In the 4th century Jerome also refers to Nazarenes, as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." Epiphanius gives the more detailed, though highly disapproving, description, calling the Nazarenes "complete Jews". But there is little further evidence of these groups' existence, beliefs or activities, and in its absence a great deal of entirely speculative material about them has been published, little of it taken seriously by mainstream historians.

Epiphanius characterizes them as neither more nor less than Jews pure and simple, but adds that they recognized the new covenant as well as the old, and believed in the resurrection, and in the one God and His Son Jesus Christ. He cannot say whether their christological views were identical with those of Cerinthus and his followers, or whether they differed at all from his own.

But Jerome (Epistle 79, to Augustine) says that though the Nazarenes believed in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, desiring to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other. They used the Aramaic Gospel of the Hebrews, but, while adhering as far as possible to the Mosaic economy as regarded circumcision, sabbaths, foods and the like, they did not refuse to recognize the apostolicity of Paul or the rights of Gentile Christians (See Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah, ix. I). These facts, taken along with the name (cf. Acts 24:5) and geographical position of the sect, lead to the conclusion that the Nazarenes of the 4th century are, in spite of Epiphanius' distinction, to be identified with the Ebionites.

Regarding their scriptures, Theodoret (died 457) says: 'The Nazarenes are Jews who honour Christ as a righteous man, and use the Gospel According to Peter" (Haer. Fab. ii. c. 2). On the other hand Jerome (Of illustrious men 3) writes that the Nazarenes of Beroea (modern Aleppo) in Syria gave him the opportunity to copy their Hebrew "Gospel of Matthew". He also writes (Commentary on Matthew 12:13) "There is a Gospel, which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use, which I lately translated from the Hebrew tongue into Greek and which is called by many the authentic Gospel of Matthew".

Modern movements

Starting in the nineteenth century, a number of modern movements have revived the term "Nazarene" (or "Netzarim" in Hebrew), usually for one of two reasons:

  1. Since the word was apparently used of very early followers of Jesus, adopting it lays claim to, or stresses the importance of, a more primitive and therefore more authentic type of Christianity.
  2. Since the word was apparently used of groups of Jewish Christians before there had been a decisive schism between Christianity and Judaism, adopting it lays claim to, or stresses the importance of, some kind reconciliation of Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, and typically rejecting modern Christianity as having been led astray by Paul of Tarsus.

The best known of these is the Church of the Nazarene, which emphasizes Christian activism in the Arminian tradition of John Wesley. The Church of the Nazarene is accepted as normative by other mainstream Christian denominations.

Groups with less mainstream Christian beliefs include the "Order of Nazorean Essenes" - a "Buddhist Branch of Original Christianity", and the "Essene Nazorean Church of Mount Carmel" - an "Esoteric Spiritual Order of the B'nai-Amen Temple", and "Netzari Judaism".

Various other small groups, including the "Edenic Cushite-Netzarim International/Ha' Yisrayli Torah Brith Yahad" of Shalomim Halahawi, the "Nazarene Judaism/Netzarim" of Clint Van Nest, and the "Society for the Advancement of Nazarene Judaism/Netzari Yehudim" of James Scott Trimm, while laying claim to the title "Nazarenes/Netzarim", make no claim to be Christian.

Other movements with related beliefs include Talmidaism.

External links


Modern movements



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