The Nazoraean Sect and its Independence from Christianity

The claim of the Christian church (whatever its variety) to have ultimate spiritual authority over our lives is based on the notion that she is the inheritor of the true tradition of the Apostles. As the Jewish Scholar Dr Hugh Schonfield has observed, this “…illustrates the power of a lie if it is a thumping big one.”


In my journalistic wanderings around the subject of Jesus, the Gospels, the history of the Church and writings on the contemplative life, it has become increasingly obvious that something is profoundly out of kilter in relation to Jesus’ family background. I was awakened to this fact by Dr Hugh Schonfield during the eighties (I was reader for his book The Essene Odyssey on behalf of Element Books in the UK), and since then have noticed again and again how Christian scholarship tends to avoid the question of Jesus’ parents, his siblings, and the sectarian milieu to which he belonged. This paper is an attempt to focus attention on these much neglected areas of research.

Douglas Lockhart

The Nazoraeans

According to the Jesuit historian Malachi Martin, a meeting took place in Rome between Pope Sylvester 1 and what is termed in Greek desposyni – the blood relatives of Jesus – in 318 AD. (1) Eight in number, these Desposyni leaders (otherwise known as ‘Nazoraeans’ or ‘Nazarenes’) made the following demands: (1) that the confirmation of the Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Alexandria be revoked; (2) that these bishoprics be conferred on members of the Desposyni; and (3) that Christian Churches resume sending money to the Desposyni Church in Jerusalem, which was to be regarded as the Mother Church. Having provided sea travel for these Nazoraean leaders as far as the Roman port of Ostia, Sylvester must surely have recognised them as important, but such a barefaced claim to superiority over the Roman Church by these relatives of Jesus must have come as something of a surprise.

What is important here is the fact that Sylvester felt it necessary to consult with these Nazoraean heirs of Jesus. Everything suggests that it was he who initiated the meeting, and that what he thought of as a straightforward exercise in pontifical authority sorely backfired. This suggests, in turn, a certain naivety on Sylvester’s part, for from the nature of the demands made it can be deduced that his estimation of the Nazoraean Community was sadly inadequate. Facing up to Sylvester, these church leaders from the East bluntly refused to recognise the Roman Church as the central authority for the whole Christian world. Due to Constantine’s largesse, the Roman Church was certainly in a priviledged position, but as far as these Nazoraeans were concerned, that in no way changed the underlying fact that the Nazoraean Church was the Mother Church. A level of theological accommodation may, by this time, have been reached by the two Jesus groups, but as history shows, each had a view of Jesus fundamentally different from the other.

But perhaps not all that different in the early years of the fourth century, for the Council of Nicea had not yet placed its official stamp on the notion that Jesus was consubstantial with Israel’s God, and given the turn of events in Rome, these Nazoraeans must have thought it was time to make their move.

The Nazoraean leaders who appeared before Pope Sylvester can be described as the heirs of the original tradition built around Jesus, that is, the original Jewish-sectarian interpretation of Jesus as the the ‘adopted’ son of God and Messiah of Israel. But more than that, for they were also ‘heirs’ in the sense of being blood relatives of Jesus, and this fact emphasises the ‘dynastic’ nature of the Nazoraean leadership. There are of course problems regarding the level of acceptance given to Jesus by his parents, and by his brothers and sisters, and this raises the problem of how they perceived him in relation to the question of messiahship, and much else. But that he had brothers is certain – the synoptic gospels are quite clear on the matter – and that Jesus’ brother James eventually lead the early Church is accepted by most scholars. Arthur Dewey observes that there is nothing in any of the texts “….to suggest the brothers were ‘cousins’. Rather, we have multiple attestations that Jesus had brothers…..Indeed, the whole debate over ‘brothers versus cousins’ might well mask the more interesting historical question of the family dynasty that served as a model for church organisation in the first century for some of the early Jesus believers.” (2)

It is commonly agreed that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters, the eldest brother being James. Christians pay little heed to Jesus’ siblings, and similarly ignore the three lines of legitimate blood descendants from Jesus’ own family. One line was from Joachim and Anna, Jesus’ maternal grandparents. Another was from Elizabeth, first cousin of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Elizabeth’s husband, Zachary. Yet another was from Cleophas and his wife, who also was a first cousin of Mary. There also were blood descendants of Joseph, Mary’s husband, but only those through Mary’s bloodline qualified as desposyni. Conservative Catholic Christians reject the idea of Joseph having had any childern by Mary, but this is no more than hindsight theology obscuring the reality of Jesus’ family life, a reality referred to in Mark 15: 40 without embarrassment. So too in the so-called Apocryphal Gospels where Jesus’ brother James plays a significant role.

Most scholars are now in agreement that the leaders of the Apostolic community saw themselves as ‘preservers’ of the true faith of Israel. Like the Samaritans, they saw themselves as custodians of the original Israelite religion, and in this sense were quite separate from the Judeans, or Jews. The Nazoraeans claimed that the Southerners had falsified the Law of Moses, they observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals, but, tellingly, rejected animal sacrifice – at least the sect of the Ebionite-Nazoraeans did so. A baptising sect closely associated with John the Baptist, the Nazoraeans were part of a general sectarian milieu called ‘the Way’ which believed that the Last Days had come. Referred to as ‘the Nazoraean’ in the Gospels, Jesus too is associated with these northern sectaries and John’s Last Day fulminations, the attempt to make him of ‘Nazareth’ no more than a ploy to distract from his sectarian affiliations.

Schonfield observes that an ancient Israelitish type of religion persisted in the north in the time of Jesus, and that it defied Judaean efforts to obliterate it. He also notes that the New Testament “…furnishes us with little more than an idealised preface to the career of Paul”, (3) and that the role of the Nazoraeans in the formation of the Apostolic Church is all but ignored. (4) Marginalised through association with Paul and his mission to the Gentiles, the Nazoraean Council in Jerusalem led by Jesus’ brother James (Jacob) is reduced to no more than a rubber stamp for Paul’s radical reinterpretation of Nazoraean doctrine. And this is an important point, for Nazoraean doctrine was not Judaism by some other name, and neither was it Christianity in the Pauline sense. It was a quite different religious development carrying a Messiah figure of northern stamp which southern Jewry would reject and Paul would transform, by stages, into the mythic Christ.

Most church historians are of the opinion that the Apostolic Church of the Nazoraeans passed speedily into oblivion after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; in fact they are of the opinion that it succumbed to Judaism and ceased to be Christian altogether. But as this fourth century story of Nazoraean leaders visiting Rome reveals, the Eastern Church headed by Jesus’ relatives not only survived, it continued as a Jesus-centred movement and fully expected Roman Christianity to recognise it as the Mother Church. As for having ceased to be ‘Christian’, it can be said without fear of contradiction that it never ever had been Christian at any time. Epiphanius straightens out the situation:

All Christians were once called Nazoraeans….before the Disciples in Antioch began to be called Christians.” (5)

This helps correct the history, but continues the illusion that these Nazoraeans were in some sense Christian before this name was applied to them. Looking back into the first century through the prism of Christianity, almost all scholars perceive the Jerusalem Nazoraeans as being in sympathy with the Pauline push towards recognising Jesus as divine, when they were in fact utterly opposed to such an idea. Allowing hindsight theology to distort the historical canvas, the Jerusalem Nazoraeans are mistakenly seen as carrying a system of beliefs which they in fact firmly repudiated. In alignment with this, Arthur Dewey notes that in John’s Gospel (7:3,5) the brothers of Jesus do not share the Johannine notion of Jesus as Son of God, and no materials subsequently indicates that they changed their minds.

Malachi Martin paints quite an exact picture of what went on between Sylvester and these visiting Nazoraeans (he was also a skilled novelist), but like so many other scholars, perpetuates the myth that these Nazoraeans were Christians. He tells us that this was probably the last known discussion between “the Jewish Christians of the old mother church and the non-Jewish Christians of the new mother church.” But he does admit that these Jewish Christians had no place in the new Greek-oriented church structure that had developed, and that the so-called Jewish Christian Churches refused to be part of it. This is correct. But it is singularly incorrect to designate these Nazoraean sectaries as ‘Christian’. His most telling remark, however, is that Sylvester, backed by Constantine, decided that “…..the message of Jesus was to be couched in Western terms by Western minds on an imperial model.” (6) For most of the Nazoraeans this meant being hunted down as outlaws and killed by Roman garrisons.

The Nazoraeans were Jewish-sectarian, not Christian. They carried beliefs at odds with Judaism, and their rejection of Jesus as anything other than the Messiah of Israel clearly separated them from Paul’s charismatic assemblies where the term ‘Christian’ was first adopted. The name ‘Christian’ (Khristianoi) was not used by the Jerusalem Nazoraeans, it was used in scorn of Paul’s converts (Jews and Gentile women) by fellow pagans at Antioch. Replacing the Hebrew term Messiah with the Greek term Christ, Paul shifted the focus away from Jewish expectations in relation to a new king for Israel and changed it into a title referring to a species of divine being. The self-designating term ‘Christian’ did not come into use until after 70 AD.

Christians are in general unaware that the term ‘Christ’ (Christos ) is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew title Messiah (the Anointed One), and are under the impression that the term refers to the Second Person of the Trinity. So connected has the word Christ become with the idea of Jesus as God incarnate that the title Messiah is treated as something curiously Jewish and not associated. Don Cupitt brings this problem into sharp focus when he says that the ecclesiastical Christ is nowhere to be found in a critical reading of the gospels. He adds that the theological task of the modern period is that of “shifting Christianity from the dogmatic faith of the Christendom period to the critical faith which is to succeed it.” (7) Surprisingly, N T Wright (Bishop of Lichfield) agrees: “One of the most persistent mistakes throughout the literature on Jesus in the last hundred years is to use the word Christ, which simply means Messiah, as though it was a ‘divine’ title.” (8) An ‘Anointed One’ also referred to a king, and so in the Old Testament King David became a ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, and every subsequent Jewish king of the house of David was similarly known. Hence the fact that Jesus was viewed as of the House of David, and officially designated King of the Jews by Pilate.

A Cleverly Cultivated Myth

What many Christians do not realise is that prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD the Eastern Churches held to views of Jesus quite different from those of the Western Church. The tendency at Antioch was Adoptionist (Jesus had been possessed by the Spirit of God at his baptism); in Asia Minor it was Sabellian (Jesus was to be directly identified with the Father), and at Alexandria Platonic (Jesus was the divine logos or link between God and creation). At Alexandria the Son was subordinate to the Father; in Asia Minor he was con-substantial with the Father; at Antioch these diametrically opposed ideas were sandwiched together to create the notion of Jesus as a specially created being taken over by the Divine Logos, but unable to redeem humanity in his own right. Complicated. And soon to become even more complicated when the Council of Nicea set itself the task of hammering out the pros and cons of Jesus’ nature once and for all.

At least so that Council believed. In 335 AD (a mere ten years later) a second council, convened by the Emperor Constantine, that of Tyre, reversed the decisions of the first and Arianism, the belief that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, yet still God’s agent in the creation of all things, became the flavour of the day. But only until 337. On Constantine’s death each of his three sons took up the theological position of their area, and this resulted in a Nicene West and an Arian East. Geographically the divisions were thus: Constantine II ruled in the area west of Italy, Constans in Italy and Greece, and Constantius in the East. As the West was divided between two emperors, the Nicene approach soon weakened, but with the elimination of Constantine II it triumphed, only to fail again with the assassination of Constans and the rise of Constantius as sole ruler in the East. R H Bainton sums up the situation succinctly: “the world woke up to find itself Arian.” (9) And so another shuffling of bishops took place, and Athanasius, champion of the Nicene formula, found himself banished for a sixth time. In 381, however, as a result of dissension between opposing Arian splinter groups, the emperor Theodosius summoned the second ecumenical council at Constantinople, and this resulted in the ratification of the original Nicene formula with only slight alteration. From then until the Reformation this particular interpretation of Jesus’ nature and identity ruled the public mind.

Read as straight history all of this sounds fair enough, but when filtered through the learning of scholars like Hugh Schonfield, Robert Eisenman and Don Cupitt, this apparently simple story of the Christian faith emerging from a period of theological growth and complexity towards a universally accepted set of definitions is less acceptable. Schonfield is scathing in his attack; he refuses point-blank to buy into the idea of the orthodox Catholic Church being the inheritor of the true tradition of the Apostles. Casting an eye over the whole messy period he puts it this way: “The supremacy of the Roman Church became a fact, but its entitlement to it was a cleverly cultivated myth on which it is possible to throw fresh light by investigating both the historical and documentary evidence.” (10)

And what better place to start than with the Eastern Church, and in particular with the so-called ‘churches’ of the diaspora situated in the Roman province of Syria – communities described by Johannes Weiss as occupying a peculiar position in relation to the Palestinian Jewish Community and the independent missions of St Paul.” (11) This is a statement complicated by the fact that Weiss tells us that some of these churches existed in part before Paul’s time, yet were in part the work of Paul. Which is to say that they were merely built onto by Paul. And some of them were part of the extended Jerusalem community led by James. (12) In part? Not founded by Paul? Part of James’ extended Nazoraean community? There are no letters from Paul to the churches of Syria and Cilicia , but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of these churches were in close contact with James’ Nazoraean community, that they were in fact direct extensions of that community, and that Apostolic decrees passed between them.

Weiss reports that when Paul was whisked off to Rome to stand trial, control of the diaspora churches influenced by his views reverted to the Jerusalem Church. Closing in on the incongruities of the situation, he notes also that the church in Rome was governed by James and the Apostles prior to Paul’s epistle to that church. (13) As there is no evidence whatever to suggest that this church ever went over to Paul, it should be presumed, surely, that the original church in Rome was Nazoraean, not Christian, and that this church remained a separate entity from Paul’s fledgling Christian church in that city. Referring to this state of affairs as “a sort of middle term between….Palestinian Jewish Christianity and the Pauline missionary church”, we are left with the suggestion that this middle term is important, but immediately led away from what is important through the title ‘Christian’ being attached to the Palestinian Jewish community. Mistakenly aligning Paul’s missionary churches with James’ diaspora churches through the misuse of this term, an age-old distortion is allowed to work its mischief and sustain a blinkered confusion on many levels. Yes, there was, early on, a sectarian-based connection between these so-called churches (both viewed Jesus as very important), but it was one which quickly deteriorated due to the inflated nature of what Paul was preaching about Jesus. The diaspora Jews, broad-minded and open to a less strict interpretation of the Torah would respond, but the scattered Nazoraean churches of the East would carry Paul’s heretical views back to James, and Paul would be summoned before the Jerusalem Apostolic council to explain himself.

The Archetypal Man

To the Nazoraeans, Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the archetypal man entitled to be called ‘light Adam’ or ‘son of God’; but basically he was perceived as flesh and blood and as ordinary as everyone else. Pope Sylvester’s Jesus, on the other hand, was about to be heralded as God’s actual son and equated directly with the Godhead. Such a claim, when news of it got out, must have appeared to be a form of lunacy to those of Jesus’ dynastic family. It was the eventual belief of the Nazoraeans that the Archetypal Man (the Messiah) had incarnated in Jesus. Adam in his sinless state, it was believed, was a being of transparent light whom sin eventually made opaque. Jesus, during his transfiguration, had momentarily revealed himself as a ‘being of light’, a second Adam. Schonfield says that the transfiguration emphasised the “composite personality of Jesus in the capacity of Messiah, not as God and man, but as Archetypal Man and earthly man.” (14)

But as the early history of the Jews suggests, there was a sense in which the Hebrew kings were thought of as divine, as somehow representing, or embodying, Yahweh on earth. The king’s throne was called the throne of Yahweh, and the anointing of the king’s head with oil was believed to impart a portion of the divine spirit to the king in question. The Hebrew kings were also held responsible for drought and famine, and it was believed that they could heal the sick. Referring to this theory of sanctity, perhaps even of divinity, afforded the Hebrew kings, J G Fraser notes that in spite of there being few traces to this effect found in the Bible, any objection is weakened by the fact that these books assumed their final edited shape during the religious reforms of King Hezekiah many centuries later. Any reference to kings being invested with attributes of deity would have been immediately erased. (15) All incidents suggestive of pagan influence on Hebrew kings or prophets would have been smoothed away by the censors’ deft touch.

The Nazoraean representatives received by Sylvester would not have left anyone in doubt about their history, about their view of Paul, or about their right to be accepted still as the Mother Church. As far as they were concerned, the Nazoraean Church was the legitimate centre of the Christian spiritual cyclone, and not to recognise this was to be inherently dishonest. Without Constantine’s favour this Church, and not the Roman, would have continued as the Jesus movement’s spiritual spearhead. It was a well-known historical fact that the Church at Jerusalem had been run by Nazoraeans right up until AD 135, that they had left the city only once in 102 years (due to the city’s capture by Titus in AD 70) and that in the year 72 they had returned to Jerusalem and stayed until Hadrian’s ban. Since then, Nazoraean churches had been set up throughout Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, and these churches constituted the true Church of Jesus, the true succession and bloodline, the survival of which was now in Sylvester’s hands owing to continued Roman aggression. This surely must have been the tenor of the conversation. Why else would these Nazoraeans have demanded that Sylvester revoke the confirmation of Greek bishops and replace them with Desposynos bishops? And the very fact that Sylvester thought it necessary to consult with these Nazoraean heirs of Jesus suggests that he was conscious of having crossed some kind of theological boundary.

According to the Church historian Eusebius, who was a personal friend of the Emperor Constantine, the Nazoraean Church of the Apostles attracted large numbers of Jews to its ranks prior to AD 70. However, there was a chaotic period after the unsuccessful Jewish rebellion during which division and controversy reigned, a not surprising turn of events given that all of their apocalyptic expectations had come to nothing. Schonfield concurs. The Jewish followers of Jesus split into factions due to a loss of confidence in the Second Advent. Malachi Martin follows suit, claiming that Peter and Paul broke with the Jewish Christians during this period, so allowing Christianity to spread beyond Judaism. This is, to say the least, a convenient interpretation of events. As a result, we are told, the Nazoraeans were left in religious limbo. What we are not told, is that the Nazoraeans eventually reorganised themselves; a fact confirmed by Eusebius when he says that after the uprising the family of Jesus, in conjunction with those apostles and followers of Jesus still alive, chose Simeon (after the death of Jesus’ brother James) as titular head of the Nazoraeans, so creating stability. Schonfield calls this family dynasty the ‘heirs’, and remarks that twelve others followed in turn whose names are preserved down to AD 132.

There was, in other words, more to this Nazoraean sect than met the eye. Their Messiah had, after all, been condemned by the Jews as a heretic and executed by the Roman’s as a zealot, and a similar fate was in store for Jesus’ brother James. Considered subversive by both the ruling Sadducees and the Romans, the Nazoraeans continued to be persecuted, and in 44 AD Peter and John were arrested, flogged, and on pain of death ordered not to speak again in the name of Jesus. In 62 AD James, along with other Nazoraeans, was arrested and charged with ‘deserting the faith’ by the ruling Sadducees, and killed. Executed for entering the Inner Santum of the Temple as opposition High Priest on the Day of Atonement, James revealed his rebel priesthood bias and suffered the price – a bias associated (according to Epiphanius) with the Ancient Priesthood of Israel. After his death James was replaced by Simeon, the son of James’ mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and what remained of the Nazoraeans continued in Jerusalem until 65 AD, then fled to Pella east of the Jordan prior to the Roman invasion.

Kamil Salibi tells us that after Simeon’s death, other members of James’ family, including two grandsons of his brother Judas (or Jude), continued to succeed as ‘Bishops’ of Jerusalem. Talking of this family dynasty, Hugh Schonfield says illuminatingly, “by appointing again not an apostle but a kinsman of Jesus they showed their determination to re-establish a government in readiness for the return of King Jesus.” (16) There is therefore little doubt that these ‘Bishops’ of Jerusalem were in fact a dynastic bloodline, a dynasty claiming sacred legitimacy because of a blood relationship to Jesus, a relationship which an Apostle like Peter could not claim. Dewey notes that Eusebius describes James as elected to the ‘throne’ of the bishopric of the church in Jerusalem, (17) and goes on to say that in Eusebius’ writings James’ succession appears to have been determined in dynastic fashion. (18)

From Pella the Nazoraean remnant is thought to have moved north-eastward, eventually making their way to the Tigris-Euphrates basin. In this relatively safe area they preserved their traditions for centuries. Eusebius and Epiphanius bear witness to the fact that the Nazoraeans survived and that numbers of Jews joined them. And from the historian Julius Africanus (160-240 AD) we learn that the Nazoraean heirs took pride in their Davidic descent and circulated the genealogy which now stands at the head of Matthew’s gospel. According to this gospel, and to the Apostle Paul, Jesus was the first born of many brothers, and had at least two sisters. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesaria (340 AD) speaks of grandchildren of Jesus’ brother Jude who were living in Galilee during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD).(19) According to Eusebius, the descendants of Jesus’ family (termed Desposyni) became dynastic leaders of various Christian Churches, and continued so up until the time of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD).

Nazoraean communities were apparently still active in north and east Palestine right up until the fifth century, the name of Jesus being used by both Nazoraeans and Gentile Christians in the interest of policy. Further and further magnified by the Roman Christians, however, Jesus became progressively more symbolic and representative of ecclesiastical concerns. In Nazoraean eyes Jesus continued to be God’s ‘adopted’ son.

Two Christianities

Schonfield is aware of two rival authorities among the Nazoraeans; he speaks of two presentations of Jesus as the Messiah, two inspirations, and two gospels. (20) And he also speaks of ‘Christian’ Nazoraeans being found in upper and lower Western Galilee, and of there being an encounter between these Christians and rabbis between the first and fourth century. (21) All of this resonates with the fact that Paul writes heatedly of two rival gospels in his epistles. But more than mere rivals, as it turns out, for one of these factions functioned as if it were the Jewish Sanhedrin and de facto government of Israel,

and the Nazoraean groups seem to have deferred to this central authority. Paul certainly held the Jerusalem Nazoraeans to be in charge; why else trek to Jerusalem and try to explain himself before the Nazoraean Council of Apostles led by James? W H C Frend agrees with Schonfield: the Nazoraeans were governed by a kind of Caliphate, a family dynasty who exercised authority among the Nazoraean groups in the form of a monarchical episcopate. There was, in other words, a nerve-centre for Nazoraean activity, and that centre was Jerusalem.

In relation to the Nazoraeans, Johannes Weiss says that the later Fathers of the Church were utterly perplexed by the name ‘Nazoraean’ and could not properly explain it. (22) And of the larger or smaller groups of Nazoraeans which persisted during the sub-Apostolic period, he tells us that they “stood far away from the stream of development; the ‘Christ’ name, being a specifically Graeco-Roman one, had not reached them.” (23) Graeco-Roman indeed. Considered to be no more than curiosities and fossilised relics by Church thinkers, these Nazoraeans were picked out as being in possession of a particularly poor Christology. Why? Because they contended, and never ceased to contend, that Jesus was an ordinary man born of Joseph and Mary.

Communities holding to the tradition of James’ leadership and ostensibly stemming from the Jerusalem Community existed in Arabia and the Damascus region, in what is now Jordan and Syria. Highly active in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, these communities (designated “Ebionite”, and therefore Nazoraean at base) appear to have withdrawn in the 4th and 5th centuries due to persecution. These communities viewed Jesus as a naturally generated man, insisted on circumcision and followed the Torah of Moses. They also considered Paul to be a heretic, held to the ideology of the Perfect Man or Primal Adam, and used a darkness and light terminology virtually identical to that of the Qumranite Essenes. More important, however, was their notion of a ‘returning Jesus figure’, for the idea of the Perfect Man, or Primal Adam, later developed into the idea of a Jesus who appeared at historical intervals, and this in turn harboured the earlier notion of the Messiah as a reflection of the first man, Adam.

At some point in the early 60s, James was killed. Robert Eisenman remarks that as leader of the Jerusalem Assembly James was head of the whole of Christianity. (24) And so, on different occasions, Paul has to travel up to Jerusalem to explain himself, and James it is who attempts to control the creative imagination of this theologically innovative Apostle to the Gentiles. This allows us to glimpse the significance of James and his Jerusalem community between the 40s and the 60s, and surmise, in light of the fact that James is Jesus’ Prince Regent temporarily occupying the throne of King Jesus, that the Nazoraean notion of Jesus’ messiahship was a little more complicated than either the fathers of the Greco-Roman Church realised, or Christian scholars have since admitted. For how can the supposed deterioration of this primitive Apostolic Church into what scholars now conceive of as a theologically disabled Christian Community be explained? How could a community so vibrant and certain in its message regress to such an extent? And what was God doing in the meantime? Why desert his little church when it needed him most? The answer given is of course that God changed sides – Paul and his churches became the centre of Divine attention. The Nazoraeans reverted to Judaism and Paul’s Christians were left to initiate the count down sequence prior to the appearance of the Kingdom of God.

This is of course abject nonsense. The Jerusalem Nazoraeans did not revert to Judaism, they continued, as they had always done, to be sectarian Jews who respected, above all, the Law of Moses. But they at the same time retained their view of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, and energetically preached the Last Days philosophy accepted by all followers of ‘the Way’. And so at Rome Paul is faced with Nazoraeans preaching Jesus and the Last Days in much the same vein as himself, and the din of his preaching causes these sectarians to shout their version of the Gospel all the louder. And what a different version of the Gospel it is, for it is James’ version, and Peter’s version, and the version of the Apostles at Jerusalem who have tried, again and again, to correct Paul’s highly problematic claim that Jesus’ death on the cross somehow annulled the law of Moses. Adamantly against such a notion, the Nazoraeans and their more orthodox counterparts will single Paul out for special abuse, and when he has established his own clique, they will clash head on and arouse the interest of the mad emperor Nero.

Ignored and Dismissed

The Apostolic Church of the Nazoraeans was virtually ignored by the early Greek-oriented Church at Rome. Dismissed in 318 with regal curtness, the representatives of this Church were informed that the centre of influence had long since shifted to Rome, that St Peter’s bones were not in Jerusalem, but in Rome, and that the admittedly once powerful family dynasty of Jesus was no longer considered apostolically important.

Quite a slap in the face to those of Jesus’ own family who, since the time of James the Just, had faithfully carried their message of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah to anyone who would listen. And this was the point, their Jesus was not Paul’s Jesus, or Pope Sylvester’s Jesus, or the Jesus of the Nicean Council which would meet with such dire consequences seven years later. Their Jesus was not divine in his own right, he was divine by way of being God’s adopted son, a quite different proposition from that developed by the Christians.

In his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, Justin Martyr admits to this divide when he tells us that there were two Christianities. Born in Samaria at Flavia Neapolis (modern Nablus), Justin studied philosophy before becoming a Christian. Martyred in Rome in 165 AD, he followed Western Christianity’s developing doctrine of Jesus as divine in his own right, but did not altogether condemn the Nazoraean followers of Jesus for their very different doctrinal stance. They were entitled, he said, to observe the Mosaic Law if they so wished. In his estimation, Pauline Christians were wrong to reject the Nazoraeans, and they were equally wrong in their belief that these original followers of Jesus would not be saved. Associating with the Nazoraeans as kinsmen and brethren, Justin reveals that the Paulinist Christians were by this time denying the Nazoraeans both hospitality and recognition, and treating the old faith of the Apostolic Church as sectarian. (25) To the Nazoraeans, Jesus was an ordinary man anointed by election to be the Messiah, or Christ; he was not literally God in any sense.

The Nazoraeans were also, as we have seen, sometimes referred to as ‘Ebionites, and Uta Ranke-Heinemann (first woman professor of Catholic theology at the University of Essen) confirms that these Ebionite-Nazoraeans were led by James, Jesus’ brother, and that “all the way into the second century they continued to choose their bishops from Jesus’ family.” (26) She also confirms that these Ebionite-Nazoraeans rejected Paul’s Christology, particularly the notion of Jesus’ death on the cross as a bloody act of atonement, and argued for Jesus having achieved his righteous state like any other sage or prophet. And so, in 318, when these Nazoraeans turned up demanding recognition as the Mother Church, Pope Sylvester was forced to reject them; he could see no way of reconciling the diametrically opposed beliefs of the two Jesus groups.

Malachi Martin’s approach to this is two-fold, and at base utilitarian. He suggests that a church left in the catacombs of Rome would have achieved little, and that the eventual collapse of the ‘pax romana’ (the ‘peace’ Rome offered to those who became her willing subjects) was only successfully replaced by the ‘peace of Christ’ because of the Church’s new found security under Constantine. Without that curious relationship, persecuted Christians bound to an obscure strata of society could have done very little to change their world, and would have had to wait until the Second Advent to achieve their dream of a renewed world. If Sylvester had given in to Jesus’ relatives, then “….the appeal of Christianity as a universal way of life would have been restricted to a small number of Jews or an impotent and doomed minority in the great urban centres.” (27) The Jewish-Christians have now become ‘Jews’, all pretence at accommodation has been removed. Keeping to the theologically necessary line that James was Jesus’ cousin, and not his actual brother, and that these Nazoraeans were Christians, Martin holds this group of Nazoraeans at arm’s length, but cannot help but admit that the issue dealt with that day “…..was nothing less than the whole nature of the church.” (28)

Some ecclesiastical historians record that the blood relations of Jesus were the controlling force in the early Church, and that Jewish Christianity considered Pauline Christianity an heretical offshoot. Hugh Schonfield clarifies the situation for us when he says that the early Nazoraean government, although the legitimate authority, could not “….effectively exercise control of Christian affairs’ due to being marked as anti-Roman.” And so the Roman Church took on the mantle of leadership and produced the necessary propaganda to undermine and finally replace Nazoraean dynastic authority. Schonfield’s closing remarks on this situation are caustic. He says, “According to the view that prevailed the Catholic Church of the new orthodoxy was the inheritor of the true tradition of the Apostles, an assertion which illustrates the power of a lie if it is a thumping big one.” (29)

But what would have happened if Sylvester and these Nazoraeans had managed to sort out their problems, if through frank and open discussion they had properly explored their differences? What then? Would the combined strength of the two churches have been enough to temper the hypnotic notion of using the Roman Empire and its immense strength and glamour to win the world for Christ? One can imagine a shrug from Sylvester, and a wistful smile. Everything had moved too fast and gone too far by then for reconciliation to be possible; the Nazoraean Jesus was no longer the Jesus known or worshipped by the Christian community in Rome, that Jesus was now a stranger.

The Apostolic Succession

InVicars of Christ, Peter de Rosa points out that Roman pontiffs do not claim to be successors of Peter and Paul, but of Peter alone. This curious fact opens up a second area of confusion. (30)

The New Testament speaks of Peter as the Apostle to the Jews, so why an apostolic succession from Peter when it is obviously on Paul’s teachings that the Roman Church was founded? And again, why Peter, when by way of apostolic succession among the Desposyni, Peter would not have qualified? So was this a way to tap by proxy into the Nazoraean Church’s dynastic status without actually having to recognise the real succession? As the only gospel recognised by these Nazoraeans was an earlier version of canonical Matthew, is it not a telling point that it is in this particular gospel that the idea of Peter as founder and leader of the Church turns up?

Dr Schonfield is explicit concerning Peter’s role in the early Jewish Nazoraean Church. He tell us that Peter was not the chief spokesman for that Church, and that he was never converted to Paulinism. James the Just was chief representative of Jesus in the early Nazoraean community, and modern belief to the contrary is the result of propaganda initiated by the Roman Christian community. Denigration of the original Nazoraean authority invested in the Apostles of Jesus and members of his family had been their aim, and they had successfully wrested that authority from Jesus’ family by adopting Peter and making him a convert to Paul’s new, heretical Gospel.

The Nazoraean sectaries to which Peter belonged were still part of the Jewish community, they had abandoned neither the Law nor the Temple, and preached what Paul considered ‘another Jesus’. Paul becomes quite ferocious about it all in his Epistle to the Galatians. He marvels that his converts have been redirected to believe in another gospel during his absence. But not quite ‘another’, he then admits; just a troubling perversion of what he himself preaches. The truth of the matter, however, was the exact opposite; it was he, not this other party who was guilty of changing the character of the original gospel – the Nazoraean Gospel of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel which he, Paul, had transformed into the hypnotic ‘Christ of faith’. Robert Eisenman notes that in the Gospel of Thomas it is James that Jesus chooses as his successor, not Peter, and that this represents a lost sectarian tradition which eventually re-emerged from Arabia as Islam. (31)

The historian Will Durant sums up Paul’s doctrinal situation succinctly: “Paul created a theology of which none but the vaguest warrants can be found in the words of Christ.” (32) Jesus is no longer the Jewish Messiah, the Messiah of Israel, the archetypal Adam and Light Adam of the wilderness tradition. He is now the Logos whose death will deliver the whole world from sin and damnation. The ‘Christ’ of grandiose metaphysical speculation is on the loose.

Ebionite writings were suppressed by the Church because they asserted that Jesus was an ordinary human being. Hyam Maccoby states that the Ebionites were “the same group that had earlier been called the Nazoraeans, and that they were much more likely to possess accurate knowledge about Jesus and James and Paul than their persecutors.” (33) In this light he utterly rejects what he terms the scurrilous propaganda-based dismissal of Ebionite claims by Christian scholars both ancient and modern. The principle observation made by Maccoby is that it is Jesus’ brother James, not Peter, who becomes head of the Church. Why? Because Peter is not a blood relative; he is not of ‘royal’ blood. This is to say that the leadership of the Nazoraeans was not ecclesiastic, but monarchical and priestly in the Jewish sense of that word. Perhaps this is why Jesus so quickly turns into a royal figure in the Christian imagination; they were simply reflecting Jesus’ lost status as a potential priest-king of Israel. Read correctly, the historical record strongly suggests that Jesus’ intention was not the founding of a church, but the claiming of a throne by way of divine appointment. Hence the continuation of Jesus’ descendants as leaders of the Nazoraean community, descendants who would be persecuted for centuries by Rome’s pretenders to the throne of David.

Centuries of Conflict

Nazoraean refutation of Rome’s claim on the Apostle Peter is to be found in the Clementine Homolies and Recognitions and, although late in origin (probably fourth-century translations from Greek into Latin reflecting third-century problems), they carry information quite obviously written to counter Western propaganda concerning Peter. This is to say that although the sections written by Peter are known forgeries, the statements made by pseudo-Peter nevertheless accurately reflect Nazoraean concerns at the time. On behalf of Nazoraean outrage at the Apostle Peter being ‘borrowed’ by Rome and made into an advocate for Paul’s ideas about Jesus, pseudo-Peter is made to denounce the Western Church’s attempt to reverse what he himself has said and done, and we are left with a clear indication of what the Roman Church had been trying to do.

In the Recognitions, pseudo-Peter condemns those who dare misrepresent him and rails against those offering an authority other than that of the Nazoraean Council. This is direct and unmistakable. Teachers lacking Nazoraean credentials are not to be believed; only teachers from the ‘Jerusalem Church’ carrying the testimony of ‘James’ the Lord’s brother, or, interestingly, ‘whosoever may come after him’, are to be believed. All teachers have to be approved by the Jerusalem Council, and there are no Apostles other than the original twelve. Robert Eisenman is of the opinion that the Recognitions and Acts are parellel accounts taken from a common source, and that the Recognitions are more faithful to that source. (34) Ramond Brown and John P. Meier’s view of Acts is equally telling. “……the author of Acts has a noted tendency to smooth over fierce battles in the early church.” (35)

The facts suggest that by the end of first century and during the first quarter of the second, the Nazoraeans had little knowledge of doctrinal developments among the Roman Christians. The ‘Christ’ name was specifically Graeco-Roman and unknown to them. When the dust settled, it may well have come as a complete shock to discover that a whole new view of Jesus had evolved as a result of this group’s interpretation of Paul’s teachings – teachings which even early on had caused the Apostles to question both his credentials and his motives. By the time it became evident that a challenge to such ideas should be mounted, the Nazoraeans themselves had modified their beliefs and acquired what Schonfield refers to as ‘eccentricities as a result of new teaching and relationships with remnants of…..the pre-war period.” (36)

The Desposyni leaders who turned up at Sylvester’s command probably asked him why it was that letters containing circuitous arguments implying that the original apostolic body had been superseded by the Roman Church had been allowed to emanate from Rome. Communities in receipt of such epistles had seen no reason to throw out instructions received from the Apostles prior to the war with Rome. A time of grave uncertainty had called for reappraisal, but it had not called for a wholesale abandonment of former positions. (37)

Disagreements, Divisions and Jealousy

The conflict between the Nazoraeans and the Roman Church lasted for centuries, and the fact that it did so shows the depth of feeling involved. But it is a conflict demoted in most historical writings to no more than a difference of opinion between the Roman Church and the quite incorrectly labelled ‘Jewish-Christian Church’. The edge is taken off the situation by simply ignoring the Nazoraean/Ebionites and using the blanket term ‘Jewish-Christian’ to describe a much more complex situation. The give-away, however, is that orthodox Jewry was well aware of the difference between these Jesus groups. In a prayer called the birkat ha-minum (‘benediction of the heretics’) both are castigated for bringing calamity on the Jewish nation. Authorised by the Academy at Jamnia, this prayer was designed to expose the secret Nazoraean and Christian followers of Jesus mixing with fellow Jews, and clearly ear-marked both groups as being close to Jewish-sectarian interests and the militant forces which had ignited the wrath of Rome.

The German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede’s translation of this prayer-curse is an excellent example of how the Nazoraeans are taken to be ‘Christian’ and disallowed as a separate group. Theide translates the words ‘Nozrim’ and ‘minim’ as the Christians, when in fact the word ‘Nozrim’ refers specifically to the Nazoraeans. Elaine Pagels’s translation of the same text makes this clear, and Hyam Maccoby tells us that the Nazoraeans were also referred to as notzerim. This shows, I think, how preconceived ideas about the nature of the early Jerusalem community can even lead an expert astray.

The Church at Rome was predominantly Jewish-Nazoraean in 58 AD, that is, it was Jewish sectarian and not Christian. Not until the great fire of Rome in 64, and the persecution of the Roman Church by Nero as a result of that fire would the Jewish-Nazoraean adherents of that Church be put to flight. And it is at this point in the history of the early Roman Church that we gain insight into the theological mix created by Paul’s arrival in Rome. The situation was complex, and finally became dangerous when Nero accused the ‘Christians’ of starting the great fire.

According to Thiede, there were disagreements, divisions and jealousy in the Christian camp. Christians denounced and betrayed one another over divisions of attitude and interpretation. (38) Strange as this may seem, it is in fact easily explained, for as Thiede later remarks, “All our sources suggest that Christian and Jewish Christians were by now clearly distinguished from the Jews.” (39) This is to say that the Romans knew exactly who they were persecuting, and that apart from orthodox Jews, there were also ‘Christians’ and ‘Jewish Christians’ (Nazoraeans) in Rome at the time. So when we read that Christians denounced and betrayed one another, what we should understand by this is that the theologically and politically separate Christian and Nazoraean Jesus movements were at loggerheads.

Forced to abandon Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Nazoraeans were barred from the synagogue as heretics and dispersed to Caesarea and other cities. So too the Christians, for although carrying a different name, they were in fact Nazoraean in origin. But, oddly enough, these Christians were soon allowed to return, for it was known that they had not taken part in the revolt against Rome. Now this is strange, for weren’t they already ear-marked as having burned down most of the Roman capital in 64? Did Rome have such a short memory that the name ‘Christian’ did not ring alarm bells? Or is this the final proof that it wasn’t really the Christians who suffered the brunt of Nero’s madness at all, but rather the already well-developed Nazoraean community later designated ‘Christian’ by Christian writers.

Paul in Arabia

Christianity took on its name at Antioch during the second half of the first century, but the origins of both the Nazoraean sect and its Christian off-shoot have been traced by Kamil Salibi as far back as 400 BC. Salabi is the only historian I know of to have done specific research into the origins of the Nazoraean sect, and his researches suggest that they were founded in Western Arabia by an Israelite prophet called Issa. Salibi’s findings are rejected by Christian scholars because he relies on Koranic material. The Christian contention is that such material is merely a garbled version of what is already in the canonical gospels. Likely as this seems at first glance, there are so many surprising factors in the Salibi study that his claims cannot so easily be dismissed. The historical and geographical correspondences between Jesus, Issa and the Nazoraeans are too great to be ignored.

The Koran states that the people of Israel were organised into a religious community by Moses, and that later two other messengers were sent to them: Ezra, then Issa. Ezra’s followers became the Jews; Issa’s followers became the early Nasara or Nazoraeans. “Each of these two communities,” says Salibi, “came to revere its special apostle as a son of God.” (40) In about 400 BC Issa is said to have preached a liberal interpretation of Israelite monotheism at variance with that of Ezra. Those of Issa’s home region in Arabia who followed Ezra’s now highly developed school of thought – Judaism – flatly rejected what this new prophet had to say. Others did however accept Issa’s teachings, and Salibi assumes that the name ‘Nasara’ came about because Issa’s first major preaching success was probably among the inhabitants of the Arabian village of Nasirah – Nazareth. That a village called ‘Nazareth’ should have existed in the western Hijaz is in itself a remarkable coincidence, but when it is realised that this province also contained a ‘Bethsaida’ (Semitic byt syd, meaning the ‘house’ or ‘temple’ of syd) and a valley called ‘Galilee’ (Wadi Jalil), then a migratory connection must be suspected between western Arabia and northern Palestine. In relation to this, it is interesting to note that outside of the Gospels there is no archaeological evidence for a town called Nazareth existing in Palestine until 300 AD.

What is of interest here is the distinction made in the Koran between two Nazoraean groups, one maintaining that God is one, the other that God is part of a divine trinity. Arguing that scholars should “….proceed on the assumption that the Koranic story of Issa preserves an independent tradition concerning the origins of Christianity”, (41) Salabi draws our attention to the many differences that exist between the Koranic and Gospel accounts, and in doing so highlights the fact that the identity of Jesus and Issa have become confused. This is not the same as saying that the Koranic account is merely a garbled version of what the gospels contain; it is to tease these accounts apart and home in on the divergent factors they contain.

The difference between Paul’s and James’ system of belief concerning the nature, and stature of the Messiah, seems to link directly into the ancient Arabian Nasara community’s splitting into two factions, and the distorted reflection of this split among first century Nazoraeans and other sectarian groups. It surely cannot be mere coincidence that Paul is taken in by Damascus Nazoraeans after his conversion, and from there travels immediately to Arabia. Why Arabia? The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wanted to know the answer to this question, and Schonfield was convinced that this trip of Paul’s indicated the location where he had “….acquired his inspiration from which to develop his concept of the Heavenly Messiah who incarnated in the earthly Jesus.” (42) That, I think, is explicit enough a statement to make us hesitate in dismissing Salibi’s findings too quickly.

According to the Koran, a special book written in Aramaic had been divinely delivered to Issa. Schonfield tells us that the Nazoraeans were in possession of “…a gospel written in Aramaic of which fragments have been preserved, and produced much other literature partly known to us.” (43) The French scholar Simone Petrement says: “The Jewish Christians had a particular Gospel, primarily derived from Matthew.” (44) Salibi contends that Paul is likely to have returned from Arabia with parchments concerning Issa’s exploits and background. Either that or he was ‘schooled’ in a particular version of ancient Nazoraean doctrine, and out of this experience created a new and controversial gospel around Jesus and Issa. Scholars feel sure that there must have been another information source used by the gospel writers to complete the Gospels, and the lost Gospel of the Nazoraeans, or some other version of it, seems likely to have been that source.

Paul’s ideas about Jesus deeply disturbed Jesus’ brother James. For fourteen years James and his faction persecuted Paul, but in the end Nazoraean influence withered and Paul’s highly successful missionary campaign won the day. James and his followers are on record as having struck a compromise with Paul over what was expected of gentile converts, but this accommodation was short lived. After his arrest in 58 AD, Paul’s teachings were again strongly opposed by the Jerusalem authority, many of the Pauline churches defecting to James’ orthodox Nazoraeans. Between the 40s and 60s, James, as leader of the Jerusalem Community, insisted on complete obedience of the purity laws for all Jews drawn to the sectarian cause. And so the book of Acts portrays the relationship of Paul and James as strained, but the truth is more likely to be that like the Christians and Nazoraeans in Rome by 64, they were at each others’ throats. What honeymoon there had been was over, the war of words had begun, a war that would result in the Apostolic Nazoraeans being all but erased from the Christian imagination.


1) Martin, Malachi, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, G P Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1981, p. 43.

2) Dewey, Arthur, The Family of Jesus, a paper in Forum, New Series 2,1 Spring 1999, Polbridge Press Santa Rosa, California, p 85.

3) Schonfield, Hugh, The Passover Plot, Corgi Books, London, 1967, p. 183.

4) Ibid p. 184.

5) As quoted by Robert Eisenman in, James the Brother of Jesus, Faber and Faber, 1997, p. 243.

6) Martin, Malachi, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, G P Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1981, p. 44.

7) Cupitt, Don, The Myth of God Incarnate, essays edited by John Hick (1977), pp. 141-5

8) Wright, N T, Who was Jesus? SPCK, London, 1994, p 57.

9) Bainton, Roland H, Early Christianity, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1960, p. 69.

10) Schonfield, Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Element Books, Dorset, 1985, p. 120.

11) Weiss, Johannes, Earliest Christianity, Vol 11, Harper TorchBooks, New York, 1965, p. 740.

12) Ibid.

13) Ibid, p. 740-1.

14) Schonfield, Hugh, The Essene Odyssey, Element Books, Wiltshire, 1984, p. 147.

15) Frazer, J G, The Golden Bough, Macmillan & Co Ltd, London,1922, vol 1, pp. 24-5.

16) Schonfield Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Bantam Books, London, 1969, p. 123.

17) Dewey, Arthur, The Family of Jesus, a paper in Forum, New Series 2,1 Spring 1999, Polbridge Press Santa Rosa, California, p 92.

18) Ibid, 94

19) Eusebius, History, 1:7.

20) Schonfield, Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Element Books, Wiltshire, 1985, p. 64.

21) Schonfield, Hugh, The Pentecostal Revolution, Element Books, Wiltshire, 1985, p. 290.

22) Weiss, Johannes, Earliest Christianity, Harper TorchBooks, New York, 1965, p. 731.

23) Ibid, p. 730.

24) Eisenman, Robert, James the Brother of Jesus, Faber & Faber, London, 1997, p. 155.

25) Schonfield. Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Element Books, Wiltshire 1985, p. 151.

26) Ranke-Heinemann, Uta, Putting Away Childish Things, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, p.173.

27) Martin, Malachi, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, G P. Putnam’s Sons,New York, 1981, p. 147.

28) Ibid 42.

29) Schonfield, Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Element Books, Wiltshire, 1985, p. 120.

30) de Rosa, Peter, Vicars of Christ/The Dark Side of the Papacy, Corgi Books, 1989.

31) Eisenman, Robert, James the Brother of Jesus, Faber & Faber, London, 1997, p. 53-4.

32) Durant, Will, Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, 1944, p. 588.

33) Maccoby, Hyam, The Myth Maker, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1986, p. 17.

34) Eisenman, Robert, James the Brother of Jesus, Faber & Faber, London, 1997, p. 79.

35) Brown, Raymond E, & Meier, John P, Antioch & Rome/New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity, Paulist Press, New York, 1983, p. 29.

36) Schonfield, Hugh, Those Incredible Christians, Element, Wiltshire, 1985, p. 150.

37) Ibid, 145.

38) Thiede, Carsten Peter and D’Ancona, Matthew, The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1996, p. 73.

39) Ibid, 72.

40) Salibi, Kamal, Conspiracy in Jerusalem, I B Tauris & Co, Ltd, London, 1988, p. 52.

41) Ibid, 47.

42) Schonfield, Hugh, The Passover Plot, Corgi Books, Great Britain, 1967, p. 218.

43) Ibid 238.

44) Petrement, Simone, A Separate God, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, p. 471.