The Nazarenes and Their Sect The Way

Posted by on Oct 1, 2021

The Apostolic Writings tell us that the disciples of Yeshua and the new converts were called Nazarenes and their assembly was a sect within Judaism, called The Way, contrary to the common belief that they were “Christians” and their assemblies were called “churches”.

In fact, we have verses which testify to the truth of this belief that none of the apostles called himself “Christian”.

That compels us to consider the question: if that were the intention of the disciples to call themselves “Christians” and to create a new religion called “Christianity”, why is that not made explicit in their writings?

Moreover, those theologians who advance this view are under the necessity of explaining the fact that the early believers in Yeshua were indeed called Nazarenes and their sect: The Way.

So, who and why called the disciples of Yeshua “Christians” and their assembly “Church”? We will address the first of these and offer the other for the reader’s consideration.

In this study on the early Nazarenes and their sect The Way, we will explain the reason why they were called such in due course. A good departure point to understanding the Nazarenes and their sect The Way is to explain first the term “Nazarene”.

Messiah called the Nazarene

A typical Jew in the first century Judea had only one name, sometimes followed by the phrase “son of …”, i.e., “Yeshua son of Yoseph”, or the individual’s hometown: “Yeshua of Nazareth” being a Galilean Jew (Mar 10:47). In his hometown Nazareth, Yeshua was referred to as “the son of Miryam and brother of Ya’akov, Yoseph, Yehudah, and Shimon” (Mar 6:3).

As a name applied to Yeshua, the word “Nazarene” occurs only once in Mat 2:23 to refer to him as an inhabitant of Nazareth. “Nazarene” has obvious reference to Nazareth, the hometown of Yeshua, and it is applied to him only by those who are outside his inner circle of disciples, as we find in Mat 26:71; Mar 10:47; Mar 14:67; Joh 19:19; Act 2:22.

In the Acts, “Nazarene” is employed by Shimon Kefa and Shaul, and by Yeshua himself, according to Shaul’s account in Act 22:8. In Matthew 2:23 we read that “he shall be called a Nazarene” to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene”.

But who of the prophets spoke of such a Nazarene because we do not have such an account in the prophets? However, in Isa 11:1 the prophet indeed hinted of the coming of a Nazarene (Hebrew Natsaret),

And a Rod shall come forth from the stump of Yishai, and a Branch (netser) from his roots shall grow (or bear fruits).

It is remarkable that the Sages are in agreement that the coming of Mashiach (Messiah) has been foretold in the Prophets, as we will explain below.

The prophecy in Isa 11:1-4 about the coming forth of a man from the lineage of David (see also Enoch, Book 2, Chapter 49) is understood messianically by the Sages in Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 93b.

The Hebrew word נֵצֶר netser in Isa 11:1 means a branch. Its root is the verb נָצַר natsar, which means to preserve, conceal. This branch or sprout is specifically called for the offshoot of the olive tree which comes out away from the stump in a different place and time after it has been concealed and hidden in the ground.

And indeed, Mashiach’s birth and actions were in keeping with his nature—he like an offshoot came out of the House of David in a different place from the root about a thousand of years later.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give two accounts of Yeshua’s genealogy through Miriam and Yoseph, both dependents of King David. David was born in Bethlechem, but Yeshua came out (shoot out) from Natsareth.

But you, Bethlechem Ephrathah, you who are little among the clans of Yehudah, out of you shall come forth to Me the one* to become Ruler in Israel. And His comings forth are of old, from everlasting. (Mic 5:2)

*”one” Targum Jonathan paraphrases “the Messiah”.

How did the offshoot of King David come out of Natsareth and not out of Bethlechem, as foretold in Mic 5:2?

During the persecution of the Jews by the Greeks, the inhabitants of Bethlechem escaped to Natsaret (Nazareth) in Galil where they settled down in order to fulfill the prophecy that from Natsaret would come out the Branch (netser) from the stump of David in Bethlechem.

This Branch of David, in order to bear fruits, must be anointed with oil, as his father David was (1Sa 16:13). In the Hebrew Scripture (Tanak), the anointing with olive oil was a ceremonial reserved to the kings (1Sa 10:1, 1Sa 15:17, 1Ki 19:16) and to the priests of Israel (Exo 28:41, Lev 6:20), and to the prophets; the most set-apart place in the Temple was anointed too (Dan 9:24). All these persons were anointed with olive oil and called “messiah” (Hebrew, מָשִׁיחַ mashiach). Even a gentile such as King Koresh the Great of Persia was anointed, i.e., became messiah (Isa 45:1).

In the singular case of the Anointed of YHVH, the word Mashiach has been reserved to Yeshua, who was anointed to do the mission he was sent for as foretold,        

The Ruach of the Master Yehovah is upon me, because Yehovah has anointed me to bring good news to the meek. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the acceptable year of Yehovah, and the day of vengeance of our Elohim, to comfort all who mourn, (Isa 61:1-2)

The Hebrew Nazarenes vs the Greek Christians

In Acts the followers of Yeshua were called by Tertullus (Acts 24:1-5) as “the sect of the Nazarenes” whose ringleader was none other than Apostle Shaul.

For having found this man a plague, who stirs up dissension among all the Yehudim throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Natsarenes, (Act 24:5)

There is a mainstream doctrine in the Christianity that Shaul taught “the New Covenant” to the new Gentile converts (called “Christians”). Part of this doctrine is the creation of a new religious body apart of Israel (called “the Church”) and a new religion (called “Christianity”).

In fact, none of the apostles called himself “Christian”, and Yeshua never preached such a new religion for the “Christians”, as that was not his mission he was sent for.

Instead, the Apostolic Writings clearly testify to the establishment of a new sect within Judaism called “The Way” (see also Acts 19:23, Acts 24:14, Acts 24:22).

And this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the Elohim of my fathers, believing all that has been written in the Torah and in the Prophets, (Act 24:14)

Torah scroll. The sect The Way of the early Nazarenes believed in all that had been written in the Torah and the Prophets.

Torah scroll. The sect of the early Nazarenes called The Way believed in all that had been written in the Torah and the Prophets.

These disciples called themselves “Nazarenes”, because it was said, “He shall be called a Nazarene”. We should note here that the sect of the early the Nazarenes called The Way, as testified in the account, believed all that had been written in the Torah and the Prophets.

This new sect of the Nazarenes was established according to what had been said in the old times by the prophet Yeshayahu (see also Mat 3:3; Mar 1:3; Luk 3:4; Joh 1:23),

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the Way of Yehovah. Make His path straight.

As a result of the use of the term “The Way of Yehovah”, the disciples referred to themselves as being “in the wilderness” and called their sect “The Way” [of Yehovah] after the one who said, “I am the Way”.

From these two verses in Act 24, it is obvious that (1) the disciples and the early believers in Yeshua called themselves Nazarenes (Hebrew Netsarim), and (2) their Jewish movement was called The Way, a sect within the Judaism.

The “church father” Jerome described these Nazarenes in a derogative way as those “…who accept Christ in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law [of Mosheh].” Elsewhere he wrote:

In our own day there exists a sect among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the East, which is called the sect of the Minei, and is even now condemned by the Pharisees. The adherents to this sect are known commonly as Nazarenes; they believe in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary; and they say that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, is the same as the one in whom we believe. But while they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other. (Jerome; Letter 75:4:13 to Augustine) CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 75 (to Augustine)

First, do we see the contempt in Jerome’s words? But, there is more disdain to come from the mouths of the “Church Fathers”.

Jerome called the Nazarenes, the disciples of Yeshua, “neither the one (Jews) nor the other (Christians)”. This sounds peculiar as we have not read anywhere in the Scripture that Matthew, Yochanan, Shimon, and the other disciples are not Jews. And common sense does not allow us to agree with Jerome. But Jerome was right in one thing.

While Jerome was wrong to say that the disciples were not Jews, because there were indeed Jews, he was right when he said that they were not “Christians”.

If the disciples were not “Christians”, where did the term “Christian” come from, because we already know that they called themselves Nazarenes and their sect: The Way?

So, who called the Nazarenes “Christians”? To answer this question we must first understand why they were called such.

That said, herein we will address the issue the Hebrew Nazarenes vs the Greek Christians in the manner of the early commentators.

Smith’s Bible Dictionary tells that the term “Christian” was used contemptuously by the gentiles in reference to the disciples, as we read,

The disciples, we are told, (Acts 11:26) were first called Christians (Greek) at Antioch on the Orontes, somewhere about A.D. 43. They were known to each other, as and were among themselves called, brethren, (Act 15:1, Act 15:23; 1Co 7:12) disciples, (Act 9:26; Act 11:29) believers, (Act 5:14) saints, (Rom 8:27; Rom 15:25). The name “Christian,” which, in the only other cases where it appears in the New Testament, (Act 26:28; 1Pe 4:16) is used contemptuously, could not have been applied by the early disciples to themselves, but was imposed upon them by the Gentile world. There is no reason to suppose that the name “Christian” of itself was intended as a term of scurrility or abuse, though it would naturally be used with contempt.

And indeed, the manner the Greek word Χριστιανός “Christian” has been employed sparsely in the Apostolic Writings suggests that it was a term the disciples and the early believers in Yeshua haMashiach were called by the Greek speakers and not what they called themselves.

None of the disciples called himself Χριστιανός “Christian”. Neither did Yeshua call himself by the Greek word Χριστός hristos (anglicized as christ), nor did he give any name for his followers; the disciples called themselves Nazarenes. Yeshua was often called by the Hebrew title “Rabbi” but he discouraged his disciples to be called as such. Please, read what we have written in the article Do Not be Called Rabbi! – Time of Reckoning Ministry concerning the title “Rabbi”.

Who called the Hebrew Nazarenes “Christians”?

The word “Christians” appears only three times in Act 11:26, Act 26:28 and 1Pe 4:16. We read the English translation of the Greek text,

And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Act 11:26 KJV)

The plain meaning of the text is straightforward: “the disciples were called Christians”, and not “they called themselves Christians”. But who called the Nazarenes “Christians”?

We should note here that in Act 26:28 and 1Pe 4:16, the word Χριστιανός hristianos always appears in the Greek texts as a translation of a follower of Χριστός hristos (Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ mashiach, lit. “anointed with oil”, see Lev 4:3-5, and Dan 9:25-26), and never as a transliteration μεσσίαςmessías, implying that the Greek speakers were the ones who called the Nazarenes “Christians”.

Had Hebrew speakers called the Nazarenes by any name, they would have used the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ mashiach: μεσσίαςmessías. But why would a Hebrew speaker use Greek to identify a fellow Hebrew in the first place?

The Greek transliteration μεσσίαςmessías, appears only in the Greek text of Joh 1:41 and Joh 4:25. In these two examples, though, we find interesting employment of the Greek μεσσίαςmessías. This is what we are told in Greek: Andrew learned from Yochanan that the Messiah had come and running at top speed along the Galilee shoreline, he saw his brother Peter and screamed out … “We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ.” (Joh 1:41 KJV)

Does that make any sense? Who speaks like that?

The phrase “being interpreted, the Christ” is what is called a scribal gloss. The Greek translators realized that the Greek readers would not be familiar what “Mashiach” was. To fix the text, they inserted a gloss in the narrative so that the Greeks would know what “messiah” was. The same case is in Joh 4:25.

The reader will do well to learn that there are many such glosses in the Apostolic Writings which indicate the primacy of Hebrew language. But in these two cases, the Greek transliteration μεσσίαςmessías seems to be a linguistic preference of the translator over the translation Χριστός hristos.

On the other hand, the Aramaic (language akin to Hebrew) of Act 11:26 has transliterated instead of translated the Greek word Χριστιανός. All of this implies that non-Hebrew speakers called the Nazarenes “Christians”.

Furthermore, although the Nazarenes believed Yeshua to be the Hebrew Messiah, he was usually referred to by them as “Yeshua of Nazareth” or “Yeshua, son of Yoseph”. Yeshua came to be called Χριστός hristos only by the gentiles, for being the promised Messías of the Jews. Hence, it would have been natural for the Greek gentiles to call the followers of Χριστός  Χριστιανός hristianos.

In contrast, a Hebrew would have never used a Greek word to profess his expectations in the long-awaited Mashiach of Israel. He would have simply said: מָשִׁיחַ mashiach.

If that explanation is accepted, then we are obliged to ask the following question …

How “Christ” entered in the Old English?

In the Nazarene sect “The Way”, the Hebrew word mashiach was a title that was used with the definite article ha-: hence haMashiach. But from the early period of the gentile Church, it was used without it and regarded as a part of the proper name “Christ”. “Christ” was treated as a proper name in Old English, but not regularly capitalized until the 17th century.

The spelling Christ in English became standardized in the 18th century when the spelling of certain Hebrew words changed to fit their Greek or Latin origins. Thus, the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ mashiach, “anointed with oil”, became the Roman Christus, then the Greek μεσσίαςmessías, and Χριστός hristos. Hence the gentile followers through the Greco-Roman conversion were further anglicized as “Christians”.

If we want to understand what the Greek word for μεσσίαςmessías means, we must pay attention to how the Greek language and ancient culture defines Χριστός hristos.

The Greek word χρίσμα hrisma, means the oil used in smearing or anointing and consequently the Greek word hristos means “the anointed one”. χρίσμα hrisma is derived from the verb χρίω hrio, akin to χράομαι hraomai, through the idea of contact. Hence, χρίω hrio means to smear or rub with oil, by implication to consecrate to an office or religious service: to anoint.

What is not told in the Christianity, however, is that according to the Greek mythology, all Greek “gods” were smeared with oil to become “gods”, i.e. all Greek deities like Zeus, etc., were Χριστός hristos, “smeared”.

Therefore, for the Greek reader there is no linguistic difference between Χριστός in the Greek mythology and Χριστός in the New Testament. And hence what will be more natural for him but to associate Χριστιανός “Christian” with a follower of  Χριστός hristos. Χριστός hristos is the same term with the same meaning: “smeared one with oil”.

But for the Hebrew speaker the difference is huge. The Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ mashiach, “anointed with oil”, is a title reserved for those whom YHVH had anointed to do His will: the kings, the priests, the prophets, and even a gentile like King Koresh, who was chosen to free YHVH’s people and let Jerusalem and the Temple be rebuilt.

Again, none of the apostles had ever referred to himself as a Christian Χριστιανός. In fact, Apostle Shaul never called himself “Christian”; he frequently identified himself as Yehudi, “Jew”, (Act 21:39, Act 22:3), and even as a “Pharisee” (Act 23:6), but never as “Christian”. The term Χριστιανός is a foreign concept in the Hebrew mindset, and in fact none of the disciples, except for Shaul, did not know that Greek word.

Had the apostles needed to call themselves “Christians”, they would have done it, but they did not. They called themselves Nazarenes.

Shaul the ringleader of the Nazarenes and their sect The Way

If we want to understand what took place at that time in the first century Judea, we must see how the disciples and the converts conducted their lives.

The real Shaul was a Torah observant believer in Yeshua. He knew that his teachings were being twisted and that he was misunderstood as teaching against the Torah. He knew that he was wrongly accused of teaching things that he had not said or taught (see Rom 3:8). When Shaul arrived in Jerusalem, he went to great lengths to prove that this was not true at all (Act 21:20-26).

In order to prove that this was nothing more than a slander, the apostle took the Nazarite vow and went to the Temple to bring his offerings, according to the Torah (Act 21:22-26, Num 6:13-21) refuting his slanderers (Act 21:24).

Shaul as a Torah observant apostle did many deeds to prove that he both kept and taught the Torah. He circumcised Timothy (Act 16:1-3), took the Nazarite vow (Act 18:18, Act 21:17-26), taught and observed the appointed times of YHVH such as: the Unleavened Bread (Act 20:6; 1Co 5:6-8; 1Co 11:17-34), Shavuot (Act 20:16; 1Co 16:8), and Yom Kippur (Act 27:9).

Shaul did not offend the Torah or the Temple in anything at all, as he was falsely accused (Act 25:8). Neither had he done anything against his people or the traditions of the fathers (Act 28:17).

The apostle just plainly and clearly testifies that “the Torah is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12). It had never come to his mind to nullify the Torah and the Covenant and replace it with “new” one, but on the contrary with his works, he maintained the Torah (Rom 3:31).

If we take into consideration still further the fact that all apostles and the converts likewise continued to conform to the Torah observing, we should say also that they made the distinction between clean and unclean food, etc. (Acts 10:14, 28; 11:3). At Jerusalem they were regular visitors to the Temple and took part in Jewish religious life as of old (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 21:20-26).

The Nazarenes were merely a new Jewish sect called The Way, distinguished from the sects of the first century Judaism: the Pharisees and the Seduces.

Contrary to these many factual references, some Christian theologians “justify” Shaul’s deeds saying that the apostle was playing on both sides in order to attract more followers to Christ. But was he? And would that not make him a hypocrite: a person who professes beliefs he did not hold in order to conceal his real motives? Inadvertently, they call Shaul the Apostle of Yeshua a hypocrite. Read more in Misunderstanding of Paul – Time of Reckoning Ministry concerning the difficult to understand teachings of the apostle. 

With that said, we now better understand who and why called the Hebrew Nazarenes “Christians”.

When we reflect on what we have written above, we will find that there was an intentional trend on the side of Christian theologians and translators to replace the early Nazarenes with the coined term “Christians”.

The above observation points to the fact that the Apostolic Writings tell us explicitly that “the disciples were first called Christians”, not that they called themselves such. The account in Act 11:19-26 tells how in Antioch many Jews and converts came to believe in Yeshua: the Prophet Mosheh bade us to await. Refer to Is Yeshua the Prophet in Deu 18:15? – Time of Reckoning Ministry for the complete study. 

It was in Antioch where a new term was coined: “Christians”. This new term in the Apostolic Writings is always in a context of being used by the gentiles to refer to the believers in the Anointed One of YHVH: Yeshua haMashiach.

Thus, the term “Christian” was invented by the gentiles to describe gentiles in a gentile Greek environment. The gentiles mocked the followers of Yeshua, because for them the former pagans had become like the Greek gods Χριστιανός hristianos. i.e., “smeared ones”.

But, the disciples called themselves Nazarenes and their sect: The Way, after the one who has said,

I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.

Continue to From Ignatius of Antioch to the Pope of Rome 

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!