Who were the Nazarenes?
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
As we discuss early Sabbath history, we must also mention the name Nazarenes or Nazoreans. Did you know that the earliest church was called by this term? When Paul was brought before Roman officials, he was accused of being a Nazarene. “For we have found this man to be a plague, an instigator of insurrections among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
In Paul’s confession, he affirmed that he belonged to this group and that he believed in everything written in the Law and the Prophets. “But this I confess to you, that after the Way, which they call a sect, so I serve the God of our fathers, believing all things which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets…” (Acts 24:14).
The early church was based out of Jerusalem. When the city and Temple were destroyed in 70 AD, the church was scattered. Before the attack commenced, God’s people fled to the mountains. Just before the Passover, Jesus instructed his disciples: “20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is at hand. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let those who are in the middle of her depart. Let those who are in the country not enter therein” (Luke 21:20-21a).
We have a few historical sources that tell us about the church fleeing Jerusalem. We also learn about their way of life. Eusebius, who wrote about 340 AD, said this about the Nazarenes:
“3 But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come there from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men…” (Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, 5:3, [NPNF: 138])
The earliest believers followed Christ’s instructions to flee to the mountains. They specifically traveled to a place named Pella, which is located in modern-day Jordan. We also learn more from a writer named Epiphanius, who wrote in the late 370s AD. He tells us about their practices.
He wrote that all Christians in the beginning were called Nazarenes or Nazoreans, which is in agreement with the Bible. He recorded that these believers fled to Pella before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, which is in agreement with Eusebius. He also told us that they still existed in his day, dwelling at “…Coele-Syria, Decapolis (Pella) and Basanitis (Cocabe).”
Lastly, he wrote that they still practiced the Sabbath and other observances of the Law (11th edition: Nazarenes; see also Epiphanius, Heres., Section 29).
Jerome, who lived from 340 to 420 AD wrote: “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 112/ Augustine Letter 75, chapter 4, sec 13).
These ancient accounts inform us that the earliest believers in Jerusalem fled to Pella, which is a mountainous area. Here they were protected and fed. This original group of believers still existed into at least the late 300s AD!
These accounts also testify that the original group of Christians still practiced aspects of the Law such as the Sabbath centuries after Jesus. Thus, there can be no argument that the earliest Christians gave up the Sabbath commandment from God.
Kelly McDonald, Jr. BSA President www.biblesabbath.org