How not to name a new religion

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I carelessly used that pernicious passive voice and in retrospect I see that I conveyed a meaning I did not intend. I have since marked a correction to it in that post and fully intend to have a quiet but sharp word with my proof reader.

But has anyone ever heard of a religious group ever naming itself after the hometown of its founder? What would be the point? Is the religion acting as a tourist promoter to the home of its founder?

No, religious groups generally prefer to name themselves in a way that identifies something of their beliefs or practices.

We have indications that some early Christians called themselves something like “Nazoreans”, and the name has been linked etymologically to something meaning “keeper” or “observer”.

Those who try to say that the name originated as a reference to the town of Jesus’ boyhood are presenting an argument that ignores the etymological argument and makes no sense as the sort of thing people do.

Outsiders name other religions anything under the sun. But that’s quite a different matter.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “How not to name a new religion”

  1. “But has anyone ever heard of a religious group ever naming itself after the hometown of its founder? What would be the point? Is the religion acting as a tourist promoter to the home of its founder?”

    Sort of. Judaism and Samaritanism. When the Israelite kingdom split into two kingdoms, the Southern kingdom was called the kingdom of Judah because (apparently) of most of its land being made of from the tribal inheritance of the tribe of Judah more than any other tribe, and the Northern Kingdom was called Samaria due to Samaria beings its capital. Judaism the religion is therefore named after the southern kingdom, after the region of Judea in which the particular forms of this religion prevailed, and its adherents are called Judeans (which in English is shortened to Jews). Samaritanism is named after the northern kingdom and its capital city where its forms prevailed. The split in Hebraic religion that resulted in the Judean kingdom sacrificing only in Jerusalem and the Samaritan kingdom sacrificing only on Mount Gerizim, lent the names of the regions to the religions that arose in those regions.

    If Jesus’ religion arose in the same way, as a split with Judaism or Samaritanism that was most pronounced in Nazareth, it would be natural for Samaritanism and Judaism which had already named themselves after regions, to name it also after a region.

    The writer of the gospel of John apparently perceived this in John 7:50-7:52 where Nicodemus is depicted as taking up for Jesus and the answer of the Pharisees is “Are you from Galilee, too?” which suggests that Jesus’ religion is a movement withing one particular region and that most people in the region would adhere to it. Hence anyone found adhering to it is probably from Galilee, or vice versa.

    And what is Jesus’ religion but Judaism that rejects the temple and the sacrifices and particular ceremonies from the Torah and insists more on morality? In other words, its the form of Judiasm you might expect to arise in a land far enough away from the temple to where they sort of resent the notion that they need to go up to Jerusalem to worship God. That such a Judaism with a weakened ceremonial system would arise in Galilee is no strange thing, nor that it would come to be called Galileanism or some such as Judaism had come to be called so due to the region in which it arose.

    1. But yes, the hometown makes no sense. The region does. Calling it Nazarenism would make little sense, especially for such a small town. So it is strange that we don’t find more evidence of it being associated with Galilee at large outside of John 7:52.

  2. The translator of Julian’s “Against the Galileans” writes:

    “Julian, like Epictetus, always calls the Christians Galilaeans because he wishes to emphasise that this was a local creed, “the creed of fishermen,” and perhaps to remind his readers that “out of Galilee ariseth no prophet”; with the same intention he calls Christ “the Nazarene.””

    The “Nazarenes” appear to be early Jewish Christians. It may have been a label applied to them rather than one they took up themselves, just as Julian applied the term “Galilean”. If GJohn’s use of “What good thing can come out of Nazareth?” represents an actual contemporary saying, then “Nazarenes” might have been a pejorative term, like “Christian” was originally supposed to be. (A more modern example is the term “Big Bang theory”, which was apparently initially a pejorative one.)

  3. There was a cult known as the “Worldwide Church of God” and there was a breakaway group from it that called itself the Church of God International. Another was the Global Church of God.

    Yet another calls itself the Philadelphia Church of God, named after Philadelphia in Asia Minor, the city of the church to which Jesus dictated a letter through John who recorded it all in the Book of Revelation.

    These cases demonstrate the use of geographic labels to indicate the self-understanding and self-identification of what the church itself stands for. It is part of their expression of their beliefs about themselves and the identity they want to present to the world.

    The original church was started by Armstrong and outsiders often pejoritavely called them Armstrongites.

    Armstrong was born in Des Moines, Iowa.

    No-one ever called the church The Des Moinies.

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