Earliest (pre-Christian) Nazarenes: Pliny the Elder’s evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century p...
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Ray A. Pritz discusses in some depth the evidence extant for Nazarene Jewish Christianity (the title of his book, subtitled: “From the end of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearances in the Fourth Century”). It was published 1988 so no doubt the scholarly discussion summarized by Pritz at that time has since moved on.

I post here the first of his discussions of a “pre-Christian” sect related to a name like “Nazarenes”. We know from Acts that early Christians were known (at least by outsiders) as Nazarenes — Acts 24:5.

I skip here the reasons (covered many times elsewhere) this term cannot refer (contrary to Matthew 2:23) to a person from the village of Nazareth. Maybe will do so in a future post. I only present Ray Pritz’s discussions, and the evidence he cites, for a pre-Christian group known as “Nazarenes” or something similar.

There are several topics better suited for my http://vridar.info webpage compilation of resources and discussions, and this is one of them. So I expect these blog posts will be rough templates for that site. It’s more of a resource post than a blog discussion/ideas post.

After this I will post on the evidence from Epiphanius and then Philastrius/Filaster (the English Wikipedia needs to have the two spellings linked to avoid 2 different articles!)

Note how in the concluding paragraph the presumption of a historical Jesus and gospel-truth shuts down one possible avenue of inquiry.

The following is copied from Pritz’s book pages 17-18. The italicized extract from Pliny is from an online translation (Perseus translation, 5:19). Pritz published it in the Latin. Emphasis is mine.

While treating the name of the sect, we may deal here with a short notice by Pliny the Elder which has caused some confusion among scholars. In his Historia Naturalis, Book V, he says: We must now speak of the interior of Syria. Cœle Syria has the town of Apamea, divided by the river Marsyas from the Tetrarchy of the Nazerini; Bambyx, the other name of which is Hierapolis, but by the Syrians called Mabog. This was written before 77 A.D., when the work was dedicated to Titus. The similarity of the name with the Nazerini has led many to conclude, erroneously, that this is an early (perhaps the earliest) witness to Christians  (or Nazarenes) by a pagan writer. Other than this, be it noted, there is no pagan notice of Nazarenes.

The area described is quite specifically located by Pliny. It is south of Antioch and east of Laodicea (Latakiya) on the River Marysas (Orontes) below the mountains known today as Jebel el Ansariye (a name that may preserve a memory of the sect). The town of Apamea was a bishopric in the time of Sozomen and an archbishopric in the medieval period. A fortress was erected there during the first Crusade. Today the region is inhabited by the Nusairi Moslem sect (which believes that women will not be resurrected, since they do not have souls).

If to the Nazerini and Nusairi and Nazoraioi/Nazareni we add the Nasaraioi of Epiphanius and the Nazorei of Filaster, we have all the ingredients of a scholastic free-for-all.

The confusion may have started quite early. At the turn of this century, R. Dussaud noted a passage in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen (VII 15) in which he tells of some “Galileans” who helped the pagans of Apamea against the local bishop and the Christians. Dussaud rightly called into question the likelihood that the Galileans — that is, Jewish Christians — would side with the pagans in a dispute over the keeping of idols, and he suggested that the people referred to were “certainly either Nusairi or Nazerini, whom Sozomen has confused with the Nazarenes.” Sozomen’s source here is unknown. Dussaud further suggested that the writer Greg Aboulfaradj (Chron. Syr. I 173) in the year 891 confused the Nusairi with the Mandaeans . . . and was followed by others.

Can Pliny’s Nazerini be early Christians? The answer depends very much on the identification of his sources, and on this basis the answer must be an unequivocal No. It is generally acknowledged that Pliny drew heavily on official records and most likely on those drawn up by Marcus Agrippa (d. 12 B.C.). Jones has shown that this survey was accomplished between 30 and 20 B.C. Any connection between the Nazerini and the Nazarini must, therefore, be ruled out, and we must not attempt to line this up with Epiphanius’ Nazoraioi. One may, however, be allowed to see the Nazerini as the ancestors of today’s Nusairi, the inhabitants of the ethnic region captured some seven centuries later by the Moslems.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Earliest (pre-Christian) Nazarenes: Pliny the Elder’s evidence”

  1. Price has a review of Ptitz’s book:


    This is a complicated subject. Eisenman also tries to make some sense out of it. I picture the situation this way:

    The term “Nazoraean” may have been used in the first century to describe those of “The Way,” who were the Dead Sea Scrolls sect/Essenes who eventually evolved into James’ group.

    They wrote some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the pesharim and the Damascus Document, and called Paul the “liar.” Sometime after 70 CE they wrote the pro-James “Gospel of the Hebrews.” The earliest patristic sources call them Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was a man. The Gospel of the Hebrews was “Q,” and Mark is the Pauline gentiles’ first reaction to it. Paul had been influential enough to convert some of these Nazoraean Jews to his church, and they used the Gospel of the Hebrews (“Q”) and Mark as a source for Matthew (which believes in a virgin birth, like the Nazarenes), and Luke used it and Mark to create a somewhat later Pauline gentile reaction to it. By the time that patristic sources mention Pauline “Nazarenes,” there may have been some confusion of them with the Jamesian Ebionites. Both groups used “Matthew,” but the Ebionite’s version was said to be mutilated and incomplete, because it was “only” the “Q document.”

    I didn’t see any mention in Pritz’ book (on Google books) of the Naassenes, but they further complicate the matter.


  2. I suggest looking into the possibility that this Jewish sect predated Christianity. This explains Acts 24:5; Christ and his disciples were considered by Jews at large as belonging to that marginal sect. It makes sense to me!

    Maybe it is worth mentioning that the current Syrian regime is Alawite (aka Nusairis). However, the sect is generally understood to have been named after Mohammad Ibn Nusair, a 9th C. heretic. This connection is usually accepted by scholar, even by those who are aware of Pliny’s statement (see: Ency. of Islam, Brill 1995, vol 8, p 145). The statement is rather intriguing and worth perusing.

  3. The name Jesus Christ never existed until Emperor Constantine and his collection of Religious leaders made it up in the 4th century- thus the Catholic(universal) church .Most of the Gospels were written by a Roman family named Piso.The joke is on you,because Christianity existed before Jesus Christ was invented!

  4. I love how you TELL us it MUST be ruled out.

    Although I see no reason Pliny wasn’t talking about the Nazarenes who definitely existed in that time, in fact it seems obvious he is writing in a different language and unfamiliar with the group it alludes to their existence.

    Obviously not more than one group of Nazarenes existed so early and if you can’t identify them as anything else it’s logical to conclude and even from the quotes he was talking about the Jewish Nazarenes, whether or not his information about them is accurate.

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