According to Epiphanius of Salamis in Panarion, there were several key features of the Nasaraeans:
- They kept the Sabbath, practiced circumcision, and abstained from meat
- They were similar to the Hemerobaptists and Ossaeans (Essenes)
- They were located along the Jordan River, north of Galilee
- They *did not* believe in fate or astrology (this may suggest Sadducee association, but is in contrast to Essenes and Elcesites)
- Most importantly: They believed that the books of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the [Greek] Old Testament) did not represent Moses’ teachings; rather, they believed these scriptures are incorrect, and that Moses handed down other, secret books, which the Nasaraeans claimed to possess.
The Jewish influence within the Nasaraean community is undeniable. Yet even Epiphanius puzzled over how they could so staunchly reject Judaism’s primary scriptures, given their reverence for the prophets and their Jewish practices.
But once more, I shall also pass by the sect’s strangeness and foolishness. I am content with the few words I have said, inserted here with my limited ability to oppose the error of the sect we have been discussing.
Epiphanius recognized a clear contrast between the Nasar and Orthodox Judaism. The puzzling subtext which Epiphanius feigned traversal was how the Nasar could have come to such a conclusion that their implementation of Judaism was superior to that which had become Orthodox, particularly after the temple destruction in 70CE. One aspect of this alternate-Judaism was its claim of secret Mosaic literature which gave alternatives to increasingly problematic theological issues within Judaism, particularly as Roman influence increasingly impeded on Jewish liberties and religious practices around the turn of the millennium.
It is interesting to note that the Mandaeans, who emerged out of a similar religious and geographic (Jordan River) backgrounds, had similar cherry-pickings of the Old Testament as the Nasaraeans. For example, the Mandaeans revered Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, and Aram, but rejected Abraham and Moses (the lawgivers). In other words, they revered the lineage of Seth and Shem, who were associated with Melchizadek in Jewish midrash literature. And like the Nasaraeans, the Mandaeans also rejected the Pentateuch. Indeed, ES Drower noted in her research on the Mandaeans that the most important Mandaean teachings were “the esoteric doctrines imparted only to priests and Nazoraeans, nasuraiia, that is to say, to ‘initiated persons’. These teachings were never written down”.
Given these similarities, along with the explicit invocation of the term Nasuraiia in Mandaean vernacular, it is likely that the Nasaraenes and the Mandaeans evolved out of a common sociopolitical-religious framework, along with Christians, for whom the Arabic term is Nasrani. One potential common link was a “charlatan” named Theudas, described by Josephus in Antiquities 20.5, who took his followers to the Jordan River, claimed he could part the river, and implored his followers to bring their possessions with them so he could provide passage in some sort of water ritual. Theudas was beheaded by the procurator, and his severed head was paraded around Jerusalem, an eerily familiar scene, given John the Baptist’s similar fate. Theudas shows up again in Acts of the Apostles 5:36, and there was also a Theudas who Clement of Alexandria claims had a teacher-student relationship with both the Apostle Paul and the Gnostic Valentinus.
There are also explicit canonical links between the John the Baptist group and the emergence of Christianity. For example, the Gospel of John 1:35-40 gives such a link, going so far to say that Jesus Christ’s apostles were originally John’s followers:
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”…Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus.
Unlike the Mandaeans and other groups that emerged out of this religious atmosphere, the Nasaraeans were not Gnostic in the way we might think about Christian Gnosticism. The fact that they did not believe in astrology or fate implies they lacked the robust creation story and Platonic influence that Gnostic Christians, such as the Valentinians and Sethian-Gnostics had.
The Nasaraeans’ lack of concern for astrology could imply their socio-political roots were more related to the Sadducees than they are to the Pharisees, Scribes, or Essenes, as the Sadducees explicitly rejected the notion of fate. In other words, the Nasaraeans might have been part of the upper class.
Yet, their rejection of canonical Genesis suggests they must have had some sort of alternative creation story that was inconsistent enough with canonical Genesis that they felt the need to reject the Pentateuch’s version.
The source of this dissonance is clear: the Nasaraenes were the Nasar – the keepers of the original faith; Nasar is Hebrew for Keep, Guard, or Preserve. They were the brothers and sisters of the messiah, and they were the other children of the mother in Revelation 12 and 2 Esdras 9-10. They were the children of Wisdom (Rev 12:17, Luke 7:35) They were the followers of the Queen of Heaven. They adhered to an older version of Judaism which was present prior to King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform (2 Kings 20-24), which gave rise to redactions and interpolations to the Torah (notably Deuteronomy). This Jewish reformation also triggered a concerted effort among the high priests, scribes, and Jewish elites to recraft the Torah to remove Ba’al (the Queen’s original son) and the Queen’s Wisdom from scripture, and replace it with a law-centric paradigm which had Moses as the “most high’s” primary proxy on Earth (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).
I have taught you statutes and laws as the Lord my God commanded me…Observe them carefully, for this will be your wisdom and understanding
In this ancient version of Judaism, a supplement to following the law prescribed by the most high would have been to burn incense for the Queen of Heaven (Jer 44:18-19, Rev 5:8). After Josiah and his high priests removed artifacts of the Queen from the temple, the Queen’s followers lost clout and sway, in terms of Judaism’s direction. The Nasar were, in a theological sense, vindicated when a few years later, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, its treasures looted, and Jews were expelled from the area.
The fact that the Queen of Heaven is detectable within canonical Christian literature (Revelation 12, Luke 7:35, arguably John’s Gospel), as well as being prominently featured in Gnosticism as Sophia, makes it clear that she was part of the core from which various Christian iterations evolved.
This could even explain why so many of the early heretics, such as Simon Magus, Apelles, and Carpocrates, held specific women in such high regard – a contrast to the Orthodoxy’s later position. There was a male Paraclete who encapsulated the male Spirit each generation; logically, there should also be a woman who encapsulated the female Spirit.
Outside of textual clues within early Christian literature, there are also external clues provided by the early Church fathers.
From Irenaeus of Lyon, we know that the Cerinthians very much resembled the Ebionites (AH i.26.2). We also learn from Eusebius of Caesaria that there were claims made by several groups that the Cerinthians wrote multiple Johannine texts, notably Revelation.
Hippolytus and Epiphanius give a concrete connection between the Nasaraenes and the Ebionites (and the Nazarenes, those Christians who resembled the Ebionites, except they also believed in the virgin birth and resurrection). Here is Epiphanius’s description:
And four sects have made use of [Elxai] because they were bewitched by his imposture: Of those that came after him, the Ebionites and Nazoraeans; of those before his time and during it the Ossaeans, and the Nasaraeans whom I mentioned earlier.
Epiphanius gives a timeline for Elxai. He was active during the reign of Trajan (98CE-117CE), he was Jewish but did not strictly adhere to Jewish law, he innovated his own Jewish-like theology, he argued his people should pray toward Jerusalem (an interesting parallel to modern Islam), and “…by revelation…he introduced some further figments of his imagination.” In other words, Elxai received revelations which guided his doctrines, similar to Pauline traditions (Gal 2:2). There was also a book used by Elxai was apocalyptic in nature, and promised its readers remission of their sins. Compare that to Revelation 1:3
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
The Book of Elxai also predicted war among wicked angels. Compare that to Revelation 12:7
Then a war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
Notice Epiphanius’ characterization of Elxai’s Christ below – Christ was man-like, invisible, and in the sky, 96 miles tall and 24 miles wide.
Thus they believe that Christ is a manlike figure invisible to human eyes, ninety-six miles…tall; …twenty-four miles wide…Opposite him the Holy Spirit stands invisibly as well, in the form of a female, with the same dimensions.
‘And how did I find the dimensions?’ he says. ‘I saw from the mountains that the heads were level with them, and from observing the height of the mountain, I learned the dimensions of Christ and the Holy Spirit.’
It is curious that Elxai was perceived as a figurehead for groups that were not explicitly Christian.
If this Elxai indeed existed and believed something in-line with Epiphanius’ characterization, one speculation for why he would believe such a strange thing is that he saw the Christ as a heavenly figure which served as something of a beacon to send the Christ to those “worthy” to receive it.
In this sense, we might have the flip side of the coin of the curious Cerinthian and Ebionite notion that the Christ descended onto Jesus in the form of a dove.
Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles
[Ebionite] opinions with respect to [Jesus] are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates
-Irenaeus, Against Heresies i.26.1
Most early church fathers claimed the Ebionites used some version of the Gospel of Matthew, which must have lacked the virgin birth; Irenaeus alludes that Cerinthians used the Gospel of Mark, but Epiphanius explicitly wrote that Cerinthians used Matthew. This gives rise to my speculation that the Gospel which was shared between the Cerinthians and Ebionites was the original proto-Synoptic Gospel which preceded Mark, Matthew, and Luke – perhaps (although unlikely) with a Hebrew or Aramaic origin. Likewise, the paradigm the original Synoptic Gospel elaborated would have been of Nasaraene origin.