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The Notzrim, also Nasaraioi/Nasoraean (Gk:Νασαραίοι), from Hebrew נֹצְרִים or נוצרים "sentry" or "watchmen"[1] (those who "keep safe" the original teachings), are a sect that began around the time of Jeremiah but flourished as a Gnostic movement during the reign of the Hasmonean queen Alexandra Helene Salome among Hellenized supporters of Rome in Judea.[2] Pliny the Elder indicates[3] that Nasaraioi lived not far from Apamea, in Syria in a city called Bambyx, Hierapolis or Mabog. Dubourg dates Pliny's source between 30 and 20 BCE and, accounting for the lapse of time required for the installation in Syria of a sect born in Palestine, suggests the presence of a Nasoraean current around 50 BCE.[4]

They are sometimes identified as the group called "Nazorei" by Filaster,[5] and were certainly one of the earliest key Gnostic sects. Many of the original Nasoraeans became Christians and thus in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the term Notzrim has come to simply mean Christians. Since the Greek word Christos is the translation of Messiah or "anointed," the Hebrew word for Christians could have been Meshikhiyim (Messianics), but ever since Talmudic days, the term Notzrim was used to deny that Jesus could have been the Messiah.


It appears that the Νασαραίοι were originally composed at least partly of Jews (viz., Israeli-Samaritans) beginning long before the Christian Era, whose anti-Torah teachings [6] may have had some gnostic leanings. The sect was apparently centered in the areas of Coele-Syria, Galilee and Samaria (essentially corresponding to the long-defunct state of Northern Israel).[7]

The Orthodox Church Father Epiphanius writes: "there were Nasoraeans amongst the Jews before the time of Christ."[8] They were said to have rejected temple sacrifice and the Torah, but adhered to other Jewish practice. They are described as being vegetarian.[9] Epiphanius says it was unlawful for them to eat meat or make sacrifices. According to him they were Jews only by nationality who lived in Gilead, Basham, and the Transjordan. They revered Moses but, unlike the pro-Torah Nazoraeans, believed he had received different laws from those accredited to him.

Following the teachings of the Prophets above the Priestly rituals[clarification needed], they are considered Minim (heretics) by the Pharisee-derived Rabbinic Judaism in the Mishnah. They were members of a non-priestly congregation that counted Jeremiah as an early leader five centuries before[clarification needed]. Key teachings are that sacrifices were created by the priesthood to feed the Priests, and are not in accord with God's Law[clarification needed]. E. S. Drower surmises that the Nasoraean "hatred for Jews" originated during a period in which they were in close contact with orthodox Jewry, and when the latter was able to exercise authority over them.[10]

The famous Notzrim of the pre-Christian era (in existence during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus) included a rebellious student mentioned in the Baraitas as "Yeshu Ha-Notzri". Some fringe scholars identify this individual as the Christian Jesus of Nazareth,[11][12] although the identification has been contested, as Yeshu ha-Notzri is depicted as living circa 100 BCE.[13]

The Notzri movement was particularly popular with the Samaritan Jews. While the Pharisees were waiting for a messiah who would be a descendant of David, the Samaritan messiah would restore the northern Kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans emphasized their partial descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and thereby from the Joseph of the Torah. They considered themselves the B'nei Yoseph (i.e. "sons of Joseph").

The Mandaeans, who consider themselves successors of the pre-Christian Notzrim, claim John the Baptist as a member (and onetime leader) of their sect; the River Jordan is a central feature of their doctrine of baptism.[14] The term Mandaii itself may be the Aramaic/Mandaean equivalent of the Greek gnosis ("knowledge"). Besides the Mandaeans, they have frequently been connected with groups known as Naaseni, Naasenians, Naassenes.

According to a Mandaean manuscript, the Haran Gawaita, John the Baptist is baptized, initiated, and educated by the patron of the Nasirutha ("secret knowledge") Anus or Anus-’uthra, the hierophant of the sect.[15] This research was conducted by the Oxford scholar, and specialist on the Nasoraeans, Dr. E. S. Drower, who concedes, however, that John’s name may have been inserted at a later date (it appears as Yahia, which is Arabic, not Aramaic).[16] Drower also asserts that the Church Fathers Hippolytus and Eusebius describe Simon Magus, the Samaritan sorcerer of biblical fame (Acts 8:9ff), as a Nasoraean and a disciple of John the Baptist.[17] The author of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies (Bk. II, xxiii-xxiv), also describes Simon Magus as a disciple of John the Baptist and a Nasoraean. The Homilies also state that the immediate successor to John was another Samaritan named Dositheus, elected as leader because Simon happened to be in Egypt at the time of the martyrdom of the Baptist. Homily (Bk II, xxiv) recounts that when Simon returned from Egypt, the two quarreled: Simon’s authority was proved by miracles; thus Dositheus ceded his position as head of the sect and became Simon’s pupil.[18]

As a result of efforts to bring the sect back into the folds of Judaism they also disparaged the Christian books as fiction, regarding Jesus as the literary invention (mšiha kdaba "false prophet") of Paul of Tarsus, but eventually they emerged towards the end of the 1st century as the Mandaeans though others actually managed to shape the anti-Torah development of Pauline Christianities like Marcionism.[19]

In Hebrew, the word "Notzrim" (נוצרים) refers to all Christians, evidently a survival of the time when the Notzrim in the strict sense were the Christians with whom Jews were in most contact.

Popular usage

Despite being historically anachronistic and quite derogatory as a result of its contextual nuances, many orthodox Jews are increasingly using the term to refer to general Christians. However a more accurate usage is emerging in reference to various sects of messianic Jews who have chosen to identify a Jewish heretic Yeshu ha-Notzri as the historical personage behind Jesus as "the Nazarene." Such "Messianic Jews" usually welcome the appaleage as despite the historical usage they have chosen to consider the term to be an original Hebrew term for Christians.

See also


  1. Jay P. Green, Sr. (editor), Interlinear Bible, p. 609.
  2. Goldstein, M. Jesus in the Jewish Tradition, Macmillan 1950 (pp. 148-154 Toledot Y.S.W.)
  3. Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories Book V, recopying reports drafted by Marcus Agrippa on the orders of Emperor Octavian Augustus Caesar.
  4. B. Dubourg, L'Invention de Jesus, op. cit., II, p. 157.
  5. Filaster (ca. 397 A.D.) was a bishop who wrote the "Book of Diverse Heresies" (lived about the time of Epiphanius).
  6. Chase, Frederic H. Jr. (translator) "Saint John of Damascus: Writings" Volume 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958 ch 19 on Heresies. First short run reprint 1999.
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica, Nazarene article, Wm. Benton Publ., London, vol. 16, 1961 edition.
  8. Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses, xxix, 6.
  9. Bashan and Galaatides (Panarion 18; 20, 3; 29, 6, 1; 19, 5)
  10. Drower, p. xv
  11. Mead, G. R. S. (1903), "Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.--An Enquiry into the Talmud Jesus Stories," Kila, MT: Kessinger Publishing Company
  12. Herford, R. Travers (1906), “Christianity in the Talmud and Midrash,” Princeton Theological Review, 4:412-414.
  13. Hayyim ben Yehoshua. "Refuting Missionaries". Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  14. Drower, Introduction, p. xiv
  15. Drower, p. 37
  16. Drower, p. 101
  17. Drower, p. 89
  18. The Clementine Homilies, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 233
  19. Ajae (2000). "The Pre-Christian Nasoraeans". Mandaean World. Retrieved 2008-04-12. 

Further reading

  • Drower, E. S., The Secret Adam: A Study of Nasoraean Gnosis, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1960)
  • The Ante-Nicene Fathers (1986 American Edition), vol. viii, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan.