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Epiphanius, and other writers such as Jerome, distinguished the 4th Century Nazarenes from the earlier use of "Sect of the Nazarenes" (ἡ τῶν Ναζωραίων αἵρεσις) applied to the New Testament Church in Acts 24:5, where Paul the Apostle is accused before Felix at Caesarea (the capital of Roman Judaea) by Tertullus of being "a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes."
The title "Nazarene" is first found in the Greek texts of the New Testament as an adjective, nazarenos, used as an adjectival form of the phrase apo Nazaret "from Nazareth."
The name Nazaraios is the standard Greek spelling in the New Testament for a man from Nazareth; the plural Nazaraioi means "men from Nazareth" (see Nazarene (title)). The title Nazarenes, "men from Nazareth," is first applied to the Christians by Tertullus (Acts 24:5), though Herod Agrippa II (Acts 26:28) uses the term "Christians" which had first been used at Antioch (Acts 11:26). The name used by Tertullus survives into Rabbinical and modern Hebrew as notzrim (נוצרים) a standard Hebrew term for "Christian", and also into the Quran and modern Arabic as nasara (plural of nasrani "Christians"). The Arabic word nasara (نَصارى) comes from the Arabic root "n s r" (ن ص ر).
However, since "Christian" was the name the Christians accepted themselves, and is in 1 Peter, the term "Nazarene" used by Tertullus appears to have never been adopted by Christians. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220, Against Marcion, 4:8) records that the Jews called Christians "Nazarenes" from Jesus being a man of Nazareth, though he also makes the connection with Nazarites in Lamentations 4:7. Jerome too records that "Nazarenes" was employed of Christians in the synagogues. Eusebius, around 311 AD, records that the name "Nazarenes" had formerly been used of Christians. The use relating to a specific "sect" of Christians does not occur until Epiphanius. Epiphanius (see below) in discussing the 4th Century Nazarene sect claims pre-Christian origins for the sect, but there seems to be no evidence of the term prior to Tertullus, and no evidence for Epiphanius' opinion. According to Ehrhardt, just as Antioch coined the term Christians, so Jerusalem coined the term Nazarenes, from Jesus of Nazareth.
According to Epiphanius in his Panarion, the 4th-century Nazarenes were originally Jewish converts of the Apostles who fled Jerusalem because of Jesus' prophecy on its coming siege (during the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD). They fled to Pella, Peraea (northeast of Jerusalem), and eventually spread outwards to Beroea and Bashanitis, where they permanently settled (Panarion 29.3.3).
The Nazarenes were similar to the Ebionites, in that they considered themselves Jews, maintained an adherence to the Law of Moses, and used only the Aramaic Gospel of the Hebrews, rejecting all the Canonical gospels. However, unlike half of the Ebionites, they accepted the Virgin Birth.
As late as the eleventh century, Cardinal Humbert of Mourmoutiers still referred to the Nazarene sect as a Sabbath-keeping Christian body existing at that time. Modern scholars believe it is the Pasagini or Pasagians who are referenced by Cardinal Humbert, suggesting the Nazarene sect existed well into the eleventh century and beyond (the Catholic writings of Bonacursus entitled "Against the Heretics"). It is believed that Gregorius of Bergamo, about 1250 CE, also wrote concerning the Nazarenes as the Pasagians.
In the 4th century, Jerome also refers to Nazarenes as those "...who accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law." In his Epistle 79, to Augustine, he said:
What shall I say of the Ebionites who pretend to be Christians? To-day there still exists among the Jews in all the synagogues of the East a heresy which is called that of the Minæans, and which is still condemned by the Pharisees; [its followers] are ordinarily called 'Nasarenes'; they believe that Christ, the son of God, was born of the Virgin Mary, and they hold him to be the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate and ascended to heaven, and in whom we also believe. But while they pretend to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither.
Jerome viewed a distinction between Nazarenes and Ebionites, a different Jewish sect, but does not comment on whether Nazarene Jews considered themselves to be "Christian" or not or how they viewed themselves as fitting into the descriptions he uses. He clearly equates them with Filaster's Nazarei. His criticism of the Nazarenes is noticeably more direct and critical than that of Epiphanius.
This following creed is from a church at Constantinople at the same period:
I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads & sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and Synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom and if afterwards I shall wish to deny and return to Jewish superstition, or shall be found eating with the Jews, or feasting with them, or secretly conversing and condemning the Christian religion instead of openly confuting them and condemning their vain faith, then let the trembling of Gehazi cleave to me, as well as the legal punishments to which I acknowledge myself liable. And may I be anathema in the world to come, and may my soul be set down with Satan and the devils."
"Nazarenes" are referenced past the fourth century AD as well. Jacobus de Voragine (1230–98) described James as a "Nazarene" in The Golden Legend, vol 7. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) quotes Augustine of Hippo, who was given an apocryphal book called Hieremias by a "Hebrew of the Nazarene Sect", in Catena Aurea — Gospel of Matthew, chapter 27. So this terminology seems to have remained at least through the 13th century in European discussions.
The beliefs of the Nazarene sect or sects are described through various church fathers and heresiologists.
The Nazarenes... accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.—Jerome, On. Is. 8:14
—Jerome, Letter 75 Jerome to Augustine
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” and “for he shall be called a Nazarene.”—Jerome, Lives of Illustrius Men Ch.3
They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion – except for their belief in Christ, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ.—Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2
They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Christ; but since they are still fettered by the Law – circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest – they are not in accord with the Christians.—Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.4
They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do.—Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2
They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.—Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.4
And he [Heggesippus the Nazarene] quotes some passages from the Gospel according to the Hebrews and from the Syriac [the Aramaic], and some particulars from the Hebrew tongue, showing that he was a convert from the Hebrews, and he mentions other matters as taken from the oral tradition of the Jews.—Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 4.22
A number of modern churches use the word "Nazarene" or variants in their name or beliefs: