Friday, March 16, 2012

Did priests lead the primitive Christian church? Epiphanius considered, part 8 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

As I have been developing this series on the connection between the Essenes and the early Christians, I have continued to be surprised by the role of the Nazirite priests. I say surprised because I began this study with the general “background knowledge” assumption that the primitive church was a house-church phenomenon, established by apostles and led by elders and deacons, and that the priesthood was a later addition.

However, in light of extensive research, I have found that understanding to be incorrect. In fact, Christianity from the very earliest time was led by priests, specifically, Nazirite priests. Frankly, I am a bit puzzled why no one has ever realized this before, as the evidence is right there staring us in the face.

Samuel’s prophecy about the supremacy of the Nazirite priesthood

I have detailed a number of specific points about the role of the Nazirite priests in previous essays in this series, and I will add some futher points in this essay, but I want to start by highlighting a specific prophecy which speaks directly to this issue. The prophecy is found in 1 Samuel.

Samuel was the product of a miraculous conception, and he was consecrated as a lifelong Nazirite upon his birth. His mother Hannah sings a song of praise and worship to God (paralleled later by Mary’s Magnificat) and sends Samuel to serve at the temple. Immediately we are confronted with the issue of the corruption of the hereditary priesthood, as exemplified in the two sons of Eli, who were corrupt in the areas of greed, threats of violence, and illicit sexuality (1 Sam 2: 12-22).

Eli thereupon receives a prophecy (1 Sam 2:27-36) that the Lord’s covenant with the hereditary priesthood has been broken, that the Lord will no longer suffer them to serve as his supreme priests: “the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. But now the LORD declares: Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house” (1 Sam 30-33).

Rather, he will raise up a new priestly house, based on Samuel, to minister in his temple as the supreme priests, the hereditary priest being placed under them: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before my anointed one always. Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a loaf of bread and plead, ‘Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat’ ” (1 Sam 2: 34-36).

In that prophecy, we can clearly see the foreshadowing of the specific controversy that would come to a head during the lifetime of Josephus: the conflict for control of the temple between the two orders of priests, the hereditary vs the Nazirite. It is especially chilling, in light of the prophecy, that Josephus reports the rival group of priests in his day being denied their food, to the point where some of them actually died.

The conflict between the hereditary Sadducee priests and the rival priests, as reported by Josephus, was occurring in the decade immediately prior to the Jewish-Roman war, thus, circa 56-66 A.D. The leader of the Jerusalem church, James, was handed over to be killed at that time. The apostle Paul was also arrested on temple-and-sacrifice-related charges at that time.

We know that James was a Nazirite priest, and it is my contention that Paul was also a Nazirite priest (see my previous essay on that topic). Epiphanius, the early church polemicist, provides us with evidence that other members of the early church were members of the priesthood.

Evidence from Epiphanius

Epiphanius provides us with the factum that James was consecrated as a Nazirite because of his status as Joseph’s first-born son (Heresy 29.4.2, found here He also includes John the Baptist among the order of Nazirite priests, as he clarifies their definition: “Nazirites: -that means "consecrated persons.'' Anciently this rank belonged to firstborn sons and men dedicated to God. Samson was one, and others after him, and many before. Moreover, John the Baptist too was one of these persons consecrated to God.” (29.5.7).

The Ebionites and support for "the poor"

Epiphanius also preserves for us evidence of a group known as the Ebionites, which means “The Poor”. This group appears to be a direct continuation of the primitive Essene-based church which practiced communalism. As Epiphanius says of them:

“They also idealized the ideals of the communalism, taking their name to mean ‘poor’, for ‘Ebion’ translated from Hebrew means ‘poor’… They themselves, if you please, boastfully claim that they are poor because they sold their possessions in the apostles time and laid them at the apostle’s feet, and went over to a life of poverty and renunciation; and thus they are called ‘poor’ by everyone” (30.17.2).

Like the Nazirites, this group also avoided wine, performing the Christian celebrations using bread and water: “They celebrate supposed mysteries from year to year in imitation of the sacred mysteries of the church, using unleavened bread – and the other part of the mystery with water only.”

This group also claimed that both Jesus and James told them to end the temple sacrifices: “As their so-called Gospel says, ‘I came to abolish the sacrifices, and if ye cease not from sacrifice, wrath will not cease from you’. In their book called the Ascents of James, they claim “he were giving orders against the temple and sacrifices, and the fire on the altar” (30.16.6).

This group also preserved a book about Peter, entitled The Travels of Peter, in which they recorded that Peter also abided by Nazirite priestly practices: “he was baptized daily for purification as they are. And they say he abstained from flesh and dressed meat as they do, and any other dish made from meat.”

Interestingly, this group also claimed that Paul wanted to marry a daughter of the high priest in Jerusalem. This confirms what we know from Acts: that Paul’s family was connected to the temple priesthood and that he, at the minimum, worked for them.

In sum, this group known as “The Poor”, practiced communalism, vegetarianism, and ritual water purification, they avoided alcohol, and they preached against sacrifice. In short, this group appears to be a direct continuation of the Nazirite/Essene practices of the early church.

The name of this group, combined with their identification as the earliest Christians, leads us to reinterpret the advice the leaders of the Jerusalem church gave to Paul after giving him the authority to evangelize the Gentiles: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Gal 2:10).

Of course, this advice is usually taken to mean support for a generalized group of poor people, but we can see that it probably referred specifically to the priests at the heart of the Christian movement. According to Origen, all Jud├Žo-Christians were called Ebionites (, which further strengthens this hypothesized connection.

Other Nazirite-like groups

Aside from Ebionites, Epiphanius described several other proto-Christian groups who exhibited similarities to the primitive Christian/Essene/Nazirites. Strangely enough, of the Essenes themselves, Epiphanius tells us nothing, only classifying them as one of the sects of the Samaritans.

Another group, called the Dositheans, he says, acknowledge the resurrection, keep the Sabbath, and practice circumcision and asceticism, including fasting, vegetarianism, widespread celibacy, and purity practices (13. 1.1).

Two other groups shared much in common with the Nazirite priests. The Hemerobaptists practiced asceticism, celibacy, fasting, and daily ritual baptism for purity (17.1.1). The Pharisees practiced also asceticism, celibacy, and fasting, but did not undergo daily ritual baptisms (16.1.1). Both groups, like the Christians, affirmed the resurrection.

He also describes a couple groups from the Transjordan region who share some Nazirite ideals. One group, called the Nasaraeans, rejected sacrifice and wouldn’t eat meat, but otherwise functioned as observant Jews (18, 1, 4). Another group who also denied burned offerings or sacrifices were called the Ossaeans, and they were even Christian (but not orthodox) in belief. However, they also elevated other angelic powers for worship. Like the Christians, they affirmed marriage, denying the need for celibacy (19.5.1).

Interestingly, both of these groups, the Nasaraeans and the Ossaeans, were proto-Islamic in their belief that while the Old Testament was valuable for its general history and lists of prophets, it had been tampered with and required rejection in its current form. The Ossaeans were also noted for requiring all prayer to be done facing Jerusalem, which was also an early Islamic practice.

The Hebrew Christians: Nazoreans

The earliest Christians, as we know from Acts, were actually called the Nazorenes. Epiphanius asserts that the sect of the Nazoreans took the name in imitation of them, but it is also a possibility that they represented a direct continuation of the primitive Christian movement that survived in the holy land. This would even fit their practice, as Epiphanius reports they were Christians believers who also kept the laws of the Old Testament

As he says of them: "They are different from Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following. 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 Christians" (29.7.5). Epiphanius even reports that they use the Gosepel of Matthew in its entirety in its original Hebrew language (29.9.4).

He does not mention any specifically Nazirite practices associated with them, but I include them to show that many proto-Christian groups continued the observances and practices of Judaism, while adopting the Christian faith.

Concluding Analysis

We know that we can’t put a whole lot of trust in Epiphanius’ exact scheme of nomenclature or classification, nor the detailed veracity of some of his claims, as he seems to be writing off the top of his head in many cases. But we can take his descriptions, at the minimum, as a general summary of the practices and teachings of some of the religious groups of his day, whatever their true identity or origins.

We can see from his descriptions that the prevalence of Nazirite priestly practices is not just a matter of scriptural reconstruction or speculation. In fact, Nazirite priestly practices enjoyed widespread usage among many proto-Christian groups.

The closer we get to a detailed focus on the life and times of the early Christian movement, the more we observe the centrality of the conflict between the Nazirite priests and the hereditary Sadducee priests. This conflict, which was, in fact, prefigured in prophetic scripture, and Christ’s conception was placed squarely in that prophetic background.

We can see that the Sadducee priestly opposition to the Christian movement was motivated not only out of an opposition to Christian theology, but was also part and parcel of a struggle against a rival order of priests who directly threatened the privileges – even the very existence – of the hereditary priestly establishment.

The full series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: the Nazirite Connection
Part 3: Communalism and Celibacy/Marriage
Part 4: the Jesus-Essene connection
Part 5: Was Paul a Nazirite Priest?
Part 6: Did Josephus Know Paul?
Part 7: Josephus’ connection to Christianity
Part 8: Nazirite priests and Epiphanius
Part 9: Paul on communal labor and feasts
Part 10: Divisions, non-uniformity, the role of women
Part 11: Purification, Angels, Moses, & the Epistle to the Hebrews
Part 12: Therapeutae and Vegetarianism
Part 13: Conclusion
Also related:
Josephus’ role in the Jewish-Roman War


Jennifer said...

"Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a loaf of bread and plead, ‘Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat’"

What in hell...? That doesn't sound like God at all, telling someone to bow before human man. I've been studying the matter of early churches mainly under Frank Viola's research, and both this and the Bible's description of the early church under Christ's instructions doesn't sound remotely like allowing fellow saints to bow before each other and beg for bread. These priests sound like they have the manner of overly human authority that Christ spoke against and abolished.

Jennifer said...

"Eli thereupon receives a prophecy (1 Sam 2:27-36) that the Lord’s covenant with the hereditary priesthood has been broken, that the Lord will no longer suffer them to serve as his supreme priests: “the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. But now the LORD declares: Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house” (1 Sam 30-33)."

Now God going back on His word too, or making a promise He couldn't keep?

Justin said...

Jennifer, you bring up an interesting question. Why would you assume that God can't change his mind?

Jennifer said...

Changing His mind and breaking a promise are two different things.

Kristor said...

Justin, I have very much enjoyed your series on the Essene<>Christian linkage, which I read last evening. I have thought for years that the Christians must just be the Essenes. Given your interest in this subject, I have 2 books to recommend to you, that I think you will find fascinating.

Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, by Gabriele Boccaccini, explores the difference between Enochic Judaism and the Qumran community. It turns out that Enochic Judaism had two aspects, monastic and lay, that are eerily similar to the Christian monastic and lay communities. The main difference is that in the Enochic tradition, men could take a Nazirite vow and enter a monastery for a period of months, years, decades, then cycle out again into lay life. Both branches had presbyters and bishops.

The hypothesis of the book is that the Qumran community represented an arch-orthodox sub-branch of the wider Enochic movement. Fascinating stuff.

The other book is Margaret Barker's Great High Priest, which argues that Christianity is a direct descendent of Enochic Judaism. I have never read any books that were so full of fascinating factoids as Barker's books. I have learned a ton from her.

Both books highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

Justin, I too am enjoying your series on the Jewish roots of the early Christians. I ran across your site from emsnews, where you and I have posted in the past. She is a fascinating person and a whole other topic. In short, I wouldn't trust her.

Anyways, just wanted to point out that others have sensed the Nazirite / Christian connection. For instance see the section on "Nazarean Community" in Wikipedia on the Gospel of the Hebrews:

"A town of Nazareth may have been founded as a place of gathering of nazarites from the Nazarene sect. The term "nazirite" comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning "consecrated" or "separated", exemplified by the story of Samson, Samuel, and David. The relationship between consecrated, anointed, messiah, baptized, and christened would indicate that "Jesus the Nazarite" and "Jesus the Christ" were the same person. A Nazarene warrior cult may have existed prior to Jesus, and may go back to the time of Judas Maccabeus. After his death, it was the term used to identify the Jewish Sect that believed Jesus was the Messiah. When this group grew into the Gentile world, they became known as Christians. By the 4th century, Nazarenes were considered orthodox Christians who embraced the Jewish Law, but rejected Hebrew heresies. The Nazarenes are generally accepted as being the first Christians who were led by James the Just, who was said to be the brother of Jesus. He led the Church from Jerusalem and had a special experience of the Risen Lord.[77]According to Epiphanius, they were also Sabbath keepers as late as the 4th century when he wrote."

I don't know who wrote the above, or much about how authorship works on Wikipedia - it could've been you!

Another fascinating book I read recently talks a little bit about the Essenes/Nazirites and Jesus is called "The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasonry, and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus." By Lomas and Knight, two freemasons trying to understand all the symbolism in the ritual of freemasonry. I always wondered why there is so much Egyptian symbolism in freemasonry. Knight and Lomas hypothesize that Egyptian priestly class and secret teachings became Jewish / Nazirite. These secret teachings were lost with the destruction of the temple, but rediscovered by the Knights Templar. When the Catholic Church and French monarchy got rid of them, the teachings and beliefs went "underground" in the guise of freemasonry headquartered in Scotland. The book itself is heavily anti-Christian, but provides some fascinating tidbits of information and speculation.

Ah, so much mystery in history. It's hard to tell the truth. I appreciate your insight and your discoveries relating to the origins of the Early Christian Church.

Justin said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! That wasn't me editing Wikipedia, but a look at the source material leads to same conclusion, no doubt. Developing those thoughts, though, the Nazirite warrior cult would logically go back to Sampson.

Saying that the Nazarenes were considered orthodox Christians in the 4th century is also misleading. Epiphanius considers them to the heretics because they still embrace the Jewish law.

Kristor, as for Enochic Judaism, I have not read anything about it in my journey through the primary sources. I have learned to only trust primary sources, there is too much wild speculation out there.