Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 9: the Messianic Sects of Joshua/Jesus: Nazarenes, Ebionites, Elchasaites

At the confluence of Essenism, Samaritanism and the baptist movement of Dunstan/Dositheos, sects were formed in which a certain communality of doctrine and practice didn’t exclude rivalries and struggles for power. Their conjunction, no doubt precipitated by the Zealot insurrection, ended in the consecration of a syncretic messiah invested with the secret name “God saves,” in whom was incarnated the long line of prophets “anointed by Adonai” and persecuted for their untimely revelations.

All distinguished themselves by a rigorous asceticism; scorn for material goods, the body, women, and pleasure; recourse to the purifying and initiating rite of baptism; the foundation of communities or Ecclesiai (Churches); propagation of the doctrine of the two roads, one of Light and the other of Darkness, sometimes pushed to a cosmic opposition between a Good God and a God who created a bad world; and the expectation of a Messiah or, more exactly, his return, because (sent by the Good God) he had been pitilessly put to death by the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem or their henchmen. The redemption promised by this Angel-Messiah would spread his grace to all of humanity, compensating the just and punishing the wicked.

Hostile to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, these sects accommodated themselves to the philosophical speculations of Philo of Alexandria. His Judaic monotheism actually gave to gnosis a kind of safe-conduct that the supposed Fathers of the Church didn’t fail to use. On the other hand, with a perfect unanimity, they execrated the Great Power of life that the works of Simon of Samaria had illustrated.

Nazarenes and Ebionites

Pliny the Elder, recopying reports drafted on the orders of Emperor Augustus by one of his generals, Marcus Agrippa, indicated in Book V of his Natural Histories that not far from Apamea, in Syria, Nazarenes lived in a city called Bambyx, Hierapolis or Mabog.

Marcus Agrippa having died in 12 [B.C.E.], Dubourg situated his investigations between 30 and 20. Accounting for the lapse of time required for the establishment in Syria of a sect born in Palestine, Dubourg judges plausible the presence of a Nazarene current around 50 [B.C.E.].[1]

In the beginning a priest-warrior who consecrated to YHWH an existence of austerity and piety, the nazir thereafter designated a man devoted to God by a vow of “nazireat.” This word suggested a connection with “Nazoreans” or “Nazarenes”: “the observers, the conservers.”

Rallied to the rigorous faction of Judaism, hostile to the Sadducees and the Pharisees, they inscribed themselves in the general line of Essenism, of which they perhaps formed a community or Church. The Greek authors of the Acts of the Apostles, who compiled and rewrote ancient midrashim in order to reconcile the schools of Simon/Paul and Simon Cephas, staged a Jewish orthodoxy that vituperated the hairesis ton nazoraion, the heresy of the Nazarenes.

The Phariseean rabbis knew them under the name noisrim and declared them to be heretics (aher, “others”), not in 90 as is often advanced, but in 135, when – after the revolt of the Messiah Bar Kokhba, which they refused to join – the legend of a Joshua/Jesus who was a pacifist and respectful of the Romans was born.

Bar Kokhba stigmatized the Nazarenes in his letters under the name “Galileans.” In the Second Century, Hegesippus referred to one of the Jewish sects of his time in this way, but for Emperor Julian (331-363), cited by Cyril of Alexandria, “Galilean” was still a synonym for “Christian.” Moreover, several texts designated the Messiah Jesus by the word “Galilean.”

Like the other anti-Judean Jewish sects, the Nazarenes did not escape the Zealot wildfire. Only their refusal to rally themselves to the troops of Bar Kokhba around 133-135 exonerated them from the reproach of violence and haloed them with the pacifism thanks to which the Greco-Roman Christian communities distinguished themselves from “Semitic fury.”

Issued from Jewish extremism, Nazarenism paradoxically opened the door to an incessant revision of the Mosaic message and law. Their midrashim, which were disseminated in the assemblies of believers, prepared the coming of the Messiah that Israel invoked in the heart of the troubles of the war, corrected the prophecies of the past, adapted them to the modernity of the circumstances, and thus formed the streams of the foreseeable torrent that would swell the Good News announced by the Hymns of the Master of Justice.

One would be deceiving oneself if one gave to Nazarenism a unity that contradicted the echoes of the quarrels between their leaders, whose names have been preserved: Theudas/Thomas the Egyptian, Jacob/James, Simon Cephas, John the Essene, Zacchaeus/Clement, Barnabas, Saul also known as Paul, and Jochanaan also known as John the Baptist.

A sect of the Ebionites, still active in the Fourth Century and certainly derived from these ebbyonim (“poor people”), laid the foundations among the Essenes for voluntary poverty, the perilous virtues of which the Messalians, Waldensians, Beghards, Fraticelles and Apostolics would later rediscover.

The Nazarenes, or at least the tendency for which Jochanaan represented the only prophetic authority, perpetuate themselves to this very day in Mandaeism, still alive between the Tigress and Euphrates. Their name means “those who know,” the “Gnostics.” They were also known as the “Christians of Saint John” – meaning Jochanaan/John the Baptist. Their doctrines, which arrived late in the day and have been clarified by an abundant literature (Ginza or Treasure, subdivided into a Right Ginza and a Left Ginza), formed a syncretism in which Judeo-Christian, Iranian and Babylonian elements were mixed.

The Mandaeans claimed for themselves Hibil (Abel), Shitil (Seth), Anosh (Enoch) and John the Baptist, and formed one of the branches of Nazarenism, which, in search of a unique Messiah, rejected the accord established by the partisans of James, Simon/Peter and Saul/Paul under the name Joshua/Jesus, because, according to them, Anosh had showed that Jesus was a false prophet.


In the third year of Trajan’s reign, around 100-101, Nazarenism seemed to give way to a new generation of Christians: the Elchasaites. (The diversity of the names need not confuse us. The “Sampseans,” whom Hegesippus called the “Masbotheans,” only offered variants of the expression seo ayya, otherwise known as “the Baptists.”) A sacred book was delivered to the prophet Elchasai, the head of a Christian community, by two angels, one male, the Son of God, the other female, the Holy Spirit – which no doubt justified the inquest conduced by Pliny the Younger, the papal legate of Bithynia. The Homilies of Peter counted among their writings, at least in its original versions. The Elchasaites also constituted a Christianity that was different from the opinions that the Catholics of the Fourth Century tried to impose. This was why Epiphanius of Salamis – being ironic in his Panarion or The Medicine Chest when he said, “Not being Christians, Jews, nor pagans, but something of an intermediary; at base they are nothing” – showed a contrario that they were in fact simultaneously Jews, Christians and pioneers of a Greco-Roman Christianity (but the Church would attribute that [pioneering] role to the enemy of the Elchasaites, Saul/Paul, after it had snatched him from the hands of his discoverer, Marcion).

Did not Elchasaitism, with its real or mythical prophet – Elchasai is related to the Aramaic word Ieksai, which means “Hidden Savior” – foreshadow the great current of popular Christianity that, under the name New Prophecy, obeyed the Christ reincarnated in the prophet Montan? It isn’t easy to build a precise opinion [about this] upon the comings-and-goings of the various sects, prophets and apostles who clashed with the ordinary fanaticism of accepted truths. The ancestors of the Mandaeans rejected Joshua/Jesus; the [respective] partisans of James and Peter, hostile to Jochanaan also known as John the Baptist, somehow managed to denounce the imposture of Saul/Paul, whose disciples held Peter to be a traitor and renegade. The faithful to Jude/Thomas triumphed at Edessa, but without attracting a unanimous veneration, because certain people saddled him with the role of Judas. Add to this the fact that Elchasaitism, which was hostile to Marcion and active in Rome with Alcibiades of Apamea, witnessed the birth of Mani, the future founder of a religion and the clear inspiration for the dogmas of Marcion.[2] Mani, raised in an Elchasaite community, reprised the Samaritan titles “Unique Envoy” and “True Prophet.” The “Unique Envoy” was an old Judeo-Samaritan name for the principal agent of God (“The one who is designated the Envoy of God has received the Spirit of God,” Isaiah, 61:6). This was also the status of the Master of Justice and Joshua/Jesus. All the inspired prophets – Elchasai as much as Montan – could have claimed him. One understands why Catholicism accorded exclusivity to Jesus, the only “True Messiah,” and why it prohibited any competition under the pain of death.

[1] B. Dubourg, L’Invention de Jésus, op. cit., II, p. 157.

[2] G. P. Luttikhuisen, The Revelation of Elchasai: Investigation into the Evidence for Mesopotamian Jewish Apocalypse of the Second Century and It’s Reception by Judeo-Christian Propagandists, Tubingen, 1985.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author.)

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