Jesus was called the Nazarene, Paul the Apostle was called a ringleader of the Nazarenes and to this day Christians are called Notzrim by Israelis in the Middle East. Notzrim and Nazarene are variations of the same root which they share with the name of the city of Nazareth. But, what does the title Nazarene mean?
The Gospel of Matthew describes how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Israel after fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s order to slaughter children two years old and under. An angel warned Joseph in a dream not to go back to Judea because the new ruler Archelaus was Herod’s son. Instead he took his family north to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus then grew up. Matthew says this was to fulfill what prophets had foretold that, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). However, this prophecy is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is possible that it was passed down orally or recorded in a text that is now lost. While this remains a mystery, Matthew clearly associates the title Nazarene with Nazareth as do early church fathers like Epiphanius (b. 310-403). But is this merely a geographical reference?
In English translations of the New Testament you will usually read “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” In most cases the original Greek says, Nazarene even if it is translated as “Jesus of Nazareth.” The root of Nazarene means: to keep watch, guard, protect, keep, preserve, comply with, and observe. Because of that, some think the name may also be a reference to those who strongly adhered to, and defended, the Mosaic Law. This hypothesis is supported by a faction of early Christians who continued to carry the name Nazarenes after it had fallen out of usage among other believers. Epiphanius wrote, in the 4th century, that the Nazarenes were known to be especially attached to the Law and practiced circumcision. The council of Jerusalem had decided that new converts to the faith only had to follow some Jewish laws (Acts 15:19-20, 15:28-29), and by this time the church consisted of mostly former Gentiles. Even though Jesus defended the Law and the prophets (see Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17) and Paul the Apostle said, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets” (Acts 24:14), the Jewish Christians, called Nazarenes, were now a minority. So, if the word Nazarene also meant you were a defender of the Law and the prophets, this is strengthened by the later Nazarenes continuing to adhere to the Torah. They did so even though the Christians around them had abandoned things Jewish covenants with God like circumcision, eating kosher and keeping the Sabbath. Doing so was nearly understood as heresy.
There are two additional theories about what “Nazarene” may mean. Some believe that Jesus was a consecrated Nazirite, meaning he took vows to be set apart for God. This is unlikely though since he did not adhere to the pledges required to be a Nazirite. Another theory suggests the word is derived from Isaiah 11:1 prophesying about a “branch” growing out of the root of Jesse. This word is in transliteration from Hebrew Netzer and would because of that refer to the coming Messiah from king David’s lineage.
But, the title Nazarene may point to a belief in the Holy Spirit as the “Bride” and Jesus as the “Bridegroom.” The “Spirit” in both Hebrew and Aramaic is a feminine noun which means that for Jesus and John the Baptist, talking about the Holy Spirit as a “Bride” was linguistically consistent and logical. The reason the Spirit’s femininity is relevant is because there are a people called the Mandaeans, who are the modern descendants of John the Baptist’s disciples. They are Semitic people who live in Iran and Iraq, and baptism is central to their faith. They are not Christians, and they denounce Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But here is what is important: the Mandaeans believe in a divine Father and Mother. The Father is represented by Adam and the Mother by Eve. She is the Spirit and He is the Soul. Creation depends on their union in a divine cosmic marriage which the Mandaeans celebrate at every sunrise through prayers. She is called Mother of Life and understood as an archetype of the pure Bride. Moreover, she is referred to as Naṣirutha. This has nearly the same root as Nazarene and Nazareth, save for the letter “z” (tsade).
The similarity between Naṣirutha and Nazarene may point to an original common denominator Christians and Mandaeans had with the early Nazarenes and John the Baptist: they all shared a belief in the “Bride.” John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the Bridegroom because he was the one who had the Bride (John 3:29). This was John’s way of declaring that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. As such he was baptized with the Holy Spirit, and he would in turn baptize others with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:16, John 1:33).
This marriage symbolism is present in Jesus’ first miracle during the wedding at Cana when he turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). It is in the parable of the ten bridesmaids Jesus describes himself as the “bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1). And, when John’s disciples asked why Jesus’ disciples did not fast, he said, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Mark 2:19). In the Gospel of John, the disciples of John the Baptist’s implied to John that Jesus was stealing their followers for Baptism. John responded by defending Jesus as the Christ and said, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full (John 3:29). Still speaking about Jesus, he also said, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit” (John 3:34). Clearly, both Jesus and John the Baptist believed that the Holy Spirit was the Bride and together with the Bridegroom this represented a divine marriage. As followers of John the Baptist, the later Mandaeans’ have retained the importance of this celestial union and the heavenly Mother as a Bride.
Why would John’s followers’ have distanced themselves from disciples of Jesus? It could have been a tactic to keep their own identity and to keep their followers from becoming Christians. We can detect this rift in the Gospel of John when John the Baptist’s disciples were concerned about people going to Jesus to be baptized (John 3:26) as well as when they questioned why Jesus’ followers did not fast (John 3:25-26-, 4:1). Even though John endorsed Jesus, perhaps later followers went through a phase when they were antagonistic against Christians who baptized in the Spirit, while they only baptized in water. John’s disciples could have kept a belief in the Bride but just denied that she was the Holy Spirit. The word Naṣirutha might therefore be a trace of John the Baptist’s connections to the Nazarenes.
In summary, the title Nazarene, may have had layers of meanings beyond Jesus being raised in Nazareth. It could have emphasized a firm belief in protecting and defending, the Law and the prophets. After all, according to Matthew it was the prophets that foretold of the coming Messiah being called Nazarene. The Nazarenes had a belief in the Holy Spirit as the “Bride” and so did John the Baptist. This was important and could have been the third significance of this name. Today the Mandaeans recognize the divine feminine as the “Bride” but reject the Holy Spirit, while Christians recognize the Holy Spirit but deny her true female gender and therefore its relation to the “Bride.” Nonetheless, we can see evidences of her femininity in, for example, how the Christian church is still called the “Bride” because believers are filled with the Holy Spirit. A full understanding of why Jesus and John the Baptist used the word “Bride” is absent in modern Christian theology, precisely because the Holy Spirit’s true feminine gender has been lost and with it a central teaching of Jesus.