Were the Apostles Heretics?
Such a question might leave some Christians aghast: How could you ask such a thing? But consider this. As best we can tell from the Book of Acts; from some statements of Paul; and from the history of the early congregation in Jerusalem, the Followers of the Way, the Nazarenes, were all Torah observant. The Apostles and other disciples, continued to practice the Judaism of their time in Judea, but in a Messianic sense. Even Paul, according to Luke at least, declared: “You see brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). Paul then denied that he taught “the Jews who are amongst the Gentiles to forsake Moses” (v. 21). I would contend that if we are to believe Luke’s account, then we have substantive evidence that the early followers of Jesus did not abandon Torah, nor did they interpret Jesus fulfilling the Law as meaning that they no longer needed to observe and uphold it. Note also that Paul was considered “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
Now consider the writings of Epiphanius (315-403 CE), or to give him his formal title, Saint Epiphanius of Constantia, Bishop of Salamis. After identifying the Nazarenes with the Jews, because they used the same Old Testament books, and these would not have been a version of the Greek, but the original Scriptures in Hebrew, as confirmed by Epiphanius; he wrote:
“The Nazarenes do not differ in any essential thing from them, i.e. Jews, since they practice the custom and doctrines prescribed by Jewish law, except that they believe in Christ. They believe in the resurrection of the dead and that the universe was created by God. They preach that God is one and that Jesus Christ is His Son. They are very learned in the Hebrew language [Ed. contrary to what Christianity teaches today]. They read the law … Therefore they differ both from the Jews and from the Christians; from the former because they believe in Christ; and from the true Christians because they fulfill till now Jewish rites as the circumcision, the Sabbath, and others.”3
Epiphanius asserts that “true Christians” do not fulfill Jewish rites, even though the Catholic Church has persisted with circumcision of the flesh, and continues to use the term, Sabbath, even whilst denying its origin and spiritual meaning. Concerning the orthodox Jewish Christian sect of the Nazarenes, who fled to Pella due to the sacking of Jerusalem, he wrote:
“the sect originated after the flight from Jerusalem, when the disciples were living in Pella, having left the city according to Christ’s word and migrated to the mountains because of its imminent siege. Therefore in this manner it arose when those of whom we spoke were living in Perea. From there the heresy of the Nazarenes first began.”4
Mention of the “orthodox Jewish Christian sect” implies that there existed, a non-Jewish Christian sect, and we get glimpses of these Hellenists in the Book of Acts, and in Paul’s writings. The Apostles were not Hellenists, and I am confident than on the evidence, they would have been of the congregation of the orthodox Jewish Christian sect, i.e. Nazarenes. As to leaving Jerusalem “according to Christ’s word”, this would have been in response to Jesus warning: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16). In passing, Epiphanius is here confirming that Christians, in the mid-first century, believed that the world was coming to an end: why else would they flee the “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel”? Daniel’s prophecy unambiguously refers to the End of Days, but I have wandered off track (again).
Samuele Bacchiocchi notes: “These Nazarenes, whose existence in the fourth century is attested even by Jerome5, appear to be the direct descendants of the Christian community of Jerusalem which migrated to Pella. M. Simon well assesses their identity when he writes that:
‘they are characterized essentially by their tenacious attachment to Jewish observances. If they became heretics in the eyes of Mother Church, it is simply because they remained fixed on outmoded positions. They well represent, though Epiphanius is refusing to admit it, the very direct descendants of the primitive community, of which our author knows that it was designated by the Jews by the same name of Nazarenes.6’”7
So, the Nazarenes remained fixed on outmoded positions, which were the same positions that the Apostles learned at the feet of Jesus. These positions became outmoded, because the Gentile Church of Rome (Mother Church) decided that it wanted nothing to do with the practices of Judaism, including Torah and Sabbath observance.
Now, as the Apostles and disciples, including Paul, were the original Christians, who continued to practise these “outmoded positions”, how were they not heretics in the eyes of Mother Church? I have long contended that Christianity is incoherent in its doctrine and theology, and this is just another example. The Apostles and some early Christians were declared Saints, and even Peter declared the head of the Church, of whom the Popes are the successors, yet Mother Church in earlier times, unwittingly declared these very same people to be heretics, because they continued in the practices of Judaism. And what of the Pope? How can he be the rightful successor to Peter the Heretic?
If there be any heresies in relation to the authority of Torah, they arose in Rome, not in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, or immediately following his death. Encouraged by the sun-worshipping pagan Emperor Constantine, what became the Catholic Church eschewed all that was Jewish, including the religious practices of the man upon whose teachings, Christianity is claimed to have been founded.
3. Epiphanius, Adversus haereses 29,7, pp. 41, 402
4. Ibid, p. 42
5. Jerome, De Viris ill. 3, NPNF 2nd, III, p. 362
6. Simon, Marcel, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christian and Jews in the Roman Empire AD 135-425, Schoen Books, South Deerfield, MA, 1986, pp. 47-48
7. Bacchiocchi, Samuel, From Sabbath to Sunday, The Pontifical Gregorian University Press, Rome, Italy, 1977, p. 156