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The Nicolaitane Heresy


By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman ben Ya'akov © 09.13.1989 (last updated 01.06.2020)

Jewish doctrinal defense against heresy.
This section of LearnEmunah.com is intended only for Jewish education and defense.

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This Is Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Gamaliel's Test
          In the New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles there is an event that many Christians cite to support their beliefs about Jesus. But does it? Let's take a closer look.
First, here's the account:

Acts 5:33 ... On hearing [that the Way sect continued trying to convert the people], the members of the Sanhedrin were infuriated and wanted to put the emissaries to death.
34 But one of the members of the Sanhedrin rose to his feet, a Parush [i.e. Pharisee] named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Torah highly respected by all the people. He ordered the men put outside for a little while
35 and then addressed the court: "Men of Isra'el, take care what you do to these people.
36 Some time ago, there was a rebellion under Todah, who claimed to be somebody special; and a number of men, maybe four hundred, rallied behind him. But upon his being put to death, his whole following was broken up and came to nothing.
37 After this, Y'hudah HaG'lili led another uprising, back at the time of the enrollment for the Roman tax; and he got some people to defect to him. But he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.
38 So in the present case, my advice to you is not to interfere with these people, but to leave them alone. For if this idea or this movement has a human origin, it will collapse.
39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them; you might even find yourselves fighting God!" They heeded his advice.

We know from history that the religion of Christianity was created by the Romans through the counsels of Emperor Constantine the so-called Great. Among these was the Counsel of Nicaea of 325 CE. These meetings are matters of historic fact. Whether these meetings created a new religion or merely canonized an older one can be debated. That the Jewish sect stopped being Jewish at least by this point is not debatable.

Some people today are seeking to deny the historicity of Yeshua ben Miriam/Jesus, son of Mary. The basic story of the historic Yeshua was not created by the Roman counsels despite the claims of a few modern Christian detractors. Yeshua ben Miriam was an historic person according to everything we know from history. His existence is at least as historically plausible as most others from the ancient world that are accepted today without question. Indeed more so, due to the vast literature concerning him that suddenly appeared, and the willingness of so many of his followers to die as martyrs. Denying his existence is baseless and serves no meaningful purpose. Understanding the truth of who he was, what he taught, and how the sect began by his talmidim (students), can only help those who are interested in the truth and encourage Christians to seek accurate understanding about this rejected Jewish reformer.

70 CE was an utterly devastating period for the Jewish people, including the followers of the Way sect founded by the talmidim or students of Yeshua ben Miriam. After 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and the surviving Jews, including the Jewish members of the Way sect, were forced to flee the Holy City, the Way movement split into several rival factions.

John the Revelator warned the reformed sect members against two of the largest of these groups in the New Testament. He rejected the Gnostics at I John 4:2. This Way faction believed that their teacher had been so righteous that he had not come in human flesh like a mortal man. They claimed the teacher the talmidim had known had been an apparition or ghost, not a man of flesh and blood. This was similar to what some of the Essenes believed about their "Teacher of Righteousness" who had lived well before the time of Yeshua.

The second major Way sect was the Nicolaitans. John warns about them at Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 where he describes them as people "who say they are Jews but are not." This Nicolaitan Way sect ingratiated itself with Roman authority by adapting its teachings and practices through assimilation. They incorporated Roman religious beliefs into their own, a practice that was common among the Roman conquerors. They went so far in this that John says they were Jews in name only. Remember, all of the original followers were Jews. As Gentiles began to enter the Way sect they converted into Judaism according to sect rules. Due to some of their teachings and the lack of Rabbinic oversight however the Rabbis refused to accept the Way converts as Jews. For this reason James, the leader of the young reform sect, ruled that those who came would be viewed as Noahides (see Acts 15 and Paul's acceptance of this system at Romans 11). Once this assimilationist policy was established John refers to the Nicolaitans as the synagogue of Satan. They had in his view gone too far and abandoned Torah Judaism.

These Way sect divisions began early, as Acts chapter six demonstrates:

Acts 6:1 Around this time, when the number of talmidim was growing, the Greek-speaking talmidim began complaining against those who spoke Hebrew, that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution.

The "Greek" or non-Jewish Way members quickly began to outnumber the Jewish members of the sect. The non-Jews soon began bringing their own views and opinions into the sect rather than fully embracing the Torah and beliefs of the initial talmidim. Without Rabbinic oversight the sect soon moved farther and farther away from Torah Judaism and became a Roman cult.

As the Way members found themselves living among unconverted Gentiles their doctrines began to incorporate local assumptions, beliefs, and traditions. As such, they began losing whatever Torah teachings they had learned and to revert back into their previous beliefs, while still claiming to be Jews. The teachings of the Gnostics arose largely from the asceticism of the East, while the Nicolaitan beliefs arose from contact with the Roman world paradigm.

We can learn much from the recorded words of Rabbi Gamaliel. In Acts chapter five (quoted above) he reminded his hearers that many people had come to claiming to be the Messiah and that thus far they had all failed for one reason or another. If the claims of Peter and his peers were false, as Rabbi Gamaliel believed, they too would surely fail. Why trouble them or yourselves fighting with them? he asked; if they were true, then G-d would bless the sect and nothing could prevent it. Therefore, he established a test: Leave them alone and see what happens. Will G-d bless them or not?

In Acts chapter 23 another hearing is held, this time regarding regarding Sha'ul (Paul). He is called to testify about the illegal Way sect missionaries. This hearing caused a division between the P'rushim (Pharisees) and the Tz'dukim (Sadducees), not over the Way beliefs, but over the resurrection -- a point of doctrinal disagreement between these two major Jewish sects. The Way sect accepted the views of the Pharisees on this matter. They believed there would be a resurrection of the dead in the Olam Haba (the Messianic World to Come). Note the court's decision on this:

Acts 23:9 So there was a great uproar, with some of the Torah-teachers who were on the side of the P'rushim standing up and joining in - "We don't find anything wrong with this man; and if a spirit or an angel spoke to him, what of it?"

Consider: The Way followers agreed on the resurrection of the dead. They did not believe in the Christian/Pagan Heaven and Hell duality of the Greeks. On this, their doctrine was Rabbinically Jewish.

More importantly for our purposes here, they ruled: "We don't find anything wrong with this man..." Had Sha'ul and the others believed what Christians do today, that Jesus was the divine incarnation and savior of the world, that he had replaced the Torah with a New Covenant, then both the P'rushim (Pharisees) and the Tz'dukim (Sadducees) would have condemned him on the spot. Had Paul and his associates taught the deity of Yeshua, that he was the only way to G-d, that he had been sacrificed for the sins of the world etc. this statement of the court would never have been made. Such blasphemy, from the Jewish perspective, would have led to Sha'ul and the sect's complete condemnation by the court. Instead, the Rabbis ruled: "We don't find anything wrong with this man..." The original members of the Way sect still believed as Jews at this point, other than their recorded reformist views. They did not believe what Christians later came to believe.

The sages of the court did not agree with Sha'ul about Yeshua being the Messiah, but that would a point of legitimate debate. There have been many men claiming to be the Messiah throughout our long history. Even today there are some Jews who believe the final Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory (1902-1994) will return as the Messiah. Most Jews don't accept this, including most in Chabad, but their belief in him does not exclude them from being recognized as observant Jews. It is clear that the Way sect hoped Yeshua would be chosen for that position, but he was not. As Gamaliel had said during the earlier trial of Peter, if their reform Jewish beliefs were true, G-d would surely make it successful. If their teachings were false, their sect would not survive.

So What Happened?

Within a very few years rival Way sects developed that opposed the Jewish views of the original Hebrew talmidim such as Paul, Peter, James, John, et al. During John's imprisonment on Patmos in the very late first century the Nicolaitan and Gnostic heresies were already predominating the Way movement as John makes clear.

By 325 CE at the vary latest the Hebrew Way sect had ceased to exist. Just as Rabbi Gamaliel had expected. Arguably Bishop Arius (250 or 256–336 CE) and his followers were the last Way sect holdouts. While they maintained belief in the complete humanity of Yeshua (who by then was called Iēsoús) and rejected the Roman Trinity dogma, it is clear that their beliefs had been largely "Christianized."

How did the Way sect finally end? In order to unite the Roman Empire under his political authority, Emperor Constantine formed a new "universal" or "catholic" religion to control the masses. He based his new Universal Kirk (Latin: Catholic Church) on the assimilationist teachings of the Nicolaitans. Through his counsels the Nicolaitan dogmas were edited and refined into what we now know as Christianity. From this unified Roman religion all other branches of Christendom either arose or were so thoroughly modified as to be something wholly different than the original Way sect of the talmidim. We will look more deeply into this in part two of this study.

Continue to Part Two

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