In Acts 24:5 it says

“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect

Some people say that when they were called "Nazarene sect" it meant like saying that they were a cult. Is that the correct definition for that word for that time? I hope this question is clear. Thanks!

  • 1
    I don't think the modern concept of "cult" was a concept they had in the 1st century.
    – Noah
    Dec 17 '13 at 20:19
  • Generally, a "cult" lives apart from the mainstream of society and obeys a charismatic leader, while a "sect" is a dissenting faction within a larger religious group. Also generally, "cult" = unorthodox or (sometimes) fanatical, but "sect" is a type of "clique". Dec 17 '13 at 22:01
  • 2
    On Christianity we have a question about the modern term usage you might find interesting: In what different ways is the word "cult" used as a label inside Christianity?
    – Caleb
    Dec 26 '13 at 13:35
  • 1
    Are you asking about the Greek? If you're asking only about the English then there's so much overlap between the words that this would have to be opinion based.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 8 '16 at 2:11
  • 1
    I'm voting to close unless and until @curiousdannii's question is answered. There is a historic and academic usage of "cult" and a modern one, and they have vastly different meanings. Mar 8 '16 at 2:47

This name for the early Christians is unique to this passage of Paul on trial. While Tertullus, the prosecutor in this case, intended the word to be derogatory, a sect was not a cult.

A sect then was something like a denominational division but not exactly. It was not a cult as the different sects usually recognized the legitimacy of other sects. In the first century, there were four main sects of Judaism within the land (some include the Herodians as another sect). Each of these groups had their own distinct way of practicing Judaism. Even though they argued with one another about the ways to express their worship, they did not argue that members of other sects were excluded from the Kingdom.

  • Pharisees
  • Sadducees
  • Essenes
  • Zealots

Jews who were not in one of the above and lived in Judea or Galilee were called "people of the Land."


The name of the party comes from pharash meaning to "interpret/separate" This describes their approach to Torah and possibly started as derogatory. This group of laymen were the popular leaders of the people and had no priestly function (as Pharisees. There were a few priests who were also Pharisees, but this was rare).

They were possibly the creators of the synagogues and definitely controlled them in the first century. One of their duties was to "Cultivate harmonious relations with the people." Because of this, the 'people of the land' viewed the Pharisees teachings and interpretations as authoritative.

They were the creators/perpetuaters of the Oral Torah. Mishnah Avot begins by tracing the oral torah from God to Moses, to Joshua, to the elders, and on to the founders of the Pharisees, and then through the leaders of the Pharisees of each successive generation.

Of the four sects prior to the Nazarenes, they were the most numerous. Sometimes they held political power but usually they did not. At the birth of Jesus, they held the majority seats in the Sanhedrin*, but at his death, they did not. Even when they did not hold the majority of seats, the leader of the Pharisees was called Nasi (prince) or Av bet Din (father of the house of judgment) in the Sanhedrin. All cases of religious-criminal nature were to be held in his presence.

After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees were the only party to hold seats in the Sanhedrin (moved to the academy of Jamnia and reorganized). In fact, they were the only sect left standing in the Land. The destruction of the Temple removed the Sadducees from any influence in the Land, the Essenes disappeared shortly before and during the rebellion, and the zealots were destroyed by the Romans as they had instigated the rebellion.

*Inferred from Herod's question to the leaders about where the Messiah would be born. They replied by quoting a prophecy from the minor prophets. Thus, Herod must have asked a Pharisee as the Sadducees did not believe in a coming messiah.

Each sect was marked by their beliefs. The Pharisees believed in:

  • bodily resurrection of the dead
  • eternal life or judgement
  • rewards and punishment in this other world
  • a coming messiah to restore Israel and free it from foreign rule (however, they eshewed apocalyptic works and discouraged them from being written)
  • eschatology, a world to come ruled directly by God

The Pharisees formed Normative Judaism that continues unto today. They became the rabbis and left the rabbinic literature (Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, and Midrash).


The Sadducees were the priestly sect. While all Sadducees were priests, not all priests were Sadducees. The Sadducees trace their lineage to Tzadok. This was the name of the last priest standing at time of David (There was also a priest from the time between the books of Malachi and Matthew with this name). Ezekiel says that only Zadokites can be true priests. Zadokite transliterated in Greek as Sadducee. The high priesthood was typically held by a powerful member one of the Sadducee families.

The Sadducees were only popular with the ruling class. They were the most hellenized of the sects (adopted Greek ways) and often collaborated with Rome. For those reasons, they were often hated by the other sects and especially the zealots. However, prior to the destruction of the Temple, they usually held the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin.

They did not believe in:

  • Oral Torah, not even the concept.
  • resurrection
  • eternal life/judgement
  • reward/punishment in the afterlife
  • messiah (who needs a messiah when life is as good as it gets?)

As stated, the movement ended with the destruction of temple in circa 70 CE.


This sect had been known only from secondary sources until 1946/47, when the caves of Qumran were discovered. More caves were discovered until 1953. Since then, a few more manuscripts have been unearthed, but nothing on the scale of caves 4 and 11.

One theory of their origin is that they were a clan of priests who rejected the Hasmoneans' claim to have political and religious power. They write extensively of the defilement of the Temple. Most of them lived in a community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They fled to Masada (directly south on southwest shore of Dead Sea) when the Romans invaded.

Archeologists uncovered approximately 849 partial and complete manuscripts. However, while it is known that not every book from Qumran survived, we do not know how much is missing. Any new caches are unlikely to change these percentages. The material dates to 250 BCE to 50 CE. Even though the community existed until 70 CE, they wrote no original documents after 30 CE. The Essenes wrote nothing new after Christianity began.

There were 3 types of literature at the caves:

  • Tanak copies — Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms are the most frequent and quoted most often (the New Testament and rabbinics are the same). At least one partial copy of every book from the Tanak has been found there except Esther. These books make up 12% of the texts (percentages come from Dr. Wave Nunnally who studied in Israel).
  • Apocrypha, psuedopigrapha — 3%
  • Sectarian material that is unique to Qumran and the Essenes — 85%.

Each type of material teaches something about the Essenes.

  • Tanak. Geza Vermes (Dead Sea Scrolls in English pg xiv) writing on the Tanak material says, "The texts remained virtually unchanged for 1000 years." Scribal class had checks and balances to catch errors. They would count every word on a line and page, every line on a page, every letter on a line to ensure correct copying.
  • Apocrypha. This was very important for biblical scholars. While these works had often been assumed to be original in Hebrew, no evidence outside of text existed. (Internal evidence was the many Hebraisms in the works). Text critics and translation theorists loved it. ~66% of Ecclesiasticus. 2 versions of Tobit (the longer is older).
  • Sectarian. These are often interpretations of the Tanak called pesher (however, nothing from Qumran interprets the apocryphal works). These works are all specific to Qumran. We knew little prior to the caves. The Qumranites claim to be the true remnant. The New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls are the only ones to talk about some terms such as "Sons of light."

While some argue that the Qumranites were not Essenes, this has been established beyond reasonable doubt. The baptismal pools at Qumran all have double dividers between the steps in and steps out. The doubling is a mark of the Essenes. Furthermore, handwriting analysis of documents in the settlement and the caves show that the scribes from the caves lived in the community.


The zealots were a sect of rebels. They believed in returning Judea to full self sovereignty, a situation that had not been seen since the Hasmonian kings. One unit of these rebels specialized in assassination and called themselves Ish Sicaroth, "men of the short dagger."

The sect was extremely pro Maccabeen and expected a Maccabeen messiah. Unlike the other sects, they believed the Messiah's advent would not come until they were worthy.

Their continued rebellions against Rome led to Titus' siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.


Acts 24:5 refers to Paul as a leader of a sect called 'Nazarenes', so presumably there was a Jewish sect of that name. However, the word 'sect' is a little different than the word 'cult', and really just means a school or a group that teaches a somewhat different theology than the majority. The usual assumption is that this term began to be used because Jesus was 'of Nazareth'.

Mark's Gospel, in the original Greek, never refers to 'Jesus of Nazareth', but describes Jesus as a Nazarene (Ναζαρηνοῦ) - although most English translations change this to 'of Nazareth' in line with the later gospels (eg Mark 1:24). On its own, or in conjunction with Acts of the Apostles, it is possible to see this as a reference to Jesus as being a member of the sect of Nazarenes.

It is in Matthew that the link is first made between 'Jesus the Nazarene' and the city of Nazareth, after the flight to Egypt, when the young family did not return to their former home in Bethlehem but instead turned aside and settled in Nazareth, thereby fulfilling a prophecy that Jesus be called a Nazarene:

Matthew 2:23: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Scholars have long noted that there is no prophecy anywhere in the Old Testament that could associate Jesus with being called a Nazarene. With further research on the history of the gospels, we now know that Matthew was largely based on Mark's Gospel - Adam Winn (The Purpose of Mark's Gospel, page 1) says the theory of Markan priority is one of the few that has reached a high level of consensus among New Testament interpreters. So the author of Matthew has chosen to assume that Mark's reference to Jesus as a Nazarene is somehow grounded in prophecy. Thus it would appear the reference in Acts to the sect of Nazarenes can be based on Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth and not on the existence of a pre-existing cult.

  • You might want to look at some of recent historical literature on this topic, notably jstor.org/stable/4145899?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – fdb
    Mar 7 '16 at 23:24
  • @fdb Thank you for that link to 'Studies on the Religious Vocabulary of Christianity and Islam'. It is quite a long article (almost a book), so I won't read it in full, but seems to focus substantially on later uses of these and similar terms and includes particular reference to Islam (see conclusion, pages 25-27). I think it would make my answer too broad if I tried to cover such an extensive scope, so I have chosen to limit the answer to biblical hermeneutics. Mar 8 '16 at 0:50

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