Rethinking the Nicolaitans of Revelation

Rethinking the Nicolaitans of Revelation

Revelation mentions a mysterious group, false teaching of Nicolaitans. There are many theories about who these Nicolaitans were, but research focused on the cultural, historical, and linguistic context of Revelation changes everything and challenges the traditional theories built on more dogmatic and theological interests.

Revelation chapter two contains the texts of seven letters written to seven churches, best understood as associations and small groups formed on the foundation of their common belief in Jesus. These letters find something good to say about each of those assemblies, which in most cases later followed by some criticism and warnings. Addressing Ephesus, the writer mentions mysterious Nicolaitans whose deeds the Ephesians apparently hate. The author of the letter relates to the recipients that Jesus hates their deeds as well (v.6).

But who are these Nicolatains whose deeds Jesus hates? The earliest discussion of Nicolaitans by church writers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Pseudo-Tertullian deem them to be some vague gnostic group. Ephesians are commended for hating their deeds, but who are these mysterious Nicolaitans and what their deeds were is indeed a speculative subject. It was assumed that they were followers of a person by the name of Νικόλαος (nicolaos) whose name etymology in Greek (νῖκος and λαος) would imply the conquering/subduing/overcoming of people. Irenaeus associated them with Nicolas of Antioch mentioned in Acts 6:5 (Iren., Adv. Haer. 1.26.3) but this connection is uncertain. The original letter recipients seem to have a clear understanding of these Nicolaitans. The writer does not go into any explanations about these people. But the modern readers are puzzled.

Conveniently, this same message to Ephesus proclaims that ὁ νικῶν (participle, connected to νῑκάω – to succeed, conquer, prevail and νῖκος/νίκη -victory) translated “he who overcomes” will eat from the tree of life (v 7). Is this just some victorious and jubilant feast or a deliberate literary hint to something else in the text? This is not visible in English, only in the original Greek text. Is the connection of followers of Νικόλαος and ὁ νικῶν – “he who overcomes” merely coincidental in Revelation’s language? This is where the general idea of eating, food, and Nicolaitans surfaces first, but then it persists throughout the passages that follow.Reading Revelation further, one learns that the church in Pergamum was holding on to the teachings of Nicolaitans as well (v 15). And again there is no clarity who these people are. In Pergamum, they allowed the teaching of Balaam which in the text is somehow is connected to eating idol-sacrifices and spiritual adultery with other deities (v.14). According to the author of Revelation eating food sacrificed to idols is the practice associated with Balaam. Both references to mysterious Nicolaitans (Ephesus and Pergamum) appear to somehow relate the idea of eating food offered to the idols. Is that what they did? Why such concern?The reality is that food sacrificed to foreign gods was rejected by the majority of Jews of that era. There were commandments against that in Torah (Ex 21:28-29; 22:2-3) and from a Jewish perspective, this kind of behavior would be classified as a passive form of idol-worship. Josephus mentions Elijah’s judgment of Ahab (and Zezebel) for idolatry. The apostolic decision of Acts 15 was an explicit prohibition of eating idol-associated food. It was addressed specifically and explicitly to non-Jews who decided to follow Jesus. Could the deeds of Nicolaitans and teachings of Balaam in these letters be somehow related?The linguistic and rhetorical link between Nicolaos and Balaam was explored by exegetes in the early 19th century and they indeed appear to be parallel in this prophetic rebuke in Revelation.

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Rev 2:9)

To a multilingual audience, the linguistic hint is pronounced and not hard to notice. But it takes the knowledge of not just Greek but Hebrew to see it. In Hebrew בִּלְעָם – Balaam is most likely connected to בּלע – to “consume” or “swallow” (typically referred to eating) and עם “people”. So Balaam is the one “who swallows people”. The promise to the faithful followers of Jesus in Pergamum is ironical that they will eat the hidden manna (v. 17). Once again the theme of food and eating surfaces. In fact, it does not seem to leave the pages. As the promised rewards, the fruit from the tree of life (Ephesus) and hidden manna (Pergamum) are both food items of divine origin.

There may be yet another parallel in this pericope. Curiously, the rebuke directed to Thyatira was that they tolerate Jezebel and allowed themselves to be led into a direction of eating idol-dedicated food and unfaithfulness towards God. A pattern is beginning to emerge and Jezebel could be another rhetorical and symbolic parallel to Nicolaitans. Just like Balaam, her trajectory is misleading the faithful.

In the case of Jezebel, it is another example of apostasy, once again related to idolatry and eating idol-food. Besides that, the biblical story of Jezebel tells about her partially successful ambition to kill all of God’s true prophets. It appears that Jezebel is a reference to the same destructive teaching which is now ascribed to another biblical villain. The theme of eating food brought to pagan gods surfaces yet once again in the letters to the Revelation churches.

Considering the potential martyrdom and villains in the neighboring verses the Smyrna church is experiencing persecution from the “synagogue of Satan”. Another group that is hard to make sense for the modern audience. They are pressured by those λεγόντων Ἰουδαίους εἶναι ἑαυτούς “who say that they are Jews but are not such” (v 9). And the followers of Jesus are instructed to be faithful even unto death. Though there is no direct and explicit link between the teaching of Nicolaitans, (Balaam and Jezebel) and this persecution by these pseudo-Jews the early idea of martyrdom takes one to the struggle of Maccabees against idolatry and Hellenization. Maccabees were a priestly family who led an appraising in 2nd  century BCE against foreign regional powers that sought to make Israelites just like everyone else in the region – pagan, worshipping many gods and Greek in thought and culture. The book of 2 Maccabees 6:6 says this about Jews who participated in the Hellenistic idolatry:

“People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.” (2 Macc 6:18-20)

The phraseology in the book of Maccabees “οὔτε ἁπλῶς Ιουδαῖον ὁμολογεῖν εἶναι” is very similar to John’s reference to those λεγόντων Ἰουδαίους εἶναι ἑαυτούς “who say that they are Jews but are not such” (Rev 2:9). In fact, it is almost identical.

The villains often have collaborators and those who succumb to them but there are always those who fight back the villains. The story of seven sons being tortured to death (2 Macc 2:7) illustrates this same tension of eating idol-related food in a Jewish context just a couple of centuries before Revelation. Was the author of Revelation trying to appeal to these familiar Jewish heroic narratives? It is not clear, but given their popularity of these stories, given the positioning of the verses about Smyrna’s persecution, just between the references to Balaam and Jezebel (enemies of Torah and villains), it is possible that the author’s topic did not shift and the persecutors of Smyrna believers is yet another example of the same battle over eating forbidden food.

The context of Nicolaitans in Revelation is not clear. Who are they? What does their name mean? But what if this larger teaching in Rev 2 has nothing to do with Νικόλαος and Νικολαΐτης (Nicolaitans)? What if the operative term used for the group is not even connected to a person’s name? It could be just a code word, some acronym, or a mnemonic that stands for something else. This would not be uncharacteristic of an apocalyptic document such as this, and in fact, Revelation does this in many other passages with the beast, 666, prophet, woman, Dragon and etc.

John Lightfoot explored this possibility in the seventeenth century, proposing that Nicolaitans are not related to Greek Νικόλαος but to a Hebrew name ניכולא, which he translated as “ let us eat”.

Since the only solid clue, the original text offers the readers about the practices of Nicolaitans is eating food sacrificed to idols this proposal is very reasonable. The Hebrew verb אכל is indeed an intriguing possibility considering the broader terminology of בִּלְעָם, בּלע and eating. Moving away from the idea of a personal name the Qal Imperfect in Hebrew – נֹּאכַל “we will eat” can be seen as a motto that would stand for the entire group and their teaching. The verb אכל with a prefix נ would indicate the first person plural form – “we”, which would confirm a group idea. A corresponding mnemonic adapted to the Greek language conceivably can look like Νικολαΐτης – people who proclaim נֹּאכַל “we will eat”.

The internal references to hidden things and secrets related to the despised teachings in Revelation letters lead one in a direction of gnostic polemics. Some of this may have been true. It is hard to tell. But there are no references to Nicolaitans in any known gnostic sources. There is also no known gnostic preoccupation with eating food sacrificed to idols and that is one central feature tying all these passages about Nicolaitans together. The only early link of elusive Nicolaitans to Gnosticism is Irenaeus and other later church writers that interacted with his works. They all lean on his authority and keep repeating the same idea.

It is just as possible that this group so harshly decried in Revelation was not some mysterious gnostic cult, but simply a group of Christians who ate food sacrificed to deities in the Roman temples without any moral reservations. This would have been normal behavior for the average pagan population. The Jewish sensibilities about idolatry and its symbolic nature would discourage such practice. It would be idolatrous.

The conflict could simply be between those who would follow the mainstream Jewish practice of abstaining from food associated with idolatry vs those who did not see such practice as a problem and ate such food as most Romans would. The intent of Revelation’s letters to the churches and comments about Nicolaitans are strongly polemical. The author wishes to convince and persuade his audience that the teachings and practices he opposes are destructive, associated with biblical villains, ancient evil, and come from the devil himself.

Such testimony, of course, cannot be taken as straight facts. It does not inform us credibly about Nicolaitans. But still, these remarks speak to the effect such teachings and practices of eating food dedicated to idols had on the Judaic sensibilities of early Jesus followers. The strong polemical language draws the lines of identity between those who comply with Jewish apostolic teaching and those who “say they are Jews, but are not”.