Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
St. John says in his Revelation, to the angel of the church of Ephesus, "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate," Revelation 2:6 ; and again, to the angel of the church of Pergamos: "So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate," Revelation 2:15 . These are the only two places where the Nicolaitans are mentioned in the New Testament: and it might appear at first, that little could be inferred from these concerning either their doctrine or their practice. It is asserted, however, by all the fathers, that the Nicolaitans were a branch of the Gnostics: and the epistles, which were addressed by St. John to the seven Asiatic churches, may perhaps lead us to the same conclusion. Thus to the church at Ephesus he writes: "Thou hast tried them which say they are Apostles and are not, and hast found them liars," Revelation 2:2 . This may be understood of the Gnostic teachers, who falsely called themselves Christians, and who would be not unlikely to assume also the title of Apostles. It appears from this and other passages, that they had distinguished themselves at Ephesus; and it is when writing to that church, that St. John mentions the Nicolaitans. Again, when writing to the church at Smyrna, he says: "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan," Revelation 2:9 .
The Gnostics borrowed many doctrines from the Jews, and thought by this means to attract both the Jews and Christians. We might therefore infer, even without the testimony of the fathers, that the Gnostic doctrines were prevalent in these churches, where St. John speaks of the Nicolaitans: and if so, we have a still more specific indication of their doctrine and practice, when we find St. John saying to the church in Pergamos, "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication,"
Revelation 2:14 . Then follow the words already quoted, "So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate." There seems here to be some comparison between the doctrine of Balaam and that of the Nicolaitans: and I would also point out, that to the church in Thyatira the Apostle writes, "I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols," Revelation 2:20 . The two passages are very similar, and may enable us to throw some light upon the history of the Nicolaitans. Tertullian has preserved a tradition, that the person here spoken of as Jezebel was a female heretic, who taught what she had learned from the Nicolaitans: and whether the tradition be true or not, it seems certain, that to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication, was part of the practice of the Nicolaitans.
These two sins are compared to the doctrine of Balaam: and though the Bible tells us little of Balaam's history, beyond his prophecies and his death, yet we can collect enough to enable us to explain this allusion of St. John. We read, that "when Israel abode in Shittim, the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab; and they," that is, the women, "called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods," Numbers 25:1-2 . But we read further, that when the Midianites were spoiled and Balaam slain, Moses said of the women who were taken, "Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor," Numbers 31:16 . This, then, was the insidious policy and advice of Balaam. When he found that he was prohibited by God from cursing Israel, he advised Balak to seduce the Israelites by the women of Moab, and thus to entice them to the sacrifices of their gods. This is what St. John calls "the doctrine of Balaam," or the wicked artifice which he taught the king of Moab: and so he says, that in the church of Pergamos there were some who held the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. We have therefore the testimony of St. John, as well as of the fathers, that the lives of the Nicolaitans were profligate and vicious; to which we may add, that they ate things sacrificed to idols. This is expressly said of Basilides and Valentinus, two celebrated leaders of Gnostic sects: and we perhaps are not going too far, if we infer from St. John, that the Nicolaitans were the first who enticed the Christians to this impious practice, and obtained from thence the distinction of their peculiar celebrity. Their motive for such conduct is very evident. They wished to gain proselytes to their doctrines; and they therefore taught that it was lawful to indulge the passions, and that there was no harm in partaking of an idol sacrifice. This had now become the test to which Christians must submit, if they wished to escape persecution: and the Nicolaitans sought to gain converts by telling them that they might still believe in Jesus, though "they ate of things sacrificed unto idols." The fear of death would shake the faith of some; others would be gained over by sensual arguments: and thus many unhappy Christians of the Asiatic churches were found by St. John in the ranks of the Nicolaitans.
We might wish perhaps to know at what time the sect of the Nicolaitans began; but we cannot define it accurately. If Irenaeus is correct in saying that it preceded by a considerable time the heresy of Cerinthus, and that the Cerinthian heresy was a principal cause of St. John writing his Gospel, it follows, that the Nicolaitans were in existence at least some years before the time of their being mentioned in the Revelation; and the persecution under Domitian, which was the cause of St. John being sent to Patmos, may have been the time which enabled the Nicolaitans to exhibit their principles. Irenaeus indeed adds, that St. John directed his Gospel against the Nicolaitans as well as against Cerinthus: and the comparison which is made between their doctrine and that of Balaam, may perhaps authorize us to refer to this sect what is said in the second Epistle of St. Peter. The whole passage contains marked allusions to Gnostic teachers. There is another question concerning the Nicolaitans, which has excited much discussion. It is a question entirely of evidence and detail; and the two points to be considered are,
1. Whether the Nicolaitans derived their name from Nicolas of Antioch, who was one of the seven deacons:
2. Supposing this to be the fact, whether Nicolas had disgraced himself by sensual indulgence. Those writers who have endeavoured to clear the character of Nicolas have generally tried also to prove that he was not the man whom the Nicolaitans claimed as their head. But the one point may be true without the other: and the evidence is so overwhelming, which states that Nicolas the deacon was at least the person intended by the Nicolaitans, that it is difficult to come to any other conclusion upon the subject. We must not deny that some of the fathers have also charged him with falling into vicious habits, and thus affording too true a support to the heretics who claimed him as their leader. These writers, however, are of a late date; and some, who are much more ancient, have entirely acquitted him, and furnished an explanation of the calumnies which attach to his name. We know that the Gnostics were not ashamed to claim as their founders the Apostles, or friends of the Apostles. The same may have been the case with Nicolas the deacon; and though we allow, that if the Nicolaitans were distinguished as a sect some time before the end of the century, the probability is lessened that his name was thus abused; yet if his career was a short one, his history, like that of the other deacons, would soon be forgotten: and the same fertile invention, which gave rise in the two first centuries to so many apocryphal Gospels, may also have led the Nicolaitans to give a false character to him whose name they had assumed.
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