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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The name signifies ‘followers of Nicolas,’ as Nicolas = ‘conqueror of the people.’ They are mentioned twice in the NT (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15) as a party at Ephesus and also at Pergamum, whose tenets were similar, it seems, in the judgment of the writer, to those of Balaam (q.v. [Note: .v. quod vide, which see.] ) in that they enjoined or permitted laxity in ceremonial (the eating of food offered to idols) and in social morals. There is no reason to suppose that the Nicolaitans would have accepted this judgment as anything but an illegitimate inference from their principles. In the Apostolic Church, as ever since, two schools of thought were opposed to each other-that which was more Jewish in character and that which was more Greek. The former speaks in the Apocalypse of John and the latter in the Gospel of John, and the apocalyptic writer in condemning the other party, the Nicolaitans, states not what they held but what he thought their teaching must logically end in. The word is probably a nickname, as are Balaam and Nicodemus.

The party mentioned in the Apocalypse left behind them no historical trace, for there is no good reason for identifying with them the sect mentioned by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, pseudo-Tertullian, and Jerome. The last four of these writers merely repeat Irenaeus, who in his turn seems to have been elaborating on his own unsupported authority the references in the Apocalypse (I. xxvi. 3); indeed, in one passage (III. xi. 1) he asserts that the Nicolaitans had disseminated their heresy long before Cerinthus, and he makes their founder Nicolas, one of the Seven. Hippolytus (vii. 24) repeats Irenaeus and adds nothing of his own, except that he emphasizes the Greek character of Nicolaitan teaching. Tertullian (de Praescr. 33) speaks of there being now ‘another sort of Nicolaitans,’ and he seems to identify them with the Cainites. By the 4th cent. the legend had grown, and pseudo-Tertullian (adv. Omnes Haer. 1) bluntly assigns certain Gnostic speculations to the Nicolaitans. The Apost. Const. (vi. 8) originated the description of the Nicolaitans as being ‘falsely so called,’ and it is followed by the interpolator of the Ignatian epistles (Trall. 11 and Philad. 6). Epiphanius (adv. Haer. 25), Georgius Hamartolus (Chronicon, iii. 135), and Jerome (adv. Lucif. 24) carry on the tradition without adding to it. Clement of Alexandria, however (Strom. iii. 4; cf. Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 29), has an independent tradition about Nicolas which vindicates his character. On the whole, all that the evidence justifies us in concluding is that the Nicolaitans of the ecclesiastical writers were among the Gnostics, that their paternity and distinctive doctrines are unknown, and that their identity with the party named in the Apocalypse is doubtful.

W. F. Cobb.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nicolaitans'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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