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Nicolaites

NICOLAITES

Members of a libertine sect of the early Church, also known as Nicolaitans. John praises the church of ephesus for detesting "the works of the Nicolaites" (Rv 2.6); he scores the church of pergamum for harboring "some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaites," and describes them as adherents of the teaching of balaam (Rv2.1415; cf. Nm 31.16 with 25.12; 2 Pt 2.15; Jude 11). The same tendency is doubtless meant in Ap 2.2024: the church of Thyatira is blamed for tolerating a self-styled prophetess whom John calls Jezabel (2 Kgs 9.22), since she led Christians astray with her teachings about fornication and the eating of meat offered to idols (see Acts 15.2029): these were two of the points on which James enjoined Gentile Christians to follow Jewish practice (see also 1 Corinthians, ch. 810). The Nicolaites seem, accordingly, to represent an excessively liberal or even anti-nomian outlook, possibly abusing the teachings of St. Paul on freedom (1 Cor 10.23), appealing to an esoteric knowledge that John sarcastically called "the deep things of Satan" (cf. 1 Cor 2.10). One of the serious problems that faced Christians at this time was precisely to what extent they might participate in the social and economic life of the Roman Empire, which involved attending sacrificial banquets and easily resulted in immoral practices (though the "fornication" of the Nicolaites might here mean metaphorically faithlessness to the true God).

There is no reason to link the Nicolaites with the deacon Nicholas (Acts 6.5), as Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 1.26.3;3.11.1) and other Fathers have done; Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 2.20; 3.4) reports a story that a saying of Nicholas was misinterpreted by the Nicolaites in appealing to his authority. The existence of the Nicolaites (antinomian Gnostics) mentioned by these and other Fathers and their relationship to the Nicolaites of the Book of Revelation are problematic.

In the Middle Ages advocates of clerical celibacy, e.g., Cardinal Humbert (C. Nicetam 25), called their opponents Nicolaites.

Bibliography: É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 11.1:499506. j. michl, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2 7:976. g. kretschmar, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 4:148586. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible 163839. a. von harnack, "The Sect of the Nicolaitans and Nicolaus the Deacon in Jerusalem," Journal of Religion 3 (1923) 413422.

[e. f. siegman]

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