Who In The World Were The Nicolaitans?

The stern warning to Ephesus is followed by an encouragement that is notoriously difficult to understand. It is this encouragement that provides us with a considerable amount of clarity about the matter of criticism itself.

6 But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice – practices I also hate. (Rev 2:6)

The encouragement had to do with Christ’s affirmation that the believers in Ephesus do hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans. In order to understand what those deeds may have been we must see what John was asked to write to the congregation in another great Roman city in the Asia Minor – the City of Pergamum. We read in Rev. 2:13-15

“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is… I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Rev 2:13-15)

In these verses we see the evil deeds of Balaam in teaching Balak to entice Israel to sin. The treachery concerned two things 1) eating foods sacrificed to idols and 2) engaging in acts that are sexually immoral (Num 22-24). These things are somehow connected with the evil teachings of the Nicolaitans. Incidentally, the decision of the Jerusalem council as expressed in their letter to the Gentile followers of Jesus, while exempting the non-Jews from all kinds of burdens of observance obligatory to Jews, set forth a concrete set of food-related prohibitions for Gentiles as well. We read in Acts 15:28-29,

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

It is not hard to notice that out of four behaviors forbidden to Gentiles two had do to with Nicolaitans and Balam/Balak issues (eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality). It is important to see that this combination of food and sex-related offenses was particularly important for the Jewish Apostles and elders to address in their letter to Gentile converts to the Jewish Christ. In other words, is it even conceivable that the Apostles would permit Gentile followers of Christ to commit murder, to steal or to be obsessed with the possessions of their neighbors?! The answer to this is of course not. This was not a comprehensive list. But these issues brought up at the Jerusalem Council (consuming food sacrificed to idols, blood, and illicit sex) seem to constitute central challenges that the Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ encountered in their daily lives in the Roman Empire.

In the Roman world, the overwhelming majority of meat sold on the market was first offered/dedicated to one or another deity. The only exception to this was the Judean/Jewish isolation from the rest of the Roman population who had their own slaughter rules and privileges. Most Jews residing in the Roman Empire were a part of the network in which food was handled differently. The writings of the Apostle Paul to the nations (all the letters that Saul/Paul ever wrote that made into our New Testament) show clearly that these issues continued to plague the believers enough for him to address them in considerable detail (1 Cor.8-10).

Judging from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (that we mistakenly call the first Letter to the Corinthians – 1 Cor.5:9) some Gentile Christ-followers felt that they could continue to purchase and consume meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan deity. The Apostle Paul while agreeing with them that these gods (idols) are nothing, sides with the Jerusalem council in forbidding all the Gentile Christ-followers from eating food associated with Greco-Roman worship rituals in any way (1 Cor.8:1-13). Having considered this important issue, let us return to the discussion of the Nicolaitans.

Who were the Nicolaitans and what is the origin of this word that first comes up in Rev. 2:6and then is repeated in Rev. 2:15? The main traditional attempt to understand the etymology of the word is often tied to diaconal appointee Nicolas in Acts 6:5 – “The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch.” Presumably at some later stage Nicolas began to teach what was eventually defined as evil deeds of the Nicolaitans and the matter is quite obscure. However, there is another, often overlooked option, suggested many years ago by great Jewish Christian Hebraist John Lightfoot. It allows one to continue reading the Book of Revelation as thoroughly Jewish anti-Roman document. He suggested that perhaps deacon Nicolas was a wrong trail to follow. Instead Nicolaitans was a Hebraism (in this case something originally said in Hebrew but spelled with Greek letters). What did he have in mind?

In Hebrew in order to say “we will eat” verb נאכל (nokhal) would have been used. We read in Is.4:1, “And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat (נֹאכֵ֔ל) our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach. If this Hebrew word נאכל (nokhal) is transferred into Greek it can be used as a term describing the “we will eat” people. In a sense that this was their motto, their sentiment – “we will eat” the food that others think is forbidden (food offered to pagan deities). Thus τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν (ton nikolaton) “the Nicolaitans” as a group or teaching can originate from Hebrew נאכל (nokhal) “we will eat” making a cohesive connection to the context of Balaam and Balak and incident in the book of Numbers referred to in Rev. 2:13-15.

7 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’ (Rev 2:7)

“The one who has an ear, let him hear” is also a Hebraism that is used also on a number of occasions in the Gospels by Jesus himself. For example, in parable of the seed falling on the good soil and producing various level of fruit (Mark 4:1-20). The basic meaning of this Hebraism is this: “if one is able to hear it, one must obey it.” In this case (Rev. 2:7) what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Christ-following congregations of the Asia Minor is so important that if one hears it, one must obey it.

Besides the Hebraism there is a word play in Greek of this verse. The one who hears is “the one who overcomes” τῷ νικῶντι (to nikoti) which is a form of the verb νικάω (nikao) that means “to win, conquer, persevere and be victorious”. This suspiciously sounds very similar to the term we just encountered – Νικολαί̈της (nikolates) “a Nicolaitan”. If the motto of Nicolaitans is “we will eat” then as a pun this is exactly what God promises to the one who overcomes. If they forgo eating food sacrificed to idols they will eat of the Tree of Life and live. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon compared the righteous people to the trees of life, as if each one of them is a tree.

1 Faithful is the Lord to them that love Him in truth, To them that endure His chastening, (2) To them that walk in the righteousness of His commandments, In the law which He commanded us that we might live. 2(5) The pious of the Lord shall live by it forever; The Paradise of the Lord, the trees of life, are His pious ones. 3(4) Their planting is rooted for ever. They shall not be plucked up all the days of heaven: (5) For the portion and the inheritance of God is Israel. (Wisdom of Solomon 14:1-5)

Almighty always keeps those he calls and chooses. He chastises them but always desires for them to prove themselves faithful, so that they may be with him forever, planted as the trees in the House of the Lord. This was a serious warning.

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  1. Lois

    Dr Eli,

    I read that it was Irenaeus that linked the Nicolaitans to the Nicolas of Acts 6 and also associated him with a gnostic interpretation of Christ which might include the issues here, too, in terms of mixing pagan practices into Christianity? redefining practices? So the issue here of “we will eat” is to be understood as mixing of worship ( the first commandment) and not with the unclean or tame/tahor? Do you see the 1 Corinthians and Revelation passages as separate subjects from the unclean/clean?

  2. Yazmin Taylor

    Does Nicolaitans has anything to do with the pagan tradition of St Nicholas or Santa Claus?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Hi, Yazmin! Welcome to the Jewish Studies for Christians. I refer you to the following article. I think you will be satisfied with that explanation – http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/nicolaitans/

      Dr. Eli

  3. Leon Vermeulen

    The two areas that the Lord Jesus addresses here seem to be transgressions of a moral and ceremonial nature ( Acts 15). Are there perhaps any connections between this and the doctrine of antinomian-ism?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Leon, I am glad you noticed!

  4. Tommy Brown

    I was enlighten a great deal from this study on the Nicolaitans so my question may seem odd but you mentioned that we have Paul’s letters to the Corithians fasley labeled can you explain further ?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Please read 1 Cor 5:9, Paul mentions his letter to Corinthians, which we do not have. So 1 Cor is really 2nd.

  5. Susan

    Shalom Dr. Eli. I was interested in your reference to the Wisdom of Solomon and your comments and inferences to the “trees of life”. I read the entire Wisdom of Solomon and found nothing regarding this citation. Do you have a different version and what is it? Mine is in the “Apocrypha” printed by the Nonesuch Press of NY, 1924 ” reprinted according to the authorized version of 1611″ I am always interested in further study on the “trees of life” and find your comments on them and the “Hebraism” most interesting. Todah Rabah. P.S. I am glad you are home safe and sound.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Susan, thanks for your thoughtful feedback. Since you asked, this quote comes from R H Charles Apocrypha translation, which is public domain. Here…

  6. Jerry Akinwe

    Thank you Dr. Eli for this exposition on the Hebrew background of the book of Revelation. I so much believe that the good knowledge of Hebraism is key to understanding the Bible. If nothing, I have gained better understanding to the seriousness of the phrase “he who has ears, let him hear…”.
    Jerry Akinwe

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I am glad to hear that! Of course recognizing Hebraisms comes from studying Hebrew, which we here at eTeacher are very good at.

  7. Daphne Brown

    Dear Dr. Eli — First of all, let me say thanks for sharing your vacation with me (us). I felt so much a part of that trip, as if I were there with you.
    Thank you very much for this fantastic piece of information concerning the Nicolatians. It strengthens what I have been teaching- always. For this reason, I do not go to certain restaurants; for example, neither do I buy certain packages of food in the super markets. I just prefer to make my own things at home.

    I must say that I am in sympathy with Gilbert Walter RE: his grandchildren. I have three of them myself, the youngest being 27 years old; and what a joy to have them in my life. I counsel them almost every week about being “unequally yoked” (not only with unbelievers, but also with different religions/beliefs).

    Thanks again

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is my pleasure, Daphne. Thank you for your support and affirmation.

  8. yetilived

    Is a Hebraism experiencing God prior to the gospel? Take for example the phrase “open eyes” . Gen 3:7 is very different then Acts 26:18. I see words like “no greater BURDEN” and I have to wonder why these people were Christ followers rather than people who need to come to Christ. What is a Hebraism?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think we are talking about different things. Please see the definition of the term

      1. Kat H

        Yes I had turned the word into Judaism. I will pay more attention to Jewish culture, etc and add Christ followers to my definition of Hebraisms 🙂 Thank you!

  9. sven vestman

    Dr, Eli, thank you so much for this lesson!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You are welcome.

  10. stewartinoz

    Shalom Dr Eli,
    Welcome back.
    I seem to remember from studies, that Paul deals with the aspect of food offered to idols. He said that you can eat whatever is sold in the market (Shambles (love that concept) in the Authorised version) with a clear conscience. However the implication being, that as long as it was undifferentiated as being from what had been offered to an idol, but not so if it had been stated to have been.
    There is a growing problem in the West with the insidious encroach of Islam, in that Food Processors and Marketers, in order to satisfy the blackmail, stated or implied, that the Muslim market will boycott and or not purchase the companies’ products, are required to sign up to the Islamic Council and pay an annual fee, to have the HALAL insignia on their packaged products so that the Muslim population can buy and eat.
    I have not investigated the ritual of Halal slaughter but I was told that it involves the concept of ?Offering? the animal to their god before cutting its throat etc. Now an increasing proportion of packaged food in our supermarkets and shops carry the HALAL symbol, surreptitiously, such that you have to know what it looks like and be able to find it, as it is by no means conspicuous.
    The problem now arises that if you know that a food carries the symbol, can a Christian in good conscience, buy it and eat it?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      This is a practical theology issue and we usually stay away from these because it is a job of priests, rabbis and pastors to lead their flock in practical observance matters. I am not familiar with intricacies of halal and someone else more informed may need to give a fuller answer. But if the process of deeming or designating (stamping) something as halal is similar to kashrut in Judaism than there is no sacrifice or even dedication practice. Kashrut is simply a proper slaughter concern that make meat acceptable or unacceptable, plus the question of pollution in processing or preparation. If there is some votive dedication or sacrifice-like ritual then the situation would fit perfectly into the Pauline passage on the topic.

      1. Lois

        Dr Eli,
        I have a similar question but it is related not to food but yoga. In the western world, yoga is presented as a physical or mind/body system , separated from its original practice as a preparation for spiritual enlightenment, ie kundalini. In our world, perhaps it is this kind of practice that would be similar to the food problem in the Roman world of the first century? And if it started out as a way of worship can it actually be divorced from that simply by saying it is not a worship practice? This is practical but also a theological question.