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The term Nazarite comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning "consecrated" or "separated." The Nazarite is "holy unto the Lord" (Numbers 6:8) and must keep himself from becoming ritually unclean. The regulations which apply to him actually agree with those for the High Priest and for the priests during worship, as described in Leviticus and in Ezekiel. This vow required the man (and in the Hellenistic period the woman too) to observe the following:
- Abstain from wine, vinegar (which was made from wine), grapes, raisins, and all intoxicants;
- Refrain from cutting one's hair and beard;
- To avoid corpses, even those of a family member.
The vow was usually for a fixed period of time—30, 90 or even 100 days. At that time, the man would make a sacrifice that included a lamb, a ewe, a ram, and a basket of bread and cakes. There are cases where a parent would make this vow for her or his child, which the child would observe for his entire life.
Nazarite Vows in History
Two examples of Nazarites in the Hebrew Bible are Samson (Judges 13:5), and Samuel (I Kingdoms 1:11). In both cases, their mother made the vow before they were born, which required them to live an ascetic life, yet in return they received extraordinary gifts: Samson possessed strength and ability in physical battle, while Samuel was a prophet.
This vow was observed into the intertestamentary period. I Maccabees 3:49 mention men who had ended their Nazarite vows, an example dated to about 165 BC. Josephus mentions a number of people who had taken the vow, such as his tutor Banns (Antiquities 20.6), and Gamaliel records in the Mishnah how the father of Rabbi Chenena made a lifetime Nazarite vow before him (Nazir 29b) — examples showing this practice was observed into the first century.
In modern Judaism, this practice does not exist any more.
Nazarites and the New Testament
The practice of a Nazarite vow is part of the mystery of the Greek term "Nazarene" that appears in the New Testament; the sacrifice of a lamb and the offering of bread does suggest a relationship with Christian symbolism. However, a saying (Matthew 11:18f; Luke 7:33ff) of Jesus' makes it doubtful that he might have been a Nazarite, as does the ritual consumption of wine as part of the Eucharist.
The Apostle Luke clearly was aware that wine was forbidden in Nazaritic ascetic practice, for the angel (Luke 1:15) that announces the birth of John the Baptist foretells that "he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb." The implication is that John would take a lifelong Nazarite vow (see also Luke 7:33).
Luke also mentions how Paul was advised to avoid the hostility of the Jews in Jerusalem by taking Nazaritic vows, a strategem that only delayed the inevitable mob assault on him (Acts 21:20-24). When Paul is advised to take the Nazarite vow, although in the previous verse it is stated he is meeting with James, the author of Acts clearly ascribes the advice to the general group of elders. It is not clear whether this is because Luke confused the word nazir with netzer (meaning "branch," an allusion to Isaiah 11:1), and felt it did not apply to James, or whether (as Judaizers might claim) Luke intentionally minimized James' importance as other Pauline Christians did. The Orthodox Study Bible notes that
- the vow of Paul is no compromise with Judaism. It is an expression of Christian charity from Paul, a Jewish Christian, toward the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem in order to dispel false rumors and to build their trust (p. 320).
What is curious is that Luke never mentions James the Just as taking Nazarite vows, although later Christian historians (e.g., Epiphanius in Panarion 29.4) believed he had, and this would explain the asceticism Eusebius of Caesarea describes James observed (Ecclesiastical History 2.23), an asceticism that gave James his epithet "the Just."