the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Νικολαϊταί ), a class or sect mentioned twice in the New Testament (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15). In the former passage the conduct of the Nicolaitans is condemned; in the latter, the angel of the Church in Pergamus is censured because certain members of his Church held their doctrine. Irenaeus, the first author extant who refers to these passages, says that Nicolas, one of the seven deacons of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5), was the founder of the sect (Contra Haeres. 1:26). But Epiphanius (Advers. Faeres. 1:25), with whom Tertullian, Hilary, Gregory of Nyssa, and other fathers agree, says that Nicolas had a beautiful wife, and, following the counsels of perfection, he separated himself from her; but not being able to persevere in his resolution, he returned to her again, as a dog to his vomit; and not only so, but justified his conduct by licentious principles, which laid the foundation of the sect of the Nicolaitans. But the practice of putting away wives for the sake of sanctity belongs to a later period; nor can we conceive that taking back his wife would be considered a crime, in view of Paul's instructions (1 Corinthians 7:3; 1 Corinthians 7:6). Suspicion is thrown on the whole passage by the further statement of Epiphanius, that all the Gnostics derived their origin from Nicolas; which is too absurd for controversy.
Clement of Alexandria has preserved a different version of the story (Strom. 3:4, p. 522, ed. Potter), which Eusebius copies from him (Hist. Eccles. 3:29), and which is repeated by Augustine and other ancient writers: "The apostles," they say, "reprehended Nicolas for jealousy of his wife, who was beautiful; whereupon Nicolas produced her, and said, Any one might marry her who pleased. In this affair the deacon let fall the expression, ‘ that we should abuse the flesh;' which, though employed in a good sense by him, was perverted to a bad one by those who would gain to their licentiousness the sanction of a respectable name, and who from thence styled themselves Nicolaitans." Who can believe that a sect should take its rise and its name from a casual expression by a man whose obvious sense and whose conduct were opposed to the peculiarities of the sect? Grotius supposes that Nicolas, being reproved for jealousy of those Christians who saluted his wife with the kiss of peace, ran at once to the other extreme, and imitated the custom of the Lacedaemonians and of Cato, permitting others to have intercourse with her, affirming that it was no crime when both parties consented. This is improbable, and unsupported by testimony. Nor is there sufficient evidence to connect the Nicolaitans of the apostolic age in any way with the Gnostics of succeeding centuries. The ingenious conjecture of Michaelis is worthy of consideration, who supposes that by Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15) the same class of persons is intended whom Peter (2 Peter 2:15) describes as followers of the way of Balaam; and that their name, Nicolaitans, is merely a Greek translation of their Hebrew designation, the noun Νικόλαος (from νικάω and λαός ) being a literal version of בַּלְעָם, that is, בעל עם, the master of the people; or, according to another derivation, the devourer of the people (so Hengstenberg, as if from בָּלִע ). (See BALAAM).
The custom of translating names, which prevailed so extensively in modern Europe, was undoubtedly practiced also among the Jews, as the example in Acts 9:36 (to which others might be added) shows. Accordingly, the Arabic version, published by Erpenius, renders the words τὰ ἔργα τῶν Νικολαϊτῶν, the works of the Shuaibites, the Arabic Shuaib being apparently the name for Balaam. The whole analogy of the mode of teaching which lays stress on the significance of names would lead us to look, not for philological accuracy, but for a broad, strongly marked paronomasia, such as men would recognize and accept. It would be enough for those who were to hear the message that they should perceive the meaning of the two words to be identical. Cocceius (Cogitat. in Revelation 2:6) has the credit of being the first to suggest this identification of the Nicolaitans with the followers of Balaam. It has been adopted by the elder Vitringa (Dissert. de Argum. Epist. Petriposter. in Hase's Thesaurus, 2:987), Hengstenberg (in loc.), Stier (Words of the Risen Lord, p. 125, Engl. transl.), and others. Lightfoot (Hor. Heb. in Act. Apost. 6:5) suggests another and more startling paronomasia.
The word, in his view, was chosen, as identical in sound with נַיכוֹלָא, "let us eat," and as thus marking out the special characteristic of the sect. The only objection against this identification arises from the circumstance that in the passage Revelation 2:14-15 both "they that hold the doctrine of Balaam" and "the Nicolaitans" are specified apparently as distinct. Yet even there the collocation of the two classes of heretics seems to imply some agreement between them, though not identity. See Janus, De Nicolaitis; Heumann, De Nicol. e Catol. Haereticor. expung. in Acta. Eruditorum (1712), p. 179 sq.; Storr, Apol. der Offenbar. p. 260; Miinscher, Ueber die Nicol. in Gabl. Journal, v. 17 sq.; Scheffler Tiburtius, De Nicol. (1825). "We are now in a position to form a clearer judgment of the characteristics of the sect. It comes before us as presenting the ultimate phase of a great controversy, which threatened at one time to destroy the unity of the Church, and afterwards to taint its purity. The controversy itself was inevitable as soon as the Gentiles were admitted, in.any large numbers, into the Church of Christ. Were the new converts to be brought into subjection to the whole Mosaic law? Were they to give up their old habits of life altogether to withdraw entirely from the social gatherings of their friends and kinsmen? Was there not the risk, if they continued to join in them, of their eating, consciously or unconsciously, of that which had been slain in the sacrifices of a false worship, and of thus sharing in the idolatry? The apostles and elders at Jerusalem met the question calmly and wisely.
The burden of the law was not to be imposed on the Gentile disciples. They were to abstain, among other things, from ‘ meats offered to idols' and from ‘ fornication' (Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29), and this decree was welcomed as the great charter of the Church's freedom. Strange as the close union of the moral and the positive commands may seem to us, it did not seem so to the synod at Jerusalem. The two sins were very closely allied, often even in the closest proximity of time and place. The fathomless impurity which overspread the empire made the one almost as inseparable as the other from its daily social life. The messages to the Churches of Asia and the later Apostolic Epistles (2 Peter and Jude) indicate that the two evils appeared at that period also in close alliance. The teachers of the Church branded them with a name which expressed their true character. The men who did and taught such things were followers of Balaam (2 Peter 2:15; Judges 1:11). They, like the false prophet of Pethor, united brave words with evil deeds. They made their ‘ liberty' a cloak at once for cowardice and licentiousness. In a time of persecution, when the eating or not eating of things sacrificed to idols was more than ever a crucial test of faithfulnmess, they persuaded men more than ever that it was a thing indifferent (Revelation 2:13-14). This was bad enough, but there was a yet worse evil. Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church. There was the most imminent risk that its Agapae might be come as full of abominations as the Bacchanalia of Italy had been (2 Peter 2:12-13; 2 Peter 2:18; Judges 1:7-8; comp. Livy, 39:8-19).
Their sins had already brought scandal and discredit on the ‘ way of truth.' All this was done, it must be remembered, not simply as an indulgence of appetite, but as part of a system, supported by a ‘ doctrine,' accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination (2 Peter 2:1). The trance of the son of Beor and the sensual debasement into which he led the Israelites were strangely reproduced. These were the characteristics of the followers of Balaam, and worthless as most of the traditions. about Nicolas may be, they point to the same distinctive evils. Even in the absence of any teacher of that name, it would be natural enough, as has been shown above, that the Hebrew name of ignominy should have its Greek equivalent. If there were such a teacher, whether the proselyte of Antioch or another, the application of the name of his followers would be proportionately more pointed. It confirms the view which has been taken of their character to find that stress is laid in the first instance on the deeds' of the Nicolaitans. To hate those deeds is a sign of life in a Church that otherwise is weak and faithless (Revelation 2:6). To tolerate them is well nigh to forfeit the glory of having been faithful under persecution (Revelation 2:14-15). Comp. Neander's Apostelgesch. p. 620; Gieseler's Eccl. Hist. § 29; Alford on Revelation 2:6." See Neander, Ch. fist. 1:452; Guericke, Anc. Ch. Hist. p. 179; Killen, Anc. Ch. p. 206; Burton, Eccl. Hist. 1st Century, p. 274, 278, 281, 301, 303, 305; Hase, Ch. Hist. p. 35. (See NICOLAS).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nicolaitans'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​n/nicolaitans.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.