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Nicolaism (also Nicholaism, Nicolationism, or Nicolaitanism) is a Christian heresy, first mentioned (twice) in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, whose adherents were called Nicolaitans, Nicolaitanes, or Nicolaites. According to Revelation 2, vv. 6 and 15, they were known in the cities of Ephesus and Pergamum. In this chapter, the church at Ephesus is commended for "hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate" and the church in Pergamos is blamed "So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans".
The common statement is that the Nicolaitans held the antinomian heresy of 1 Corinthians 6, although this has not been proved. Victorinus of Pettau states that they ate things offered to idols. Bede states that Nicolas allowed other men to marry his wife. Thomas Aquinas believed that Nicholas supported either polygamy or the holding of wives in common. Eusebius claimed that the sect was short-lived.
Another opinion, favoured by a number of authors, is that, because of the allegorical character of the Apocalypse, the reference to the Nicolaitans is merely a symbolic manner of reference. As a symbolic reference, the "teaching of the Nicolaitans" refers to dominating the people, compared to the "teaching of Balaam" which refers to seducing the people. John, the author of Revelation, discusses domination within the church in 3 John 9-11. Such a teaching would contradict "… whoever would be great among you must be your servant," Matthew 20:26.
Nico-, combinatory form of nīko, "victory" in Greek, and laos means people, or more specifically, the laity; hence, the word may be taken to mean "lay conquerors" or "conquerors of the lay people". However, "Nicolaitan" (Greek: Νικολαϊτῶν; Νικολαΐτης) is the name ostensibly given to followers of the heretic Nicolas (Greek: Νικόλαος)—the name itself meaning "victorious over people," or "victory of the people," which he would have been given at birth.
The name Balaam is perhaps capable of being interpreted as a Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Nicolas. Some commentators think that this is alluded to by John in Revelation 2:14; and C. Vitringa argues forcibly in support of this opinion. However, Albert Barnes notes:
Vitringa supposes that the word is derived from νικος, victory, and λαος, people, and that thus it corresponds with the name Balaam, as meaning either lord of the people, or he destroyed the people; and that, as the same effect was produced by their doctrines as by those of Balaam, that the people were led to commit fornication and to join in idolatrous worship, they might be called Balaamites or Nicolaitanes--that is, corrupters of the people. But to this it may be replied,
(a) that it is far-fetched, and is adopted only to remove a difficulty;
(b) that there is every reason to suppose that the word here used refers to a class of people who bore that name, and who were well known in the two churches specified;
(c) that, in Rev 2:15 , they are expressly distinguished from those who held the doctrine of Balaam, Rev 2:14 --"So hast thou also (και) those that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes."— Albert Barnes, New Testament Notes
Cyrus Scofield, in his Notes on the Bible, following dispensationalist thought, suggests that the Seven Letters in Revelation foretell the various eras of Christian history, and that "Nicolaitans" "refers to the earliest form of the notion of a priestly order, or 'clergy,' which later divided an equal brotherhood into 'priests' and 'laity.'"
The Nicolas of Acts 6:5 was a native of Antioch and a proselyte (convert to Judaism) and then a follower of the way of Christ. When the Church was still confined to Jerusalem, he was chosen by the whole multitude of the disciples to be one of the first seven deacons, and he was ordained by the apostles, c. AD 33. It has been questioned whether this Nicolas was connected with the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation, and if so, how closely. The Nicolaitans themselves, at least as early as the time of Irenaeus, claimed him as their founder.
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.
It is noticeable (though the documents themselves sit not of much weight as evidence) that in multiple instances the Nicolaitans are said to be "falsely so called" (ψευδώνυμοι).
Epiphanius relates some details of the life of Nicolas the deacon, and describes him as gradually sinking into the grossest impurity, and becoming the originator of the Nicolaitans and other libertine Gnostic sects:
[Nicolas] had an attractive wife, and had refrained from intercourse as though in imitation of those whom he saw to be devoted to God. He endured this for a while but in the end could not bear to control his incontinence.... But because he was ashamed of his defeat and suspected that he had been found out, he ventured to say, "Unless one copulates every day, he cannot have eternal life."— Epiphanius, Panarion, 25, 1
Hippolytus agreed with Epiphanius in his unfavourable view of Nicolas.
In Clement of Alexandria
The same account is believed, at least to some extent, by Jerome and other writers in the 4th century; but it is irreconcilable with the traditional account of the character of Nicolas given by Clement of Alexandria, an earlier writer than Epiphanius. He states that Nicolas led a chaste life, and brought up his children in purity; that on a certain occasion, having been sharply reproved by the apostles as a jealous husband, he repelled the charge by offering to allow his wife to become the wife of any other person; and that he was in the habit of repeating a saying which is ascribed to the apostle Matthias also,—that it is our duty to fight against the flesh and to abuse (παραχρῆσθαι) it. His words were perversely interpreted by the Nicolaitans as authority for their immoral practices. Theodoret, in his account of the sect, repeats the foregoing statement of Clement, and charges the Nicolaitans with false dealing in borrowing the name of the deacon.
In modern criticism
Among later critics, Cotelerius in a note on Constit. Apost. vi. 8, after reciting the various authorities, seems to lean towards the favourable view of the character of Nicolas. Professor Burton was of opinion that the origin of the term Nicolaitans is uncertain; and that, "though Nicolas the deacon has been mentioned as their founder, the evidence is extremely slight which would convict that person himself of any immoralities." Tillemont, possibly influenced by the fact that no honour is paid to the memory of Nicolas by any branch of the Church, allows more weight to the testimony against him; rejects peremptorily Cassian's statement—to which Neander gives his adhesion—that some other Nicolas was the founder of the sect; and concludes that if not the actual founder, he was so unfortunate as to give occasion to the formation of the sect, by his indiscreet speaking. Grotius' view as given in a note on Revelation 2:6, is substantially the same as that of Tillemont.
Rather than Nicolas the Deacon himself becoming an apostate, some believe it was another Nicolas, or someone closely connected with Nicolas such as his one son who became bishop of Samaria, where Gnosticism originated before spreading to the Anatolian cities of Pergamum and Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia (minor), also known as proconsular Asia:
Nicolas had lived chastely under the conjugal roof, having no relations with other than his legitimate wife, who gave him a son and a number of daughters. The son became Bishop of Samaria and the daughters died virgins.
- Revelation 2.
- Philosophumena, vii. 26.
- Healy, Patrick Joseph (1913). "Nicolaites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- St. Victorinus of Pettau, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2.1
- Bede, Explanation of the Apocalypse, 2.16
- S. C. G. iii. 124.
- H. E. iii. 29.
- Hayden, D. (2006). Mindgames. http://www.awordfromtheword.org
- Etymology of the name Nicholas: "masc. proper name, from Gk. Nikolaos, lit. 'victory-people,' from nike 'victory' + laic 'people.'" For the (non-etymological) intrusive "h" in the English spelling of it, cf Ant(h)ony.
- Cocceius (Cogitat. in Rev. ii. 6) has the credit of being the first to suggest this identification of the Nicolaitans with the followers of Balaam. He has been followed by the elder Vitringa (Dissert. de Argum. Epist. Petri poster. in Hase's Thesaurus, ii. 987), Hengstenberg (in loc.), Stier (Words of the Risen Lord, p. 125 Eng. transl.), and others. Lightfoot (Hor. Heb., in Act. Apost. vi. 5) suggests another and more startling paronomasia. The word, in his view, was chosen, as identical in sound with ניכולה, Nicolah, "let us eat," and as thus marking out the special characteristic of the sect.
- Revelation 2:14.
- Obs. Sacr. iv. 9.
- Barnes' New Testament Notes.
- Adversus haereses, i. 26, §3; iii. 11, §1.
- Ignat. ad Trall. xi. (longer version): "Flee also the impure Nicolaitanes, falsely so called, who are lovers of pleasure, and given to calumnious speeches." Cf. ad Phil. vi. (longer version): "If any one ... affirms that unlawful unions are a good thing, and places the highest happiness in pleasure, as does the man who is falsely called a Nicolaitan, this person can neither be a lover of God, nor a lover of Christ, but is a corrupter of his own flesh, and therefore void of the Holy Spirit, and a stranger to Christ." Const. Apost. vi.: "... some are impudent in uncleanness, such as those who are falsely called Nicolaitans."
- Williams, Frank (1987). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Book I (Sects 1-46). Leiden; New York; København; Köln: E.J. Brill. p. 77.
- Stephen Gobar, Photii Biblioth. §232, p. 291, ed. 1824; Philosophumena, bk. vii. §36.
- Ep. 147, t. i. p. 1082, ed. Vallars. &c.
- “Such also are those (who say that they follow Nicolaus, quoting an adage of the man, which they pervert, 'that the flesh must be abused.' But the worthy man showed that it was necessary to check pleasures and lusts, and by such training to waste away the impulses and propensities of the flesh. But they, abandoning themselves to pleasure like goats, as if insulting the body, lead a life of self-indulgence; not knowing that the body is wasted, being by nature subject to dissolution; while their soul is buried in the mire of vice; following as they do the teaching of pleasure itself, not of the apostolic man” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, ii. 20).
- “But when we spoke about the saying of Nicolaus we omitted to say this. Nicolaus, they say, had a lovely wife. When after the Saviour's ascension he was accused before the apostles of jealousy, he brought his wife into the concourse and allowed anyone who so desired to marry her. For, they say, this action was appropriate to the saying: 'One must abuse the flesh.' ... I am informed, however, that Nicolaus never had relations with any woman other than the wife he married, and that of his children his daughters remained virgins to their old age, and his son remained uncorrupted. In view of this it was an act of suppression of passion when he brought before the apostles the wife on whose account he was jealous. He taught what it meant to 'abuse the flesh' by restraining the distracting passions. For, as the Lord commanded, he did not wish to serve two masters, pleasure and God. It is said that Matthias also taught that one should fight the flesh and abuse it, never allowing it to give way to licentious pleasure, so that the soul might grow by faith and knowledge” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, iii. 4, §§25-26; and apud Euseb. H. E. iii. 29; see also footnote 31 in Chapter 25 of NPNF).
- Haeret. Fab. iii. 1.
- Lectures on Ecclesiastical History, Lect. xii. p. 364, ed. 1833.
- H. E. ii. 47.
- Planting of the Church, bk. v. p. 390, ed. Bonn.
- Revelation 2:6.
- Daniel Denison Whedon “A popular commentary on the New Testament” New York: Phillips & Hunt (1880) Vol.V Titus-Revelation, Page 342: "Later, and so less trustworthy, authorities exculpate Nicolas, under excuse either that he was misunderstood by his followers or that they claimed his authority falsely, or that it was another Nicolas, a bishop of Samaria, who was their real founder."
- James Hastings “Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics” New York: Charles Scribner's Sons (1917 ) Vol. 9 Page 364: "Another Nicolas than the deacon must in consequence be sought as the founder of the immoral party at Pergamum. The name was not uncommon, and exact identification is not at present possible. According to pseudo-Dorotheus, there was a Nicolas, bishop of Samaria, who fell into heresy and evil ways under the influence of Simon Magus."
- P. L. Jacob “Antiquity, Rome and Christian era” (1926) Page 103.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Nicolaites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Bullock, William Thomas (1863). "Nicolas". In Smith, William. A Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. II. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. pp. 536–537.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Easton, Matthew George (1897). "Nicolaitanes". Easton's Bible Dictionary (New and revised ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.
- Ancient & Medieval References To The Nicolaitanes An extensive listing of references by 25 ancient and medieval writers to the Nicolaitanes.