Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume I/Church History of Eusebius/Book III/Chapter 29
Chapter XXIX.—Nicolaus and the Sect named after him.
1. At this time the so-called sect of the Nicolaitans made its appearance and lasted for a very short time. Mention is made of it in the Apocalypse of John. They boasted that the author of their sect was Nicolaus, one of the deacons who, with Stephen, were appointed by the apostles for the purpose of ministering to the poor. Clement of Alexandria, in the third book of his Stromata, relates the following things concerning him.
2. “They say that he had a beautiful wife, and after the ascension of the Saviour, being accused by the apostles of jealousy, he led her into their midst and gave permission to any one that wished to marry her. For they say that this was in accord with that saying of his, that one ought to abuse the flesh. And those that have followed his heresy, imitating blindly and foolishly that which was done and said, commit fornication without shame.
3. But I understand that Nicolaus had to do with no other woman than her to whom he was married, and that, so far as his children are concerned, his daughters continued in a state of virginity until old age, and his son remained uncorrupt. If this is so, when he brought his wife, whom he jealously loved, into the midst of the apostles, he was evidently renouncing his passion; and when he used the expression, ‘to abuse the flesh,’ he was inculcating self-control in the face of those pleasures that are eagerly pursued. For I suppose that, in accordance with the command of the Saviour, he did not wish to serve two masters, pleasure and the Lord.
4. But they say that Matthias also taught in the same manner that we ought to fight against and abuse the flesh, and not give way to it for the sake of pleasure, but strengthen the soul by faith and knowledge.” So much concerning those who then attempted to pervert the truth, but in less time than it has taken to tell it became entirely extinct.
- Rev. ii. 6, 15. Salmon, in his article Nicolaitans, in the Dict. of Christ. Biog., states, as I think, quite correctly, that “there really is no trustworthy evidence of the continuance of a sect so called after the death of the apostle John”; and in this he is in agreement with many modern scholars. An examination of extant accounts of this sect seems to show that nothing more was known of the Nicolaitans by any of the Fathers than what is told in the Apocalypse. Justin, whose lost work against heretics Irenæus follows in his description of heresies, seems to have made no mention of the Nicolaitans, for they are dragged in by Irenæus at the close of the text, quite out of their chronological place. Irenæus (I. 26. 3; III. 11. 1) seems to have made up his account from the Apocalypse, and to have been the sole source for later writers upon this subject. That the sect was licentious is told us by the Apocalypse. That Nicolas, one of the Seven, was their founder is stated by Irenæus (I. 26. 3), Hippolytus (VII. 24), Pseudo-Tertullian (Adv. omnes Hær. chap. 1), and Epiphanius (Hær. 25), the last two undoubtedly drawing their account from Hippolytus, and he in turn from Irenæus. Jerome and the writers of his time and later accept this view, believing that Nicolas became licentious and fell into the greatest wickedness. Whether the sect really claimed Nicolas as their founder, or whether the combination was made by Irenæus in consequence of the identity of his name with the name of a sect mentioned in the Apocalypse, we cannot tell; nor have we any idea, in the latter case, where the sect got the name which they bore. Clement of Alexandria, in the passage quoted just below, gives us quite a different account of the character of Nicolas; and as he is a more reliable writer than the ones above quoted, and as his statement explains excellently the appeal of the sect to Nicolas’ authority, without impeaching his character, which certainly his position among the Seven would lead us to expect was good, and good enough to warrant permanence, we feel safe in accepting his account as the true one, and denying that Nicolas himself bore the character which marked the sect of the Nicolaitans; though the latter may, as Clement says, have arisen from abusing a saying of Nicolas which had been uttered with a good motive.
- See Acts vi
- Stromata, III. 4.
- Compare Matt. vi. 24.
- This teaching was found in the Gospel of Matthias, or the παραδόσεις Ματθίου, mentioned in chap. 25 (see note 30 on that chapter).