Revelation: Solving the mystery of the Nicolaitans

The Revelation of John contains many mysteries, like: Who were the Nicolaitans?
The Revelation of John contains many mysteries, like: Who were the Nicolaitans? (photo: Register Files)

The book of Revelation contains a lot of things that are mysterious. Some are mysterious because of the symbolism it uses, but others are mysterious because what it is referring to is simply unfamiliar to us.

For example, it refers to a mysterious group of heretics known as the "Nicolaitans."

Who were they?

Fortunately, this is a mystery it's possible to shed some light on . . .


What Revelation Says

The book of Revelation first refers to the Nicolaitans in the message to the church of Ephesus, where we read:

Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate [2:6].

That doesn't give us a lot to work with. There is apparently a group of people known as the Nicolaitans who do things (works) that are rightly hated by the Ephesians.

Revelation's second reference to them is more informative, however. In the message to the church of Pergamum we read:

But I have a few things against you: You have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans [2:14-15].

Here the teachings of the Nicolaitans are linked to the teaching of Balaam. (The word here translated "so" is houtos, which carries the idea of explanation: "thus.")

There may even be a play on words here: As we will see, the Fathers link the Nicholaitans to a man named Nicholaus, which can be understood in Greek to mean "conqueror of the people," and "Balaam" can be understood in Hebrew as meaning "he conquers/destroys the people" (though it can be understood other ways also).


The Teaching of Balaam

We meet the figure of Balaam in Numbers 22-24, where we learn that he is a seer who was hired by the king Balak to put a curse on the people of Israel as they were threatening to move into the Holy Land.

Balaam, however, was unable to do so. (God wouldn't let him!)

If you read only Numbers 22-24, Balaam can come off as a good guy. It seems, though, that he went bad.

Later in Numbers, Moses is criticizing the actions of the Israeliets with regard to the women of Midian, and he says:

Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe'or, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD [Num. 31:16].

What precisely the Midianite women did that caused the sons of Israel to betray the Lord is not spelled out here.

It is, however, discussed in some extra-biblical writings.


Josephus Weighs In

In his Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus records that after Balaam failed to curse the Israelites, he counseled Balak as follows:

Do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree you are able.

Then do you send them to be near the Israelites’ camp and give them in charge, that when the young men of the Hebrews desire their company, they allow it them; and when they see that they are enamored of them, let them take their leaves; and if they entreat them to stay, let them not give their consent till they have persuaded them to leave off their obedience to their own laws and the worship of that God who established them, and to worship the gods of the Midianites and Moabites; for by this means God will be angry at them [4:6:6].

So Balaam was regarded as advising Balak to use the Midianite women to trick the sons of Israel into committing sexual immorality and abandoning the Law of God and to go after pagan gods.


The Error of Balaam

And so Balaam passed into legend as a fallen figure, remarked on as such in the New Testament, where Peter comments on some of his own day:

Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Be'or, who loved gain from wrongdoing [2 Peter 2:15].

And Jude remarks similarly:

Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error, and perish in Korah's rebellion [Jude 11].

Revelation thus picks up on the theme of Balaam's trickery as well, identifying it as tempting people to sexual immorality and illicit participation in pagan things--specifically, eating meat sacrificed to idols.

This may have meant a number of things, and scholars are divided on the question of what specifically is being referred to. Some have suggested it meant participating in a meal in a pagan temple or as part of a pagan religious festival or as part of a pagan brotherhood or club. Any of these would clearly be immoral under any circumstances.

Others have thought it meant merely eating meat that had been once sacrificed to idols and later sold in a market and served in a private home. St. Paul indicates that the latter practice was not intrinsically immoral (1 Cor. 8; Rom. 14) but that it could become extrinsically evil (1 Cor. 8:9-13).

For practical reasons (to help keep peace between Jewish and Gentile Christians), the Jerusalem Council required abstaining from things sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29), so this was the law in force at the time in Christian communities.

The Nicolaitans, however, apparently disregarded this rule and also practiced sexual immorality.

But who were they?


The Fathers Know Best

Here the Church Fathers can be of help, because they go into more detail about the Nicolaitans.

For example, the father of Church history--Eusebius--states:

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" [Church History III:29:1-2].

The second century Father, Irenaeus of Lyons, agrees, writing:

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 [Against Heresies 1:26:3].


Nicholas the Deacon?

These are rather shocking statements. There was, indeed, a deacon appointed by the apostles who was named Nicholaus. Acts 6 records:

[2] And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. [3] Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. [4] But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." [5] And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. [6] These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.

Could this Nicholaus have really ended up as the founder of a heretical sect in Asia Minor, where the churches of Revelation were?

We don't know enough about his later life to know, but Nicholaus, like Philip, may have been one of the people who scattered from Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He thus could have ended up in his home town of Antioch. If his hometown was Antioch in Syria then it would be considerably closer to Asia Minor. If it was Antioch in Pisidia then it would actually be in Asia Minor, for that is where Pisidia is.

He also was a convert from paganism to Hellenistic Judaism before he was a Christian. That could indicate a religiously unstable identity (or not).

It could also indicate that he, like Stephen and Paul, held views that were not well received by more traditional Jews and Jewish Christians.

Paul, after all, did not view all eating of meat offered to idols as intrinsically immoral, and he was accused of encouraging people to sin that grace might abound all the more--a charge that he vigorously denied (Rom. 3:8, 6:1-2). Perhaps Nicholaus said things that were misinisterpreted along these lines.

Or, as a subject with free will, he had it within his power to actually fall into heretical views (and also recover from them later).

Irenaeus, for one, simply describes the Nicolaitans as his followers, apparently giving credence to the view that he founded their heresy.

But there is another view . . .


St. Clement's Alternative

St. Clement of Alexandria takes a more positive view. Continuing the same quotation of Clement from Eusebius's Church History, we read:

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 Savior, 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" [Church History III:29:3-4].

So on Clement's view, Nicolaus was far from practicing sexual immorality or encouraging others to perform it. Instead, he did the opposite!

On this view, the Nicolaitans would be falsely appropriating and smearing Nicholaus's good name by claiming him as the founder of their group.


The Mystery Solved?

Regardless of the origin of the group, it seems that the Nicolaitans were a group of heretics that took a libertine attitude toward sexual morality and impermissible involvement in pagan things (specifically, whatever is meant by eating meat offered to idols).

They at least claimed the Deacon Nicholaus as their founder, and they may well have pointed to a dispute over Nicholaus's alleged jealousy regarding his wife--a jealousy that Nicholaus denied (according to some out of libertinism, and according to others out of rigorous chastity).

They apparently lasted only a short time, as Eusebius says, since they apparently did not become an established, enduring heresy, and he speaks of them in the past tense.

Finally, they were found in Asia Minor, where they were known to the church in Ephesus and apparently tolerated by the Church in Pergamum.

And perhaps another church we can identify . . .


"To the angel of the church in Thyatira write"

After mentioning the Nicolaitans in the message to the church of Pergamum there is another, intriguing passage in the message to the next church in line: Thyatira. We read:

[18] "And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: `The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. [19] "`I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. [20] But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. [21] I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her immorality. [22] Behold, I will throw her on a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her doings; [23]and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches shall know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. [24] But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay upon you any other burden; [25] only hold fast what you have, until I come.

Notice that we have the same two things--sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols--that were just a few verses earlier identified as the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Apparently they were present in Thyatira as well, and taught by a woman who is here referred to as "Jezebel."

This may indicate the presence of another group of Nicolaitans in Thyatira, which was just up the road from Pergamum.

The reference to "the deep things of Satan" may be a biting allusion to Jezebel and the Nicolaitans' claim that they their teachings were really "the deep things of God." How wrong they were! (Or maybe they didn't have as negative a view of Satan as they should.)


"The Woman Jezebel"

As for "Jezebel," scholars have long thought that this was not her real name but that she is called this as a reference to the evil pagan queen of Northern Israel named Jezebel. If so, Revelation would link the Nicolaitans to two sinister Old Testament figures that led Israel astray: Balaam and Jezebel.

She also is said to describe herself as a prophetess, and scholars have seen her as a rival in the churches of Asia Minor to John.

Although John--a genuine prophet--was apparently well known to the churches of Asia Minor, Thyatira was the home to a rival prophetess who apparently led a group of Nicolaitans.

The picture of the church scene in Asia Minor was thus mixed. According to the Fathers, the true prophet--John--was based in Ephesus, which hated the works of the Nicolaitans. The false prophetess--"Jezebel"--was based in Thyatira, whose church tolerated her. Others--like the church in Pergamum (located between Ephesus and Thyatira on the route of John's messenger)--had a mixed attitude, with some embracing the doctrines of the Nicolaitans and others rejecting them.

One can only imagine what it must have felt like to sit in the church of Thyatira on Sunday and have the book of Revelation--with its thunderous condemnation of "Jezebel" and her followers--who may have been sitting right there--read out for the first time.


By the Way . . .

Incidentally, if you're interested in the book of Revelation, you might want to check out my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

The very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?