The word ‘Nazirite’ (KJV Version incorrectly ‘Nazarite’) is used to indicate both a kind of vow and the person who made such a vow. It comes from the Hebrew word nazir, whose meaning indicates that a Nazirite vow was one of separation ( Numbers 6:2). Those who made Nazirite vows wanted to show openly that they had set themselves apart to God for some special purpose over a certain period.
Probably the best known Nazirite in the Bible was Samson, whose parents dedicated him to God at birth to be a Nazirite for life. Samuel and John the Baptist were possibly Nazirites for life ( 1 Samuel 1:11; Luke 1:15). It appears that on one occasion Paul took a short-term Nazirite vow upon himself ( Acts 18:18; cf. Acts 21:23-26).
1. The name. -The primary significance of the Hebrew נָזַר nâzar (not used in Qal) is ‘to separate.’ Hence the נָזִיר nâzîr is ‘the separated, consecrated, or devoted one.’ In Genesis 49:26 nâzîr is applied to Joseph, ‘him who was separate from his brethren.’ In Lamentations 4:7 ‘her Nazarites’ (Authorized Version) probably means ‘her nobles’ (Revised Version). Usually, however, the name nâzîr is to be understood in the technical sense of one separated by the taking, or imposition, of a peculiar vow. One of the marks of the Nazirite was his unshorn locks. Hence the word nâzîr was sometimes used in the general sense of ‘untrimmed’ or ‘unshorn.’ In Leviticus 25:5; Leviticus 25:11 it is used of an undressed vine, and in Jeremiah 7:29 it refers probably to unshorn hair, without implying the Nazirite vow.
2. The vow. -In Numbers 6:1-21 we have the law of the Nazirite. He was bound (1) to abstain from the use of wine, strong drink, and all products of the vine ‘from the kernels even to the husk’ ( Numbers 6:3-4); (2) to ‘let the locks of the hair of his head grow’ unshorn ( Numbers 6:5); (3) to avoid contact with any dead body ( Numbers 6:6-7). From the instructions given to the mother of Samson ( Judges 13:4) some add, as a fourth mark of the Nazirite, abstinence from unclean food. But this was a precept for all Jews, and cannot be regarded as in any way a peculiar mark of the Nazirite. No doubt it may be said to follow from the third point above, that the Nazirite would be careful to guard against all ceremonial defilement.
If by mishap the Nazirite were defiled by contact with the dead, he had to go through a process of ceremonial cleansing, shaving his head and bringing a sin-offering, a burnt-offering, and a trespass-offering, and then begin the original period of his Naziriteship de novo ( Numbers 6:9-12). From the same passage it is clear that both men and women might take the vow ( Numbers 6:2).
3. Development of Naziritism. -It does not lie within the scope of this article to set forth completely the probable rise and evolution of Naziritism, or to argue fully the various problems involved. The reader must consult Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols)or Jewish Encyclopedia. Here we simply indicate the most likely way along which Naziritism advanced till it became the complicated phenomenon it presents in the period with which we deal.
It is quite clear, and may be said to be generally admitted, that the legislation of Numbers 6 does not create Naziritism, but regulates it. It is already in existence, with probably a long history behind it. Premising that its earliest history is quite unknown to us, we may say that it makes its first recorded appearance with Samson (Judges 13). He was a ‘Nazirite unto God from the womb.’ Now the only part of the regulations of Numbers 6 that we can affirm with certainty to have been observed by Samson is that prohibiting the cutting of the hair. Quite certainly all the stress is laid on that in his history. His mother, indeed, is commanded to abstain from wine till he be born, but there is no evidence in the stories that there was anything of the ascetic about Samson himself. It is clear that the prohibition against contact with the dead could not have held for him ( Judges 14:19).
When we come to the time of Amos, we find that abstinence from wine is most emphasized. ‘Ye gave the Nazirites wine to drink’ ( Judges 2:12). It is quite clear that by this time abstinence from wine is essential to the Nazirite. Numbers 6 gives equal emphasis to both points, and adds the requirement of ceremonial purity with reference to the dead.
Probably, then, we have three stages in the historical development of Naziritism, but we may take it that the mark of the Nazirite par excellence all through was the unshorn locks, as the use of nâzîr in Leviticus 25:5; Leviticus 25:11 seems to prove. The root idea of Naziritism is ‘separated unto God,’ and in the three prohibitions we have a triple expression of that separation. The first and second came to be merely conventional signs of Naziritism, but it is not difficult to conjecture what significance they had originally. During the period of his vow the Nazirite left his hair unshorn; at the close he burned it at the sanctuary as an offering. The custom of sacrificing the hair was widespread among many nations, the view doubtless being that part of the body may be sacrificed as representing the whole. The hair was unshorn during the vow because, being designed for sacrifice to God, it must be kept inviolate till the set time. Among the ancient Arabians there were several groups bearing a strong resemblance to the Hebrew Nazirites, and it was for purposes of war or blood-feud that they consecrated themselves. Quite probably the earliest type of Naziritism was of similar import. To be a hero against his people’s enemies is the end of Samson’s consecration.
In the ascetic abstinence from wine and the abhorrence of everything connected with the vine, we find probably the remnant of a protest on the part of those who regarded themselves as true Jews against the adoption by Israel of Canaanitish culture. In this the Rechabites were closely allied to the Nazirites. Though this protest had been long forgotten, the ascetic principle would persist in its own strength. The Nazirite, being specially consecrated to God, had a certain affinity with the priests, who were also specially consecrated. Hence it was natural that regulations against defilement, similar to those which applied to priests, should be imposed on Nazirites likewise. (For full discussion of all those points the reader is referred to Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols)iii., article‘Nazirite.’)
4. Naziritism in the 1st cent. a.d. -By this time the law of the Nazirite had been minutely developed and expanded into a whole treatise in the Mishna. From the number and variety of the regulations we may infer that the taking of the vow was a very common occurrence. Men and women, both high and low in rank, became Nazirites. Berenice ( Acts 25:13) took a vow (Josephus, Bellum Judaicum (Josephus)II. xv. 1). Queen Helena of Adiabene was a Nazirite for many years (Nâzîr, iii. 6), as was also Miriam of Palmyra. Women and slaves could take the vow, but only with the consent of their husbands or owners (ib. iv. 1-5). Fathers might dedicate minors, mothers were forbidden to do so (ib. iv. 29). If one saw a woman convicted of sin by the process of Numbers 5:11-31, he was admonished to become a Nazirite, on the ground that the law of the Nazirite follows immediately in Numbers 6.
The vow was taken for a variety of reasons, such as deliverance from or prevention of sickness (Josephus, Bellum Judaicum (Josephus)II. xv. 1), the fulfilment of a wish (Nâzîr, i. 7), or as a penance (Nedârîm, 9b). We may suppose that the same variety of reason as might induce a Catholic to undertake a pilgrimage-penance, discipline, thanksgiving, or the acquisition of merit-would lead the Jew to take a Nazirite vow.
The vow might be for a lifetime or any shorter period that the devotee might choose. In practice the shortest period was 30 days, and this was also the period in an indefinite vow (Nâzîr, i. 3). The vow might be taken outside Palestine, but, so long as the Temple stood, had to be ended in Palestine. The followers of Hillel maintained that though a vow might be observed outside the Holy Land, the whole period must be observed over again in Palestine. The school of Shammai held that it was necessary to observe only 30 days in Palestine.
A man became a Nazirite simply by declaring his intention or wish to become one (ib. i. 1), but there were many formulae connected with the taking of the vow, some of which are not intelligible. It was not a valid vow to say ‘Let my hand be nâzîr,’ it was valid to say ‘Let my liver be nâzîr’; but what was the meaning of saying either we cannot tell. The three restrictions of Numbers 6 remained in force. If one said, however, ‘Let me be a Nazirite on the day that Messiah appears,’ one might drink wine on Sabbaths and feast days, since it was held Messiah would not appear on any of them (’Erubîn, 43a). A life-long Nazirite might out his hair once a year, unless he were a Samson-Nazirite (Nâzîr, i. 4a). This permission followed from the recognition of Absalom as a Nazirite ( 2 Samuel 14:26). The Nazirite was denied the use of a comb, but might dress his hair by other means (Nâzîr, i. 6). On the expiry of his vow the Nazirite had to offer sacrifices ( Numbers 6:13 ff.) at the Temple while it stood, and ‘take the hair of the head of his separation, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace offerings.’ The necessary expenses were heavy, and it was considered a meritorious thing for the wealthy to defray the expenses of poor Nazirites. The technical term for this charity was ‘having so many Nazirites shorn’ (Nâzîr, ii. 5, 6), King Agrippa, ‘coming to Jerusalem in much greater prosperity than he had before, … ordered that many of the Nazirites should have their heads shorn (Josephus, Ant. XIX. vi. 1).
The destruction of the Temple was no doubt a fatal blow to Naziritism. It gradually disappeared in asceticism, and there is no trace of its survival beyond the early Christian centuries. (For a fuller account of Naziritism in Rabbinical literature see Jewish Encyclopediaix. 195 ff.)
5. Naziritism in the NT. -Nazirites are not definitely mentioned in the NT, and there is difference of opinion as to the number of indirect references.
(a) Jesus.-Jesus had no connexion with Naziritism technically considered. Yet the names Nazarene and Nazoraean applied to Him bear some resemblance to Nazirite. Late ecclesiastical writers like Eusebius, Tertullian, and Jerome show a tendency to confuse the three terms. And if Nazir were taken, not in its technical sense, but as meaning ‘holy one’ (it is actually so rendered twice in Septuagint, Judges 13:7; Judges 16:17), we can see how Jesus might popularly be called Nazir. By a play on words the people might say, ‘Jesus-not Nazarene but Nazir.’ (For a full discussion of this point see E. A. Abbott, ‘Nazarene and Nazoraean,’ in Miscellanea Evangelica I., Cambridge, 1913.)
(b) John the Baptist.-Some hold that the Baptist was a Nazirite, but there is not evidence sufficient to justify this. It cannot be accepted that he ‘is described as a Nazirite for life ( Luke 1:15)’ (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols)iii. 500). The only point in which it is predicted or enjoined that John shall resemble the Nazirites is his abstinence from wine, but there is no ground for believing that all who practised that self-denial were Nazirites. This verse describes him no more as a Nazirite than as an Essene, which some, as groundlessly, have held him to be.
(c) James the Just.-With full confidence we might recognize a life-long Nazirite in James ‘the brother of the Lord,’ if we could trust the description of him quoted from the Commentaries of Hegesippus, bk. v., in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)II. xxiii.: ‘This Apostle was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, nor ate animal food. A razor never came upon his head.’ But the succeeding incredible statement, ‘he alone was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies,’ and the improbable account of his martyrdom which follows, and contrasts unfavourably with the account given by Josephus (Ant. XX. ix. 1), cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the historian, who probably took his information in part from the Ebionitic Ascents of James (see Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols)ii. 542).
(d) Acts 18:18.-This verse presents various difficulties. We may decide the grammatical difficulty by saying that, though the construction is ambiguous, it is St. Paul whose head was shorn at Cenchreae, ‘for he had a vow.’ Was it a Nazirite vow? There is no inherent improbability in the thought that St. Paul should take a Nazirite vow, rather the reverse. As we have seen, the vow was a common thing among Jews, and we could easily conjecture plausible grounds for St. Paul’s taking it, e.g. deliverance from danger at Corinth ( Acts 18:1-17) or recovery from sickness, the ‘thorn in the flesh’ to which he was subject. But the supreme difficulty in holding that this was a Nazirite vow is that his head was shorn at Cenchreae, not at Jerusalem, where alone a Nazirite vow could be completed. None of the various explanations that have been offered seems to be adequate. We have noted above that the Nazirite was permitted to cut his hair once a year, if his vow were for a lifetime. But this will hardly suit St. Paul’s case. Again, he is on his way to keep a feast in Jerusalem ( Acts 18:21). Why he should have his head shorn in Cenchreae when in a few weeks he would be in Jerusalem is a mystery, if his was a Nazirite vow. Nor does it meet the case to suggest that this shearing was to purify himself on account of his sojourn among the heathen. For, once again, why should he perform that in a heathen land and not wait till he was in Palestine? Some say that it was customary to shear one’s locks at the beginning of a vow, and that St. Paul is not completing but beginning the period of his vow at Cenchreae. Those who say so quote no authorities for their view, and for a good reason. There is not a particle of evidence anywhere that shearing the hair was a token that a vow was beginning. ‘To shear the head’ was a technical phrase meaning to complete a vow. Hence we must conclude that in all likelihood it was a private, not a Nazirite, vow that St. Paul completed at Cenchreae (see Expositor’s Greek Testament, in loc.; cf. A. C. McGiffert, Hist. of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 274, n.[Note: . note.]4).
(e) Acts 21:23-26.-In this passage it is quite clear that it was a Nazirite vow that the four men had on them, and we have explained above what is meant by St. Paul being at charges for them, that they might shave their heads, viz. that he should defray the rather high cost of the necessary offerings. What is meant by St. Paul’s purifying himself with them (vv. 24, 26)? The shortest period allowed for the duration of a Nazirite vow was 30 days (see above). An explanation like the following is very attractive: ‘The law permitted a man to share the vow if he could find companions who had gone through the prescribed ceremonies and who permitted him to join their company. This permission was commonly granted if the new-comer paid all the fees required from the whole company …, and finished the vow along with the others’ (T. M. Lindsay, Acts of the Apostles, Edinburgh, 1884, ii. 113; cf. J. I. Still, The Early Gentile Christian Church, Edinburgh, 1913, p. 125). Unfortunately, no authority is quoted in support of this view, nor have we been able to find any. (For a better suggestion, see Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols)iii. 500.) No view is free from difficulty, but on the whole the suggestion of F. J. A. Hort is most satisfying, that St. Paul himself may have been about to offer sacrifices in connexion with a vow made previously, not necessarily a Nazirite vow (see Judaistic Christianity, Cambridge, 1894, p. 109 f.).
Literature.-articles in Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols), Dict. of Christ and the Gospels, Encyclopaedia Biblica, Jewish Encyclopedia, PRE[Note: RE Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche.]3, s.v.; S. R. Driver, Cambridge Bible, ‘Joel and Amos,’ Cambridge, 1897, p. 152f.; R. J. Knowling, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, ‘Acts,’ London, 1900, pp. 392 f., 449 f.; J. Grill, in Jahrbücher für protestantische Theologie, 1880, p. 645 ff.; G. B. Gray, in Journal of Theological Studiesi.  201 ff.; W. R. Religion of the Semites (W. Robertson Smith)2, London, 1894, pp. 323 ff., 481 ff.; H. Ewald, The Antiquities of Israel, Eng. translation, London, 1876, pp. 84-88, 152, 281.