The most important biblical character you’ve probably never heard of

If I asked you to name the most important figures in the Christian Bible – the people who helped shape the world today – chances are you would answer “Abraham”, “Moses” or “Jesus”. If you were making a list of the top ten or even twenty, you might add Mary the Mother of Jesus, King David, Paul of Tarsus, a pinch of the twelve disciples, Adam and Eve or Elijah. They are major figures in history and tradition, those whom the artists have chosen to commemorate. So it might come as a surprise to learn that one of the most influential people in the Bible is only mentioned in four verses and that his story is more a missing person case than a biography.

Nestled among a long list of brief mad-lib-style genealogies in Genesis 5 (name, offspring, and age) is the case of Enoch. Genesis 5:21-24 tells us that he was the father of Methuselah, was a good person who “walked with God” for 365 years, and that “then,” one day, “he was no more, because God took it.” “When someone is abducted by the ruler of the universe, people tend not to send a search party, so that’s all the Hebrew Bible has to tell us. But the enigmatic conclusion to his life left people wondering.

Throughout history, there have been certain cases of missing persons that only capture people’s imaginations. The fates of Amelia Earhart, Anastasia Romanov, Jimmy Hoffa and baby Lindbergh have spawned conspiracy theories, made-for-TV movies, Broadway productions and scavenger hunts. Enoch is one such individual. Hundreds of years after Genesis 5 was written, subsequent generations of Jewish writers began writing stories in its name. Although they appear neither in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) nor in the Christian Bible, they have as much influence on religious history as any canonical text.

The literary expansion of the story of Enoch begins in the third century BCE. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible produced in Alexandria at the request of Ptolemy II, translates “God took it” as “God translated it”. The language of “translation” refers to spatial relocation and implies that God took him and moved him to another place, presumably the Good Place. Around the same time others began to produce texts in the name of Enoch and these texts are, to put it bluntly, a pretty wild ride.

There are no less than three books written in the name of Enoch (1, 2, 3 Enoch). The first and most influential is 1 Enoch, is actually a composite text made up of five or six shorter pamphlet-like works. The best known section is Book of Watchers. We discover here, most certainly, that our hero was taken up into the heavens where an angelic guide showed him around the celestial kingdom. During this celestial show-and-tell about the spirit enclosures of the dead, the cursed valley, and the names and functions of the Archangels, we also learn the fate of the so-called Watchers.

This story is inspired by the biblical story of the flood in Genesis 6, which refers to angels (“sons of God”) who had sex with human beings. These sons of God, or Fallen Watcher Angels, rebelled against God and created their own offspring with human women. The offspring, the Bible says, are known as the Nephilim or Giants. According to the Book of Watchers, the transgressions didn’t end there. The Watchers also taught mankind many forbidden skills such as metallurgy, weapon crafting, cosmetics and jewelry making, root cutting, “magic” and astrology. Skills that we are happy to have, but that the divine Creator wanted to keep secret. An additional problem, as Dr Archie Wright explained is that the Giants were hyper-consumers: they ate a lot and, running out of less offensive protein sources, ended up setting their sights and appetites on human beings.

The Genesis-based Enochic story of the sons of man and their supersized offspring is widely considered the source of ancient Jewish, and then Christian, theories of evil. Note, as Professor Loren Stuckenbruck from the University of Munich wrote in his book The myth of the rebel angels, that it was not inevitable. There is nothing in Genesis that categorically suggests that the Giants were actually evil. In fact, there is a line of tradition that blames the “daughters of men” for tempting them (which is why there is a strange passage in Paul First Letter to the Corinthianss who tells women to keep their hair covered). Given the ambiguity of the Genesis account, writes Stuckenbruck, there may have been emerging traditions about Enoch and the origins of evil that predate our literary records and exploded in the third century BCE.

The reasons for the explosion of interest are easier to identify. After the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, at a time when Jews had begun to form a distinct identity as Jews, the area was conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander and his successors were practitioners of the type of cultural imperialism that sought to hoist its values, educational system, and language over their subjects. Therefore, 1 Enoch shows both traces of Hellenistic mythology and philosophy as well as a concern and criticism of these same influences. The story of the Watchers being punished for giving mankind secret knowledge, for example, is eerily similar to the Greek myth that Prometheus stole fire from the Olympian gods and was punished in Hades. At the same time, as James VanderKam has written, Hellenistic culture and power are categorically rejected. The giants are “the replacements for the warriors of the author’s time”, that is to say, they are “Hellenistic kings”.

But the traditions about Enoch’s journeys to the heavens and the growth of his reputation as a wise visionary aren’t just about historical pressures and domination, they’re also part of an emerging literary trend. The interest in pseudonymous writing that emerged at this time included texts written in the name of biblical characters such as David and Moses. We shouldn’t assume that writing a text and attributing it to someone else is deception. As Annette Yoshiko Reedprofessor of New Testament and early Christianity at Harvard University, says so, sometimes “the pseudonymous writer is not so much [a] creator or author as trident and guarantor of tradition. In his work, Prof. Eva Morczek sees the development of these traditions as more complicated than a simple seizure of power for authority, the expansion of these could be seen as a poetic interest in a “beloved character”. Writing in Enoch’s name is a kind of “character-driven literary creativity” that stems from the affection for his character and the enigmatic appeal of his story. Or, to oversimplify and put it in modern terms: maybe it’s more like fan fiction.

The Book of Watchers tends to draw attention to how it influences later theories of hell, divine punishment, and the origins of evil. But the parables (Where Similarities) of Enoch are equally influential. The Similarities talk about the importance of a messianic figure known as the “Son of Man” or “the Anointed”. This will ring a bell for those familiar with the New Testament gospels and the use of the term “Son of man” for Jesus. In both Similarities and the Gospel of Matthew, the Son of Man is a heavenly figure who administers divine judgment at the end of the present age (which is understood to be imminent). If until now it seemed that Jesus’ description of himself as the “Son of Man” was the biblical equivalent of an ostentatious third person reference, well, now you know that. it is a very different audacity.

More broadly, however, the apocalyptic, doomsday feel exemplified by the Enochic traditions runs through Paul’s writings, the Gospels, and early Christianity. This type of apocalyptic key is not only found in traditions about Enoch – you can find it in the biblical book of Daniel, the apocryphal book Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls – but the cumulative traditions about demons, the resurrection, the end of the world, unclean spirits, etc. that characterize the New Testament so much would not have been the same without Enoch. Neither would Jewish mystical traditions have emerged as they did. As Pierluigi Piovanelli said “These writings are among the most important literary artifacts for understanding the evolution of Jewish (and Christian) religious thought and practice, from millennial magick and millennium to mysticism, over a period of more of eight critical centuries.”

Where Enoch’s influence is most felt, or perhaps best appreciated, is in the Ethiopian forms of Judaism and Christianity. Most of the writings attributed to Enoch are preserved only in Ge’ez. There are a few fragments of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls and a tumbleweed of Greek and Latin fragments, but 1 Enoch survives in its entirety only in Ethiopia. Beth Israel, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church all consider the text canonical and include it in their liturgies. It is through these groups that we know the extent of Enoch’s influence and importance.

In the 15th century, the Ethiopian emperor and theologian Zar’a Ya’qob said to an interlocutor who dared to question the importance of Enoch, “Whoever you are, Christian or Jew, without the book of Enoch you cannot claim to be: a Christian, it is impossible for you to be a true Christian, and Jew, it is impossible for you to be a true Jew! He is certainly right.

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