The Most Important Biblical Character You’ve Probably Never Heard of

William Blake/Public Domain
William Blake/Public Domain

If I asked you to name the Christian Bible’s most important characters—the people who helped shape the world today—chances are that you’d reply “Abraham,” “Moses,” or “Jesus.” If you were making a Top 10 or even a Top 20 list you might add the Mary the Mother of Jesus, King David, Paul of Tarsus, a sprinkling of the Twelve Disciples, Adam and Eve, or Elijah. These are major figures in history and tradition, the ones that artists have chosen to memorialize. It might come as some surprise, therefore, 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.

Tucked 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 him.” When someone is snatched by the ruler of the universe, people tend not to send out a search party, so this is all that the Hebrew Bible has to tell us. But the enigmatic conclusion of his life left people wondering.

Throughout history there have been certain missing person cases that just capture people’s imagination. The fates of Amelia Earhart, Anastasia Romanov, Jimmy Hoffa, and the Lindbergh baby have generated conspiracy theories, made-for-TV movies, Broadway productions, and treasure hunts. Enoch is one of these individuals. Hundreds of years after the writing of Genesis 5, later generations of Jewish authors began writing stories in his name. Though they are not in either the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) or the Christian Bible, they are as influential on religious history as any canonical text.

The literary expansion of Enoch’s story begins in the third century B.C. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible produced in Alexandria at the behest of Ptolemy II, translates “God took him” with “God translated him.” The language of “translation” refers to spatial relocation and implies that God took him and translated him to another place, presumably the Good Place. Around the same time others started producing texts in Enoch’s name and these texts are, to put it bluntly, quite a wild ride.

There are no fewer than three books written in Enoch’s name (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 type works. The best-known section is the Book of the Watchers. Here we discover, quite definitely, that our hero was taken up into the heavens where an angelic guide gave him a tour of the celestial realm. In the course of this celestial show-and-tell about the holding pens for the spirits of the deceased, the accursed valley, and the names and functions of the Archangels, we also learn about the fate of the so-called Watchers.

This story takes its lead from the biblical flood story in Genesis 6, which refers to the 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 Nephilim or Giants. According to the book of the Watchers, the transgressions did not stop here. The Watchers also taught humanity a great deal of forbidden knowledge like metallurgy, weapon making, how to make cosmetics and jewelry, root-cutting, “magic,” and astrology. Skills that we are glad to have, but that the divine Creator wanted to keep secret. An additional problem, as Dr. Archie Wright has explained, is that the Giants were hyper-consumers: they ate a lot and, having run out of less offensive sources of protein, eventually set their sights and appetites on human beings.

The Genesis-based Enochic story of the sons of man and their oversized offspring is widely credited as the source of ancient Jewish, and subsequently Christian, theories of evil. We should note, as Professor Loren Stuckenbruck of the University of Munich has written in his book The Myth of the Rebellious Angels, that this wasn’t inevitable. There’s nothing in Genesis that categorically suggests the Giants were actually evil. In fact, there’s a line of tradition that blames the “daughters of men” for tempting them (which is why there’s a strange passage in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that 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 about the origins of evil that precede our literary records and exploded in the third century BCE.

The reasons for the explosion of interest are easier to pin down. After the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon, in a period when Jews had begun to carve out a distinct identity as Jews, the region had been conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander and his successors were practitioners of the kind of cultural imperialism that sought to hoist its values, educational system, and language on their subjects. As a result, 1 Enoch shows both traces of Hellenistic mythology and philosophy as well as a concerns about and criticism of these same influences. The story about the Watchers being punished for giving humanity secret knowledge, for example, is awfully similar to the Greek myth about Prometheus stealing fire from the gods of Olympus and being punished in Hades. At the same time, as James VanderKam has written, Hellenistic culture and power is being roundly rejected. The giants are “stand-ins for the Warriors of the author’s own time” in other words they are “the Hellenistic kings.”

But the traditions about Enoch’s journeys to the heavens and the growth of his reputation as a visionary sage aren’t just about historical pressures and domination, they are also part of an emerging literary trend. The interest in writing pseudonymously that emerges in this period includes texts written in the name of Biblical figures like David and Moses. We shouldn’t assume that writing a text and ascribing it someone else was about deceit. As Annette Yoshiko Reed, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University, puts it, sometimes “the pseudonymous writer is not so much [a] creator or author as a trident and guarantor of tradition.” In her work, Prof. Eva Mroczek sees the development of these traditions as more complicated than just a power grab for authority, the expansion of these might be seen as a poetic interest in a “beloved character.” Writing in the name of Enoch is a kind of “character-driven literary creativity” that stems from affection for his character and the enigmatic pull of his story. Or, to oversimplify crassly and put it in modern terms: perhaps it’s more like fan fiction.

The Book of the Watchers tends to garner most of the attention for the way that it influences subsequent theories about hell, divine punishment, and the origins of evil. But the Parables (or Similitudes) of Enoch are equally influential. The Similitudes speak of the importance of a messianic figure known as the “Son of Man” or “the Anointed One.” This will ring a bell for those familiar with the New Testament Gospels and the use of the phrase “Son of Man” for Jesus. In both the Similitudes and the Gospel of Matthew, the Son of Man is a heavenly figure who administers divine judgment at close of the current age (which is understood to be imminent). If, up until now, it seemed that Jesus’s description of himself as the “Son of Man” was the biblical equivalent of ostentatiously referring to oneself in the third person, well, now you know it’s a very different kind of audacity.

More broadly, however, the apocalyptic end-of-the-world feel exemplified by the Enochic traditions runs through the writings of Paul, the Gospels, and into early Christianity. This kind of apocalyptic key isn’t only found in the 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, resurrection, the end of the world, unclean spirits, and so on that so characterize the New Testament would not have been the same without Enoch. Nor would Jewish mystical traditions have emerged in the way that they did. As Pierluigi Piovanelli has put it “These writings are among the most important literary artifacts for understanding the evolution of Jewish (and Christian) religious thought and practice, from magic to the millennium and from the millennium to mysticism, over a span of more than eight, critical centuries.”

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

In the 15th century, the Ethiopian emperor and theologian Zar’a Yā‘qob said to an interlocutor who dared to question importance of Enoch, “Whoever you are, Christian or Jew, without the Book of Enoch you cannot claim to be such: Christian, it is impossible that you are a true Christian, and Jew, it is impossible that you are a true Jew!” He certainly has a point.

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