Questioning Categories and Shifting Paradigms in the Study of Second Temple Judaism and Christian Origins – By Simon J. Joseph

Simon J. Joseph on George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam’s 1 Enoch 2

George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 37-82, 2012, 640pp., $82
George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 37-82, Fortress Press, 2012, 640pp., $82

There is power in naming things. Too often, however, the practice of defining terms is linked to the politics of authority and identity, and to discourses of inclusion and exclusion. This is just as true today as it was in antiquity: the identification of heretical categories in antiquity led to the marginalization and erasure of unorthodox traditions and practices, while today categorization affects how scholars understand ancient phenomena.

Judaism and Christianity are commonly recognized as distinct categories in biblical scholarship, yet the relationship between Judaism and Christianity remains both complex and paradoxical. The study of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in antiquity is thus a particularly pertinent example of how difference is constructed, as the invention of the Jew and Judaism emerged in the service of identity politics, social conflict, and early Christian theology. Christianity may have begun within Judaism, but it is not easy to understand where Judaism ends and Christianity begins. Take the term Jewish Christianity: What is Jewish about it and what is Christian? Our desire to have firm categories reflects our anxieties about influence, improper mixings, and the shadowy world of blurred boundaries.

The tendency to construct difference may be a nearly universal human phenomenon, but biblical scholarship sometimes reinscribes difference by reifying categories. Advances in method and the continual interrogation of categories — whether it be by introducing new models of the “parting(s) of the ways,” “new perspective(s)” on Paul, or re-emphases of Jesus’ Jewishness. — can help us pay more careful attention to the various ways that our categories function. More importantly, the data demand from us new categories and better models to explain the origin, development, and eventual separation of Christianity from Judaism.

Enochic Judaism

The recent work of some scholars of early Judaism and Christianity reveals that we are in the midst of revolutionary redefinitions — and rediscoveries — of the ancient past. Among these is the alleged rediscovery of an “Enochic Judaism,” a term that seems to have been coined by Paolo Sacchi in 1990. Sacchi envisioned 1 Enoch as “the core of a distinct variety” of Second Temple Judaism inspired by ancient myths focused on the biblical figure of Enoch, the grandfather of Noah in the book of Genesis, who appears in a number of texts as a divine revealer of heavenly secrets. During the Second Temple period, Enoch became the central figure around which a complex body of literature arose, a collection or library of texts now known as the Book of Enoch or 1 Enoch. The Book of Enoch includes five works dating from the fourth century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.: the Book of the Watchers, the Book of the Luminaries (or Astronomical Book), the Dream Visions, the Epistle of Enoch, and the Book of Parables.

A prominent theme of this apocalyptic tradition is the origin of evil. The people who produced these texts posited that evil, violence, and corruption was the result of a primordial angelic revolt against the divine order. This revolt corrupted human civilization with forbidden knowledge and diseases caused by the demonic offspring of the Watchers — the name for this group of fallen angels. These supposed protagonists of the Enochic tradition claimed to have secret knowledge and effective techniques for coping with and countering the effects of the fallen angels and their offspring. The solution to the problem of evil is an eschatological (end-time) program intended to counter the effects of the fallen angels’ corruption of the divine order by restoring the fallen creation and reaffirming God’s created order. The New Testament Letter of Jude shows familiarity with the Book of Enoch. Yet by the end of Late Antiquity, most Jews and Christians seem to have rejected the Book of Enoch, either because heretics (like the Manichaeans) used it or because it proposed an alternative explanation for the origins of sin and evil, which Jews and Christians attributed to the so-called fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As a result, Jews and Christians both lost part of their ancient heritage.

The modern discovery (among Western scholars) of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch and the Aramaic Enoch tradition among the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran has revitalized the study of this ancient literary tradition. Since the founding of the Enoch Seminar in 2000 by Gabriele Boccaccini, a group of international specialists in Second Temple Judaism and Christian Origins has continued to discuss a variety of topics in this subfield of biblical studies, united primarily by an interest in all things Enochic. James Charlesworth and Darrell Bock (Parables of Enoch: A Paradigm Shift) have recently proposed that there is now a new consensus among specialists that the Enochic Book of Parables was a pre-Christian Jewish text, composed in Aramaic, that can be dated earlier than the ministry of Jesus and influenced some of the writings in the New Testament — a dramatic reversal of an earlier consensus that the Book of Parables represented a late, Christian-influenced strand of the Enochic tradition. Charlesworth suggests that this paradigm shift — already manifest in 2007 with the publication of the Enoch Seminar’s Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables and popularized by Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels — now allows us to conclude that Jesus “was influenced by those behind the Parables of Enoch” and “certainly shared the same type of Judaism with the Enoch groups.” It would seem, then, that the Enochic literature requires the re-description of the cultural matrix of the early Jesus movement.

1 Enoch 2: The Hermeneia Commentary

The recent publication of George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam’s 1 Enoch 2, a magisterial commentary on the Enochic Book of Parables and Book of the Luminaries, represents the culmination of decades of in-depth and definitive scholarship on this literature. Nickelsburg’s analysis of the literary features, forms, and structures of the Book of Parables yields unparalleled insight into its cosmological speculations and social contexts, allowing us a window through which to view and reconstruct anew the world(s) of Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament, and early Christianity. Nickelsburg here reiterates his earlier views that the Book of Parables seems to have influenced the composition of the Synoptic Sayings Source Q (Q/Luke 17:22-37; Q/Luke 12:8-9; Q/Luke 12:39-40) and the Gospel of Matthew (24:30-31; 25:31). Nickelsburg and VanderKam withhold judgment on whether a distinctive Enochic Judaism existed in antiquity — VanderKam’s portion of the commentary analyzes the sources of Enochic astronomy in ancient Babylonia — and take a more cautious approach to this literature as reflecting diverse textual streams. Nickelsburg posits an Enochic Community behind the Parables that drew on and developed earlier Enochic traditions, even though he maintains that the Book of Parables does not seem to fit the sociological or theological profile of any known sect in first-century Judaism. Nonetheless, Nickelsburg suggests a shared, “common milieu” between the early Jesus movement and the community that produced the Parables.

The Book of Parables has long been recognized as a central text in the study of Christian origins, largely because it conflates the titles “son of man” and “messiah” with Isaiah’s servant songs. Scholars have long questioned whether the text originally identified Enoch as the “son of man.” Here Nickelsburg reminds us that it must have been a relatively small circle of Jews who developed the pre-existent and heavenly “son of man” tradition and concludes that this identification was secondary: the last chapter of the Book of Parables represents an addition to the original work; chapter 70 was the original conclusion to the work. While Nickelsburg and VanderKam part company on their interpretation of this problem — illustrating how different opinions can be registered even among co-commentators (VanderKam proposes that Enoch sees his own heavenly double) — the identification of Enoch as the “son of man” (whether or not it was original to the text) is an important factor in evaluating Enochic Judaism. If the author of the Book of Parables identified the figure of Enoch (not Jesus!) as the “son of man” (1 En 71:14), then it seems that we might indeed be justified in positing the existence of an Enochic Community — indicated by apparent self-references to “the righteous,” the “chosen,” the “holy,” and the “houses of his congregation” (1 En 46:8) — insofar as the figure of Enoch became the central agent of eschatological salvation for these first-century Jews. After all, Enoch’s exalted status confirms the text’s Jewish provenance and supports an early, pre-Christian date, as it is unlikely that a Christian would have identified Enoch as the “son of man” once Jesus became identified as such. The identification of Enoch as the son of man would also be a good reason why the Book of Parables was ultimately abandoned and rejected by most Christians. It might also be the case that Jesus’ (self-)identification as the “son of man” should be understood as originating in dialogue with these prior Enochic traditions. If this is the case, then the utility of the category “Enochic Judaism” might also need to be revisited.

P.Mich.inv. 5552, showing portions of the Book of Enoch. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
P.Mich.inv. 5552, showing portions of the Book of Enoch. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Future of Enochic Judaism

We have no ancient record of any group who self-identified as Enochic Jews. The term is a modern ideological construct. There is no reference to Enochic Judaism in our ancient texts. The Book of Enoch is itself a construct, a Christian composition preserved only within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Book of Enoch is thus not, in its extant form, a Jewish book at all. Annette Yoshiko Reed has also interrogated the concept of Enochic Judaism in so far as it assumes that the Book of Enoch reflects a distinctive movement legitimately described as a Judaism rather than “a movement, group, community, school of thought, or literary tradition within Judaism.” Reed questions whether we can reconstruct a distinctive form of Judaism based primarily on a particular approach to the problem of evil and urges caution about conflating the literary components of the Enochic books (plural) into an illusory coherence and unity.

The problem, of course, is that our desire to create conceptual categories that model the complex relationship(s) between early Judaism(s) and Christianit(ies) without constructing categorical confusion — that is, to construct ideological boundaries — is undermined by the paucity, hybridity, and ambiguity of the data. What, then, are we to make of the notion of an Enochic Judaism? One might point to common features that characterize the Enochic literature: the idea of cosmic revolt, supernatural corruption, angelic rebellion, and an imminent eschatological salvation. But one might also object that the concept of an Enochic Judaism may be too simplistic; these texts may also be understood as part of a complex spectrum of ancient Jewish literature. And while we should certainly avoid arbitrarily inventing new forms of Judaism, we should also avoid reinscribing the marginalization and erasure of noncanonical forms of Judaism.

The desire to construct a new kind of Judaism can be seen as an attempt to both recover and invent a form of ancient Judaism that represents neither normative Judaism nor orthodox Christianity but is yet somehow both Jewish and Christian. The concept of Enochic Judaism is controversial because it suggests that a new form of Second Temple Judaism, previously unheard of and unorthodox in its theology of angelic evil, should now be registered alongside other known sectarian communities of the time, like the Sadducees, Pharisees, or Essenes. It is also controversial because if it was a major formative influence on the early Jesus movement — providing, for example, the apocalyptic tradition of the messianic “son of man” — this could be seen as challenging the uniqueness of early Christian beliefs about Jesus, insofar as he was not the first to be identified as the “son of man.” The term “Enochic Judaism” blurs the borderlines between Judaism and Christianity even while it promises to identify a new Judaism and illuminate the Jewish matrix of early Christianity. So if there are ideological implications in affirming the historical existence of a distinctive, if obscure, community known to us now as Enochic Judaism (and running the risk of inventing a Judaism where there was none), there are also ideological implications associated with denying that possibility, insofar as doing so might deny the existence of these alleged ancient Jewish communities and fail to recognize how they influenced the early Jesus movement. Scholarly caution requires both the exploration of possible connections between texts and communities as well as the humility to admit when they are only tentative and suggestive.

The task of the historian is to avoid (re)inscribing orthodoxies where they are historically anachronistic and to recognize the diversity, fluidity, and interactivity of ancient Judaism and Christianity. Fortunately, our knowledge of the ancient past — in particular, the Enochic literature, the Qumran manuscripts, and the earliest Christian writings, authors, and communities — is currently expanding into a far more complex pattern of interrelationships within Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity than previous generations recognized. The publication of 1 Enoch 2 by Nickelsburg and VanderKam represents a significant milestone in this rediscovery of Early Christianity-within-Early Judaism.