Regarding popular conceptions of history, C. S. Lewis aptly remarks:
I find that the uneducated Englishman is an almost total sceptic about history. I had expected he would disbelieve the Gospels because they contain miracles: but he really disbelieves them because they deal with things that happened two thousand years ago. He would disbelieve equally in the battle of Actium if he heard of it. . . . In his mind the present occupies almost the whole field of vision. Beyond it, isolated from it, and quite unimportant, is something called “the old days”—a small, comic jungle in which highwaymen, Queen Elizabeth, knights-in-armor, etc. wander about.
I have sometimes overheard Christians—some of them holding advanced degrees—make a similar mistake about “early” Christianity in theological contexts. A particularly irksome, reoccurring example would be counting Thomas Aquinas or other scholastics among the “Church Fathers,” and earlier medieval figures are caught up in this from time to time too, like Bede or Gregory of Tours. (We can try to define “patristic” historically in a different post.) More commonly, some will take something Augustine wrote, digest it, and exhibit it as “what the Church Fathers thought”—or at least neglect to consult the thousands of pages by other patristic authors. (In other contexts, something similar happens with Plato for “the Greeks.”)
Although my misgivings about Augustine—horribile confessu—have deepened in some areas over the last several years, it is not really his fault that (for us) most of the other Fathers remain in his shadow. Besides, Augustine often did stand in continuity with earlier patristic traditions quite faithfully. What’s more, to a modern observer, he looks quite ancient after all: he speaks Latin, lives in the Roman empire, knows his Cicero and Vergil, etc. For that reason, it can be hard to appreciate that Christianity had already been on the scene for a long time, and that the church had experienced epochal changes since the time of the apostles. Constantine’s career would number among the most prominent of these, and he had died well before Augustine was even born. (As an aside, I do not ascribe to the “evil Constantine” school of historiography, though I note that Eastern Orthodox heaven must be an interesting place with the likes of both St. Constantine and St. Athanasius, whom he exiled). Constantine and other factors had dramatically affected the political, institutional, and even theological outlook of Christianity between Augustine’s career and, say, the second century. One of the most colorful examples I have found concerns the book of 1 Enoch.
For the unfamiliar, 1 Enoch is a non-canonical (except in Ethiopian Orthodoxy) text perhaps written or compiled around the Jesus was born. Our knowledge of its origins are complicated by the fact that it mainly survives in classical Ethiopic, even though it appears to have been composed in Aramaic, of which we have some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with some other fragments in Greek. Depending on which version you read, it’s clear that the story had multiple recensions, so already we’re handling a somewhat garbled textual tradition.
The action of the book expands on a few lines from Genesis 6:1–4, concerning the Nephilim (the “fallen ones”) and their sexual misconduct with human women, which produces giants. This is a bizarre story; as one insightful Old Testament scholar pointed out to me, it constitutes the first time in the narrative when creatures reproduce not “according to their kind,” in the language of Genesis 1. In 1 Enoch, God and his faithful angels are righteously outraged at all this, so Enoch acts as a prophet-mediator between God and the insubordinate, natural-law-violating Nephilim. As the story unfolds, Enoch learns that the Nephilim will be imprisoned in deep darkness for seventy generations until their final judgment, while their mutant giant offspring will be wiped out in Noah’s impending flood. Here, the strange tale takes an even stranger twist: because these creatures are neither completely human nor completely angel and thus really belong neither to heaven nor earth, the evil spirits of these giants will be allowed to wander free on the earth after their physical death and afflict human beings. In other words, they will be demons.
If one finds this mythology a little too florid, Augustine agreed. In City of God, he wants little to do with the Enochian “fable” and calls it “apocryphal,” both of which were derogatory literary terms in the fifth-century Latin world. Why this aversion? My sense is that Augustine finds the whole thing too weird and jaggedly mythological. The sexual, reproductive mingling of angels and humans seems to especially trouble him, such that he also wants to reframe the relevant verses in Genesis away from that interpretation.
But not all Church Fathers felt the same, particularly the earlier ones. In fact, Enoch’s version of demonic origins became something of a trope as early Christian writers tried to explain why the world was so messed up and why the pagan gods sometimes seem to have real powers (e.g. Exodus 7:11). A non-exhaustive list of a few well-known patristic figures using the Enochian tradition includes:
- Justin Martyr (Second Apology 5) affirms the very elements most distasteful to Augustine, including the origin of demons.
- Irenaeus (Against Heresies 4.16.2) claims that Enoch was a mediator with the angels and (AH 4.36.4) appears to affirm the “commingling” of angels and women that Augustine denies.
- Tertullian (Apology 22) seems to draw on Enoch’s explanation, in that one set of fallen angels were the progenitors of demons. Elsewhere (On the Apparel of Women 1.2–3) he is more direct in his endorsement of the tradition, while acknowledging that not everyone trusts the book of Enoch.
- Lactantius (Divine Institutes 2.15), somewhat later in the early fourth century, puts a new spin on the material. The already-corrupted devil tempted these other angels to fall with human women. This created two subspecies of supernatural creatures: those who originally fell from heaven and their offspring who were bound to earth, both of whom gave their allegiance to the devil.
There are others that could be added to this list, but I think the point has been demonstrated sufficiently. On the other side of the ledger and more in step with Augustine, someone such as Athanasius (Coptic Festal Letter 39.29) will ridicule the notion of any inspired or prophetic writing predating Moses. In all, whether to the relief or annoyance of systematic theologians everywhere, there was no unitary patristic consensus about the Enoch narrative. Perhaps we should just leave this unsettlingly Tolkien-esque material alone.
There is one small problem with that approach, however. It turns out the New Testament has several pointed intersections with 1 Enoch:
- Jude 14 explicitly alleges that “Enoch prophesied,” while also referencing disobedient angels imprisoned in gloom (v.6) and comparing false teachers to “wayward stars” kept in that same gloom. This is fairly on-the-nose; in 1 Enoch, the eponymous prophet sees a vision of stars (i.e. disobedient angels) imprisoned in a realm of chaos.
- A parallel passage, 2 Peter 2:4, echoes the same idea, saying that God “Tartarized” the miscreant angels, where they now await judgment, while the following verse connects this directly to the Noah story.
- Meanwhile, 1 Peter 3:19–20 claims Christ preached to the spirits in prison who had disobeyed in the time of Noah.
- As another scholar once pointed out to me, there is an argument to be made that many of the peculiarities attributed to demons in the gospels, such as their aversion to water and their complaint that Jesus has come to end their run of the earth “before the appointed time” directly links up with the Enochian mythos.
- In a complex but highly intriguing analysis, Richard Bauckham has argued that the universal genealogy of Jesus in Luke makes much more sense against the framework of Enoch. (Gabriel, incidentally, is an important figure in both 1 Enoch and the early chapters of Luke, as well as the apocalyptic sections of Daniel.)
What this resonance with the New Testament ultimately means for the Christian reception of 1 Enoch today remains up for debate. In my reading of the evidence, the book we call 1 Enoch was just one, somewhat confused textual distillation of a broader Jewish mythology (Genesis 6 itself seems to assume some such knowledge on the part of the reader). Put simply, I’m not eager to see it added to the canon. Nevertheless, this mythology was clearly something the New Testament and not a few early Fathers respected, even if it proved too strange for later theologians.
CORRECTION: I made a confusing terminological mix-up. The Nephilim are the descendants of the fallen angels, the giants, not the the angels themselves. I had forgotten/confused this because the term “Nephilim” looks like the Semitic way of saying, “fallen ones,” which would seem to lend itself better to angels, but alas no.
C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 93. ↑
Bruk A. Asale, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Canon of the Scriptures: Neither Open nor Closed,” The Bible Translator 67, no. 2 (2016), 208. ↑
City of God 15.23. ↑
- A translation is available in David Brakke, “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” The Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (2010), 61. ↑
Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 315–73. ↑
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