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Taking 1 Enoch Seriously

In the light of these conclusions, the Enochic scribes emerge not as temple scribes (indeed, there are clear signs of tension and conflict in the text between them and the temple establishment), but as scribes who played their part in the wider social and political ambit of Judea. We can imagine them as active across the whole range of commercial and legal work that Judean scribes undertook for private clients, as well as perhaps drafting documents for the Seleucid and then Hasmonean and even Roman administrations of Judea.

See Also: God's Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers: Re-Interpreting Heaven in 1 Enoch 1–36 (Cascade Books, 2017).

By Philip F. Esler
The University of Gloucestershire
Cheltenham, UK
Cheltenham, UK
May 2018

1 Enoch has been described as the most important work of ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature not included in the Hebrew Bible. This is a persuasive view, although why the work was omitted remains a very difficult question to answer. Certainly its original composition in Aramaic should have presented no obstacle, given that Daniel 2:4-7:28 and parts of Ezra were written in that language. My aim in this article is to substantiate the claim for the importance of 1 Enoch—historically, theologically, ecclesially and artistically—and to propose that it is a text that sits at the centre of crucial contemporary issues and debates and thus demands to be taken seriously. But first some basic data about it.

1 Enoch falls into five broad parts: the Book of the Watchers (Chapters1-36); the Book of Parables (31-71); the Book of Heavenly Luminaries (72-82); Enoch’s Dream Visions (83-91), the second of which is the Animal Apocalypse (85-90); and the Epistle of Enoch (92-105). There are also two texts best regarded as appendices: the Birth of Noah (106-107) and the Eschatological Admonition (108). These texts were written over a long period of time. The Book of Watchers and the Book of Heavenly Luminaries (which constitute the earliest examples of the apocalyptic genre), for example, were composed in the third century BCE (or possibly earlier). The Animal Apocalypse was written in the late 160s BCE and the Eschatological Admonition as late as the first century CE. What locks these texts together is their pseudonymous attribution to Enoch, the sixth patriarch after Adam and the man who, after the birth of his son Methuselah, “walked with God” for 365 years on earth and was then taken by God (Gen 5:21-24).

The textual history of 1 Enoch is highly unusual. Written originally in Aramaic, it was translated into Greek around the turn of the first millennium and then translated from Greek into Ge‘ez (or “Ethiopic”) in northern Ethiopia between the fourth and the sixth centuries CE. At some stage in ancient times the Aramaic version disappeared entirely, and then so did most of the Greek, with the exception of some useful chunks of the Book of the Watchers quoted by a Greek writer in the ninth century CE. The Ge‘ez version (containing the full text of 1 Enoch) remained essentially unknown in the West until copies of it were brought to Europe in the 1770s by the Scottish explorer, James Bruce.

The survival of 1 Enoch in Ethiopia was due to its being regarded as Old Testament scripture in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from the early history of Christianity in that country. When published in English translation in 1821, Ethiopic 1 Enoch created a scholarly and popular sensation. The excitement it arouse was akin to that caused by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the twentieth century. The English poet and artist William Blake was amongst those influenced by it. This excitement was renewed with the discovery of a Greek version of most of 1 Enoch 1-32 in a tomb in Egypt in 1886/1887, while a Greek text of 1 Enoch 97:6-106:7 from Egypt was published in 1937. Finally, and sensationally, came the discovery in Cave 4 at Qumran of Aramaic fragments of 1 Enoch that were published by Milik in 1976. Interpreting 1 Enoch often involves working with Aramaic, Greek and Ethiopic text-forms. This textual history means that since 1976 we have been in the third period of Enochic research; the first period was ignited by the English translation of the Ethiopic version in 1821 and the second by the discovery of the Greek papyrus in 1886/87.


Asking how we can explain the succession of Enochic texts extending over some three centuries brings us to the historical character and significance of 1 Enoch. The tradition was inaugurated by a Jewish/Judean scribe or scribes who possessed a body of astronomical learning derived from Babylonian astronomy. Although it was out of date in comparison with Greek astronomy by the third century BCE, it is clear that they treasured it nevertheless. To write about this astronomy and the subject that they cared about most, namely, the presence of evil in the world and how God would ultimately deal with it, these scribes chose a spokesman from Israel’s ancestral past: Enoch. He had two advantages. First, as someone who had been translated to heaven while still living he would obviously have access to terrestrial and heavenly mysteries concerning the nature of the cosmos and human history. Secondly, the fact that Enoch had walked with God for 365 years before this translation meant that the number of his years on earth in that state equalled the number of days in the year, so that he was eminently suitable to speak about calendrical and astronomical matters. Since the creators of the texts were scribes themselves, they made Enoch a scribe too, indeed a scribe (like them perhaps?) of righteousness.

That the Enochic tradition persisted for some three centuries is best explained on the basis of a continuous scribal group passing on the knowledge and interests of the group that paraded under the banner of Enoch. Using that branch of social psychology known as social identity theory, one can suggest that Enoch functioned as an exemplar of the identity of the group and that they sought to align their own identities with his. The identity each member derived from belonging to the Enochic group embraced a cognitive dimension (the sense of belonging to the group and the beliefs to which it subscribed), an evaluative dimension (how they rated themselves in relation to outgroups to which they did not belong) and an emotional dimensions (how they felt about belonging to a group like this).[1]

Most scholars writing on 1 Enoch today assume that the scribes who wrote the text had a connection with or at least a very strong interest in the temple in Jerusalem. Take, for example, the Book of Watchers (Chapters 1-36), which, inter alia, describes the descent of a group of angels (the “Watchers”) to earth to take human wives, the devastating consequences and the divine response—when God despatches archangels to earth to punish the Watchers and to kill their offspring, the Giants. Much of the action in the first half of this text takes place in heaven, with God’s abode and throne-room vividly and paradoxically described in 1 Enoch 14. Almost all scholars regard the model for the presentation of heaven as the Jerusalem temple, especially on the basis that the architecture is allegedly similar to that of the temple and that the angels are like priests. In taking this line they are following the widespread assumption that the relevant entity for understanding ancient Jews was the religion of Judaism. Once you take this view, it is only a small step to imagining that the heart of that religion, the cult of Yahweh in the temple in Jerusalem, must have provided the model for the picture of heaven in 1 Enoch 1-36 and to interpreting details of 1 Enoch in terms of the temple.

In the last two decades, however, as debate over issues of identity has convulsed the humanities and social sciences, an increasing number of scholars have begun to dismantle the notion that the religion of Judaism is the appropriate category for understanding ancient Jews. For a start, “religion” itself is increasingly recognised as a modern concept with no parallel in the ancient Mediterranean world so that its application there is anachronistic. “Judaism,” understood as an instance of religion, is similarly problematic. Instead, the notion of ethnic identity has become increasingly acknowledged as a more appropriate way to categorise the Jews/Judeans.

Speaking very broadly, ethnic identity covers features such as: a common name for the group; a myth of common ancestry; a shared history; a common culture (embracing features such as customs, language and religious phenomena); a link with a homeland; and a sense of communal solidarity. Thus, religious phenomena are part of a larger ethnic identity. In his Contra Apionem, where he is defending his people against an attack by the Hellenized Egyptian Apion, Josephus speaks of a large number of ethnic groups in the Mediterranean in the late first century CE, including his own people, largely in relation to the ethnic features just mentioned. Moreover, all of these peoples are named after their ancestral homelands, so that an Egyptian is someone whose homeland is Egypt, whether he or she is living there or not. Likewise, Josephus actually quotes [pseudo-] Aristotle to this effect, namely, that the Ioudaioi (Judeans) are named after Ioudaia (Judea). This means that to translate Ioudaioi as “Jews” severs the connection that this ancient people’s name had to their homeland, as did every other ethnic group in their world. The translation “Jews” rather than “Judeans” entails taking an unacceptably exceptionalist position on their name.

When one begins thinking of the scribes who produced and continued the Enochic tradition as Judeans, members of the ethnic group originating in Judea, and not “Jews” who were adherents of a “religion” called “Judaism,” one is freed to look with a fresh gaze at the important question of how heaven is being presented. It soon becomes apparent that the case for regarding the Jerusalem temple as the model is very weak. It depends largely on the strained interpretation of various general expressions to find in them cultic significance, the untenable idea that the architecture of heaven is similar to that of the temple and the notion that Enoch’s writing a petition to God on behalf of the Watchers had some connection with the cultic activity of the priests. Such ideas have persisted in scholarship in spite of the fact that in ancient Israelite texts like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, which certainly do contain express mention of heaven as a temple, that meaning is conveyed in unambiguous ways. Thus, God is described as being in the “holy of holies” and the angels are explicitly priests, who offer sacrifice that produces a fragrant smell. These features are lacking in 1 Enoch 1-36. Indeed, that the author of the Testament of Levi actually used 1 Enoch 1-36 and yet needed to add such features to his own narrative—because they were not to be found in 1 Enoch 1-36—speaks volumes.

Instead, under the inspiration of Norbert Elias’ Court Society, a sociological study of the courts of the ancien régime (especially that of Louis XIV), another model for heaven presents itself in the courts and courtiers of ancient Near Eastern kings. To use the powerful theory of metaphor developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the ancient court and courtiers are “the source domain” and heaven in 1 Enoch 1-36 is the “target domain.” Within the court were taken decisions were taken that affected the whole kingdom. The secession of the Watchers is similar to the rebellions by courtiers that beset many ancient kingdoms, while God’s response, down to small details, is essentially identical to the actions taken by kings to put down such revolts. Indeed, God’s reaction to the secession of the Watchers is eerily similar to the actions of Darius the Great in response to the numerous rebellions against his rule as recorded in the famous Behistun inscription. Such responses often included the king’s commissioning senior courtiers to take command of armies to put the rebellions to an end and this practice finds a close parallel in God’s commands to the archangels to go to earth to deal with the Watchers and the Giants. The references to Enoch’s writing a petition, and to other petitions in the text, are to be explained by the well documented reliance by people in ancient Mediterranean kingdoms on written petitions to courtiers or administrative officials to provide redress for wrongs. There is a close alignment between the language used of petitions in the text and the language of petitions well known from the abundant examples in the Egyptian papyri. Perhaps most significantly, however, the architecture of heaven in 1 Enoch 1-36, with a two-part palace in which the inner room (God’s throne-room) is larger than the antechamber, is inconsistent with the three-part structure of the Jerusalem temple, where the holy of holies is smaller than the nave. Conversely, the heavenly palace in 1 Enoch 14 is strikingly similar to a palace that Cyrus the Great built at Pasargadae.[2]

In the light of these conclusions, the Enochic scribes emerge not as temple scribes (indeed, there are clear signs of tension and conflict in the text between them and the temple establishment), but as scribes who played their part in the wider social and political ambit of Judea. We can imagine them as active across the whole range of commercial and legal work that Judean scribes undertook for private clients, as well as perhaps drafting documents for the Seleucid and then Hasmonean and even Roman administrations of Judea. Although from a millennium earlier, a well documented family of scribes from Emar in Syria provides comparative examples of much this type of scribal activity over a number of generations.[3] This is a very different context within which to situate the Enochic texts and their authors, and one capable of generating a large number of new historical possibilities and hypotheses.


The theological importance of 1 Enoch becomes apparent first in the allusions to the text to be found in the Hebrew Bible. The reference to God sitting on a wheeled throne in Dan 7:9 derives from a combination of the wheeled-kabod conveyance in Ezekiel (it is not God’s throne, which always remains above the firmament) and the round throne in 1 Enoch 14:18. The common mistranslation of “roundness” (Greek trochos and Ethiopic kebab, both in the singular) as “wheels” in relation to the throne in 1 Enoch 14:18, even by scholars of the eminence of George Nickelsburg, James VanderKam and Ephraim Isaac,[4] persists as an inexplicable feature of Enochic scholarship. The influence of 1 Enoch on the New Testament is greater. While the apocalyptic framework developed by the Enochic scribes provided religious and intellectual space for the author of the Apocalypse, many other texts display specific debts to 1 Enoch. Most striking is the quotation of 1 Enoch 1:9 in Jude 14-15. This verse in 1 Enoch actually contains the key expression of its central idea, that evil exists in the world but eventually, in the End Time, God will deal with evil-doers and reward the righteous. 1 Enoch is thus a work that begins with a summary of how it will end, perhaps to ensure that its readers will not lose heart in the meantime! There are also numerous allusions to 1 Enoch in the Synoptic Gospels, with the links between Enochic End Time descriptions and Matthew’s Day of Judgment particularly instructive.[5]

Yet an entirely new approach to 1 Enoch in this area is to bring the text into conversation with central features of contemporary theology. This was the task that a group of researchers from Ethiopia, Europe, the UK and the USA set itself recently at meetings in Addis Ababa and Cheltenham, England.[6] This enterprise embraced issues such as: the nature of interpreting a text like 1 Enoch theologically when it is only recognized as scripture in one part of the Christian world; the uses to be made of traditional readings (andemta) of that text in Ethiopia; the relevance of 1 Enoch to political, social and liberation theologies; its contribution to environmental theology; and the imposing answer that 1 Enoch provides to the fundamental questions of why there is evil in the world and what God is going to do about it. This project also included the question of artistic responses to 1 Enoch that are taken up below. It is to be hoped that more researchers will become interested in the theological importance of 1 Enoch for the modern world, especially as the distinctly Ethiopian answers to that question, as well as the magnificent ecclesial traditions of Ethiopia in general,[7] become more widely known and appreciated.

Ecclesial Significance

1 Enoch plays a vital role in the life and identity of Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodoxy. The ideas in the book have had a major influence on the zenas (chronicles), gadles (acts or great deeds of the saints) and the malks (physiognomic poems and hymns).[8] Since Old Testament texts are not much read in the Ethiopian liturgy, passages from 1 Enoch are not to be found there, with rare exceptions, such as a collect for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost that alludes to 1 Enoch 1:4-9.[9] Perhaps the dominant area of influence is in the impact of the archangels who feature in 1 Enoch across wide reaches of Ethiopian theology, literature and art.

As a literary example, the Dersana Urael (the “Homily on Urael”) is worth noting. In 1 Enoch 1-36 Uriel is one of the angels who guide Enoch through the cosmos. In the Homily on Urael the archangel arrives at the crucifixion and collects some of Christ’s blood in a vessel. He then proceeds to Ethiopia, where he moves around the country just as he had guided Enoch through the cosmos, using the drops of the blood to sanctify places which were or would become the sites of important churches and monasteries. Thus the text describes an act of sacred cosmogenesis, in line with the Ethiopians’ belief that their country is a new promised land.

photo of a scroll(Fig. 1) Illustration of an archangel, probably Phanuel in his anti-demon role (1 Enoch 40:7, 9). From a 20th century Ethiopian prayer scroll, from Aksum. Property and copyright of the author.

But even more influential are the references to and images of archangels from 1 Enoch in Ethiopian prayer scrolls that, before the arrival of modern medicine, were omnipresent in the country as a way to counter disease. Someone who was ill would approach a dabtara (a non-ordained person with an ecclesiastical education) to prepare the parchment and inscribe and paint on it a collection of prayers and images aimed at driving away the evil spirits that were causing the illness. Very often the archangel specifically mentioned was Phanuel, no doubt because of the function attributed to him in 1 Enoch 40:4 of repelling “Satans.” Many images of archangels on the scrolls (see Fig. 1) are probably of him.

Thus 1 Enoch plays a central role in a therapeutic practice that has been ubiquitous in Ethiopia for centuries. Finally, it is worth noting that Henok is a popular boy’s name in Ethiopia!

photo of oil paintingAngus Pryor, God on His Round Throne (1 Enoch 14:18), 2017, 2 x 2 meters, oil on canvas. Copyright Angus Pryor.

Aesthetic Significance

One of the most striking features of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is its style of painting religious images, which is unique in world. In Ethiopian paintings there is a renunciation of depth, volume and perspective, so that the paintings appear ‘flat’ or two-dimensional, with the figures and other aspects of the composition pushed up against the picture pane. There is also a naïveté in the representation of human figures. Perhaps most characteristic of this art, however, is its coloration. Flat areas of paint are common, frequently overlaid with geometric and floral patterns. Heavily saturated pigments tend to be used; that is, they exhibit a marked intensity of color.[10] As a general rule, however, images from 1 Enoch are extremely rare on the walls of churches (where scenes from the New Testament and from hagiographies predominate), with one notable exception: the archangels. Images of Michael, Gabriel and Raphael appear very frequently, for example, on doors into the inmost sanctuary of churches as a means of barring entry to the unworthy.[11] On panel paintings of Mary, two archangels are frequently painted with her, one on each side. Enoch himself is also occasionally depicted in manuscripts, typically as a scribe and next to that other scribe, Ezra, as in a manuscript in the monastery of Abba Garima, near Adwa in the far north of the country.

Recently, however, as part of the project to bring 1 Enoch into connection with contemporary theology mentioned above, the text has inspired a British artist, Angus Pryor (like the author, an academic at the University of Gloucestershire) to paint an ambitious series of 21 2 x 2 meter paintings on canvas, accompanied by a large scale model of an Ethiopian church. Both paintings and model will be illuminated with Enochic narrative and imagery. The first painting in the series is of God on his round throne in 1 Enoch 14:18.[12] This is a modern image based on an ancient text and heavily influenced by Ethiopian modes of visual representation. Pryor sees the creation of art as a mode of entry into the sublime and, for some people, the sublime is a portal to faith. He has created an image of God as man and man as God. But when the painting is finished it is no longer an illustration. It becomes an entity. Pryor’s work represents a fine example of theology undertaken in and through artistic practice.

Last Word

That 1 Enoch has survived at all, due to its devoted preservation and use by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is a remarkable blessing. For we richly benefit from the manifold and profound ways that it stimulates and supports historical, theological, ecclesial and artistic enlightenment and identity creation. It really is a text that deserves our serious attention.


[1] For this approach to the Enochic scribal group, see Philip F. Esler, God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers: Re-interpreting Heaven in 1 Enoch 1-36. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.

[2] For full details of this approach to 1 Enoch, see Esler, God’s Court and Courtiers.

[3] Yoram Cohen, The Scribes and Scholars of the City of Emar in the Late Bronze Age. Harvard Semitic Studies 59. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

[4] George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam. 2012. 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p. 35 and Isaac, E. 1983. “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch: Second Century B.C. — First Century A.D.: A New Translation and Introduction.” In James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983, pp. 5-89, at p. 21.

[5] See Daniel Assefa, “Matthew’s Day of Judgment in the Light of 1 Enoch,” in Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Gabriele Boccaccini (eds) Enoch and the Synoptic Gospels: Reminiscences, Allusions, Intertextuality. Early Judaism and Its Literature. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016, pp. 199-213.

[6] See the essays in Philip F. Esler (ed) The Blessing of Enoch: 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology. Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017.

[7] See Philip F. Esler, Ethiopian Christianity: An Introduction. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, forthcoming 2018/2019.

[8] Ephraim Isaac, The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church. Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 2012, p. 66.

[9] Emmanuel Frisch, The Liturgical Year of the Ethiopian Church. Special edition of the Ethiopian Review of Cultures, Volume IX-X, 2001, 296.

[10] See Deborah E. Horowitz (ed.), Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum. Lingfield, Surrey: Third Millennium Publishing, 2001.

[11] See the cover of Esler, God’s Court and Courtiers.

[12] This is reproduced on the cover of Esler, 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology.

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