The Unabridged Bible:  exploring the complete set of ancient holy writings

One of the most popular and influential scriptural writings of antiquity, the Book of Enoch was practically hoarded by the Jews at Qumran, and it's quoted directly in the New Testament book of Jude. But this literary and theological masterpiece fell into surprising obscurity when Judaism and Christianity nearly banished it from the religious landscape in the 4th century AD.

The book has five sections, which, though diverse in nature and style, combine to point in a bold direction: In spite of God's best efforts, our world is sometimes out of control.

The Text Speaks
"Enoch walked with God and was no longer with us, for God took him."
- Genesis 5:24        

"It was by faith that Enoch was taken, so he did not experience death."
- Hebrews 11:5        

"The angels took human wives ... who became pregnant and gave birth to great giants 450 feet tall."
- The Watchers        

"[The fallen angel] Azazel taught people how to make swords and knives, shields and breastplates."
- The Watchers        

"The Son of Man1 ... will depose kings from their thrones."
- The Parables        

The five-sectioned2 Book of Enoch,3 written in a variety of styles over the course of a few hundred years, covers a broad range of religious material. Some passages complement the Old Testament. Others match closely with the New Testament. Some portions are marked by clear prose, others by obscure poetry. Sometimes the writing addresses cosmic matters, other times quotidian ones. But for all its diversity, the text moves the reader toward a single, surprising conclusion: God's plans have gone awry.

Some Terminology

There are three books of Enoch, numbered 1-3. Here we're talking about "1 Enoch," which is what most people mean by "the" book of Enoch.

The Book of 1 Enoch has five sections, which, confusingly, are more commonly referred to as the five books of 1 Enoch. So the Book of Enoch has five books: the Book of the Watchers; the Parables of Enoch, also more formally called the Book of the Similitudes; the Book of Astronomical Writings; the Book of Dream Visions; and the Book of the Epistle of Enoch. (This nomenclature is similar to the Bible, which is a book that contains books.)

Though 1 Enoch was probably composed either in Hebrew or Aramaic during the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, our most complete copies of the text are 15th-century Ethiopian translations. Naturally, these translations are into the local language, which is variously called "Ethiopic" or "Ge'ez." For this reason, 1 Enoch is also sometimes called "Ethiopic Enoch" or, because the first book takes the form of an apocalypse, the "Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch." (For similar reasons, 2 Enoch is sometimes called "Slavonic Enoch," while 3 Enoch is "Hebrew Enoch.")

This very theme propelled the book to huge popularity in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, when people increasingly felt that something fundamental had gone wrong with the world, that times and practices were changing too quickly, and that an unwelcome modernity was destroying a thousand years of stability and prosperity.

Jerusalem — the very center of monotheism — was in turmoil, buffeted by external violence from the unstable Roman Empire and subject to internal strife from pettiness and religious intrigue.

Enoch explained why things seemed to be out of control: they were.

Enoch makes his case early on by contrasting God's perfect plan for the world with the reality that actually ensued.

Enoch goes into some detail about deciduous trees, which grow leaves precisely in the summer when people need shade. These automatic seasonal parasols represent God's perfect universe, which includes a clear plan for small details like trees; a proper path for celestial bodies like the sun, moon and stars; and a defined role for people and angels.

Enoch elaborates on the theme of people and angels. Human men need to marry and reproduce with human women, because humans have finite lifespans. Angels, on the other hand, live forever, so they don't need spouses. But a group of evil holy angels led by Semyaza descended to earth and mated with human women. Enoch's description here meshes perfectly with Genesis 6:1, which describes how "people multiplied ... and daughters were born to them, and the sons of angels took wives for themselves" from among the humans.

Salvatore Albano's 1893 statue, "The Fallen Angels."

These ill-advised unions resulted in giants — nephilim in Hebrew and gigantes in Greek — who devoured everything upon the earth. At the same time, the evil angels also taught humans some of heaven's secrets, like spells, astrology, deception, and metallurgy for warfare. These secrets in turn led humans to such evil behavior as exploitation and adultery.

In short, the once-perfect world had become corrupt, in spite of God's best efforts.

In this sense, the Book of Enoch address the same questions of suffering, fallennes, and good versus evil that we find in the Life of Adam and Eve and the Apocalypse of Abraham. According to the Life of Adam and Eve, suffering is the price we pay for being human. In the Apocalypse of Abraham, suffering is well-deserved punishment for doing or being evil.

But Enoch raises the possibility that human suffering might not be valuable, might not be deserved, and might not even be what God wants. Maybe we suffer only because the world is imperfect.

While this explanation was popular among the population of ancient Jerusalem — and continues to resonate with people in modernity — it was whitewashed from mainstream monotheism by later theologians.

1. Son of Man: The English phrase "Son of Man" is actually a pretty misleading translation of the original text here. "Human one" would be better, because "son of" was used to indicate membership in a group, and the group was "humans," not just "men." But we keep "son of man" here both because it is so well known in connection with Enoch, and because it reinforces the obvious connection to the "Son of Man" in the New Testament. ("Son of Man" is bad translation there, too, for the same reasons.)

2. Five-sectioned: These sections are normally called "books," which confusingly means that there are five books in the book of Enoch. Refer to the sidebar about "some terminology" for more details.

3. Book of Enoch: That is, "1 Enoch" or "Ethiopic Enoch." Again, the sidebar has more.

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