Saturday, 12 July 2008

1 Enoch and Christian Theology: sticking up for the little guy

1 Enoch is, to modern western minds, a very odd, ancient, Jewish apocalyptic text. Here is my question of the day:

What role should/could 1 Enoch play in contemporary Christian reflection and devotion?

Let's be clear, unless you are Coptic Christian the book never has been, and never will be, part of Christian Scripture. So it has no canonical status in the way that another ancient Jewish apocalypse such as Daniel does (Give it up for Daniel!).

And yet it is clearly referred to by 1 and 2 Peter and Jude (and perhaps Paul ... and possibly Matthew) and Jude even quotes from it. They seem to treat the text as genuinely inspired by God in some way (Jude introduced his quotation with the words, "Enoch prophesied"). We know that in the 2nd C it was a very popular book within the Churches (read, for instance, what it says about the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 48-49 and you may have some idea why it appealed) and Tertullian even argued from Jude's citation of it that it should be considered as Scripture. The Church decided otherwise and yet the book continued to inform and inspire until it fell out of use and into obscurity.

What about us? Well, obviously NT scholars need to read it to set some backgroud to certain NT texts but I had something more fun in mind.

First - might it play a role in our devotional lives? I have tried praying through some of the texts and I found it very helpful. The theological vision, whilst fanciful in places, is also rather inspiring. I do not judge it a theologically and spiritually corrupting text (so long as one does not feel too tightly bound to it).

Second - might it play a role in our own theological reflections? Why not? Of course, it has no authoritative status. We don't have to believe that it really is what Enoch saw in his heavenly trip (it most certainly was not written by Enoch!), nor its story of the fall of the watchers, nor its understanding of the demonic (demons are the ghosts of the human-divine hybrids called Nephilim from Gen 6), nor its theology of astral bodies, nor its rather graphic accounts of the everlasting torment of the damned. (Indeed, I am not even convinced that we even need to literally believe the parts that NT texts affirm - e.g., the imprisonment of the watchers until the Day of Judgement. I'd be interested to know what people think about that.)

However, its vision of God's glory is WOW and AMEN! Its hope for the vindication of those who stick with God (the Lord of the Spirits) through thick and thin is inspiring; its opposition to the corrupt and powerful rulers is what oppressed people today need to hear! God will call the oppressors to account and the mighty will fall. It's call to counter-cultural living is contemporary; the theology of the amazing Son of Man (whose origins are from before creation, who lives forever, and through whom the righteous are saved) is, when read with Christian goggles, heart-warming. I confess that I have a soft spot for 1 Enoch.

In the big scheme of things 1 Enoch only has a small role to play in constructive Christian theology but I'm sticking up for the little guy. He may only be the triangle in the orchestra but he has his role to play and for now I'm pricking up my ears to hear him strike his note! Ting!


Robin Parry said...

Robin you moron! Who on earth wants to read a posting on 1 Enoch? Who has even heard of it let alone read it? You don't seriously expect people to use it in their quiet times! Get a grip man!

Chirpy said...

Robin, How many chapters does this book have. Wow. Not a good one for LTG certainly wuld keep you up most nights.

J. P. van de Giessen said...

Welcome to the bibliobloggers, I've added you to the list:

James Pate said...

I've often thought about using non-canonical works in my daily quiet time (non-canonical from the Protestant point of view, I mean). It didn't work out when I did that with the Apocrypha a few years ago. I got bogged down in Maccabees! Also, I've wondered if I should do a daily Quran reading. Do I have to see a text as infallible--the expression of God's will--to do a daily quiet time on it?

Robin Parry said...


108 chapters but they are very short (thankfully)


Robin Parry said...


The Apocrypha is certainly OK - through most of Christian history is was read as part of the Bible and still is by Catholics and the Orthodox. Its status is deutero canonical. Even good Protestants can expect to hear God through it even if we don't consider it to have full canonical status (as I recall poor old John Bunyan once got rather distressed when he discovered that a text that blessed him was from the Apocrypha. Fear not John! That's OK).
1 Enoch does not have that status (it is not only absent from Protestant Bibles but from Catholic and Orthodox too).

This morning I used a poem by 17th C vicar-chap George Herbert. It was great.

Don't get me wrong - I do use the Bible almost all of the time (I'm in Ezekiel at the moment) but every now and agaon ...

The Qur'an? Well, now we are moving away from the Judaeo-Christian tradition some more. I must confess that I did use Sura 1 in a quiet time once. It was pretty good. I would add that I do not think that God inspired the Qur'an (and I do think it contains theological errors) but God can speak through it. But I would not recommend it for regular use :-)

boxthejack said...

If 1 Enoch was esteemed in this way by Jude, it is clear Jude thought it to be bona fide canonical.

Maybe the way you describe your interaction with 1 Enoch gives us an insight into the way 1st Century Christians engaged with the canon as a whole.

Robin Parry said...

Richard Bauckham has kindly offered a correction on my 1 Enoch post. That'll teach me to blog from memory without info in front of me!

Dear Robin, A small correction:
1 Enoch is not canonical for the Coptic Church (Egypt) but is for the Ethiopian church (Ethiopia). Despite close historical connexions, these are distinct Christian traditions and the term Coptic refers only to Egyptian Christians. People seem often to get this wrong - but look at the map: the whole of Sudan intervenes between the two. It's Ethiopia's peculiar isolation as a Christian tradition for much of its history that helps to account for its unique attitude to 1 Enoch. (Nicklesburg's commentary has an interesting account of why 1 Enoch appealed in Ethiopia.) Maybe you should read the other literature that is treated as authoritative only in Ethiopia. Indeed, why not work your way through all the books that are canonical or nearly so for some Christians somewhere?

I believe the late C. F. D. Moule once called 1 Enoch 'the worst book ever written'! I think he was thinking of the tremendous emphasis on judgment.