Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.

Eastern Canon

It’s complicated.  The Bible, that is.  Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon.  If we should.  My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.  The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it.  Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  That makes these two books by definition “biblical.”  You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

This privileging of the western canon has implications.  How do we know what really belongs in the Bible?  Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized.  Early Christian writers had different Bibles.  It took almost four centuries for them to agree  generally on what should be included.  In Europe, that is.  Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome.  Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made.  For some.  Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain.  Or the desert.  Whichever.

The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that.  The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?”  These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees.  The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name.  This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon.  What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries.  Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians.  It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version.  Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.

Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Holy or Not?

The ancient divine world was a slippery place. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. The deities and demons of antiquity were invisible. Different opinions existed as to what they were. The idea of “the Bible” that contains infallible information didn’t exist. Apart from the books now accepted by Protestants, the “Apocrypha” and even more fun Pseudepigrapha contained many more traditions than the average reader might guess. I’ve been a student of that ancient divine world for decades now, and I learned quite a bit from The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Angela Kim Harkins, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres, S.J. Appropriately divided into three parts (origins of fallen angels, Second Temple developments, and Jewish and Christian reception) these collected essays explore different dimensions of these mysterious beings.

Watchers are seldom mentioned in the Bible, in just a few verses of Daniel. In some traditions they are high angels—think the hymn that includes the word “ye Watchers and ye holy ones”—but mostly they are fallen angels. If you limit yourself to the Good Book you really get only four verses of Genesis 6 to explain them. Other ancient writers, some of whom likely influenced the New Testament, took up the subject. The book of 1 Enoch contains a section called The Book of the Watchers. Here the Watchers come down to earth with a couple of purposes—to share forbidden secrets with humanity, and to mate with human women. The offspring of these matings are giants, Nephilim, or demons. Perhaps all three. These events are retold in Jubilees and are taken up by early Christian writers especially.

Although this book isn’t a monograph with conclusions based on all the information it contains, it nevertheless gives a very good sense of the various traditions that developed around these Watchers. Even when reading through the Bible as a child, the Genesis 6 episode caught me off guard. The story isn’t highlighted in children’s Bibles, and the way it’s told in Hebrew leaves a lot of ambiguities in the adult reader’s mind. It’s almost as if this brief account is bing kept deliberately obscure. The Good Book drops this bomb then blithely goes on its way without mentioning it again. This episode reminds us just how little the Bible clarifies. It wasn’t written to be the “inerrant word of God,” and those heady days just after Eden were full of stories that it never bothered to tell. The Watchers, meanwhile, made their way into popular culture because the silence of Scripture allows readers to fill in the blanks with either angels or demons.

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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