Arguments are sometimes made that one or more ancient Jewish or Christian texts, ultimately omitted from the canons of both faiths, might comfortably belong in the Bible and should be added to it. They point to the fact that many Jewish and Christian texts were considered authoritative prior to the establishment of those canons but were, at the last moment so to speak, left out, sometimes without explanation.
Those Jewish texts now collected as the Apocrypha in some Bibles were ultimately omitted from the Hebrew canon. Yet they were once part of the early Greek Bible. Early Christians relied on the Greek Jewish Bible for centuries until Jerome began to argue that the texts later omitted by the rabbis as they established their Hebrew canon should probably be omitted from the Christian canon as well. And so they were (though Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to regard them as at least deutero-canonical).
The development of the New Testament followed similar lines. A number of early Christian texts were included in the Christian Bible but later removed. A 4th-century Bible, known today as Codex Sinaiticus, included the Christian compositions The Shepherd by Hermas and the Letter of Barnabas. In the 4th century, according to a manuscript known as the Muratorian fragment, other Christians were being warned not to consider The Shepherd canonical. The Muratorian fragment also rejects certain letters attributed to Paul including one to the Laodiceans and one to the Alexandrians. The Apocalypse of Peter, accepted by some early Christians as canonical, was similarly dismissed in this fragment. Fourth-century Egyptian bishop Athanasius even had to write his priests instructing them to refrain from including The Shepherd and also the Didache (“Teaching of the Apostles”) in the church readings.
Once both Hebrew and Christian canons stabilized there seems to have been little appetite to reform either one. As we said, the omitted Greek Jewish texts were preserved for Christian reading as either apocryphal or, in the case of Roman Catholic and Orthodox bibles, deutero-canonical. Rejected Christian texts were generally condemned to the dust heap of history only to be rediscovered in modern times.
One text that was both forgotten by most Jews and Christians after the 4th century and yet continues to be included in one Christian canon is the First Book of Enoch. The Ethiopic Orthodox Church accepts 1 Enoch in its biblical canon. It is fortunate for us that it does because the Ethiopic language version is the only complete version of the text available to us so far. Nevertheless, fragments of most of the work have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls indicating that the composition dates from as early as the 3rd century B.C.E. We now know that the entire work was originally composed in Judea in either Hebrew or Aramaic (or both). Let’s take a closer look at 1 Enoch. There is good reason for both Christians and Jews to become familiar with this ancient text. It is one of our earliest representatives of the apocalyptic movement within Judaism. As should also be obvious, apocalyptic beliefs informed nascent Christianity as well.
Apocalyptic literature has been defined by scholar John Collins as “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed., Eerdmans, 2016, p. 5). In other words, in apocalyptic storytelling, a visionary is granted a supernatural pass to witness heavenly insights into the end of the age. Enoch was just such a visionary according to 1 Enoch.
The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is not exactly rife with apocalyptic content. Most of the apocalyptic language appears in a portion of the Book of Daniel (chaps. 7-12) written nearly 100 years after the earliest part of 1 Enoch. Apocalyptic elements also appear in Isaiah (24-27, 33), Ezekiel (38-39), Joel (3), Zechariah (12-14), and elsewhere. But 1 Enoch is the earliest full-blown Jewish apocalyptic text known.
We must admit that this composition was not actually authored by the biblical Enoch, father of Methuselah and grandfather of Noah. According to a passage in Genesis, Enoch (not to be confused with the son of Cain or Enosh, grandson of Adam) lived for 365 years “and then he disappeared because God took him away” (Gen 5:24). What Genesis may have been telling us is that Enoch did not die; he was assumed directly into heaven to be with God. What a privilege! One can see how later interpreters might have begun to embellish this brief statement about Enoch and why authors decided to compose an apocalypse in his name.
Acceptance into the canon should not rely on whether the implied author is the real author. The Book of Daniel, for example, was written in the 2nd century B.C.E. and not by the prophet of the 6th century. Most scholars also conclude that the Book of Isaiah was composed by three different authors (though one of them was apparently Isaiah himself). According to tradition, Moses authored the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but most scholars do not believe this to be the case.
And as far as the New Testament goes, each of the four gospels is attributed by tradition to four Christian figures but the texts themselves do not identify their authors – they are anonymous. Thirteen New Testament letters are attributed to Paul but scholars can only agree that seven of them are authentic. Virtually all scholars agree that three of those thirteen letters were definitely not by him (1, 2 Timothy, Titus). The “John” to whom tradition assigns one gospel, three letters, and an apocalypse is hardly the Galilean disciple of Jesus. To sum up, implied versus actual authorship cannot be the basis on which to include a text in the biblical canon.
What is so important about 1 Enoch that we should even consider adding it to the Bible? The oldest portion of 1 Enoch is the part known as the Book of the Watchers (chs. 1-36). In these chapters, Enoch learns that God will soon overturn the forces of evil that have been in charge of this world. These forces include renegade angels (“watchers”) who introduced evil to humankind. This portion of 1 Enoch expands on the Genesis story which reads:
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men. But the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. (Gen. 6:4-5 NET)
According to 1 Enoch:
These [evil angels] and all the others with them took for themselves wives from among them [humans] such as they chose. And they began to go in to them, and to defile themselves through them, and to teach them sorcery and charms, and to reveal to them the cutting of roots and plants. And they conceived from them and bore to them great giants. And the giants begot Nephilim…They were devouring the sons of men…And the giants began to kill men and to devour them…And they drank the blood. (1 Enoch 7:1-5; trans. George W. E. Nickelsburg throughout)
These evil angels taught humans magical spells and formulae and introduced people to sexual sins and violence. In other words, it was not the sin of Adam but fallen angels and their demonic offspring who are responsible for wickedness in this world. But God will exact judgment upon them. Enoch…
…saw a great chasm among pillars of heavenly fire. And I saw in it pillars of fire descending; and they were immeasurable…And [the good angel] Uriel said to me, “There stand the angels who mingled with the women. And their spirits—having assumed many forms—bring destruction on men and lead them astray to sacrifice to demons as to gods until the day of the great judgment, in which they will be judged with finality.” (1 Enoch 18:11-19:1)
In 1 Enoch you can find the story of the origin of evil, fallen angels, demons, and hell! But that is not all 1 Enoch has to offer. The Messiah figures prominently in the text. From the latest portion of 1 Enoch called the Book of Parables (chs. 37-71), written around the time of King Herod the Great, comes this promise of judgment:
On that day, I [God] shall make my Chosen One dwell among them [people], and I shall transform heaven and make it a blessing and a light forever; and I shall transform the earth and make it a blessing. And my chosen ones I shall make to dwell on it, but those who commit sin and error will not set foot on it. (1 Enoch 45:4-5)
Building upon the Son of Man imagery first found in Daniel 7:13-14, and later in the New Testament gospels, an angel explains to Enoch that this Chosen One…
…is the Son of Man who has righteousness, and righteousness dwells with him, and all the treasuries of what is hidden he will reveal; for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him, and his lot has prevailed through truth…he will raise the kings and the mighty from their couches, and the strong from their thrones. He will loosen the reigns of the strong, and he will crush the teeth of the sinners…Darkness shall be their dwelling, and worms will be their couch. (1 Enoch 46:3-6 slightly modified)
Enoch is told that the Chosen One/Son of Man/Messiah pre-existed creation itself: “Even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits” (1 Enoch 48:3). Compare these words with those attributed to Jesus, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (Jn. 8:58 NET).
As is common in later apocalyptic texts, 1 Enoch assures that resurrection will accompany the judgment: “In those days, the earth will give back what has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will give back what has been entrusted to it…For in those days, my Chosen One will arise and choose the righteous and holy from among them, for the day on which they will be saved has drawn near.” (1 Enoch 51:5a, 2). Compare this with words attributed to Jesus: “But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk. 14:13-14 NET) and “Those who are regarded as worthy to share in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection” (Lk. 20:35-36 NET).
Seeing into the future, Enoch watches as “the Lord of Spirits seated the Chosen One upon the throne of glory; and he will judge all the works of the holy ones in the heights of heaven, and in the balance he will weigh their deeds” (1 Enoch 61:8). Compare this with these words attributed to Jesus: “I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28 NET). Or read these words of Paul in light of 1 Enoch: “God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11 NET).
If hell awaits the wicked, what will befall the righteous? “The Lord of Spirits will abide over them, and with that Son of Man they will eat, and they will lie down and rise up forever and ever…and they have put on the garment of glory. And this will be your garment, the garment of life from the Lord of Spirits” (1 Enoch 62:14-16). In other words, the righteous will arise in new, glorified bodies, perhaps the “spiritual bodies” spoken of by Paul (1 Cor. 15:44).
There is much more to 1 Enoch than just those passages alluded to here. One can find the precursor to much apocalyptic thought in both early Judaism and early Christianity. This thought world incredibly influential to those who resided at Qumran, to the authors of such Jewish apocalyptic works as Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and to those who ascribed to Jesus the roles of Son of Man and Messiah. Shouldn’t this text occupy space in the Bible? After all, a portion of 1 Enoch was quoted in the Christian canonical Letter of Jude (14-15; cf. 1 Enoch 1:9)! If it was good enough for Jude, maybe it should be good enough for us!
Quotations from 1 Enoch from George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012)