A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 1
By Hugh Nibley
Professor Emeritus of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University
Certain visions once given to Moses were also “revealed to Joseph Smith the Prophet, in June, 1830.” In December of the same year, “The Writings of Moses” were also revealed, comprising what are now chapters two to eight of the book of Moses. (See the chapter headings.) This purports to be the translation of a real book originally written by Moses:
“And now, Moses, my son, I will speak unto thee concerning this earth upon which thou standest; and thou shalt write the things which I shall speak.
“And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men—among as many as shall believe.” (Moses 1:40–41.)
In his writings Moses renewed the revelations and carried on the books of earlier prophets, according to our text, which also includes what the Prophet Joseph entitled “Extracts from the Prophecy of Enoch.” Of this, B. H. Roberts explains: “It will be understood … that the ‘Prophecy of Enoch’ itself is found in the ‘Writings of Moses,’ and that in the text above [Moses, chapter 7 [Moses 7] we have but a few extracts of the most prominent parts of ‘Enoch’s Prophecy.’”
What was given to the Church in 1830 was, then, not the whole book of Enoch but only “a few extracts,” a mere epitome, but one composed, as we shall see, with marvelous skill; five years later the Saints were still looking forward to a fuller text: “These things were all written in the book of Enoch, and are to be testified of in due time.” (D&C 107:57.) The Enoch sections of the book of Moses were published in England in 1851 under the heading, “Extracts from the Prophecy of Enoch, containing also a Revelation of the Gospel unto our Father Adam, after He was driven out from the Garden of Eden.”
The revelation of Adam also went back to a written source, for, speaking of his ancestors, Enoch is reported as saying that, though they are dead, “nevertheless we know them, and cannot deny, and even the first of all we know, even Adam. For a book of remembrance we have written among us, according to the pattern given by the finger of God.” (Moses 6:45–46.) Enoch, we learn, had this book of Adam, and read it to the people, and handed it on with his own writing in that corpus which Moses later edited and Joseph Smith finally translated: “Soon after the words of Enoch were given, the Lord gave the following commandment [December 1830]: Behold, I say unto you that it is not expedient in me that ye should translate any more until ye shall go to the Ohio.” (D&C 37:1.)
The excerpts from the works and days of Enoch found in the Pearl of Great Price supply us with the most valuable control yet on the bona fides of the Prophet. What has confused the issue all along in dealing with the Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham as translations is the question of the original documents. Almost all of the time and energy of the critics has been expended in vain attempts to show that Joseph Smith did not translate correctly from certain ancient manuscripts, or that such manuscripts did not exist. This has been a red herring, since nobody has been able to prove yet that Joseph Smith claimed to be translating from any specific known text. Moreover, the experts have strangely and stubbornly overlooked hundreds of passages from the Old and New Testaments that Joseph Smith translated in a way that does not agree with the translations of the scholars. Why don’t they nail him on that? Because such a demonstration ends in proving nothing against the Prophet: manuscripts and translations of the Bible differ so widely, and so many baffling issues are being raised today about the nature of the original text that there is no way of proving that any of his interpretations is completely out of the question. Always in these cases the discussion comes back to the original manuscripts.
But with the book of Enoch the question of an original manuscript never arises. Although chapters two through eight of the book of Moses are entitled “The Writings of Moses,” the Prophet nowhere indicates that he ever had the manuscript in his hands. Eighteen months earlier he recorded a revelation concerning John the Apostle, “Translated from parchment, written and hid up by himself.” (See D&C 7: heading.) Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that writing revelations on parchment and hiding them up in caves was standard practice among the ancient saints, thereby confirming this remarkable passage of modern revelation. But even more significant is the idea that though Joseph Smith saw and “translated” the document in question, he never had it in his hands, and for that matter it may have long since ceased to exist. The whole thing, document and translation, was “given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Oliver Cowdery” by revelation “when they inquired through the Urim and Thummim.” (D&C 7: heading.)
So it was with the book of Enoch, transmitted to us by Joseph as it was given to him. Though his work was far more demanding and probably required far more concentration and sheer mental effort than we can even imagine, that task did not include searching for a lost manuscript or working out a translation.
So we are forced back on the one and only really valid test of the authenticity of an ancient record, which does not depend on the writing materials used, nor the language in which it was written, nor the method of translation, but simply asks the question, “How does it compare with other records known to be authentic?” This is what the critics of the Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham have never been willing to face up to; with the book of Enoch they have no other choice—and so, through the years, they have simply ignored the book of Enoch. Yet there never was a more delightfully vulnerable and testable object. It offers the nearest thing to a perfectly foolproof test—neat, clear-cut, and decisive—of Joseph Smith’s claim to inspiration.
The problem is perfectly simple and straightforward: There was once indeed an ancient book of Enoch, but it became lost and was not discovered until our own time, when it can be reliably reconstructed from some hundreds of manuscripts in a dozen different languages. How does this Enoch redivivus compare with Joseph Smith’s highly condensed but astonishingly specific and detailed version? That is the question to which we must address ourselves. We do not have the golden plates nor the original text of the book of Abraham, but we do have at last, in newly discovered documents, a book which is the book of Enoch if there ever was one. And so we have only to place the Joseph Smith version of the book of Enoch—Moses 6:25 through 8:3 with associated texts—side by side with the Enoch texts, which have come forth since 1830, to see what they have in common and to judge of its significance.
For those who seek divine guidance in troubled times, the book of Enoch has a special significance, not merely by virtue of its pertinent and powerful message, but also because of the circumstances under which it was received. As the History of the Church records:
“It may be well to observe here, that the Lord greatly encouraged and strengthened the faith of His little flock, which had embraced the fulness of the everlasting Gospel, as revealed to them in the Book of Mormon, by giving some more extended information upon the Scriptures, a translation of which had already commenced. Much conjecture and conversation frequently occurred among the Saints, concerning the books mentioned, and referred to, in various places in the Old and New Testaments, which were now nowhere to be found. The common remark was, ‘They are lost books;’ but it seems that Apostolic Church had some of these writings, as Jude mentions or quotes the Prophecy of Enoch, the seventh from Adam. To the joy of the little flock, which in all … numbered about seventy members, did the Lord reveal the following doings of olden times, from the prophecy of Enoch.”
The book of Enoch was given to the Saints as a bonus for their willingness to accept the Book of Mormon and as a reward for their sustained and lively interest in all scriptures, including the lost books; they were searchers, engaging in eager speculation and discretion, ever seeking like Adam and Abraham, for “greater [light and] knowledge.” (Abr. 1:2.) And we have been told that if we stop seeking we shall not only find no more but lose the treasures we already have. That is why it is not only advisable but urgent that we begin at last to pay attention to that astonishing outpouring of ancient writings which is the peculiar blessing of our generation. Among these writings the first and most important is the book of Enoch.
The Lost Book of Enoch
Early Christian writers knew all about the book of Enoch: indeed, “nearly all the writers of the New Testament were familiar with it, and were more or less influenced by it in thought and diction,” according to R. H. Charles, who notes that it “is quoted as a genuine production of Enoch by St. Jude, and as Scripture by St. Barnabas … With the earlier Fathers and Apologists it had all the weight of a canonical book.” Its influence is apparent in no less than 128 places in the New Testament, and Charles can declare that “The influence of I Enoch on the New Testament has been greater than that of all the other apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books taken together.” He further lists some thirty passages in early orthodox Jewish and Christian writings in which the book of Enoch is mentioned specifically, plus numerous citations from the book that are found in the important Jewish apocalyptic writings of Jubilees, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Assumption of Moses, 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra, and quotations from Enoch found in more than thirty Christian Patristic writers.
To these we might add the wealth of Enoch lore contained in the Zohar, a work whose prestige and respectability have greatly increased of recent years, and the interesting fact that the Pistis Sophia, that important link between the sectaries of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Palestinian Christianity and Judaism, claims to contain important material taken from “the Book of II Jeu, they being the things that Enoch wrote.” “They must look these mysteries up in the Book of Jeu which I caused Enoch to write in Paradise … [which I spake out of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life], and I caused him to deposit them in the Rock of Ararad.”
“Shortly before the Christian era, Enoch became the hero of a whole cycle of legends,” which enjoyed immense popularity. The Christians got their enthusiasm for the book of Enoch as well as the book itself from the Jews, that being “the most important pseudepigraph of the first two centuries B.C.” The Hasidic writings of the time as well as the later Cabalistic works show dependence on Enoch. But it is important to note that Enoch is not popular with the gnostics and philosophers: he is quoted almost exclusively by the most respected and orthodox writers among both Jews and Christians. Thus “large parts of the lost Book of Enoch were included in the Pirke of Rabbi Eleaser and in the Hechalot,” both highly respected works. Recently some of the oldest and most important fragments of Enoch have turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and far more important ones are still being held back by their uneasy Christian editors. More than a century ago, when A. Jellinek began his zealous search for surviving traces of a Hebrew book of Enoch, he declared that the Enoch literature was the work of the Essenes. And thereon hangs the principal clue to their disappearance.
How could a book of such long-standing influence, authority, and veneration possibly have become lost? Very simple: it ran afoul of ideas held by the doctors of the Jews and Christians alike after those worthies had fallen under the influence of the University of Alexandria, whose modern descendants resumed their censure of it after it was discovered and have continued to condemn it to this day.
“But our book contained much of a questionable character,” writes R. H. Charles with a sigh, “and from the fourth century of our era onward it fell into discredit: and under the ban of such authorities as Hilary, Jerome, and Augustine, it gradually passed out of circulation, and became lost to the knowledge of Western Christendom.” Enoch “fell early into disuse,” according to C. C. Torrey, because it had no strong appeal for the Christians and “was too bulky” to copy and handle. This explanation is as feeble as that of St. Augustine who, while admitting that “we cannot deny that Enoch … wrote some inspired [divine] things, since the canonical Epistle of Jude says so,” refuses to accept it solely on the grounds that the Jewish doctors reject it—an argument that bore no weight whatever with the earlier Christians.
“Of a questionable character” to whom? For what Christians did Enoch have “no strong appeal”? The answer is perfectly clear: it was the learned rabbis and doctors of the fourth century who were offended by it.
In his recent study of Hellenistic Judaism, H. F. Weiss comes to the point: It was as inspired or revealed writings that such great apocalyptic works as Enoch, Fourth Esdras, and Baruch “were by the ‘official’ rabbinic-pharisaic Judaism systematically suppressed and removed, ostensibly on the grounds of their apocalyptic content.” They did not just fade out; they were deliberately and systematically destroyed.
Thus, until recently, the only surviving fragments of Enoch have come from Christian copyists, and not a single Jewish text of the Twelve Patriarchs, which draws heavily on Enoch, survives; moreover, not a single picture of Enoch has ever been identified in either Jewish or old Christian art. The trouble was, says Charles, that in Enoch the “apocalyptic or prophetic side of Judaism” was confronted by the rabbinical or halachic, i.e., by the “Judaism that posed as the sole and orthodox Judaism … after 70 A.D. “which damned it forever as a product of the Essenes.
It was the same story with the Christians; it was “such authorities as Hilary, Jerome and Augustine” who put the book of Enoch “under the ban.” They were all learned schoolmen steeped in the rhetorical and sophistic education of the time, admitting quite freely that the Christians of an earlier time held ideas and beliefs quite different from theirs. They also knew that Enoch was treasured as a canonical book by the early Christians, but they would have none of it. The transition is represented by the great Origen, another product of Alexandria, who lived a century before them: he quotes Enoch, but with reservation, finding that he cannot agree with the teachings of the book, no matter how the first Christians may have venerated it.
At the present time, sensational new manuscript discoveries are forcing both the Jewish and the Christian doctors to view Enoch with a new respect. Consider two items from Catholic encyclopedias—then and now. In 1910 The Catholic Encyclopedia brushed aside the idea that the epistle of Jude testifies of the existence in ancient times of the book of Enoch: “Some writers have supposed that St. Jude quoted these words from the so-called apocryphal Book of Henoch: but, since they do not fit into its context [Ethiopic], it is more reasonable to suppose that they were interpolated into the apocryphal book from the text of St. Jude. The Apostle must have borrowed the words from Jewish tradition.” But the New Catholic Encyclopedia of 1967 tells a different story: not only does Jude actually quote from a book of Enoch, but the “entire passage found in Jude 1:4–15 reveals a dependence on Ethiopic Enoch.” When a recent article in Scientific American, of all places, seeks to demonstrate how all our ideas of early Jewish and Christian religions have been drastically expanded and altered in the past few years, its star witness is the newly discovered book of Enoch. The last lingering remnant of Enoch’s words from the ancient world was a passage cited by the Byzantine writer George Syncellus, about A.D. 800. This, however, was a mere excerpt of less than a page in length; the writings themselves had by that time long since vanished. For, “from the 4th century on, the Latin Church ceased to concern itself” with Enoch, while “only a few traces are still found, persisting for a short time longer, in the Greek Church.” All that the Middle Ages had to show as the sole remnant of the book of Enoch was a miserable Arabic proverb, “piety brings easy money,” which is not from Enoch at all.
The Rumors Fly
With the first dawn of the Reformation, rumors of the existence of a real book of Enoch began to stir. About the time that Columbus set sail Johann Reuchlin was excited by the report that the famous Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494) “had purchased a copy of the book of Enoch for a large sum of money.” The report may well have been authentic, according to Nathaniel Schmidt, who notes that it “is possible … that Pico’s collection contained a copy of the Hebrew Enoch … [T]here may also have been a copy of the Ethiopic Enoch.” Rumors gave rise to the usual impositions and frauds, and in 1494 Reuchlin wrote against those who produced books with exciting titles, claiming that they were the books of Enoch, proven by their age to be more holy than other books, falsely claiming some to have been Solomon’s, and so easily beguiling the ears of the ignorant. He had heard, he states, of one such book for sale, which he assumes to be a late forgery based on Josephus. This did not mean that Reuchlin ceased to look for the real book of Enoch. In 1517 he wrote that “the books of Enoch and Abraham, our father, were cited by men worthy of faith, and countless examples of ancient authors whose works are now lost to our age confirm the probability of their works having been lost in the same way, still we do not doubt that a great number have survived.”
With the widespread “rediscovery” of the Bible in the Reformation, “the Book of Enoch excited much attention and awakened great curiosity,” just as it did among those to whom the Book of Mormon came in a later age of enlightenment. But, as is well-known, the great reformers in their all-out zeal for the Bible condemned the “miserable Apocrypha” for presuming to be classed with it. John Calvin considered Enoch to be no more than an ordinary mortal, whose translation to heaven was nothing more than “some extraordinary kind of death,” and he held with the Jewish doctors that Enoch’s “walking with God” meant no more than that he received inspiration. In 1553 the humanist Guillaume Postel, acclaimed at the court of France for his first-hand knowledge of the Near East, announced, “I have heard that there is reason for believing that there are Books of Enoch at Rome, and an Ethiopian priest has told me that that book is held to be canonical and is attributed to Moses in the Church of the Queen of Sheba [the Abyssinian Church].” The famous Codex Alexandrinus, which was presented to Charles I of England in 1633, was accompanied from Egypt as far as Constantinople by a Capuchin monk, Gilles de Loches, who had been living in Egypt. That monk told Peiresc, the famous scholar and manuscript collector of Pisa, about a monastery possessing 8,000 volumes, in which he had seen a book of Enoch. As the German Orientalist Ludolf recounted a generation later, “Gassendi, in his Life of Peiresc, writes among other things of a certain Capuchin, Aegidius Lochiensis, who had spent seven years in Egypt: He says he mentioned among other things a Mazhapha Einok, or Prophecy of Enoch, declaring what would happen up to the end of the world, a book hitherto not seen in Europe, but written in the character and language of the Ethiopians or Abyssinians among whom it was preserved. By this Peiresc was so excited and so on fire to buy it at any price, that he spared no means to make it his own.” It is now known that this was the authentic Ethiopian Enoch, but Schmidt comments that the scholarly reaction at the time was to suppose that Peiresc had been duped.
The last authentic excerpt to be written from the book of Enoch was the first to be discovered, 800 years later: it was that prince of scholars, Joseph Justus Scaliger, who around 1592 recognized the passage mentioned above when it was quoted by the Byzantine historian Syncellus as a genuine excerpt from the lost book of Enoch. Yet Scaliger “spoke in very disparaging terms of the book … although he maintains that the apostle Jude quoted it.” So there the matter rested, with Enoch discredited and dismissed by the very man who had discovered him.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, scholarship lost its former imagination and drive, thanks to the competitive scepticism of experts determined to demonstrate their solid conservatism to each other. Peiresc’s manuscript of Enoch ended up in the Mazarin Library in Paris, whither in 1683 the Prussian scholar Job Ludolf repaired with considerable publicity to put it to the test. Schmidt records that Ludolf promptly concluded that it was not the book of Enoch at all: “But that it is not Enoch is at once apparent from the title alone: ‘Revelations of Enoch in Ethiopian’” As for the content of the book, it simply nauseated him: “To tell the truth it contains such gross and vile stinking [putidas] fables that I could hardly stand to read it … Let the reader then judge how beautiful these ‘revelations’ of Enoch are, how worthy of their magnificent binding and sumptuous edition! We would rather keep silent regarding this most idiotic of books, were it not that so many illustrious men have made mention of it.” Ludolf examined it at the Mazarin Library, and declared it utterly bad; but then, Schmidt sums it up, “Ludolf, who did not believe there ever was a book of Enoch, may be pardoned …” May he? That was his trouble to begin with—he did not believe there ever was such a book, just as those Egyptologists who were asked to pass judgment on the book of Abraham approached their task with the settled conviction that there never was such a book. For him, as for them, only one conclusion was possible.
But the Christian world gratefully received the final verdict of the learned (even as they did again in 1912!), and as a result the study of Enoch was dropped for 90 years, until the discovery of new manuscripts broke the intellectual logjam. Until Ludolf’s pronouncement, the search for Enoch had been “a subject richly productive of criticism and theological discussion”; but once Berlin had spoken, “the idea that a book of Enoch existed in Ethiopia was completely abandoned, and no one gave it another thought.” As one scholar observed with relief as late as 1870, “But when Job Ludolph went afterwards to Paris to the Royal Library, he found it [the Enoch manuscript] to be a fabulous and silly production. In consequence of this disappointment, the idea of recovering it in Ethiopic was abandoned.” As a result of Ludolf’s authoritative contribution “all hopes of obtaining the book seem to have died away throughout Europe … It was generally supposed, that it must be ranked among the books irrecoverably lost.” Even down to the present time when they should know better, “modern editors and commentators,” according to N. Schmidt, go on “repeating with approval the disdainful remarks of Ludolf.”
And so, following the well-worn path of self-certified scholarship, the experts would have gone on automatically repeating each other for generations with the book of Enoch safely laid to rest as a myth, were it not for three copies of that same Ethiopian version, which the famous explorer James Bruce brought home with him from his epoch-making journey to the sources of the White and the Blue Nile in 1773.