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A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 2

TitleA Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 2
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1975
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Issue Number12
Date PublishedDecember 1975
KeywordsBook of Enoch; Pearl of Great Price

Editor’s note: With the October 1975 issue, the Ensign began a series on the book of Enoch, authored by Hugh Nibley. As Part 1 recounts, early Christian writers knew and respected the book of Enoch, but biblical scholars neglected it in scorn after the excitement of the Reformation was over. However, James Bruce, exploring the sources of the Nile in 1773, brought back three copies. Part 2 describes the critical response—or lack of it—to these documents, and then turns to examining the four versions of the book of Enoch against which Joseph Smith’s writing must be judged.


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A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 2

By Hugh Nibley
Professor Emeritus of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University
Editor’s note: With the October 1975 issue, the Ensign began a series on the book of Enoch, authored by Hugh Nibley. As Part 1 recounts, early Christian writers knew and respected the book of Enoch, but biblical scholars neglected it in scorn after the excitement of the Reformation was over. However, James Bruce, exploring the sources of the Nile in 1773, brought back three copies. Part 2 describes the critical response—or lack of it—to these documents, and then turns to examining the four versions of the book of Enoch against which Joseph Smith’s writing must be judged.
Bruce was six years in Abyssinia and had learned the language, “and brought home with him a large collection of curious and interesting objects,” including some of the most valuable Christian Coptic manuscripts ever discovered as well as the three priceless Ethiopian Enoch texts. “Of these three copies, one he retained in Kinnaird House [the family seat in Scotland], another he presented to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the third he gave to the Royal Library in Paris.”
Bruce himself wrote: “Amongst the articles I consigned to the library at Paris was a very beautiful and magnificent copy [Ludolf had commented caustically on such waste of effort in the Peiresc manuscript] of the prophecies of Enoch in large quarto. Another was amongst the books of Scripture which I brought home, standing immediately before the Book of Job, which is in its proper place in the Abyssinian Canon; and a third copy I have presented to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. …”
But Dr. Ludolf had done his work well. There was a flurry of interest in Bruce’s finds, but it quickly subsided, and “for more than a quarter of a century these manuscripts remained as unknown as if they had still been in Abyssinia.” “Whatever may have been the curiosity of the public at the time of Bruce,” a Catholic scholar reports, “it seems to have been long since pacified; and as for the exemplar deposited in the library at Oxford, it slept a profound sleep.” The first public notice of the text was on the Continent, when in 1800 the famous Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy translated into Latin the first three chapters of the Paris manuscript and the opening lines of some other chapters; in the following year a German named Rink published a few of the same chapters at Koenigsberg. That was about it—and then silence for another twenty years.
It was a great and good man, Archbishop Richard Laurence of Cashel in Ireland, who restored the book of Enoch to the world. In “A Charge Delivered at Munster” in 1826 he plead, as the Protestant bishop of the most important Irish see, for Catholics and Protestants to learn to live together. For taking and holding this position through the years, Laurence was subjected to savage and relentless attacks from both the Protestant and the Catholic clergy. “His fears for public peace,” wrote the editor of The British Critic, Quarterly Theological Review, and Ecclesiastical Record, “appear to have strangely overpowered his anxiety for the cause of Scriptural truth. That endeavor to break down the strongholds of Popery in Ireland may occasion some disorder and provoke some retaliation, is, indeed, more than probable. But his Grace must know perfectly well that the gospel itself produced, at first, a formidable dislocation of society,” etc., etc.
From the other side, the Roman Catholic prelate attacked Laurence with equal vigor, deploring his appeals for Christian charity as “fulsome nonsense … the ways of God are not our ways; the Holy Ghost has told us that there is but one faith; and that without it it is impossible to please God.” The groundwork was being laid, even consciously, for the present-day tragedy of Ulster when the Anglican ministers took Laurence to task, declaring that they must “reconcile even the Archbishop of Cashel to the great and pious enterprise of diffusing the blessings of the Reformation throughout Ireland, and relieve him of his terrors lest the cause of Christianity should suffer in the conflict. It is true that a fiery furnace of persecution may even now be heating for many of those who shall turn upon the Church of their ancestors [i.e., the Irish Catholics]; it is true that fanaticism may lay a rude and violent hand on the standard of this great cause … but, his Grace has got to learn that in this world good and evil must ever grow up together; and that it hardly becomes a Christian warrior to sit down and count the cost, till the season of action is gone by! … He must acknowledge that there is something marvellous and awful in the present agitation of the public mind; and he will not surely be rash enough to deny that it may possibly be the sign of some great work which the Lord is about to perform in behalf of his Own truth …”
A century and a half later, the “great work” foreseen by a zealous clergy still goes on as a legacy of demoniacal hatred and bloodshed, and Richard Laurence stands vindicated not only as a champion of Christian charity but as one who has done more “for the cause of Scriptural truth” than all the rest of the clergy put together. For to him “belongs the honour of revealing to the world the treasure that had been hidden for so many ages, and which was almost universally supposed to be lost irrevocably”: the book of Enoch. Obliged to do all his work in the dark and damp Bodleian Library, which begrudged lending him manuscripts in which it had not the slightest interest, produced in 1821 a translation under the title, “The Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Production, now first translated, from the Ethiopic Ms. in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1821.”
This work was reviewed by de Sacy in the Journal des Savants in 1822, and a decade later A. C. Hoffman issued a Latin translation; in 1840 A. F. Gfroerer included a translation of Laurence’s English version in a Latin book of oddities. Not until 1851 was an Ethiopian text published, edited by A. Dillmann, who in 1853 issued a German translation containing passages not found in Laurence. The first French translation did not appear until 1856. Laurence himself issued a revised version of his Enoch in 1833, 1838, and 1842; of recent years more translations have been available in English. But the only book of Enoch available to anyone before 1830 was Laurence’s translation of 1821. It called forth three studies in English, which, being by unknown scholars, “hardly attracted the attention of the learned world at all”; and even so, the tendency of these works was not to enhance but to minimize the importance of Laurence’s Enoch. After 1821 no translation was available to the public until 1833, when Joseph Smith’s “Book of Enoch” was already three years old. Since we are to test that work by comparison with other versions since brought to light, it is important to ask at the outset just what other Enoch books Joseph Smith could have read. There is only one candidate: the Laurence translation of 1821. Could the Prophet have seen it before 1830? There would seem to be no possibility of that. Let us list the reasons for such a conclusion:
1) 1830 was a busy year for the Prophet Joseph; it saw the founding of the Church, the publication of the Book of Mormon, the sending of missionaries, much coming and going under persecution and pressure. It was also a banner year for revelation, including a sizable part of the Book of Commandments and the book of Moses. But for study? for research? for carefully digesting and critically exploiting a document like Laurence’s Enoch, 214 pages long with a 48 page introduction and footnotes? Any dealing with such a text would have left its mark on any work derived from it. All that work by a 24-year-old farmer in upstate New York who had just produced a Book of Mormon without any notes at all? Hardly! Laurence’s 1821 text only got into the hands of a few scholars in Europe and England, and they gave it scant notice: what would be the likelihood of a copy reaching Joseph Smith? By what grapevine? Who would transmit it and why? That is our next point.
2) Nobody in the learned world paid much attention to Laurence’s Enoch. As we have seen, after its publication the “zeal for the cause of this long sought relic of antiquity appears to have expired for a long time in England … In France the Book of Enoch scarcely awakened a sensation.” Even when the expedition of Napier to Magdala brought more Ethiopian manuscripts back to England, and the German missionaries whom he rescued brought yet more of them to Germany, those documents were promptly forgotten.
3) More to the point, the Christian ministry of all denominations neither liked Laurence’s Enoch nor wanted it. It was not circulated by them but suppressed. Just as Peiresc’s treasure, on the authority of Ludolf, was thrown out as “nothing more than a worthless tract, replete with fable and superstition,” so it was assumed from the first that the book of Enoch could only be full of “incantations and bestialities.” In 1828 the very learned Algernon Herbert observed, “It has been supposed that the authour of that epistle [Jude] received and cited, as a holy scripture, that which is called the Book of Enoch, being an ignorant and ridiculous effusion. … The book in question is so monstrously absurd, that no person citing it, … could have obtained credit with Tertullian. … A man so profoundly ignorant of criticism, as to receive the said book for divine revelation, and so nearly allied to the errours of gnosticism, as to believe in its contents,” could, he avers, never have written the Epistle of Jude.
One of the best studies ever made on the book of Enoch was written way back in 1840 by Michael Stuart, Professor of Sacred Literature in the Theological Seminary at Andover College, where in 1882 the first and only translation of the Ethiopian Enoch to appear in America was to be published. He was excited by the discovery, but for the message of the book of Enoch he had only contempt: “To what purpose is an appeal to a book confessedly apocryphal, and therefore of no authority? … I have not the most distant intention to refer to the book of Enoch, as a book of authority. I can never be brought to believe that the Ethiopians had any good right to place it in their Canon … My full belief is, that ‘our present Scriptures are the only and the sufficient rule of faith and practice.’” He recognizes the gulf between the book of Enoch and the doctors of the Church who condemned it, noting that what is found in their writings is “less repugnant to sound reason and philosophy, than what is found in the book of Enoch.” “No one now pretends that the book of Enoch is an inspired book,” he insists, though admitting that “time was, when individuals probably thought so.” Whereas the early Jewish writers and Christian fathers “quoted it as a holy book … almost all later fathers reject its claims to a place in the canon: as well they might … No claim to any authority on the part of the book will now be made by any intelligent man.”
There it is again—and in America’s most staid and respected school of divinity 135 years ago: the authentic, original early Christians just didn’t have the intelligence and sophistication to understand things as they really were. The later fathers were all right: they were educated men who understood things the way we do—but those primitive Christians and Jews! Take just one example: “The very basis of the first part of the book, viz. the alleged carnal intercourse of angels with the daughters of men, is an impossibility, not to say absurdity …” What could the writer have had in mind? Instead of asking that question, the churchmen of every denomination simply threw the book out of the window. To this day, in the official encyclopedias of the Lutherans and even in the literature of such fundamental literalists as the Seventh-day Adventists and the Mennonites, no articles appear under the name of Enoch. Nor do we find any mention of Enoch in the contemporary Vocabulary of Jewish Life or in the Book of Jewish Concepts. Though all the other great patriarchs have places of honor in these works, Enoch is out!
The Catholic clergy of Joseph Smith’s day fully shared the scorn of Protestants and Jews for the new discovery. “To him [Enoch] in the first centuries of the Church,” wrote the Abbe Glaire in 1846, “was attributed a work full of fables about the stars, the descent of the angels to earth, etc. But it appears that this production was fancied by the heretics, who, not content with falsifying the holy Scriptures, took advantage of the credulity of their stupid followers in spurious and fabulous works. Some critics pretend that this work, really by Enoch, has been disfigured by the hand of infidels; they base this claim on St. Jude … But St. Jude cites Enoch without any mention of his book …”
Later Catholic authorities deplore Enoch on the same grounds as they object to the Dead Sea Scrolls and other more recent discoveries, namely, that if taken seriously they would deprive Christianity of its sovereign claim to absolute originality: “To attribute great influence on the New Testament to the Book of Enoch as Charles does, is to ignore the powerful originality and divine inspiration of those to whom we owe the New Testament … Christ and the Apostles did not draw their doctrines from the Apocryphal works.” Who says they did? There are other explanations for the resemblance—and no one today any longer denies that resemblance. But it annoys the clergy to no end.
In a recent and important book, Klaus Koch has shown how Protestant and Catholic scholars alike through the years and right down until 1960 (when new discoveries forced them to change their attitude) resolutely steered clear of the basic apocalyptic works, of which Enoch is by all odds the most important, and C. P. Van Andel in his survey of the Enoch literature notes that no one has been willing to touch the vital question of Enoch and the New Testament since 1900. As recently as 1973, a writer in Scientific American pointed out how new manuscript discoveries, especially Enoch, are now for the first time requiring drastic revision of the conventional Christian and Jewish views regarding the nature of the early Christian and Jewish communities and their teachings.
4) Freethinkers might have exploited the so-called absurdities of Enoch against the Christians, but the latter had beaten them to the punch by promptly and vigorously disowning the book. Who, then, would have an interest in the book of Enoch? One might expect it to appeal to Masons or Rosicrucians, but it did not; Enoch is not found among the books favored by mystic or gnostic groups, and his name does not occur in their lists of inspired prophets. No library in America had a more representative collection of the works of the ancients than that of Thomas Jefferson, “for in his book-collecting no subject was overlooked by him.” Book No. 1 in Jefferson’s library was “Ancient History, Antwerp, including texts of Berosus, Manetho, etc.,” and the books that follow show an equal concern for getting at the truth and the whole truth where the ancients were concerned. The collection was systematically and diligently continued, with careful concern for the latest and best information, up until 1826. If one expected to find a copy of Laurence’s 1821 Enoch anywhere in America it would be in this library; but it is not. It was simply unknown in America.
5) This is thoroughly borne out in Michael Stuart’s long and careful study of 1840. The text Stuart uses is the 1838 edition of Laurence, whose work comes to him, 19 years after the first version, as a novelty. Indeed, his aim in writing his long studies is to make American clergymen aware for the first time of the existence of the book: “The possession of this work, in our country, is rare; and our public, so far from being acquainted with the contents of the work are in general not at all aware, as I have reason to believe, that the book has even been recovered and published to the world.” If this applies to the larger and far more widely publicized edition of 1838, who would have known anything of the 1821 edition, which Stuart does not even mention, and which went unremarked even in Europe by all but a few specialists?
Of the later edition, Stuart writes, “The reader, who is not in possession of it, and may not be able to procure it [he is writing for ministers rather than the general public], will naturally be desirous to know something more particular respecting so curious and interesting a relic of antiquity, and for his sake I shall proceed to give a more enlarged summary of its contents.”
The thing was virtually unobtainable in this country. And why not? Its only appeal was as a religious book, but the religious were all against it. “Curious and interesting” it may have been for Stuart, but not to be recommended to the untrained in its original form: “It is in vain for anyone to derive much from it which is intelligible. … For readers at large, the Book of the Luminaries is at present a sealed book.” The historical part is written “in a very obscure and sometimes even repulsive manner …” with some of the principal chapters an “insipid and almost monstrous production.” This was no book “for readers at large”!
And now comes a surprise. The same edition of Laurence was reviewed in the same year by another critic, who thought it was simply wonderful! The name of the critic was Parley P. Pratt, at that time, 1840, in England editing the official Latter-day Saint publication, The Millennial Star, in which his review appeared. Thus the Latter-day Saints first heard of Laurence’s Enoch in England, and greeted it with joyful surprise.
Far from being insipid, repulsive, and monstrous, for Elder Pratt, “this book carries with it indisputable evidence of being an ancient production. It steers clear of modern sectarianism, and savors much of the doctrine of the ancients, especially in regard to things of the latter day … it seems plainly to predict the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the mission of our elders … together with the later persecutions befallen our people in America … and the final result, and the complete triumph of the Saints.’” Extravagant as such conclusions may seem at first glance, recent studies of Enoch by non-Mormon scholars show it, as we shall see, to be surprisingly near the mark, for the book of Enoch was handed down through the centuries with the avowed intention of bringing comfort to the persecuted saints in every dispensation of the gospel.
Note that the 1838 edition of Laurence’s book of Enoch is brought to the attention of the Saints as an exciting novelty. It does not occur even to the alert and searching Brother Pratt to compare the writing to Joseph Smith’s 1830 book of Enoch, buried as it was in the book of Moses, to be published eleven years later in England under the title Extracts from the Prophecy of Enoch. What catches the eye of Parley P. Pratt are the parallels to the Book of Mormon and to the condition of the Church and the world in the last days. “We give the following extract, commencing at p. 156 [chapter 93:2ff], without further comment, and leave our readers to form their own judgment in regard to this remarkable book.” And he proceeds to quote passages peculiarly fitted to the condition of the Latter-day Saints at that time: “To the righteous and the wise shall be given the books of joy, of integrity, of great wisdom. To them shall books be given, in which they shall believe; in which they shall rejoice.”
Well might they be impressed, and should have remembered that Joseph Smith’s book of Enoch was given to them as a reward for their receiving and believing in the Book of Mormon. But the parallels escaped them as they have been overlooked by Saints ever since. In 1951 when Elder John A. Widtsoe presented the writer with a copy of the same text of 1 Enoch (the R. H. Charles edition of 1912), it was with the regretful comment that he had never found time to read it, and wondered if it contained anything of interest. At that time this writer himself had never read it—who had? It is only since about 1950 (with the discovery of Enoch texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls), as Koch and Van Andel point out, that anybody has begun to take this Enoch seriously. Pratt read the 1838 edition in England and there is no indication that any Church member in America owned a copy. The 1846 Inventory of Church Records includes no such title in the books of the Church Library taken across the plains.
7) This laboring of the only too obvious point, that Joseph Smith could not have used or known about the 1821 edition of Laurence’s book of Enoch, has been very necessary: (a) because that was the only translation of any ancient Enoch text available to anyone at the time he dictated Moses chapters 6 and 7 [Moses 6, 7], and (b) the two books are full of most significant parallels. If such parallels are to have any significance as evidence supporting the Prophet’s claims, we must of course rule out his use of the Laurence text.
Aside from the astronomical remoteness of such a probability, we have some useful positive “controls” which definitely show that such parallels are not dependent on the Laurence text. For many other manuscripts of the book of Enoch have come forth in various ancient languages since 1830, adding a great deal to the standard text which is not found in the 1821 version but which are found in the Joseph Smith Enoch. One of the most remarkable parallels, for example, is between some verses of Moses 7 and chapter 11 of the Ethiopian book of Enoch; yet that particular chapter was not included in the Laurence translation, and so could have been known to no one at the time.
8) Finally, even if Joseph Smith had had the rich apocryphal literature of our own day at his disposal, with the thousands of pages of Enoch, or even the 1821 text of Laurence, how would he have known how to handle the stuff? The Prophet’s book of Enoch is less than three chapters long; how was he to know from all that what to put in and what to leave out to produce a text that most nearly corresponds to what modern scholars view as the authentic original material of Enoch’s book? He did just that; he put together in a few hours the kind of text most closely corresponding to what specialists, after years of meticulous comparison of texts, come up with as the hypothetically essential text of Enoch. Let us now turn to the Enoch texts they have been using for their diligent comparative studies, and see how the Enoch story has emerged through the years. (To be continued.)