Book Review: The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions

watchersTitle: The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions

Editors: Angela Kim Harkins and Kelley Coblentz Bautch

Bibliographic info: 224 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or at Fortress.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

Anyone familiar with Second Temple and New Testament studies will probably be aware of the proliferation of traditions associated with angels that were floating about. This collection of essays probes into the traditions associated with the fallen angels that arose from Gen. 6:1-4. These traditions elaborate upon this passage of Scripture by detailing what the angels (the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6, later to be called the “Watchers” in 1 Enoch) actually did, who they were, what resulted from their actions, and what their punishment was. These traditions can also be found in the New Testament (Jude 6 being the prime example).

This volume contains fourteen essays in total with the first seven discussing the origins and details of the fallen angel traditions as depicted in canonical and non-canonical texts. The first chapter, by Ida Fröhlich, is on Mesopotamian elements to be found in the Watchers traditions. The author contends that the kernel of the Book of Watchers (a.k.a. 1 Enoch 1-36) was “shaped either in a Babylonian Jewish diaspora community or perhaps in a community of returnees that maintained traditions from the Babylonian exile.” In other words, the author of the Book of the Watchers deliberately used Mesopotamian lore to explain the origins of evil. One example of this is to be found in the binding of Asael by Raphael and Shemihazah by Michael in the Book of Watchers, with the connection being  that “binding” is a recurring motif in the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elish. Another interesting thing mentioned in this chapter was Fröhlich stating that the literary figure of Enoch came from the Sumerian figure of Enmendurana (a.k.a. Enmeduranki). There wasn’t any reasoning given as to why this is (which is unfortunate), just a footnote with references to some further literature which must support this. After googling Enmendurana just now, I can see a basic reason for seeing a Enoch/Enmendurana parallel in the fact that Enmendurana was the seventh antediluvian Sumerian king (with the parallel being….. and if you are a biblical studies student you should automatically know this….. that Enoch is the seventh of the antediluvian Patriarchs). After reading this chapter I have to go hunt down some other literature on the possible Mesopotamian parallels.

Next up is Chris Seeman who explores how the Watchers traditions could have possibly affected ancient Greek translations of Genesis, particularly the LXX. Interesting tidbit I picked up from this chapter: with the exception of the Samaritan Pentateuch, there are no extant non-Masoretic witnesses to the Vorlage of the episode in Genesis 6. He discusses various other issues, such as who wrote it (and for whom), the relationship of the Nephilim to the offspring of the Sons of God (they may not necessarily be the same), and so forth.

In the next study Anathea Portier-Young focuses upon “the use of non-native myths and motifs in the formation of the early Watchers traditions.” Similarly to Fröhlich’s earlier chapter, Portier-Young sees the authors of the Book of Watchers adapting myths and motifs from Mesopotamian traditions, as well as Hellenic traditions. Why? “[In order] to mount a pointed critique of their Hellenistic rulers and the local cultic leaders who collaborated with them. In so doing they countered imperial claims to power and the ordering of the world.”

Next is Jeremy Corley’s chapter which explores echoes of the Watchers traditions that occur in the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. According to Corley, the closest connections are with Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira), but there are also traces to be found in Baruch, 3 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Eric Mason then takes a look at the reception of the Watchers traditions in the Catholic Epistles. Naturally the focus is upon Jude and 2 Peter, but 1 Peter may also contain some allusions. In Jude, he looks at vv. 6, 8, 13, and 14-15. There are also possible allusions to 1 Enoch 1:2 in Jude vv. 1-2 and 4 (as well as in 1 Enoch 48:10 and 67:10 but these two instances are not in the Book of Watchers of course), though these weren’t mentioned by the author. This is followed by Scott Lewis’ essay on a possible connection between Paul and the Enochic traditions found in 1 Cor. 11:10 (that women should be veiled during worship “because of the angels”). The last chapter in this first section is from Kevin Sullivan and discusses the association of the fallen angels with demons in the Watchers traditions.

The following four chapters are on developments of the Watchers traditions in Second Temple Judaism. Karina Martin Hogan provides a brief look at the Watchers traditions in both the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36) and the Animal Apocalypse (1 Enoch 85-90). John Endres looks at the Watchers traditions in Jubilees. Samuel Thomas looks at the Watchers traditions in the Dead Sea Scrolls. And Leslie Baynes looks at the Book of Parables (1 Enoch 37-71). It was good to see most of 1 Enoch being examined and not just the Book of Watchers portion.

The final three contributions focus upon the reception of the Watchers traditions in early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. Randall Chesnutt does this by examining the writings of Justin Martyr. Silviu Bunta’s text of choice is the Life of Adam and Eve, with the focus being on the tradition of Cain being offspring of Eve and an angel (or the Serpent). And in the final study, Joshua Ezra Burns examines the Watchers traditions in targum and midrash.

Most of these essays were relatively short (about 10-14 pages which is less when one takes away a page or two for the select bibliography and endnotes that each chapter has) and there was some repetition in them in regards to providing introductory information. The scope of the collection was good: from links to ancient Mesopotamian traditions, to references found in canonical and non-canonical literature, even to the writings of the early church and the rabbinical period. There are, of course, a lot of other topics that could have been studied in this book but naturally not every theory can be discussed in a small volume such as this. A glaring omission in this volume, however, was there being no study exploring the possible connection between the “Sons of God” of Genesis 6 and the Ugaritic divine council. I mean, if there is going to be a chapter on the Mesopotamian background then surely there should be one on this! Nevertheless, if you’re interested in ancient Jewish traditions about angels, particularly the Watchers traditions, then this book is right up your alley; it provides some great information on the traditions that arose out of Gen. 6:1-4 and ably demonstrates that the Watchers traditions had a pervasive influence on Jewish thinking and even in early Christian thought.

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