The scriptures attributed to the Biblical figure of Enoch commanded immense respect in the early Christian church, but by the ninth century or so, these had largely vanished from use, in Europe at least. Not only were they treated with less respect, but they effectively disappeared. Why and how did this happen? What does this say about the standards that the church applied to decide whether or not a book could be included in the canon?
Signs of doubt about 1 Enoch appeared in the early third century, when Tertullian reported that other Christians rejected the book partly because it was not in the Jewish canon. In response, he suggested that Jews disliked a book that lent itself so easily to Christian understandings, but he was obviously on the defensive.
Christians were deeply aware of the opinion of the Jewish communities they lived amongst, often as close neighbors, and they were anxious not to show themselves less critical in their attitudes to canon. At this time, the Christian canon of the Old Testament was usually the Septuagint translation, which included Deuterocanonical books not found in modern Protestant Bibles. However, damningly, the Septuagint did not include 1 Enoch, which really did stigmatize it as late and apocryphal in nature.
Another other obvious objection to Enoch’s writings was the extreme antiquity that they claimed. Normally, ancient works were to be venerated, but it was suspicious that any such texts might have survived the Deluge that overcame the world several generations after Enoch’s time. Had Noah’s Ark really kept the book safe in a waterproof locker? Again, Tertullian has an answer for this argument:
I suppose they did not think that, having been published before the Deluge, it could have safely survived that world-wide calamity, the abolisher of all things. If that is the reason (for rejecting it), let them recall to their memory that Noah, the survivor of the deluge, was the great-grandson of Enoch himself; and he, of course, had heard and remembered, from domestic renown and hereditary tradition, concerning his own great-grandfather’s “grace in the sight of God,” and concerning all his preachings; since Enoch had given no other charge to Methuselah than that he should hand on the knowledge of them to his posterity. Noah therefore, no doubt, might have succeeded in the trusteeship of (his) preaching
Assume, though, that Noah had not in fact preserved the book:
he could equally have renewed it, under the Spirit’s inspiration, after it had been destroyed by the violence of the deluge, as, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian storming of it, every document of the Jewish literature is generally agreed to have been restored through Ezra.
Some decades afterwards, Origen was ambivalent against granting respectability to 1 Enoch.In his early career, he followed fellow-Egyptians like Atheangoras and Clement of Alexandria in accepting its scriptural authority. In later years, though, after he moved to Palestine, he became much more dubious (a point made by James VanderKam).
On some occasions, Origen presented the work as inspired, with authority equal to the Psalms. In debate though, he found it useful to denigrate it. In the second century, the pagan philosopher Celsus had cited the book as if it represented Christian doctrine. Not so, crowed Origen: “he does not appear to have read the passages in question, nor to have been aware that the books which bear the name Enoch do not at all circulate in the Churches as divine.” That did not mean that they were not read, but for Origen (on this occasion at least), they were not canonical.
In his Commentary on John, Origen quotes Enoch, but adds parenthetically “if we choose to accept that book as sacred” (adapting the translation). By the 240s, Origen describes the libelli (individual “booklets” or sections) that made up what we call 1 Enoch, and noted that “since those booklets do not appear to be regarded as authoritative among the Jews, for the moment we should postpone appealing to those matters that are
Increasingly, church leaders rejected Enoch’s claims to inspiration. The Latin West was much influenced by the views of Augustine in the City of God (15.23). Although he granted that apocryphal writings might include some truth,
yet they contain so many false statements, that they have no canonical authority. We cannot deny that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, left some divine writings, for this is asserted by the Apostle Jude in his canonical epistle. But it is not without reason that these writings have no place in that canon of Scripture which was preserved in the temple of the Hebrew people by the diligence of successive priests; for their antiquity brought them under suspicion, and it was impossible to ascertain whether these were his genuine writings, and they were not brought forward as genuine by the persons who were found to have carefully preserved the canonical books by a successive transmission. So that the writings which are produced under his name, and which contain these fables about the giants, saying that their fathers were not men, are properly judged by prudent men to be not genuine.
That would seem to be decisive enough, and Enoch does not appear even as a rogue addition to the lists of approved canonical texts. The whole process is a tribute to the church’s lively sense of historical criticism.
Even so, and despite the condemnation of such ecclesiastical giants as Origen and Augustine, we can trace the influence of the Enochic books for centuries afterwards. That survival is a powerful commentary on the durability of texts, especially when they were read so widely across the very broad canvas of a transcontinental Christian world.