Something strange happened to the Jewish world in the third century BC.
Although the land was usually part of the Ptolemaic Empire, local authorities carried on ruling much as before, largely undisturbed in their power. If we read our main source for the period – the twelfth book of Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, roughly covering the years 320-160BC – there is little sign of seething discontent or intellectual ferment, at least before the 170s or so. Yet as I have noted, the few literary works that we can date to this period indicate quite radical changes under way in Jewish thought, changes that prefigure later trends in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. What was going on?
The best evidence for change comes in the several texts that would later be combined to form 1 Enoch, with its focus on angels good and evil, on the End of Days, on cosmic forces of evil, and messianic hopes. (The book has of course attracted a vast literature, by such scholars as Gabriele Boccaccini, Michael Knibb, George Nickelsburg, Annette Yoshiko Reed, and James C. VanderKam). Less striking than any single statement in the book is the lack of any suggestion that this was anything terribly new or revolutionary in the late third century, when the components are usually dated. 1 Enoch has a prehistory that we still do not understand.
Also, we are clearly not dealing with a lone genius creating his own mythical universe. The Enochic writing come from a tradition and presumably a group, and by far the best candidate for the movement involved would be the Essenes, whose ideas echo those of the Enochic writings at so many points. The problem is one of chronology. Although so much is obscure about the Essenes, their existence is not actually recorded before the mid-second century. (In recent academic debate, the influential idea that the Dead Sea sect spun off from an earlier, third century, Essene movement is usually called the Groningen Hypothesis).
Might we legitimately hypothesize the existence of Enochians, who became our known Essenes, who in turn spun off the Dead Sea sect?
Rather than focus on any one lone genius, then, let me suggest some issues that were simmering in the background at this time, and which led some Jews to explore daring new ideas:
–The Temple. The Second Temple built in the fifth century enjoyed far less prestige and evident sanctity than the first, and it was tainted by its association with Gentile rulers and an unpopular high priestly caste. It is not surprising that some religious Jews would condemn the approved cult to the point of secession. If not an actual break, as occurred with the Dead Sea sect, then we would expect serious dissidence.
–Hellenization. Hellenistic rule meant that Jews were now exposed to a bewildering range of foreign influences from both east and west. Judaism was part of a wider world, an Oikoumene. In the early second century, Jewish elites were famously divided over attempts to Hellenize, with circumcision as a key source of controversy. Although we don’t hear about such debates in earlier decades, our sources for that period are strictly limited, and running controversies were probably in progress. It has even been suggested that the evil fallen angels in 1 Enoch might represent veiled attacks on the Hellenistic rulers, with their divine claims and titles.
–The Rise of Scripture. In Second Temple Judaism, we see a decline from the charismatic and prophetic guidance claimed in earlier centuries, as Jews turned to what was increasingly a defined and closed body of scriptures. Although the process was lengthy, it was certainly under way no later than the third century BC, when Egyptian Jews knew that translating the sacred books into Greek was essential to preserving their religion. At the start of the second century, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) chapters 44-50 lists a Biblical canon very much like what would be known in later centuries, and the great patriarchs and prophets found in it. (Intriguingly, he begins with Enoch). By the end of that century, the Letter of Aristeas first refers to the Hebrew scriptures as the Books, ta Biblia, and as Scripture. In the first century AD, Josephus says the canon closed in the time of Artaxerxes, around 420BC.
In those Books – in the “Bible” – the faithful read, meditated and found explanations, including for the evils that had overtaken the religion. This increased the likelihood of sectarian division, as different groups found independent justifications and interpretations, and created their new alternative scriptures. Over time, those sects even considered going into formal schism, and declaring themselves the true core of faith. As Protestant Christians have long known, a book-based faith is likely to be both diverse and sectarian.
Linked to the rise of scripture was the creation of a new profession, of scribes, and new institutions, the synagogues.
–The Problem of Evil. Eastern ideas of a coming Judgment proved particularly attractive, in promising a time when those who betrayed or violated the true faith could be duly punished. Meanwhile, readers sought Biblical explanations for the evils affecting the land. Judging by the quasi-scriptural outpourings over the next century or two, the story of the Watchers in Genesis 6 proved a uniquely fruitful source for speculation. Even better, that passage went directly from describing the fallen angels to portraying God’s great judgment of an evil world, in the form of the Great Flood.
That Genesis-derived sequence of the rise of evil and the ensuing Judgment does much to shape concepts of eschatology, and of the apocalyptic literature that emerged to describe the End of Days.
I can’t point to any one moment where these themes came together, but all were present by 250 or so. They achieved definitive form in 1 Enoch, especially the Book of the Watchers, and then went on to transform Jewish thought.