The Enoch Code

This is puzzling.

On multiple occasions, I have written about the ancient text known as 1 Enoch, which the early church regarded as almost canonical. From the early Middle Ages, though, the book was mostly lost to the West, and was only rediscovered in the eighteenth century in Ethiopian translations. Although this lengthy book deals with many subjects, one long section (chapters 72-87) is an astronomical and calendrical treatise, concerning the stars.

Now here’s the problem. In 1616, Sir Walter Raleigh (he of discovering tobacco fame) wrote his History of the World. This includes a scholarly and seemingly specific Enoch reference:

But of these prophecies of Enoch, Saint Jude testifieth; and some part of his books (which contained the course of the stars, their names and motions) were afterward found in Arabia Felix, in the Dominion of the Queene of Saba (saith Origen) of which Tertullian affirmeth that he had seen and read some whole pages.


Raleigh knows of a book attributed to Enoch, which includes astronomical material, and that fits 1 Enoch perfectly. Raleigh bases this comment on Origen, specifically his Homilies on Numbers.

All of which is well and good, and he is accurately summarizing the Origen passage – except for the note about the Arabian discovery. Nor is that cited in Tertullian, who regarded Enoch highly as a prophet, and wrote a good deal about him.

It is perfectly plausible that part of the astronomical section might have been discovered in antiquity, in Arabia or elsewhere, and that this was noted in some patristic (Byzantine?) source that Raleigh had read somewhere along the way. In this text, though, he was going on memory, because he was in prison at the time of writing, without full access to his normal library.

So what was Raleigh thinking of? I have never seen a convincing answer to this question. Could he really have been using a source otherwise unknown to scholarship?

What is doubly interesting here is that we know that different portions of what became 1 Enoch originally circulated independently, and the Astronomical Book was a free standing text. Several copies of it were found at Qumran. Raleigh’s note suggests the finding of a truly ancient version of the material, before it had been combined with the other portions. But what on earth is the source? Am I missing something obvious?

Any thoughts?

Problem now solved, I think!

The following is an update, December 2, 2014:

Based on the helpful and insightful comments below, I have been able to resolve the problem I identified. I stress that these commenters gave me the essential leads I needed for the solution.

My main source for this is Ariel Hessayon, “Og King of Bashan, Enoch and the Books of Enoch,” in Ariel Hessayon and Nicholas Keene, eds Scripture and Scholarship in Early Modern England (Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 1-40.

I summarize. In the fifteenth century, Rome had a sizable Ethiopian community, and Ethiopians traveled here. In 1548, an Ethiopic New Testament printed in Rome.

One member of the Ethiopian religious community here was a monk who in 1546 met the brilliant antiquary Guillaume Postel, and among other things, allegedly explicated the work of Enoch to him. In his book De Etruriae Regionis (Florence 1551), Postel expressed his belief “Enoch’s prophecies made before the Flood were preserved in the ecclesiastical records of the Queen of Sheba, and that to this day they were believed to be canonical scripture in Ethiopia.” He wrote more on this in his De Originibus (1553). So that’s the Queen of Sheba link.

Postel’s work found an English readership through scholar John Bale (1495-1563). Magician John Dee also owned a copy of the De Originibus, which he annotated heavily. It’s not surprising then that around 1580, when John Dee and Edward Kelley channeled what they believed to be mystical symbols, they interpreted them as “Enochic.” Dee, seemingly, knew everybody, and certainly was friendly with Walter Raleigh. Among other things, Dee inspired and supported voyages of colonial exploration, and actually coined the name “British Empire.”

But the short answer as to where Raleigh got his “Queen of Sheba” reference was, probably: from Postel, via Dee. He misremembered the source he was using as Tertullian.

My compliments to Ariel Hessayon for fine scholarship.

Case closed?



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  • michael spine

    Batho’s article from 1960 on The Library of the ‘Wizard’ Earl: Henry Percy Ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632) may suggest texts the Earl had at his disposal while imprisoned in the tower — as well as hints to his collection used by those who considered him their patrons. You may have already explored this angle. I am a novice and have little knowledge in the area. Just a bit of historical interest in Raleigh. Wonderful article thank you.

  • philipjenkins

    Very useful, thanks!

  • James Manley

    Raleigh refers to the “Queene of Saba”. Perhaps he means the Queen of Sheba, associated with both Ethiopia and the Southwestern part of Arabia (Arabia felix)? Maybe he has an early lead on the Ethiopian text (or has an older text referring to it) and is misplacing it as being found in Arabia.

  • philipjenkins

    You’re certainly right about Saba, but where is he finding that original reference?

  • FA Miniter

    The Portuguese were involved in Ethiopia for a period time beginning in 1490, when missionaries arrived there. Finding a Christian (coptic) community there, they informed the King who sent off a letter addressed to Prester John. The Portuguese stayed until about 1543, and assisted the Ethiopians in a war against Muslim neighbors.

    It very well may be that the Portuguese missionaries saw the 1 Enoch documents. Raleigh certainly could have come in contact with the Portuguese during his many voyages.

  • michael spine

    John Dee was a member of the Percy/Raleigh/Harriot circle of Syon House and the Elizabethan group of astronomers — he “discovered” the Enochian language and alphabet, allegedly the first language of Adam and the Angels. Clearly deep interest in Enoch existed in the circle and undoubtedly relied on some scholarship. Dee also had an extensive library. Donald Laycock suggests that it is possible that Dee had a copy of the Book of Enoch in Ethiopian that he may not have been able to translate — did he invent the language of the Angels from this document? I think the documents referenced resided in the libraries of Dee or Percy (both extensive) — at either Syon House or in the library Percy organized in the tower of London during his imprisonment. Raleigh was in the tower as well until 1616…

  • philipjenkins

    Yes, and I really wonder how Dee (and Kelley) lighted on Enoch as the source of their inspiration. My preference would be to find a patristic source that I am simply missing, but Raleigh could be drawing on these odder influences.

  • philipjenkins


  • michael spine

    Dee was fascinated by Enoch but did not enjoy the full text of it. He may have had a desire to clarify and purify Christianity in a time when Protestantism and Catholicism were diverging. Enoch was known from other writings and also fragments of the book itself. The angels completed the gaps in Enoch as a sort of precursor to the Old and New testaments. And clarified and cleaned the truth of the Bible for the final age, in which Dee believed he lived. Dee was very Christian while Kelly was an alchemist who wanted to harness the power of the book.

    Its All I can think of Dr Jenkins.