At my church not long ago, the Sunday reading was from 2 Samuel, giving David’s unforgettable lament for Jonathan. Preceding that, though, was a cryptic reference attributing a statement to the Book of Jasher. That is not the only Biblical reference to a now lost book: we have (or to be more precise, don’t have) the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the book of Samuel the seer, the book of Nathan the prophet, and so on. Sometimes such texts are lost entirely, but on other occasions they survive through partial quotations in known writings. In my next couple of columns, I will be writing on one such semi-lost text, namely the Book of Noah. I will be drawing throughout on an excellent collection of essays published by Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel, eds., Noah and his Book(s) (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).
Through the story of the Ark, Noah is a very well known figure in Christian history and popular culture. So familiar is he in fact that we may underestimate his role as a pivotal figure in Jewish and early Christian thought, and not merely as the justification for toymakers or documentary film-makers. Noah mattered immensely, and so did members of his family, who all became the subjects or alleged authors of multiple pseudepigrapha and pseudo-scriptures. I barely exaggerate when I say that in Second Temple Judaism, Noah attracted almost as much attention as Abraham or Moses. The reasons for that focus demand discussion.
I have repeatedly stressed the significance of the book of 1 Enoch in Jewish thought. In this book, the earliest portions of which date to the late third century BC, we see the first manifestations of so many ideas that would dominate the following centuries: archangels and angels (personally named and identified), the war of good and evil, angelic revelations and heavenly ascents, apocalyptic visions and the Son of Man, and so on. The Enochic literature matters enormously, as does the question of why the whole package of ideas seems to come out of nowhere at the time it does.
Enoch fascinated early readers because of the very strange reference to him in Genesis, where we learn little except that he apparently left the earth because God took him up. Technically, though, much of 1 Enoch does not directly concern that esoteric sage, but rather his great-grandson, Noah. Moreover, these Noah passages – these presumed remnants of a lost Book of Noah – contain many of the most startling and innovative religious ideas in 1 Enoch.
The classic reconstruction of the Book of Noah is summarized in R. H. Charles’s entry on “Apocalyptic Literature” in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is conveniently reprinted in Wikipedia. I emphasize that some scholars challenges many aspects of this account, at least in imagining the Book as a single unified source, or defining precisely what it might have included. Still, one of the finest authorities on pseudpigrapha, Michael Stone, concludes that “It seems to me more likely than not that a book or books of Noah existed in the third century BCE or earlier. Some material drawn from this document is preserved in [the Aramaic Levi Document], Jubilees, and the Genesis Apocryphon.”
R. H. Charles then identifies another fragment of the Book of Noah in 1 Enoch chapters 60-69, suggesting that an editor clumsily altered and original reference to “Noah” to “Enoch.” Certainly this section contains references to the story of the Watchers, for instance in ch.64: “I heard the voice of the angel saying: ‘These are the angels who descended to the earth, and revealed what was hidden to the children of men and seduced the children of men into committing sin’.” The Noah material then becomes more explicit from chapter 65 onwards:
And in those days Noah saw the earth that it had sunk down and its destruction was nigh. And he arose from thence and went to the ends of the earth, and cried aloud to his grandfather[sic] Enoch: and Noah said three times with an embittered voice: Hear me, hear me, hear me.’
The Watchers story, presumably also from the Book of Noah, is referenced yet again in chapters 54-55. Noah’s voice is heard in Chapter 68:
And after that my grandfather Enoch gave me the teaching of all the secrets in the book in the Parables which had been given to him, and he put them together for me in the words of the book of the Parables.
Another apparent fragment follows in chapters 106-107, which describes Noah’s birth and parentage.
Other portions of the Book of Noah almost certainly appear in the mid-second century BC Book of Jubilees. Noah’s children are troubled by malignant demons, causing Noah to pray to God:
But do Thou bless me and my sons, that we may increase and Multiply and replenish the earth. And Thou knowest how Thy Watchers, the fathers of these spirits, acted in my day: and as for these spirits which are living, imprison them and hold them fast in the place of condemnation, and let them not bring destruction on the sons of thy servant, my God; for these are malignant, and created in order to destroy.
I will discuss this episode more in a later post.
It is open to question whether the author of Jubilees actually had a copy of Noah to hand, or whether he was finding it in another source such as Aramaic Levi.
Some version of a Book of Noah also existed at Qumran, among the Dead Sea Scrolls (for fragmentary remains, see 1Q19). The fact that no such book was described or condemned by early Christian church authorities suggests that it disappeared early, likely in pre-Christian times.
In my next post, I will suggest reasons why the Book of Noah is so important for studying a seminal period of Jewish history – the third century BC – for which we have so few other sources.