Apocalypse Preserved

Karl Shuve’s contribution to Apocalypses in Context traces the Christian use of Jewish apocalyptic, especially of the Book of the Watchers from 1 Enoch, which even makes it into the universal canon of the New Testament (Jude).

The Watcher story appears in Justin, who “blames ‘every evil’ on the Watcher angels, who in addition to teaching magic to humans begot a race of ‘demons (daimones)’ that constantly torment and oppress them (2 Apol. 5. . . . Indeed, Justin insists that their offspring were mistakenly worshipped by human beings as gods – in classical Greek, the word daimōn referred to an intermediary god—and he thereby indicts the whole of Greek and Roman religious practice as a gigantic fraud perpetrated by the Watchers.

Most remarkably, the text made it into the canon of the Ethiopian church: “the text was accepted into the scriptural canon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as part of a larger collection with the Similitudes of Enoch, the Astronomical Book, the Book of Dreams, and the Epistle of Enoch. These five apocalypses, which together are known as 1 Enoch, survive in full only in their translation into Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopic church, and are included in Ethiopic bibles as scripture.”

Thus, “by an interesting accident of history – one that should forcefully remind us of the close relationship between Judaism and Christianity in antiquity – scholars are able to assess the significance of Enoch and his revelations in Second Temple Judaism because of the reading habits and apocalyptic predilections of late antique Christians.”

When they got around to writing their own apocalypses, Christians often relied on the Book of Watchers, particularly expanding one feature: “What was a relatively minor element in the Book of the Watchers, i.e., a vivid descent into hell, was transformed by Christians in Late Antiquity into its own subgenre of apocalyptic literature, including later works such as the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Mary and the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Baruch. Indeed, these works are ultimately ancestors of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose significant debt to apocalyptic literature often goes unremarked.”

Quite a career: From ancient Jewish apocalyptic through the New Testament and the canon of the Ethiopic church to the epic poem of the Italian Renaissance.

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