One of the most exciting areas today in Biblical scholarship (broadly defined) is the Enoch Seminar. Founded in 2001, it originally focused on the literature associated with the patriarch Enoch, but has since branched out massively, almost to become a field in its own right. The changing limits of that field are fascinating, both for their present state and their emerging dimensions.
The main Seminar meetings occur regularly in a variety of international settings, and are strictly intended for credentialed scholars, by invitation only. The actual roster of experts varies widely on each occasion, but with some continuity. Since 2006, there is also a graduate seminar that meets every two years, most recently last week in Austin TX, where I had the privilege of serving as a faculty mentor.
So what does the Enoch Seminar do? It describes its topic areas as “Second Temple Judaism, Christian, Rabbinic and Islamic Origins,” and that staggeringly broad reach is deliberate. The basic theme is that the Jewish world between, say, 300 BC and 200 AD, included a great many ideas and themes, some of which fit well into standard and orthodox views of Jewish history, but others would be viewed as Christian, Jewish-Christian, Gnostic or Jewish-sectarian.
At the time, though, those various ingredients all belonged in one common cauldron of ideas, without hard boundaries separating them. Nor was it obvious which elements were going to become components of world religions, and which would be consigned to obscure heresies. The more you investigate this period, moreover, the more absurd become the traditional divisions that scholars once drew about which texts were “more Jewish,” and which Gentile or Hellenistic. (See for instance 150 years of debate on the Gospel of John).
One theme that emerges repeatedly: just because an idea or theme does not fit within the mold of later Rabbinic Judaism does not mean that its origins were not thoroughly Jewish.
This is, in fact, one of the most critical eras in the history of religion. It also left a vast range of writings, including standard Jewish and Christian texts, but also a range of apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. You get a sense of the scope we are dealing with here from the various edited volumes that have emerged from the Seminar. In 2009, for instance, the main Seminar met in Italy, and its discussions appeared under the title New Perspectives on 2 Enoch, edited by Andrei A. Orlov and Gabriele Boccaccini. In 2012, again, the Seminar pursued the theme The Seleucid and Hasmonean Periods and the Apocalyptic Worldview, and that is now the title of the just published collection, edited by Lester L. Grabbe and Gabriele Boccaccini, with Jason M. Zurawski. For anyone working in the areas of early Jewish history and Christian origins, these collections are just indispensable.
To see what younger scholars are up to now, you can check out the titles of the recent Austin papers here. I stress, just the titles, not the full-length papers. All are very much works in progress, and the authors don’t want to give public access to works that are still in the course of development. Nor, understandably, do they want other people purloining their ideas before they can be properly published. But the list of topics is very wide, and deeply impressive, as was the dazzling diversity of themes. And so was the level of execution and presentation. If this is the next scholarly generation, this is wonderful news.
I had my own particular favorites from the papers presented, but won’t embarrass the ones I select or ignore!
One question that does occur. Just glance at the range of eras, themes and societies covered in this conference. How on earth would we find a single overarching description for all these, if we did not use the convenience term “Enochic”?
If you trace the Enoch field through the past sixteen years, it is intriguing to see the directions in which research has been leading, logically and almost inevitably. Today, the main area of focus is shifting to Islamic origins, and the roots of Islam in Jewish and Christian soil. If recent seminars are anything to go by, watch for major insights and unsuspected connections in that area.
And where next, we ask?
If you want to see the cutting edge actually cutting, this is where it is happening.