Enoch and the Essene Hypothesis

The book known today as 1 Enoch not a single book, but rather a series of short books written over a period of time. They share some themes and interests, most obviously revelations given to Enoch. Since four of the five major sections of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, it would appear the Qumran community valued the books. But just because a book appears in a library is not sufficient evidence to conclude the owner of the book agrees with the contents. (For example, how many books in your personal library reflect what you actually believe?)

Essene-hypothesisGabriele Boccaccini argues in favor of a close relationship between the books of Enoch and the Qumran community. While there is no evidence to suggest the Essene community produced the documents which later became known as 1 Enoch, Boccaccini rightly notes the importance of this literature to the community, which he describes as a “a parent-child relationship.” (Boccaccini, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, 12). He believes “the mystery of Essene and Qumran origins is largely hidden in the Enoch literature” (Boccaccini, 13).

There are problems with this proposal, however. As Boccaccini admits, the presence of an anti-Zadokite Enoch in a pro-Zadok Essene library is troubling. Other elements which are important in the sectarian literature of Qumran are missing. “The Enochian texts offer some theological surprises to the thoughtful reader who is sensitive both to what is there and what is not there” (Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch, 5). No sacrificial cult in Jerusalem, for example. “Soteriology is knowledge in Enoch, divinely revealed secret knowledge” (Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch, 6).

Reconstructing the community which might have created this literature is clearly difficult. Commenting on the possibility of reconstructing 1 Enoch’s community, Nickelsburg rightly warns, “We see darkly in a tarnished and qumran-cavescratched mirror, and our interpretations of the images often present only one of several possibilities” (Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch, 3).  In Boccaccini’s reconstruction, the influence of Hellenism on the religion and practice of Israel is the impetus for the creation of this literature. As Hellenism made inroads into Jewish society in Palestine, those who argued for traditional Jewish values found themselves in a struggle for the hearts of the people.

That Israel is God’s elect is clear from the Hebrew Bible, but how that election relates to Jewish boundary markers was not always clear. The Hebrew Bible demonstrates clearly that God will judge between the righteous and the sinner, the elect and the non-elect. The Community which produced the material in 1 Enoch seems to have looked forward to a judgment of God which would sort out the true elect from the false.


Bibliography: Gabriele Boccaccini. Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998).

8 thoughts on “Enoch and the Essene Hypothesis

  1. Thanks again for dealing with important non-canonical texts, Phillip. I believe strongly that more of that is needed, particularly among “everything is quite clear” (perspicuity of Scripture) Evangelicals and traditionalists.

    If I understand this post rightly, it seems to suggest that at least by 70 A.D. or so (the departure or eviction of the Qumran Community), much of the Enoch lit. had been written. That lit. seems to have definite Gnostic elements. Does that not lend support to what I’ve come to think increasingly, that Gnosticism was a broad philosophical/religious development that began DURING if not even before the time of Jesus and the late Second Temple (pre-destruction-of-Jerusalem) period? And, thus, that it was not merely a Christian heresy, but influenced both Judaism and early Christianity and vice-versa?

    • Of the five major parts of 1 Enoch, four of them were present at Qumran. Usually the Book of the Watchers is dated after 300 B.C. and before the Maccabean Revolt, so generically the third century B.C. The dating of 2 Enoch and 3 Enoch is more tentative.

      “Gnostic elements” can only be described as Gnostic when the Gnostics start using them in the second century B.C. The various Gnostic writers picked up on whatever existing threads were current, some of those are also found in 1 Enoch. However, I would strongly resist called 1 Enoch Gnostic or Proto-Gnostic. I really do not know, but I doubt there is any direct reliance in a fully Gnostic text like the Gospel of Philip, for example, and 1 Enoch.

      Maybe someone who knows the Nag Hammadi lit better can correct me, but there may be a few parallels, but no reliance.

  2. As Boccaccini admits, the presence of an anti-Zadokite Enoch in a pro-Zadok Essene library is troubling.

    But is the Essene library pro-Zadok in a diametric way to the anti-Zadok Enoch corpus? I don’t think so. I think “Zadok” was by this time a cipher, a mantle that opposing groups could adopt. The authors who used “sons of Zadok” in the Qumran texts could have been asserting priestly priority and nothing more; that is, it is possible that both the priestly group known to us as the Sadducees and the sectarian group responsible for the DSS claimed descent from the same foundational figure, despite their opposing ideologies, much as political opponents in the US may each claim the “founding fathers” as their guiding light.

    • “I think “Zadok” was by this time a cipher, a mantle that opposing groups could adopt.”

      Probably, but remember the Essenes developed in opposition to the Hasmoneans who appointed non-Zadokie high priests (ie, themselves!) I think you are right that people were not as concerned with the High Priest as a “literal descendant of Zadok,” even if that were possible to prove in the mid second century BC.

      We just do not know why the Enoch literature was in the Qumran library, and one does not need to agree 100% with a book to read and study it. I have quite a bit of Jewish literature on my shelf (Mishnah and Talmud), but I am not a Jewish rabbi! (Actually, if archaeologists dig up my library on 2000 years they will be serious confused.)

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