Loren T. Stuckenbruck, The Myth of the Rebellious Angels: Studies in Second Temple Judaism and New Testament Texts. WUNT 335. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
Many of us living in cultures shaped in fundamental ways by the Bible will have some passing familiarity with the primordial stories of Genesis, from the creation of the world and humans to the great flood during the lifetime of Noah. Most would be less familiar with a gripping tale about the origins and persistence of evil linked to the biblical accounts of Enoch and Noah, apparently first put down in writing some time during the Second Temple period. The story is that of a rebellious, fallen band of angels and the gigantic sons they produced with human women, a basic form of which has endured through many centuries. The story continues to surface today, in places as diverse as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Ari Handel and Darren Aaronofsky’s 2014 film Noah.
In this volume of collected articles—most of them published previously in a variety of scholarly venues, though updated here—Loren Stuckenbruck of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, takes the reader on a detailed exploration of the birth and early history of this legend as attested in ancient Judaism and earliest Christianity. There are few, if any, as capable of guiding this tour, and though these individual studies were not originally intended to be read as part of a comprehensive account, readers of this book will come away with a rich understanding of the myth of the fallen, rebellious angels and their offspring as understood in ancient Judaism and Christianity. They will also gain an appreciation of the breadth and scholarly acumen of Stuckenbruck’s work on this topic, which is truly remarkable. In this review, I aim to introduce readers to texts and traditions associated with the myth of the rebellious angels, touching on current scholarly discussions around them.
Stuckenbruck begins with a helpful overview of biblical and later second- to third-century CE passages linked to the “sons of God” (see Gen 6:1-4) —who would come to be known as the fallen angels, or Watchers—and their monstrous offspring, the giants. The discussion of biblical material is focused especially on differences between the ancient Hebrew (MT) and Greek (OG/LXX) versions, the latter seeing a development and standardization of the more ambiguous MT in the direction of portraying the children of the rebellious angels as “giants.” The biblical picture is further clarified and filled out by the accounts of Alexander Polyhistor (as preserved in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica) and the various booklets of 1 Enoch. Each text records a different, but roughly analogous, tradition of the rebellious angels and giants, who are linked to the destruction of the flood in Noah’s lifetime. An area of special focus for Stuckenbruck is a comparison between the flood account in Alexander Polyhistor’s euhemeristic account, where the giants are portrayed as great, culture-bearing humans such as Abraham, and 1 Enoch, where the giants survive as malignant, body-less spirits that roam the earth. Various other texts are brought to bear on the discussion (e.g., Jubilees, 3 Maccabees), and this broad first chapter serves to set the stage for subsequent ones, which are often more narrow in scope.
The next two essays concentrate on two traditions affiliated with the Watchers and giants as illuminated by the Dead Sea Scrolls: The story of the giants, and a Jewish legend about Noah’s astounding birth. The first focuses on a Second Temple period Aramaic text first discovered among the Scrolls and published by J. T. Milik, the Book of Giants. Stuckenbruck supplements his investigation of this Jewish composition with a partially derivative Manichaean work. Together, these sources allow Stuckenbruck to build profiles of individual giants named in the texts, some of whom depend on antecedent Mesopotamian traditions known from the Epic of Gilgamesh (e.g., Hobabish and Gilgamesh). The essay concludes with a general sketch of the giants, emphasizing their “composite” nature (part human, and part animal or angel), and how some of the names and descriptions demonstrate a knowledge of Mesopotamian traditions by Jewish authors. The second essay brings together several texts that treat the birth of Noah as an astounding, portentous event tied to the salvation of humanity at the time of the flood. At the core of this essay is a comparison of two ancient Jewish versions of this story, in 1 En 106-107 and the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20), which was not known before its discovery in Qumran Cave 1. Both texts tell an entertaining tale about Noah’s father, Lamech, who worried about the infant’s parentage because of its remarkable physical traits (shining eyes, white hair, an ability to stand and talk at birth). Somewhat surprisingly, Lamech surmises that his wife Batenosh was unfaithful and slept with a Watcher, implying that Noah is a giant. In the end, Enoch quells Lamech’s concerns, assuring his grandson that Noah’s appearance signals his special election by the Most High to save humanity. Stuckenbruck conducts a detailed comparison of the stories, and weighs in on a lively scholarly discussion around their literary relationship. Based on several striking verbal parallels, some scholars have argued for direct literary dependence of one text on the other. Stuckenbruck, however, sees the evidence best supporting the notion of a common source, which was drawn upon independently by each author.
The next chapter provides a survey of demonic beings in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Working painstakingly through the various types of demonic (or demon-related) beings encountered in the Scrolls, Stuckenbruck orders his discussion of relevant texts under the multiple Aramaic and Hebrew terms used for such beings. The survey is drawn together with a historical synthesis, in which Stuckenbruck observes that earlier, Aramaic texts exhibit a wide array of names and functions for demonic beings, with a marked interest in itemizing and classifying malevolent powers so that they can be controlled by humans. In later, Hebrew texts, such as Jubilees and Songs of the Maskil, a shift can be perceived, with Jewish authors now gathering and reformulating ideas from the earlier literature. These reformulations would prove influential for the Qumran sect (particularly its liturgy) and, later, Christianity.
Some additional texts and themes are introduced over the next three essays, rounding out the portion of the book dedicated chiefly to early Jewish literature. The first concerns the relationship between the book of Daniel and the Enochic writings, which some scholars have argued are the products of distinctive, competing Jewish groups from the Second Temple period. Stuckenbruck draws attention to the notable interconnections between Daniel, the so-called pseudo-Daniel texts, the Book of Giants, and 1 Enoch, making the point that common assumptions of Daniel’s priority over, and influence upon, other early Jewish works is less certain than many admit. This contention is driven home through a careful comparison of the “throne theophany” scenes in Daniel 7, the Book of Giants, and 1 Enoch, with Stuckenbruck concluding that Daniel has likely not influenced directly the strikingly similar Book of Giants account. A connection to the volume’s main theme obtains in that the throne visions of 1 Enoch and the Book of Giants concern the judgment of the Watchers and giants for their wickedness, something that distinguishes these texts from Daniel, despite their formal similarities. A following study on the “magico-medical” theme in Tobit is somewhat further afield, relating to the rebellious angels only in that the angel Raphael in Tobit reveals magico-medical knowledge to Tobiah, knowledge associated with the Watchers in 1 Enoch and angels in Jubilees. Stuckenbruck draws attention to the shifting attitudes toward “medicine” in the different recensions of Tobit, attributing to Tobit (along with other texts like Ben Sira) a comfort with pharmacological cures that was either not present, or militated against, in earlier Israelite texts. While a shift in attitude is easily discerned between texts like 2 Chronicles 15:23 and Ben Sira 37-38, this is a rare point in the book where I found myself disagreeing with Stuckenbruck’s general argumentative framework, especially in his distancing of the view in Tobit from those in the Prayer of Nabonidus, the Genesis Apocryphon, and 1 Enoch, all of which I consider to be compatible. Pivoting back to a more direct focus on the Watchers and giants, Stuckenbruck next examines Philo’s treatment of them in On the Giants and related philonic writings, particularly the Questions and Answers on Genesis. The animating question of this essay is whether Philo had any direct knowledge of earlier Aramaic and Hebrew traditions on this topic, mainly 1 Enoch and the Two Spirits Treatise. While the answer to this question is ambiguous, the chapter provides an excellent primer on Philo’s unique approach to biblical texts that inspired speculation on Watchers and giants elsewhere in Judaism, and to Philo as an interpreter of scripture more generally.
The remaining seven essays interact more explicitly with themes and texts that would eventually come to be called Christian, especially those present in the New Testament. A common thread throughout this part of the book is Stuckenbruck’s effort to better understand various aspects of these ancient “Christian” texts against the backdrop of Jewish traditions concerned with the origin of evil, spiritual beings, and illness found in works like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and Two Spirits Treatise. In taking this approach, Stuckenbruck repeatedly stresses how deeply Jewish the New Testament is on the topics under investigation. Beginning with an exploration of the various accounts surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth, he moves on to treatments of demon expulsion by Jesus in the gospels, the portrayal of demonic power in the Gospel of John (especially Jesus’ prayer in John 17), why Gentiles needed to have their hearts “cleansed” in Acts 15:8-9, the Pauline conception of eschatological time, and why women should cover their heads in 1 Cor 11:10. The book closes with a long, detailed study on the Apocalypse of John’s relationship to 1 Enoch, drawing together a wealth of previous scholarship on the topic, and offering sound judgment as to the plausibility of various proposals. Stuckenbruck’s distinctive, comparative method in this part of the book often affords him a distinctive vantage point from which to critique the views of prominent New Testament scholars, though some critiques are more convincing than others. These essays are meticulous and densely-argued as a rule, and much could be said about each of them. For the purposes of this brief review, however, I mention only one of Stuckenbruck’s most noteworthy correctives to current scholarly consensus: The way in which eschatological time is discussed as part of a broader “apocalyptic” framework by scholars of the New Testament and early Judaism. In his essays on John and Paul, Stuckenbruck notes the great extent to which scholars have described the New Testament, and particularly Paul, as novel in their declaration that Christ decisively changed the soteriological quality of the present. In Christian theological terms, this is the “already” of the “already, but not yet” tension inherent in a salvific act that has already taken place (thereby impacting the present), but awaits its full consummation on the eschatological horizon. Most scholars contrast this with the more simplistic Jewish view on which the New Testament builds, with the Jewish view lacking the “already” part of the “Christian” understanding. While admitting the novelty of the New Testament inflection of eschatological time, Stuckenbruck challenges this distancing of the “Christian” view from the Jewish one, arguing instead that Jewish apocalyptic worldviews already included a notion of evil having been provisionally defeated at the time of the flood. This results in a Jewish “already, but not yet” that precedes the formulation found in the New Testament. In this way, and many others, Stuckenbruck helps readers to see portions of the New Testament from a fresh perspective, at the same time demonstrating the ways in which the myth of the rebellious angels impacted early followers of Jesus.
This book is aimed a scholarly audience, with studies that are exhaustively researched and footnoted, something characteristic of Stuckenbruck’s work. Nevertheless, the resolute reader will come away from it with a much better appreciation of the richness of Jewish and Christian traditions focused directly on the myth of the rebellious angels and their gigantic offspring, or related tangentially to it. Having their roots in Jewish Aramaic texts from the Hellenistic period such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Giants, and the Genesis Apocryphon, Stuckenbruck shows us how these fascinating stories continued to impact Jewish and, later, Christian notions of evil, the heavenly order, and even human illness in significant, diverse ways—an influence that continues up to the present.
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).
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