Thanks to the editors of Ancient Jew Review for the opportunity to reflect on my work on heavenly ascent in Jewish and Christian apocalypses. It’s now almost a quarter of a century since the publication of Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (1993), which I believe was the first book to treat the entire corpus of eight ascent apocalypses from the end of the third century BCE to the second century CE. It developed ideas about the existence of a tour form in apocalyptic literature that I had proposed in Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (1983). Both books were written in the shadow of one of the most important developments in the study of apocalyptic literature in the twentieth century, the publication in 1976 by J. T. Milik of the Aramaic fragments of books of Enoch found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The publication brought new attention to the works contained in 1 Enoch, an anthology of Enochic texts that comes down to us only in Ethiopic. The fragments from the Scrolls attest four of the five works included in the Ethiopic collection, and they demonstrate definitively, on paleographical grounds, that the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36) can have been composed no later than the turn of the third to the second century BCE, which means that some of the sources from which it was composed are even earlier. Furthermore, the fragments show that the Book of the Watchers is older than the book of Daniel, the only apocalypse that became part of the Hebrew Bible. (The Aramaic fragments corresponding to the Astronomical Book [1 Enoch 72-82] are older still, but scholarship in the twenty-first century has shown that the relationship between the Aramaic fragments and this unit of 1 Enoch is more complicated than Milik recognized.)
With the publication of the Aramaic fragments, the Book of the Watchers became an object of intense interest as scholars began to rethink their understanding of apocalyptic literature, until then largely based on Daniel and the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the only other apocalypse contained in a Western biblical canon. One important difference between the Book of the Watchers on the one hand and Daniel and Revelation on the other is that collective eschatology plays a much less central role in the Book of the Watchers. Indeed, the publication of the Aramaic Enoch fragments made scholars more attentive to the limited role of collective eschatology in a number of other apocalypses, primarily those involving the visionary’s ascent to heaven.
Only a few years later, in 1979, the journal Semeia published a volume entitled Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, under the editorship of John Collins. The volume argues for the existence of a genre apocalypse that can be distinguished from related genres such as prophecy, oracle, and testament, and provides a master paradigm of the genre based on elements of both form and content. Some elements, such as revelation mediated by an otherworldly being, are characteristic of almost all apocalypses, while others, such as otherworldly journeys and symbolic visions, are alternative modes of revelation usually not found in the same work. No single apocalypse has all the features the Semeia paradigm delineates, but each one has many of them.
The volume was extremely influential among students of apocalyptic literature when it first appeared, and it continues to exert a significant influence today. It was particularly attractive for scholars interested in apocalypses in which collective eschatology is not the central concern since it makes it clear why the texts in question should be understood as apocalypses. Its impact is certainly evident in Ascent to Heaven. In keeping with the paradigm put forward in the Semeia volume, I treated the ascent apocalypses as constituting a distinctive branch of the apocalyptic genre and tried to show how later ascent apocalypses imitated many of the formal features of the Book of the Watchers, the foundational text of the genre. I also tried to show that the later apocalypses drew on and adapted many aspects of the content of the Book of the Watchers. I particularly emphasized the importance for subsequent ascent apocalypses of the Book of the Watchers’ understanding of heaven as a temple and the resultant depiction of Enoch in priestly terms, though in contrast to some scholars who have taken up this picture, I insisted that interest in temple and priesthood does not require that the authors of these apocalypses were priests. I also attempted to trace the development in the later apocalypses of the picture of the fate of souls after death and the significance of cosmological phenomena that Enoch sees in the course of his tour to the ends of the earth in the Book of the Watchers. Finally, I stressed the significance of the Book of the Watchers’ picture of the permeability of the boundary between angels and humanity and its adaptation in later works.
In the years since the publication of Ascent to Heaven my work has gone in other directions, but I returned to the subject of the ascent apocalypses last year in response to a lecture invitation. I called the lecture “Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalypses: Genre and Its Discontents,” though the discontents were mine rather than the genre’s. My point of departure was attention to the chronological gap between the Book of the Watchers and the later representatives of the ascent genre, a gap that made little impression on me in Ascent to Heaven.
There can be no doubt of the impact of the Book of the Watchers on readers in the decades following its composition. It is clearly attested in four works from the second-century BCE: the Apocalypse of Weeks (1 Enoch 91, 93), the Book of Dreams (1 Enoch 83-90), the Epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch 92-105), and Jubilees. All of these works depict Enoch as an authoritative visionary—indeed, three of them attribute their revelations to him—and all at least hint at his sojourn in heaven. But none of them offers an account of Enoch’s ascent, nor does any of them focus on the themes the Book of the Watchers treats in the course of Enoch’s travels: the heavenly throne room of the ascent and the cosmological phenomena and fate of souls after death of the tour to the ends of the earth. Indeed, the second-century BCE work that shows the most interest in the heavenly throne room is the book of Daniel, the ancestor of apocalypses involving symbolic visions that focus on collective eschatology.
The first work to develop the picture of ascent found in the Book of the Watchers is the Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), which can be dated no earlier than the second part of the first century BCE, and none of the other ascent apocalypses is earlier than the first century of this era. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that any of these later works is indebted to the Parables, and among them only 2 Enoch shows clear literary connections to the Book of the Watchers. To be sure, our picture of the development of the ascent apocalypses might look somewhat different if more texts had come down to us, though the non-sectarian works among the Scrolls, most admittedly extremely fragmentary, do not provide any evidence for lost ascent apocalypses.
Thus I no longer see the ascent apocalypses as an unbroken tradition emanating from the Book of the Watchers as I did in Ascent to Heaven. I would now suggest that we need to pay careful attention to the distinct historical moments at which ascent apocalypses were written, not only the moment at the end of the third century in which the Book of the Watchers was composed, but also the Parables’ reworking of the Book of the Watchers, still in a single-heaven format, in the service of a more intense collective eschatology sometime on either side of the turn of the era, and the composition in the early centuries of this era by both Jews and Christians of ascents through seven heavens, apparently unrelated to the Parables’ picture.
Here I would like to offer just a few comments on the last of these moments. As already noted, of the ascent apocalypses from the first two centuries, only 2 Enoch is directly dependent on the Book of the Watchers. 2 Enoch was composed in Greek, likely in Alexandria in the first century, and its reworking of the Book of the Watchers surely required a Greek translation of that text. Thus the date of the translation, first attested—apart from 2 Enoch—in a quotation in the late first-century Epistle of Jude in the New Testament, is surely one of the factors that helps to explain the composition of 2 Enoch. But except for 3 Baruch, which draws on 2 Enoch, the remaining ascent apocalypses do not give any indication of direct relations with any other ascent apocalypse.
The absence of such relations is a point of considerable importance. It suggests that the authors of these apocalypses did not write their works by imitating earlier ascent apocalypses. Rather, they must have written with a concept of the genre of ascent apocalypse in mind. That is, they must have had an abstract picture of what an ascent apocalypse should look like and then proceeded to compose such a work to express their particulars interests and concerns. If this analysis is correct, we can place the emergence of the concept of a genre of ascent apocalypse at a particular moment and begin to try to explain the circumstances that account for it.
In Ascent to Heaven I attempted to explain the emergence of the ascent form in the Book of the Watchers in the third century BCE. I looked to the book of Ezekiel for many of the literary features that the Book of the Watchers developed, and I placed the concerns that inspired interest in the heavenly temple in the context of other roughly contemporary evidence for discontent with the Second Temple and criticism of priests. But I assumed that the availability of the Book of the Watchers was enough of an explanation for the composition of the later ascent apocalypses. I’m still persuaded by my account of the factors that led to the Book of the Watchers’ account of Enoch’s ascent to heaven, and I hope that my readings of individual ascent apocalypse and their relations to other works continue to be of value. But attention to the chronological I have noted requires more thought about how ancient Jews and Christians came to recognize the ascent apocalypse as a genre and why it was of interest to them at particular times.
Dr. Martha Himmelfarb is Professor of Religion at Princeton University.