“The Chosen One” of 1 Enoch: On Facts and Inferences
Of the various “chief agent” figures in various second-temple Jewish texts, the mysterious figure designated variously “the chosen one,” “the messiah,” and, by various Ethiopic expressions typically translated “the/that son of man,” is particularly noteworthy, and frequently invoked. A recent commenter on my previous posting about the two phrases referring to Jesus in the NT as “at/on God’s right hand” is an example of this. So, I thought a posting on the subject appropriate, using it as an example also of the two categories of facts and interpretation of them.
Let’s note some relevant facts first. The figure in question appears only in “The Parables/Similitudes of Enoch,” a part of the writing known as 1 Enoch, which is extant in this complete form only in Ethiopic (Ge`ez). We have portions of parts of 1 Enoch in Aramaic (fragments from Qumran, with bits of chaps 1-36, 72-82, 85-90, and 91-107, and parts of the Book of Giants (the relationship of this text to the rest of the corpus of writings that now make up 1 Enoch uncertain). In one recent calculation, the Qumran Aramaic fragments amount to about 196 of the 1,062 verses of the Ethiopic text (and the 196 verses aren’t actually fully extant in the Aramaic fragments). We also have 4th-6th century CE fragments of a Greek translation, these preserving about 28% of Ethiopic 1 Enoch.
But in a recent list, the earliest manuscripts of 1 Enoch containing the “Parables/Similitudes” (in which the mysterious figure in question appears) are from the 15th/16th century CE (and these only six of the 49 manuscripts listed). Moreover, all of these Ethiopic manuscripts (the majority of which are from the 18th-20th centuries) reflect recensions of the text made in the Ethiopic Church, which treats 1 Enoch as (Christian) scripture. We scholars commonly now posit a composition of the Parables/Similitudes sometime in the first century CE, and probably in Aramaic. But it bears noting seriously that we don’t have that. What we have are Ethiopic manuscripts of the 15th century CE and later, which reflect an Ethiopic translation, likely from a Greek translation of a posited Aramaic composition. In short, we have a text that has a long and complex transmission-history, with recensions and oodles of accidental and deliberate changes.
But we scholars work with what we’ve got, and make as much of it as we can. Facts are what we have to work with; and scholarship consists in finding facts/data and then trying to interpret them and make reasonable inferences. But it’s important to distinguish interpretations and the facts/data to which they relate. If all we had were manuscripts of, let’s say for example, the Gospel of Matthew from the 15th century CE and later, we’d be suitably modest about what we claimed (hopefully).
So, let’s also note what we don’t know. We don’t know that the Parables were composed in the first century CE, although, all things considered, that’s a perfectly reasonable claim (indeed, perhaps the most plausible date of composition for the material). We don’t know that the Parables were composed in Aramaic, but again that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. We also don’t know that the Ethiopic text of the Parables accurately preserves the putative Aramaic original faithfully, free of any significant accidental or deliberate changes, but we work on the hope that it does.
Now let’s turn to the figure in question. This “Chosen One” is clearly a messianic figure, a human figure (as indicated in the several Ethiopic expressions commonly, and perhaps somewhat misleadingly all translated “the son of man,” as if there were some fixed title behind these several Ethiopic expressions). He is presented in a remarkable light. He’s named and designated for his eschatological role before/at creation of the world, to be revealed in the eschatological time. When revealed he will act as the chief agent of God in gathering the elect to him, judging the (pagan) nations and their rulers, and establishing God’s rule upon the earth. In this role he is to receive obeisance from these rulers and praise and acclamation from the elect. In his chief-agent role, he sits on “a/his glorious throne,” acting as God’s vizier.
There are obvious similarities to be drawn with the exalted role of resurrected Jesus in NT texts (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Corinthians 15; Hebrews 1; Revelation 5, etc.). Indeed, in the Ethiopic Church, the figure is seen as Christ. But, assuming that the Parables don’t derive from Christian circles, there are also some interesting differences.
The figure in question is a literary one, not an actual and historical one. The Parables present themselves as visions, projections of eschatological events that (at the time of composition) are yet to be. They assert that in the eschatological time God will triumph over the pagan nations and that this figure will be the earthly agent of God’s triumph. The NT texts make their astonishing claims, however, for a then-recent figure of history, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they present as already exalted by God to heavenly glory, reigning in/from heaven and sharing God’s throne, “at God’s right hand.” Moreover, these astonishing claims likely erupted before the likely date of the composition of the Parables, although the notion of such an exalted chief-agent figure may well have been “in the air” of Jewish expectations/hopes for some time previous to that.
Still more important historically, the NT reflects the adaptation of Jewish devotional practices, initially in early circles of Jewish Jesus-followers, involving the incorporation of the exalted Jesus along with God as recipients of devotion. I’ve itemized the devotional actions in question in a number of publications over the last 25 years, so I won’t elaborate here. I’ll simply make the point that, so far as history-of-religion questions are concerned, this eruption of a “dyadic” devotional pattern has no real precedent or analogy in any known second-temple Jewish circles or texts. That includes the Parables of Enoch. There is no indication that the projected (and still hidden) figure of this material was ever the object of cultic devotional practices. Nor is it really clear that the Parables project such a cultic devotion to be given to this figure when he appears as eschatological agent of God.
These too are facts/data. What scholars do with them is another matter, and a perfectly legitimate one. We can speculate and debate, and we can cherish our interpretations and hypotheses. But they are that.
What we have in the Parables is remarkable. But it’s not really of the same momentous nature historically as what we have rather clearly reflected and taken for granted as already conventional devotional claims and practices about Jesus in the NT, as I’ve noted in previous postings here and here . Of course, the historical significance of Jesus-devotion says nothing automatically about its religious validity. That’s a theological issue. My work has focused on the historical issues, and that’s the main point of this posting.
 I draw here on the review of data in George W. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1 (Hermeneia Commentaries; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 9-26.
 In lectures I’ve sometimes referred to this using what I’m told originated as a US military term applied to war-games: SWAG = scientific wild-assed guesswork. But, I emphasize, it’s scientific guesswork, which means that it’s open to critique, refutation, and has to take best account of the facts.
 E.g., Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (2nd ed. T&T Clark, 1998), esp.93-124; At the Origins of Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), esp. 63-97; Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 134-53.