Apocalyptic Science


Strangely, the earliest known Jewish apocalypse is also the earliest known Jewish scientific work. The Aramaic fragments of the Astronomical Book of Enoch, composed in the 3rd century BCE or earlier and found at Qumran, represent the first appearance of astronomy and mathematics in Jewish literature. But this science comes in a vision. The angel Uriel takes the patriarch Enoch on a heavenly journey where he sees the clockwork of the universe: the gates through which the sun, winds and heavenly bodies regularly move.

What did scientific and apocalyptic knowledge have to do with each other, and why did they take the stage together? To us, apocalypses seem like the opposite of empiricism and sober analysis–epics of cosmic paranoia that presage both Kabbalistic visions and militant fanaticism. But the maverick historian of religion Jacob Taubes already suggested a different analysis in his remarkable 1947 Occidental Eschatology:

The science of apocalypticism can be defined as the exact numerical calculation of the end of time. It is intended to provide absolute assurance to faith and hope.

Was quantitative precision bound to eschatological vision from the beginning? Close linguistic analysis of the Qumran fragments, when placed in the history of biblical exegesis, help us answer this question. A single Aramaic phrase–which for interesting reasons appears in no modern translation– connects the history of science, apocalypticism, and knowledge itself in ancient Judaism.

The Bible shows no interest in science: in fact, Deuteronomy (4:19) warns the Israelites about the dangers of astronomy. Conservative attitudes are still reflected in book of Daniel (completed in the second century BCE), which asserts the uselessness of foreign knowledge in comparison to the wisdom God reveals (e.g. Dan 1:20, 2:19). But already before the Bible’s completion, some Jewish writers were adopting new attitudes toward knowledge of the physical world. By the third century BCE, Biblical patriarchs like Enoch were represented as learning and teaching about numbers and the stars.

Recent scholarship has shown us how the astronomy and mathematics of Enoch derive from Babylonian scholarship, the world’s longest-running empirical scientific tradition. Enoch is not alone: the Aramaic Levi Document, another early visionary work found at Qumran, uses clearly Babylonian mathematics. This was not despised “foreign wisdom:” these scientific works, with their Babylonian roots, were accepted by the Jews of Qumran alongside the Torah and revelations of Moses. By the first century BCE, the Qumran community was drawing on this astronomy to make their calendars. And these texts are only the earliest evidence of a pattern of systematic cosmological speculation in Jewish tradition that continued to evolve through the middle ages in texts like the Pirqei d’Rabbi Eliezer.

Does Judaism enter the history of science here, in a kind of Hellenistic renaissance? To the eminent scholar of Midrash and mysticism, Philip Alexander, these cases of serious interest in mathematics and astronomy suggest the dawn of a kind of scientific thought in Judaism. Alexander has been followed by a set of scholars who convened at NYU to begin integrating early Jewish thought into the history of science–and science into the history of Judaism.

Early Jewish thinkers would have traced systematic knowledge of the universe further back: the Priestly source of the Torah shares, with Babylonian scholarship, an interest in precise categorization and description of the physical world. These appear in the creation account of Genesis 1-2:4a, the temple revelation of Exodus 25-31 (cf. Ex 35-40 and Ezekiel 40-48), and Leviticus 12-15, with its rules for observing physical signs as symptoms of the skin disease sara’at. But the Priestly source does not assume the opposition between nature and culture found in Greek philosophy. God created the universe with the same type of commands that were then transmitted to Moses: rather than an opposition between nature and culture there is a homology between created and commanded. In the Priestly worldview, the cosmos and the temple are analogous and show a fascinating coherence: “My Sabbaths you shall observe/And my sanctuary you shall revere: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:30 and 26:2)

Exodus’ revelation about the temple is a divine speech that specifies the precise measurements and materials of the tabernacle, the ritual prototype of the temple, and its implements (Ex 25-31). Remarkably, it presents its information not as words but as a visual model:   “Exactly as I am showing you (כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ)—the pattern (תבנית) of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it” (Ex 25:9). Note that here Moses does not “see” the pattern on his own, but rather God causatively shows him, in the hiphil (causative) of the standard Biblical Hebrew verb of seeing, ראה.

And when the event occurs, all descriptions of Moses’ vision of the Tabernacle are marked by being narrated with syntactically passive forms. (Ex 25:40; effectively, Ex 27:8). Moses is shown the Tabernacle’s rules: Ex 26:30 reads:

“Then set up the Tabernacle according to its rule (כְּמִשְׁפָּטוֹ), that you were shown (הָרְאֵיתָ) on the mountain.”

The grammar of seeing in the tabernacle vision denies Moses’ epistemological agency: he does not even see the tabernacle under his own power, but is passively shownliterally caused to see by God.

How is cosmic knowledge gained in the first apocalypse? Surprisingly, many of the new pieces of Babylonian astronomical knowledge that Enoch learns in the Astronomical book are learned the same way: they parallel the passive syntax of Moses’ tabernacle vision in Exodus. They are framed as חשבון אחרן אחזית “I was shown (literally caused to see) another calculation.” (preserved in the fragmentary passage 4Q209 f25 l 3, the phrasing of which must underly both Enoch 74:1-2 and 78:1). Grammatically a verbal phrase based on the passive of the causative of חזי, here we see the “scientific” categories of observation and calculation brought together in a new way. Enoch neither observes nor calculates the formulae himself. Rather, just as Moses is caused to see the cosmic rule (משפט) of the tabernacle, so Enoch is caused to see the calculations that order the spheres. And this phrase is not isolated in the Astronomical Book but grammatically parallel with the way mythical cosmic geography is encountered in Enoch’s other early otherworldly journey in the Book of the Watchers (4Q204 f1xii:30 // 4Q206 f1xxvi:17 = 1 En 32:1, 4Q204 f1xii:26-28 = I En 31:1-2)

The editors of this earliest collection of Enochic works drew on the image, and grammar, of Moses’ passively gained vision–with the passive of the causative of the standard Biblical Hebrew verb of seeing–to frame Enoch’s own passively gained visions with the passive of the causative of the standard Aramaic verb of seeing. If the language of knowledge in Aramaic Enoch is both a reference to the Priestly Tabernacle vision and a distinctive editorial device shared between the Astronomical Book and the Book of the Watchers, then the Aramaic evidence bears on an old question about the creation of early Enochic literature. It means that the creators of this early literature drew more subtly and deeply on the language and imagery of the Pentateuch than has previously been acknowledged.

This changes our view of how Enoch’s authors used scripture and talked about revelation. Categorical statements in the standard Enoch commentary that apart from Genesis “the rest of the Pentateuch is of little interest to the Enochic authors” will need to be revised. Yet no modern edition or tranlation of Enoch consistently passes this information on to the reader. Because they prefer to base their readings on the fully preserved Ethiopic manuscripts, which have lost the passive grammar, modern editions generally render “I saw.”

The original Aramaic (as well as its antecedent Biblical Hebrew) grammar reveals something new about early apocalyptic knowledge. Enoch’s visions are, of course, a mode of revelation. But there is a more specific epistemic value that vision has–grammatically, verbs of seeing function in Aramaic (as well as modern English) as evidentials–a linguistic category indicating the source and certainty of the speaker’s knowledge. Evidentials–such as “I see that you are right or “she saw that the test had succeeded,”–encode the speaker’s epistemology, how they know what they know.

We cannot really oppose a category of revelation to a category of science in the conceptual world of early Enochic literature because the evidential grammar of Enoch’s visions entailed that the exact knowledge he learned was both evidence of divine order and something that God causes the knower to see. This framing device and its grammar subverts any opposition between revelation, as a mode of knowledge based on the claim “God revealed X,” and science, as based on the claim “I observed or calculated X. ”

Epistemologically, what we see at Qumran is a “revealed science”–exact knowledge of the created world framed as divine discourse, with the role of human agency suppressed. The way the story is told, the specific language of knowledge, helps explain how it emerged in a way that could claim to be continuous with earlier authoritative Jewish genres.

It also might explain why early apocalypticists produced no new “science” of their own: its framing as revelation foreclosed these knowledge production mechanisms. Did these apocalypses, then, succceed or fail as science? The evidence suggests something else: they laid the foundation for the different but quite productive intellectual agenda of universal history. To return to Taubes’ provocative concept, “apocalyptic science” suggests why the Astronomical Book could have been both the earliest known Jewish scientific work and the earliest Jewish apocalypse. The real legacy of apocalyptic science may not have been in what we call science at all, but rather in a new vision of history. As Taubes wrote,

The events of the world are written on the face of the divine clock, so the point is to follow the course of world history to determine the hour of the aeon. Apocalypticism is the foundation which makes universal history possible.

At least according to the Astronomical Book, apocalyptic revelation was experience, but not in any ineffable private way. On the contrary, Enoch’s revelations were religious experience in its etymological sense of experiment, “observation as the source of knowledge” (from Old French esperience “experiment, proof, experience,” from Latin experientia “knowledge gained by repeated trials”). It is crucial to see here what the concept of religious experience was created to protect, from what. As Wayne Proudfood has demonstrated, the category arose in the 18th and 19th centuries as a way to defend the validity of religious accounts against scientific claims, at the cost of their authority. Revelation moved from being true to being merely legitimate, or at least unembarassing. This is why the scienticity of early mystical accounts needed to be forgotten: to protect them from a later opponent and an anachronistic charge. But reconstructing this lost science reveals something essential: how visionary experience worked as evidence of the apocalypses’ accounts of history and justice.

Note: This article presents arguments from my book, From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religous Vision in Judea and Babylonia, forthcoming in Mohr Siebeck’s Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism series. It summarizes a more extensive piece published in the proceedings of the Ancient Jewish Sciences conference coedited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and I; it was originally published in AJS Perspectives (2012) 16-17 and appears here with a few typos corrected.


One response to “Apocalyptic Science”

  1. Maggid ben Yoseif says :


    A most interesting thesis, Seth that understanding of apocalyptic verse is rooted in the earlier apocalyptic writing, and especially the Book of Astronomy. I can remember many nights camping out in the Judean wilderness under a canopy of stars from horizon to horizon and could see how Orion overhead and the chariot known as Pleiades floating across the night sky on about the same plane on which the sun did so earlier. influenced the prophets’ writings. A “prophet’s sky” I call it. But I must take issue with your comment about Deut 4:19. This form of idolatry related to the worship of the stars or constellations is NOT astronomy. It may be tangent to some form of astrology. To support your thesis I would bring that the Tabernacle itself is compared to a model of Creation and is clearly the apocalyptic model for John’s revelation on Patmos. (The menorah specific to the Seven Churches for starters). The Book of Enoch was at my bedside when my house burned down, so I have never finished my read. Some day, Creator permitting. I also would encourage research in the area of Babylonian exile of the House of Judah that might relate many of the later Babylonian influences in Greek and Roman cultures to the Jewish exile and understandings of Torah sages that date to Egypt and a culture parallel with Babylon.

    Gah geh you e,

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