How Old Are the Books of Enoch?

One of the lynchpins in discussions of early Jewish apocalyptic literature has been dating the oldest extended fallen-angel narrative, the Enochic Book of the Watchers, to precisely the 3rd century BCE. But as far as I can tell, that precise dating is on pretty shaky ground.

The script of the oldest copy, 4Q201, is dated by its most recent editor to the late 3rd or early 2nd century BCE (Drawnel 2019:71), but by its second-most-recent editor to the 2nd century (Langlois 2008:67-68). However Langlois notes that the Aramaic of the text suggests multiple chronological layers, which would push the date back. Others note an equally important point: the text is not only editorially layered, with an introduction (1-5) tacked on, but also interwoven: it combines two different narratives with totally different accounts of why the angels fell, followed by two separate but similar cosmic journeys (e.g. Newsom 1980). Given that the oldest manuscript shows signs of copying and cannot be an original autograph composition, and that its content not only weaves together two myths that are otherwise known separately but adds layers to that, it is certainly at least as old as the 3rd century.*

But this tells us absolutely nothing about when the myths in the text began circulating. A common move has been to assume that one of the myths, about the angel Asael’s revelation of forbidden knowledge to humans, must be the result of Greek influence dating to the Hellenistic period. The myth of a divine intermediary teaching forbidden knowledge to humans, and then being punished for it, does appear in the Greek in the myth of Prometheus–even if the earliest versions do not necessarily resemble the Book of the Watchers all that closely.** But myths of conflicts among primordial beings are well known to have circulated across the Mediterranean*** already in the Late Bronze Age, when a tragic divine revelation to a human is also documented in a text likely intertwined with the figure of Enoch. Speaking of the semidivine sage Adapa’s knowledge of ritual speech, which makes him almost equivalent to his patron god Ea, lord of secret knowledge, and gets him in serious trouble with the gods, the head god Anu says: “Why did Ea expose a human to such terrible cosmic things?” (Amarna fragment rev. 57-58)

Indeed, the move by which one dates the Book of the Watchers to the 3rd century, placing a multilayered text to precisely 30 or 50 years before the earliest manuscript preserved to us, is prejudicial and we do not apply it to other Qumran texts. For one thing it would put the whole Hebrew Bible in the 3rd century as well! Another intuitive but unreliable argument is that the Enoch stories must be later additions to the older fallen-angels myth. This is based on the important observation that Enoch plays no role in the initial fall of the angels (6-11) despite the fact that Genesis 5 states he was around then, and perhaps suggests he was in their company (if we choose to read אלהים as ‘divine beings’ not ‘God’).

But this doesn’t show that Enoch was not originally connected with the story! A clear example of this issue is Tablet XI of the Standard Gilgamesh epic, a version of the Flood story with literary indications of being tacked-on to the epic. Gilgamesh only appears as the audience. But it turns out that Gilgamesh’s connection to the Flood hero was already a thousand years old by that point, since the Sumerian Death of Bilgames already lists ‘who met the flood hero!’ as one of his majestic accomplishments.

In sum, since texts like the Story of Ahiqar prove there was already a thriving Aramaic literary tradition by around 500 BCE, the guess of Enoch’s first editor, Josef Milik, to date the core narrative to the 5th century BCE is just as likely as the 3rd century. And of course, any historical claims based on a special connection between the Book of the Watchers and the 3rd century BCE are likely built on sand. Historically there is absolutely no evidence to prefer the 3rd over the equally plausible 4th, and in terms of influence and reception it would be equally appropriate to center the Book of Watchers in the 2nd century when we know it was actually being repeatedly copied.

We should resist the desire to use Qumran discoveries to fill in gaps in Biblical knowledge, pinpointing the Book of the Watchers in the 3rd century in order to help smooth out the biblically-based break in continuity that appears if we go from a 4th century Ezra-Nehemiah to a 2nd-century Daniel. Instead, as my colleagues in the two recently published BRANE symposia have argued, we should take a more open and less anachronistic approach. We can treat early Enochic literature such as the Book of the Watchers and Astronomical Book as much like “biblical” literature that did not yet know it was going to be in a bible as we treat our canonical texts, and this includes being open to the entire plausible spectrum of dates and contexts that can be supported with evidence.

Further Compositional and Linguistic Dimensions

The lack of clear basis for the commonly accepted terminus post quem makes me wonder about some other assumptions. For example, the Ethiopic Book of Dreams (83-90) is dated based on historical allusions in Chapter 90, but despite 3 mss covering Chapter 89, there is no evidence of 90 at Qumran.**** Nickelsburg uses 90:6ff to suggest composition around 200 BCE but does not differentiate in his commentary between the Aramaic and the Ethiopic, and despite his frequent emphasis on Fortschreibung and interpretive expansion in BW, he does not make anything of 90’s absence. On the one hand, the absence of the chapter used to date the book is quite plausibly an accident of preservation. On the other hand, the Aramaic version of BW in 4Q201 may be totally different from the Ethiopic after ch 9, and we know the Astronomical Book differed radically.

A further linguistic observation might suggest a tendency. Cook’s dictionary of the nonbiblical Aramaic texts from Qumran registers about 20 Akkadian loanwords, 15 Persian loans, and 0 Greek. This is in contrast to earlier everyday Elephantine Aramaic (37 Akk, 72 Pers, 2 Gk) For Biblical Aramaic, Rosenthal mentions about 25 Akk and 24 Pers loanwords, alongside the 3 Greek terms for musical instruments mentioned in the court tale of Daniel 3. These corpora seem to be tools forged entirely or mostly in the Persian period–did they just ossify?

The corpus of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic seems to stand on the other side of a gulf from the Aramaic of Ahiqar, Daniel, or Enoch. It is hard to read a page of early Palestinian Targum without encountering a Greek loan–more often they occur in almost every sentence. What might this mean? While this doesn’t prove how much Greek culture the creators of early Enochic literature were or were not aware of, it does show one thing: totally unlike with Aramaic under Akkadian or Persian administrations, these writers’ education was not connected with Greek scribalism.


*As Michael Stone remarked immediately after Milik’s initial publication,

“Neither of [the two earliest] manuscripts appears to be an author’s autograph, and it is reasonable, therefore, to date the composition of the writings that they contain to the third century. There seems to be no basis upon which to dispute these dates, since they are founded upon firmly established paléographie criteria. Moreover, The Book of the Watchers does not stem from a single pen, but was composed by a writer who utilized diverse source-documents. At least one of these, chaps. 6-11, is itself composite. Consequently, the sources of The Book of the Watchers may be inferred to be even older than the writ- ing down of its present form which, as said above, took place some time in the third century B.C.”

“The Book of Enoch and Judaism in the Third Century B.C.E.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978): 484

**See Sanders 2018.

***Cf Lopez-Ruiz 2010; Bachvarova 2016

****On this see the important 2021 Princeton PhD Dissertation of Elena Dugan.


Bachvarova, Mary R. From Hittite to Homer : The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic /. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Drawnel, Henryk. Qumran Cave 4, The Aramaic Books of Enoch, 4Q201, 4Q202, 4Q204, 4Q205, 4Q206, 4Q207, 4Q212. First edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Dugan, Elena. “The Nature of the Beast: The Animal Apocalypse(s) of Enoch.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2021.

Langlois, Michaël. Le Premier Manuscrit Du Livre d’Hénoch : Étude Épigraphique et Philologique Des Fragments Araméens de 4Q201 à Qumrân /. Lectio Divina. Hors Série. Cerf, 2008.

López-Ruiz, Carolina. When the Gods Were Born : Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East /. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Newsom, Carol. “The Development of 1 Enoch 6-19: Cosmology and Judgment.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1980): 310–29.

Sanders, Seth L. “Enoch’s Imaginary Ancestor.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 9 (2018): 155–77.

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