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Many religious texts purport to reveal secret knowledge, and 1 Enoch is no exception. The second “book” in 1 Enoch, The Book of the Similitudes, is quite long– and a significant portion of it is dedicated to revealing knowledge purportedly given by God to Enoch.
This raises several fascinating questions– what is the content of the secret knowledge? Should this secret knowledge be considered “gnosis”? And does it make sense to call 1 Enoch a “gnostic” text?
These topics are all contentious. There are many different definitions of “gnosis” and “gnostic”. Further, even the contents of the secret knowledge in 1 Enoch could be understood in different ways. In this post, we’ll explore all of these topics and provide you with information so you can form your own educated perspective.
Ready to dive in? Continue reading, below!
The Secret Knowledge in The Book of the Similitudes
1 Enoch is composed of multiple smaller “books”, the second of which is called The Book of the Similitudes, begins in chapter 37 of the overall text. It provides information about the second “vision of wisdom” that Enoch saw (37:1). This section begins with an introduction and tales of the judgment of the wicked–
When the secrets of the Righteous One‘ are revealed,
he shall judge the sinners;
and the wicked ones will be driven from the presence of the righteous
and the elect,
and from that time, those who possess the earth will neither be rulers
they shall not be able to behold the faces of the holy ones,
for the light of the Lord of the Spirits has shined
upon the face of the holy, the righteous, and the elect.
At that moment, kings and rulers shall perish,
they shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous and holy ones,
and from thenceforth no one shall be able to induce the Lord of the Spirits to show them mercy,
for their life is annihilated.
(1 Enoch 38:3-6)
Note, here, that the time of judgment is correlated with the revelation of the secrets of the Righteous One. In these verses, the finals days of humanity and the destruction of wickedness are connected not to plagues and and earthquakes as in the Christian Book of Revelation (see Revelation 5), but with the new awareness of secret knowledge.
The result of this secret knowledge being made plain? The existing social order shall be destroyed, kings and rulers shall be deposed, and the wicked and sinners shall be cast out. Those who would plead for mercy shall be unable to do so, for their very lives shall be annihilated.
The righteous, on the other hand, will find…
Their mouth shall be full of blessing;
And their lips will praise the name of the Lord of the Spirits
Clearly, in this text, words and ideas have power, and matters of ultimate import are decided by what one says and what one knows.
A bit later in the vision, Enoch sees “all the secrets in heaven” (41:1), which include secret knowledge which apparently concerns meteorological phenomena.
For example, Enoch learns the “secrets of lightning and thunder”, and “the mysteries of the winds, how they are distributed in order to blow upon the earth”, and “the secrets of the clouds and the dew” (41:3). Enoch saw “the stars of heaven… and how he called them each by their (respective) names, and they obeyed him” (43:1). When Enoch asked what these are, he was told that they are prototypes, and are the names of the holy ones who “dwell upon the earth and believe in the name of the Lord of the Spirits forever and ever” (43:4).
What Does the Secret Knowledge in 1 Enoch Mean?
Should we understand this secret knowledge strictly from a mythological perspective on natural phenomena, as ancient people struggled to understand what caused natural phenomena and what they “meant”? Perhaps– that’s certainly one possible interpretation. However, there are others. Consider, for example, chapter 42 of 1 Enoch, which contains only three verses:
Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell;
But a place was found (for her) in the heavens.
Then Wisdom went out to swell with the children of the people,
But she found no dwelling place.
(So) Wisdom returned to her place
And she settled permanently among the angels.
Then Iniquity went out of her rooms,
And found whom she did not expect.
And she dwelt with them,
like rain in a desert,
Like dew on a thirsty land.
Many readers of this site will find that their ears perk up when they hear mythological stories about Wisdom, Sophia. Literature about Sophia / Wisdom played a key role in the development of early Christianity, though few of these made their way into the Christian canon(s) during their later development. And certain aspects of this story– Sophia’s desire to leave the domain of God to dwell among humans and her eventual return which was marred by iniquity– are intriguing in their similarity to Sethian texts like the Apocryphon of John.
But pay particular attention to the last lines– “And she dwelt with them, like rain in a desert, like dew on a thirsty land” (42:3). That should bring to mind the earlier secret knowledge that was imparted to Enoch: “the secrets of the clouds and the dew” (41:3). What are the secrets of the clouds and the dew? Perhaps the presence of Sophia as she dwells among those she did not expect to find?
This illustrates that the metaphors and visions found in 1 Enoch are layered with multiple levels of meaning, and those who approach it literally and at face-value only find the most superficial of meanings. The real “secret knowledge” requires, perhaps, seeing behind the plain meaning of the words into their application.
The Secrets of Lightning and Thunder
For another example of the many-layered secret knowledge contained in 1 Enoch, consider the “secrets of lightning and thunder”, revealed to Enoch in verse 41:3. The interplay between lightning and thunder is explored in a later part of the vision:
“Then the other angel who was going with me was showing me the hidden things…
the thunders according to the places where they fall, and the subdivisions of the lightnings according to their flashing of light and the velocity of the obedience of the whole array of them. So the thunders have their (respective) moments of rest with patience; and (each thunder) is marked by its (respective) sound.
Neither the thunder nor the lightning becomes disjoined one from the other; both go together in a single breeze and do not part.
For when the lightning flashes light, the thunder utters its sound; also, at that moment, the wind causes (the thunder) to come to rest and divides equally (the time) between each one of them.
For the reservoir of their moments (of thunderings) is like the sand, (so) each one of them is restrained with a bridle and turned back by the power of the wind and driven in this manner over the numerous corners of the earth.
(1 Enoch 60: 11,13-15)
What’s going on in that passage? Well, clearly a lot is going on. To understand it better, connect it with this passage from earlier in the text:
In those days, my eyes saw the mysteries of lightnings, and of lights, and their judgments; they flash lights for a blessing or a curse, according to the will of the Lord of the Spirits.
And there I (also) saw the secrets of the thunder and the secrets of (how / when) it resounds; in the heights of heaven its voice is heard (in) the earthly dwellings. He showed me whether the sound of the thunder is for peace and blessing or for a curse, according to the word of the Lord of the Spirits.
After that, all the mysteries of the lights and lightnings were shown to me (that) they glow with light for blessing and for contentment.
(1 Enoch 59:1-3)
Enoch is telling us the secret knowledge of thunder and lightning (or “thunders” and “lightnings”). What do they represent? Well…
- The light of lightning flashes allow us to see without understanding (for Enoch does not share the secret) the Lord of Spirit’s blessing or curse (59:1)
- The thunder’s sound allows us to hear without understanding (for Enoch does not share the secret) the Lord of the Spirit’s blessing or curse (59:2)
- And yet the lightning and thunder are distinct from the Lord of the Spirit, not direct manifestations of him; they are capable of obedience or disobedience (60:13-14)
- There is a rhythm beyond our understanding of the velocity, frequency, and obedience of the lightning and thunder (60:14-15)
- It is the wind that holds them in check, restraining them with a bridle, and distributes them throughout the earth (60:15-16)
Perhaps, then the revelation of the secret knowledge of lightning that was revealed to Enoch was nothing other than a response to the problem of suffering! In these passages within 1 Enoch, all curses and blessings are from God, and yet their transmission onto the earth instill them with a life of their own. They can be obedient or disobedient. The spirit of God– the “wind”, see Genesis 1:2– keeps these blessings and curses in relative check, but they are still allowed some degree of leeway.
Therefore, the most secret knowledge here is the content of the blessings/curses (or the interpretation of the lightning/thunder), which was taught to Enoch in the passage but not shared. The secondary secret knowledge, however, was revealed to us. It is that is that blessings and curses do come from God, but something is lost in transmission, and sometimes blessing and curses aren’t fully obedient to the spirit of God. When this happens, the spirit pulls the blessings/curses in check, but the damage was done– the lightning already struck, the thunder already resounded.
Is 1 Enoch Gnostic?
This, then, brings us to a question that is important for some: is all of this sufficient to consider 1 Enoch “gnostic”?
As we’ve covered when writing about professor Michael Williams’ seminal text on the topic, the word “gnostic” actually means far less than one might think it means. By and large, the label “gnostic” was applied to certain early Christian thinkers within a specific timeframe by key leaders in groups that would be merged into proto-orthodoxy. The term is polemic and doesn’t serve as a useful categorization technique we can apply to specific kinds of thinking.
What we can say is that 1 Enoch contains some elements that align with religious paradigms later associated with the accusation of being “gnostic”, while it lacks others.
- The text does have an early version of the Sophia myth.
- The text does suggest that there exists secret knowledge from God.
- The text does suggest that there exists secret knowledge which is not from God, and which corrupts.
- However, the text does not seem to contain any explicit demiurgical content (though it’s interesting to explore reading it as if it did).
- However, the text was written for a Jewish, as opposed to Christian, audience. While there’s some scholarly debate on the topic, I think it’s safe to say that this being a primarily Jewish text (though one embraced by many early Christians) puts it outside the realm of gnostic writings.
In conclusion– 1 Enoch is a fascinating and very complex document; this post has explored the second book within 1 Enoch, The Book of the Similitudes. This text explores secret knowledge in some strange and exciting days, which are certainly worth talking about today. I don’t think that this is sufficient to call the text “gnostic”, but certainly those interested in the varying theologies of early Christianity should devote focus to the text.
What do you think? Do you find the “secret knowledge” contained in this part of 1 Enoch intriguing? What do you wrestle with when you think about applying it in a modern context?