A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Can anything good come out of such an old and dowdy looking book, one retrieved from an off-site library stack, and with no more than 100 yellowing pages of text?

In the previous post we saw the first two items of evidence for a belief among pre-Christian Jews in a suffering messiah to come. This post looks at a third item, the Parables of Enoch. Follow up posts will address several more.

I begin by presenting Jeremias’s argument in his own words but in the next section of the post I update his terminology and the state of the discussion to accord with current terms and scholarly views concerning the dating of the key passage.

Joachim Jeremias’s third item of evidence is a section from the Ethiopic Book of Enoch. His references to Deut. Isa are to the second (deutero) part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. I have reformatted Jeremias’s text to allow for easier following of each of the points where Enoch draws upon an Isaiah servant passage:

(γ) The next relevant source from the point of view of time is the so-called Visionary Discourses of the Ethiopian Enoch (chs. 37-71) which are certainly pre-Christian. Here the Messiah is depicted to a quite striking extent by means of traits drawn from Deut. Isa. Apart from the titles ‘son of man’ and ‘Messiah’ he bears constantly the name ‘the chosen one’ but only occasionally that of ‘the righteous one’. ‘The chosen one’ is, however (Isa. 42.1), the title of the servant of God and the same applies to ‘the righteous one’ (Isa. 53.11). Thus we are led straight away to those two sections of Deut. Isa. which, also in the subsequent periods, are the ones interpreted messianically: Isa. 42.1 if., 52.13 ff.

In En. 48.4 the son of man is called ‘the light of the peoples’; this is an attribute of God’s servant (Isa. 42.6; 49.6).

It is said further that his name was named before creation ‘in the presence of the Lord of spirits’ (En. 48.3); this is an amplification of Isa. 49.1: ‘my name he named when I was not yet born’.

Then he was ‘hidden before God’ (En. 48.6, cf. 62.7) which is a reference to Isa. 49.2 (‘He hid me in the shadow of his hand’).

Again, in the description of the revelation of the son of man the Visionary Discourses constantly depict the humiliation of kings and the mighty before him with a reminiscence of Isa. 49.7; 5 2.15. It is said that they will see him in his glory (En. 55.4; 62.1, 3), rise before him (En. 46.4; 62.3), and cast themselves down (48.10 v.l.; 62.9; cf. 48.5), thus with an allusion to Isa. 49.7; ‘Princes and kings will see it and arise and cast themselves down’.

It is said further that their countenance will be fallen (En. 46.6; 48.8) alluding to Isa. 52.15: ‘Kings will shut their mouths before him’.

In particular in En. 62.1 ff. the conduct of kings, the mighty and those who possess the earth, is depicted in close connexion with Isa. 52.13 ff.; thus En. 62.5 f.: ‘They will be afraid (cf. Isa. 52.14), they will lower their eyes (cf. Isa. 52.15), and pain will seize them when they see the Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory; kings (cf. Isa. 52.15), the mighty and all who possess the earth will glorify, praise and exalt him who rules over all (cf. Isa. 52.13), who was hidden (cf. Isa. 52.15)’.

Again it is the passages Isa. 42.1 ff.; 52.13 ff. (cf. p. 59) which are messianically interpreted; together with 49.1-2, 6-7.

Finally there are the following statements which have a loose connexion with Deut. Isa. The chosen has the spirit of righteousness (En. 62.1 f; cf. [besides lsa. 11.2,4] 42.1: ‘My chosen . . . I have laid my spirit upon him’). He executes judgement (En. 41.9; 45-3; 49.4; 55.4; 61.9; 62.2 f.; 69.27; cf. Isa. 42.4 Ά, Θ, Targ.). En. 48.4b: ‘He will be the light of the peoples and the hope of the sad’ combines Isa. 42.6 (‘fight of the peoples’) with its context (42.7: salvation of the blind and wretched).

The son of man of the Visionary Discourses is thus to a large extent depicted with traits which are borrowed from servant passages of Deut. Isa. (42.1-7; 49.1 f., 6 f; 52.13-15; 53.11).

The author of the Parables of Enoch interpreted Isaiah’s servant passages, including those passages announcing a suffering servant, as references to a future messiah.

Jeremias concludes that Jesus himself must have known of these Jewish interpretations of the suffering servant passages in Isaiah and identified himself with them.

This combination of son of man and servant of God, here brought about for the first time, was of decisive importance for Jesus’ understanding of his mission. (p. 60)

Since Jeremias’s publication in 1957 scholarship has agreed to refer to chapters 37 to 71 (Jeremias’s “Visionary Discourses”) as the Parables of Enoch.

Much debate has also been waged since 1957 over the date of the Parables of Enoch. In the 1970s Josef Malik turned the study of the Parables of Enoch upside down when he argued that they dated from the third century of the Christian era. Key to his argument was the observation that the Parables of Enoch are missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls and this point is best explained by looking for much later date than is represented by the DSS. But scholars generally have since come to reject Malik’s late date and placed the Parables back prior to the end of the first century CE.

The Date of the Parables of Enoch

Enoch 56. 5 And in those days the angels will gather together, and will throw themselves towards the east upon the Parthians and Medes; they will stir up the kings, so that a disturbing spirit will come upon them, and they will drive them from their thrones; and they will come out like lions from their lairs, and like hungry wolves  in the middle of their flocks.
56. 6 And they will go up and trample upon the land of my chosen ones, and the land of my chosen ones will become before them a tramping-ground and a beaten track.
56. 7 But the city of my righteous ones will be a hindrance to their horses, and they will stir up slaughter amongst themselves, and their (own) right hand will be strong against them; and a man will not admit to knowing his neighbour or his brother, nor a son his father or his mother, until through their death there are corpses enough, and their punishment— it will not be in vain.
56. 8 And in those days Sheol will open its mouth, and they will sink into it; and their destruction—Sheol will swallow up the sinners before the face of the chosen.’ (Knibb)

On the pre-Christian date of these chapters Jeremias writes (1957):

The dating of the Discourses is dependent on the fact that they (56.5-7) make allusion to the Parthian invasion of Palestine of 40 BC. They will have been composed shortly afterwards and a little later fitted into the scheme of Enoch. The untenability of the view that the discourses as a whole are Christian or have been provided in part with Christian interpolations has recently been demonstrated by Sjöberg, 3-24. The main argument is the total lack of anything specifically Christian. (p. 58)

That was 1957. So what about today?

Scholars are divided on the question of the references to Parthians and their significance for dating the Parables. David Suter, for example, concludes after a review of the arguments:

In general it seems that efforts to identify precise historical allusions and absolute dates in 56:5-8 have not carried the day, while for the most part commentators assume that we are dealing with updated apocalyptic myth or a vague memory of the invasion of the Parthians in 40-39 B.C.E. (Suter, p. 422)

Suter further concludes that the majority of scholars opt for a date prior to the gospels, many opting for a BCE period.

While Milik’s argument, that the Parables of Enoch is a Christian work composed in Greek in the third century C.E., has been soundly and unanimously rejected, and a clear majority of specialists argues for a date at the turn of the era, I maintain that we are not yet in a position to rule out a date after the destruction of Jerusalem. The nature of the evidence and the existence of divergent methodologies for its assessment are such that the appropriate date and context of the Parables continue to elude us. (Suter, p. 443)

Yet in rebutting Malik’s arguments James Charlesworth lists six reasons for dating the Parables to the time of Herod the Great and the Herodians:

Six reasons disclose the most probable date for the Parables of Enoch.

First, it is insignificant that no fragment of this document has been identified among the fragments found in the Qumran caves.

Second, the Parables of Enoch is clearly the latest composition within 1 Enoch, and there are reasons to conclude it would not have had sufficient time to make its way to Qumran.

Third, the document was not composed at Qumran and contains concepts and perceptions that would not have been acceptable at Qumran.

Fourth, the reference to a Parthian invasion makes best sense in light of what is known, from Josephus and archaeological research, about the invasion of 40 BCE.

Fifth, the multitudinous curses on the landowners and those who monopolize the “dry land” make best sense during the period of the land-grabbing by Herod and the Herodians.

Sixth, the early Christians may have avoided the Parables of Enoch because it lauds Enoch as the celestial Son of Man and eschatological Judge. Such a claim undermines the kerygma.

Cumulatively then, dating the Parables of Enoch to the time of Herod the Great and the Herodians has become conclusive.47

47. I note that this conclusion was shared by almost every leading specialist on 1En or Second Temple Judaism. M. Knibb remains unconvinced of this early dating and prefers a date sometime in the second half of the first century CE.

(Charlesworth, p. 56. My layout and highlighting)

Many more citations can be given for the a relatively current view among scholars about the early date of the Parables. The point is that much of the scholarship investigating the question of the dating of the Parables of Enoch place them in a pre-Christian Jewish setting, or at the very latest at a time when Christianity was newly emerging. It is difficult to accept that Jewish authors would have knowingly incorporated messianic views of Jesus in with their own messianic interpretations.

(I ought to focus more on the arguments themselves than on quoting relatively recent scholars expressing their views and the views of most of their peers. However, those arguments would take me too far afield from the point of these posts which is to share the evidence for the idea of a pre-Christian suffering messiah. Besides, past posts have already covered some of the dating arguments for the Parables of Enoch: e.g. Christ Before Christianity, 1: Dating the Parables of Enoch.)


Charlesworth, James H. 2013. “The Date and Provenience of the Parables of Enoch.” In Parables of Enoch: A Paradigm Shift, edited by Darrell Bock and James H. Charlesworth, 37–57. London ; New York: Bloomsbury.

Knibb, Michael A. 1978. The Ethiopic Book of Enoch: A New Edition in the Light of the Aramaic Dead Sea Fragments. Oxford ; London: Oxford University Press.

Suter, David W. 2007. “Enoch in Sheol: Updating the Dating of the Book of Parables.” In Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables, edited by Gabriele Boccaccini, 415–49. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Zimmerli, Walther, and Joachim Jeremias. 1957. The Servant of God. London : SCM Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2)”

  1. The line of argument that the Parables of Enoch was not found among the Qumran scrolls is incompatible with a Herodian date operates under the HUGE assumption that the Qumran scrolls include Herodian and later texts. This is based on the early interpretation of the scrolls as having been deposited during the First Revolt, which appears to be lacking in compelling evidence (but is nevertheless still a majority opinion in the scrolls field). The lack of Herodian allusions in any of the scrolls points to the Qumran corpus being entirely pre-Herodian IMHO. If this is true, and if the Parables are Herodian or later, then one would actually expect the parables to be absent from Qumran (which supports the thrust of your posting).

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