Friday, April 10, 2009

Important Text Discovery - Fragments of a Coptic version of 2 Enoch

I had been planning to write something on the Roman Catholic Apocrypha (not to be confused the deutero-canonicals in the Roman Catholic Old Testament) however I saw something quite important over at PaleoJudaica. Apparently some manuscript fragments have been found in Upper Egypt. It turns out they are from a Coptic version of 2 Enoch, a text so far only known in Slavonic. I'll quote some of the material posted at PaleoJudaica:

During his work preparing the publication of Coptic manuscripts from Qasr Ibrim in Egyptian Nubia, Joost Hagen, doctoral student at Leiden University, The Netherlands, very recently came across some fragments he could identify as part of the text of the so-called ‘Slavonic Enoch’ (2 Enoch), the first time a non-Slavonic manuscript of this intriguing text has been found.

The fragments were discovered at Qasr Ibrim, one of the capital cities of Christian-period Nubia (southern Egypt, northern Sudan, 5th-15th cent. AD), during excavations by the British Egypt Exploration Society (EES) which started in 1963 and have brought to light an astonishing number of finds, textual and other. Joost Hagen has been entrusted by the EES with the edition of the manuscript material in Coptic, the language of Christian Egypt and one of the literary languages used in the Christian kingdoms of Nubia.

The ‘Slavonic Enoch’ fragments, found in 1972, are four in number, most probably remnants of four consecutive leaves of a parchment codex. The fourth fragment is rather small and not yet placed with certainty, also because there is as yet no photograph of it available, only the transcription of its text by one of the excavators. For the other three fragments, both this transcription and two sets of photographs are available. The present location of the pieces themselves is not known, but most probably they are in one of the museums or magazines of the Antiquities Organization in Egypt.

The fragments contain chapters 36-42 of 2 Enoch, probably one of the most interesting parts of the work one could wish for, with the transition between two of its three main parts: Enoch’s heavenly tour and his brief return to earth before the assuming of his task back in heaven. Moreover, they clearly represent a text of the short recension, with chapter 38 and some other parts of the long recension ‘missing’ and chapters 37 and 39 in the order 39 then 37. On top of that, it contains the ‘extra’ material at the end of chapter 36 that is present only in the oldest Slavonic manuscript of the work, U (15th cent.), and in manuscript A (16th cent.), which is closely related to U. For most Coptic texts, a translation from a Greek original is taken for granted and the existence of this Coptic version might well confirm the idea of an original of the Book of the Secrets of Enoch in Greek from Egypt, probably Alexandria...

Archeologically it seems likely that the Coptic manuscript is part of the remains of a church library from before the year 1172, possibly even from before 969, two important dates in the history of Qasr Ibrim; a tentative first look at palaeographical criterea seems to suggest a date in the eighth to ninth, maybe tenth centuries, during Nubia’s early medieval period. This would mean that the fragments predate the accepted date of the translation of 2 Enoch into Slavonic (11th, 12th cent.) and that they are some several hundred years older than the earliest Slavonic witness, a text with extracts of the ethical passages (14th cent.).

2 Enoch was a text that I became acquainted with during my PhD. The Slavonic vesions occur in two recensions, a longer and shorter. In the longer version only there occurs one of the most explicitly homophobic references to Sodom and Gomorrah in all the Old Testament pseudepigrapha. But the oldest Slavonic manuscripts of 2 Enoch date from the 14th century. These finds in Egypt date back several centuries earlier. That they come from a church library also demonstrate how important the pseudepigrapha were for Christianity.

2 Enoch, also known as the Secrets of Enoch, is a really fascinating text, which the scholarly consensus places in the first century. Leaving aside the homophobic Sodom reference, most likely a much later Christian addition, 2 Enoch is noteworthy for its narrative account of the miraculous conception of Melchizedek who here is a heavenly being. It is definitely a non-sexual conception but given that the mother, Nir, is married at the time to the brother of Noah it can't really be said to be virginal. But it shows that there were groups of 1st century Jews for whom miraculous, non-sexual conception was an acceptable notion. The other fascinating thing about the book is that it relates how at the last judgment all the animals will be called to give account of how they have been treated by humans. You can find out more about 2 Enoch over at Andrei Orlov's 2 (Slavonic) Enoch website.

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