Jesus and the judgment of the Watchers

Read time: 8 minutes
A stocky dark Satan being faced down by a tall white Jesus

Here we go again.

In a response to my recent piece on James Tabor’s “failed failed apocalypse of the New Testament” argument, Edward Babinski, one of a number of vociferous ex-fundamentalist critics of conservative orthodoxies, has outlined an obscure but interesting argument regarding Jesus’ belief in an imminent cosmic judgment, based on the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch (1 En. 1-36). I offered a brief response, but on further reflection, I think that any analogy between the Book of the Watchers and the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament points in quite a different direction. I will suggest that Jesus actually comes off the better for it.

The judgment of the rebellious angels

In the period before the flood, according to the Enoch text, some of the angels, led by Semyaz, descended from heaven and had sexual relations with women (1 En. 7:1-6; cf. Gen. 6:1-4). The women gave birth to giants who consumed so much—even devouring human flesh—that “the earth brought an accusation against the oppressors.” The rebellious angels instructed people in the production of weapons and armour, ornamentation, in astrology and magical arts, leading to bloodshed and oppression.

In response, God first sends warning to Noah to prepare to escape the deluge that is about to come upon the earth, then commands the angel Raphael to bind Azazʾel hand and foot, who had taught humanity warfare, and bury him in a hole in the desert “in order that he may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment” (1 En. 10:1-6). There will be a great battle among the fallen angels and their offspring, after which the remaining angels will be bound “for seventy generations underneath the rocks of the ground until the day of their judgment and of their consummation, until the eternal judgment is concluded” (1 En. 10:12).

The basic apocalyptic idea, therefore, is that the technologies and sciences that have corrupted human societies, resulting in injustice and violence, were introduced into the world by fallen angelic powers. The problem is resolved at two levels: first, corrupted humanity is destroyed in a cataclysm; secondly, the angels are imprisoned in the earth until a final judgment so that they cannot lead the world astray.

In the later Similitudes of Enoch that judgment is presided over by the Elect One, who is the Son of Man, who will “remove the kings and the mighty ones from their comfortable seats and the strong ones from their thrones. He shall loosen the reins of the strong and crush the teeth of the sinners (1En. 46:4). As part of this political judgment against the unrighteous in Israel, and perhaps also against Israel’s enemies, the Elect One will judge Azazʾel and his company (1 En. 55:4).

Luke’s genealogy

The sceptical argument is that the seventy generations of the angels’ imprisonment corresponds to the seventy generations from Enoch to Jesus in Luke’s genealogy (Lk. 3:23-38). What Luke is trying to say, therefore, is that the final judgment of both the angels and humanity will happen in conjunction with the coming of Jesus—or rather with his imminent second coming with the clouds of heaven as the Son of Man. It didn’t happen, therefore, the New Testament is fundamentally and irretrievably flawed.

The eleven-times-seven patterning of Luke’s genealogy (Lk. 3:23-38) is no doubt significant. There is nothing in the text to suggest, however, that he meant to present Jesus as the end of Enoch’s seventy generations. In fact, there’s a very good reason for thinking that in Luke and in the New Testament generally the apocalyptic schema of the Book of the Watchers has been revised and put to rather different use.

For a start, Luke’s genealogy runs backwards to Adam as “Son of God,” not forwards to Jesus as the Son of Man who will punish the wicked and the rebellious angels. It has been inserted between the baptism and temptation narratives seemingly to reinforce the identification of Jesus as the “beloved Son” with whom God is well pleased and as the “Son of God” whose sense of vocation is tested by Satan in the wilderness. This is not the apocalyptic Son of Man who is associated in the traditions with judgment but the “servant… my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” upon whom God has put his Spirit—in effect, the Son who has been sent to do the work of a servant in calling the apostate leadership of Israel to repentance (Is. 42:1; Lk. 20:9-18).

Conceivably, Luke has drawn on an apocalyptic tradition in which seventy-seven generations constitutes a significant period of time that is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, but it is a period that transcends the seventy years of the imprisonment of the angels. No interest is shown in the person of Enoch as the beginning of a period that would climax in a cosmic judgment.

Jesus and the binding of Satan

More to the point, what is evoked in the Gospels, and indeed in much of the rest of the New Testament, is not the conclusion to the cycle of the Enochic myth but its beginning. The whole storyline of rebellion → binding and burial → confinement → destruction has been shifted forwards to address an entirely different crisis.

It is apparent from the temptation story, which immediately follows the genealogy, that Satan is not currently bound and safely shut away in the earth but at liberty, active, and dangerous. It is only because Jesus turned down Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of the Greek-Roman world that he can plunder his house (Lk. 11:21-22; Matt. 12:29; Mk. 3:27). The man possessed by Legion is bound with chains and kept under guard, but still breaks loose and causes havoc (Lk. 8:29-30). Jesus liberates a woman who has been bound by Satan for 18 years (Lk. 13:6). He sees Satan fall like lightning from heaven, as a foreshadowing of the authority that his disciples will have in the future over the power of the enemy (Lk. 10:18). Satan enters into Judas, and he demands to sift Peter like wheat (Lk. 22:3, 31).

Paul knows that Satan is behind the opposition to the churches, the driving force behind the blasphemous Caesar-figure, the “man of lawlessness” (Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 2 Thess. 2:9-10). Satan disrupts the work of the apostles (2 Cor. 12:7; 1 Thess. 2:18).

In John’s mythology Satan is thrown down from heaven after the ascension of the child who will rule the nations, and he deceives the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē into making war against “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 12:9, 17). Again, Satan is not buried in the earth awaiting judgment; he is the furious power behind the violent antipathy of Rome towards the Jews and the churches. He is a threat to the churches (Rev. 2:9, 13, 24; 3:9). The apocalyptic narrative reaches a climax in the overthrow of Babylon the great, which is Rome, and now at last an angel descends from heaven, binds Satan, and imprisons him in the abyss for a thousand years, after which he is destroyed in the lake of fire and sulphur (Rev. 20:1-3, 10).

So if the New Testament has adopted the punishment of the fallen angels motif from Jewish apocalypticism, it has shifted the timeframe by some distance.

In Enoch’s schema, the rebellious Watchers are active before the flood, they are imprisoned for seventy generations, and they will be destroyed finally in an Israel-centred judgment during the Greek-Roman period.

In the apocalyptic perspective of the New Testament, Satan is driven from heaven and becomes active on earth in connection with the birth of Jesus—the schema is not entirely consistent. His malign presence is revealed in the spiritual corruption and uncleanness of Israel, in his determination to subvert the mission of Jesus, in the blasphemous arrogance and might of Rome, and in the persecution and deception of the churches. He is restrained to a degree by the spiritual authority of Jesus and his followers, but he is not bound and buried under the earth by angelic agency until after the overthrow of Roman pagan imperial power. He is then imprisoned not for seventy generations but for a thousand years until a final judgment of all humanity, at which point he is destroyed.

So there’s no final judgment in Luke

The activity of Satan, in other words, is strictly confined to the period of Rome’s hostility towards Jesus and his followers. It will come to an end not with a final cosmic judgment but with the resolution of the historical crisis—the reform of God’s people and the triumph of the elect over the pagan oppressor. This is a political scenario, not a cosmic one; it happens in history, not at the end of history. The New Testament makes no attempt to describe an idyllic state or restored created order directly following on from the judgment of either Israel or Rome. Only at the end of the thousand years of Satan’s confinement does John see the appearance of a new heaven and earth, from which all wickedness, suffering, and death have been definitively abolished.

The other point to stress, finally, is that Luke makes use of the coming of the Son of Man motif for a very specific and limited purpose. Jesus has nothing to say about the transformation of the cosmos or even of Israel. There is judgment against Israel but not against the nations. The parable of the vineyard climaxes in the destruction of the wicked tenants and the transfer of the business to others. The war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem will cause great consternation, but if the disciples stay alert and faithful to their task, they will be vindicated before the Son of Man when he comes (Lk. 9:26; 21:28, 36), and he will give them justice against their enemies (Lk. 18:7-8).

That’s all there is to it.

I recently ran across your piece above. Am I merely an ex-fundamentalist critic of conservative orthodoxy? I daresay my biblical studies for ten years after having been a creationist in my youth took me beyond fundamentalism prior to leaving the fold entirely. I was already a moderate to liberal evangelical, even a univeralist, prior to leaving the fold.

And historical Jesus studies have presented quite clearly the evidence for Jesus as a final judgment prophet. It is a mainstream view in historical Jesus studies.

And so far as your attempts to harmonize Luke, Revelation, et al, into a tidy basket of fully consistent realized eschatology, good luck with that. The Bible is not that consistent. Even dispensationalists have argued with each other as to how many raptures there are, and also split into pre, mid, post-tribulationists. And preterists (which resembles your view more closely), are split quite “vociferously” into partial and full preterism. And the way they insert two thousand years between some verses in the synoptic Gospels’ “little apocalypse” chapters is a marvel to behold.

“Eschatology: Here to Stay,” a marvelously succinct presentation in Dale Allison’s, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)…

New Testament Texts on the imminence of the End at Dr. James Tabor’s site:…

The Imminent End in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Ignatius, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas)…

James D. G Dunn in Jesus Remembered, and in, The Evidence for Jesus, admits that Jesus believed in an imminent  eschatological climax that did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.”

In Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Intro, Dr. Frederick J. Murphy concludes, “Christianity is the result of failed prophecy.” Urgent expectation of an imminent supernatural end pervades the NT

The Apocalyptic Worldview of Mark by Dr. David A. Sanchez [podcast from Loyola Marymount University]…

Mark’s Jesus is a Thoroughly Apocalyptic Jesus…

For a discussion of how and why Old Testament prophecy developed into apocalyptic see Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet…

Was Jesus a False Prophet? Probably…

Scholarly Quotes on Paul the Apocalypticist…

Apostle Paul on the urgency engendered by the Lord’s soon coming in final judgment:…

Paul the deluded apocalypticist

A look at the wide array of “soon coming” passages in the NT and why the question of false prophecy is unavoidable, The Lowdown on God’s Showdown…

Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic Jesus view summarized…

The eschatological final judgment was near according to early Christianity. So near that Jesus’ resurrection was the “first fruits.”

Edward, thanks for coming back on this.

And historical Jesus studies have presented quite clearly the evidence for Jesus as a final judgment prophet. It is a mainstream view in historical Jesus studies.

Mainstream views have a habit of going out of fashion. I think scholars are right to stress the sense of the imminence of a catastrophic “end” in Jesus’ teaching, but wrong to conclude that he was talking about a final judgment and cosmic transformation. Jesus says nothing to that effect. His frame of reference is always Israel’s world. I think the historical case for saying that he had in view the “end” of Israel as a temple centred nation is very strong.

And so far as your attempts to harmonize Luke, Revelation, et al, into a tidy basket of fully consistent realized eschatology, good luck with that.

  • I said in the article that the “schema is not entirely consistent.”
  • The fractiousness of dispensationalists, preterists, etc., tells us nothing about the degree of historical coherence in the New Testament texts.
  • My personal impression is that relocating the texts of the New Testament in the world of first century Judaism has gone a long way towards clarifying what holds the whole enterprise together. But, of course, that’s open to dispute.