Was Genesis even authoritative for the Book of Watchers? In what sense? John J. Collins

John J. Collins indicates the size of a cubit – the conventional unit of measurement for Giants

John J. Collins writes:

It should be clear that the Torah is one of several sources on which the author [of the Book of the Watchers] drew, although in this case it provides the main frame for the story. The story itself is a moral tale, illustrating the pitfalls of fornication and of illicit knowledge. The understanding of the sin of the watchers as improper revelation provides an obvious counterpart to the proper revelation of Enoch in the rest of the book. The contrast between the watchers and Enoch is spelled  out a little later, when Enoch has his audience with God in 1 En. 15. The watchers are reproached for having left the high and holy heaven and lain with human women. The mystery they revealed was worthless. In contrast, Enoch is a human being who ascends to heaven and lives like the holy ones.

Of course, the career of Enoch, which takes up the greater part of the Book of the Watchers, is itself only loosely based on Genesis. Enoch was famously said to have ‘walked with God’ (Gen 5.22). While the biblical phrase may have meant only that Enoch lived a righteous life, it inspired the story that he had ascended to heaven, even before ‘God took him’ (Gen 5.24). It is widely agreed that he was modeled to some degree on Enmeduranki, king of Sippar, who is said to have been taken up to heaven and shown the techniques of divination and the tablet of the gods. The Book of the Watchers spins a story that he was given a tour of the ends of the earth, guided by an angel. In all of this, motifs that echo the Hebrew Scriptures are freely mixed with Hellenistic and Babylonian traditions.

It is difficult to say whether or in what sense the author of the Book of the Watchers regarded Genesis as authoritative. He mainly treated it as fodder for imagination. This is the way ‘canonical’ texts work in literature: they nourish the imagination of later writers, and constrain it only to a limited degree.

    • John J. Collins, “Torah as Narrative and Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls”, in Reading the Bible in Ancient Traditions and Modern Editions: Studies in Memory of Peter W. Flint, ed. Andrew B. PerrinKyung S. BaekDaniel K. Falk (Atlanta: SBL Press, November 2017), pp. 361-362 (357-380).

What do you think? Was Genesis more like Harold Bloom’s literary canon, to which Collins may here allude? Or was it ‘authoritative’ in some further sense (as Collins still entertains, while also asking “in what sense” Genesis may be regarded as authoritative for the Book of Watchers)?

It is prudent that we avoid importing later senses of ‘canonical’ and ‘authoritative’ and other more dangerous terms such as ‘inspired’ and ‘biblical’, at least in the senses in which they are employed to describe phenomena in the Common Era. But two factors, at least, occur to me that suggest Genesis was also ‘authoritative’ in some sense that exceeds its demonstrated ability to “nourish the imagination of later writers”.

First, the text appeals to the arche or origins, a move which is always, inherently an attempt to justify some present situation, institution, practice, belief, doctrine, etc – to invest our present contingent circumstances with the illusion of some fixed and immovable anchor. This quality is intrinsic to ‘the authoritative’, which always involves the claim that one is standing on the shoulders of giants – which like Quixote’s, are no more than phantoms of the imagination.

Second, we should note the importance of the role of heavenly revelation within 1 Enoch, in particular revelations of heavenly secrets of creation (beginnings) and eschatology (endings), which strongly suggests an attempt to discover the ‘deeper meaning’ of Genesis, not to mention other aNE origin stories; this is a giveaway that the author regards Genesis as authoritative, although ‘authoritative’ in a sense that both overlaps with later ideas of inspiration and contrasts with them, given that the boundaries of what counts as ‘inspired’ are expanding, and by nature are expansive, open to new revelations of heavenly secrets.

Lastly, I note that the Book of Watchers sticks closely to the wording of the verses in Genesis 6.1-4, even while expanding its (authoritative, inspired and inspirational) words in what were probably unforeseen directions. Even the words of Genesis are authoritative, but not at all with the implication that they may not be added to – quite the opposite. As supplement to Genesis 6.1-4, the Book of the Watchers is Derridean, not simply making an addition to the text, but asserting its originary lack, a lack to be filled by a plumbing of deeper origins, and (allegedly) more secret truths of origins that are at once ultimate (eschatological) endings.

Update (8 January 2018): Jim Davila answers my question above. He considers that not only was Gen 6.1-4 ‘authoritative’ for 1 Enoch, but that some earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story was also authoritative for Gen 6.1-4 (although the author of Gen 6.1-4 tried to play it down). Yet like me, Jim also states that this ‘authority’ was a long way from the later canonical authority. See what he wrote here. See also the similar views of J.T. Milik, Paolo Sacchi, Philip Davies, and Helge Kvanvig. On the other side, there are quite a few more other scholars who don’t think that Gen 6.1-4 is an abbreviation of any such story as found in 1 Enoch. Unfortunately, given the brevity of 1 Enoch 6.1-4, the issue is possibly beyond definitive resolution. I tend to think that Gen 6.1-4 is no abbreviation, and is not deliberately suppressing a form of Watcher/Giant story. For it works fine as an allusion to antediluvian heroes known for their reputation as great warriors and womanizers, and the story makes no reference to giants (that’s a much later development in the reception of Gen 6.1-4, prompted by Deut 1-3/Numbers 13, a tradition that develops and comes later than Gen 6.1-4). There is too much supposition required to make a reasonable case for dependence of Gen 6.1-4 on an earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story. On the other hand, it is an intriguing possibility…

Update 2 (9 January 2018): Jim Davila replies to my first update, and points out rightly that Nephilim did come to connote giants – at least by the time that the Bible was complete, and certainly in Modern Hebrew (based, as Modern Hebrew usually is, on the Bible read as a whole and interpreted over 2000 years). But as for whether the meaning of ‘giant’ is primary or secondary, he’s right also that this issue is a difficult one to resolve. The etymology, too, is uncertain – although I think the better etymology sees it as a reduction of the passive adjective (qaṭīl), קְטִיל, as I explained here: and so ‘fallen [heroes]’, that is, heroes fallen in battle. A third biblical text (in addition to Gen 6 and Num 13) which supports this view is Ezek 32:27, with its closely related group of gîbbōrîm nōflîm (fallen heroes). And a fourth text is the Hebrew of Sir 16:7, with its group of nsyqy qdm (“princes of old”) who also were ‘mighty’ (which Jim & I have discussed before). This all provides something short of conclusive evidence, but enough to make me favour seeing the primary meaning of the Nephilim as legendary or autochthonous heroes or princes famed for heroic deeds, maybe but not necessarily gigantic in stature.


Richard Carrier’s Reading Problems: An Example

After Christina Petterson had reviewed his book, On the Historicity of Jesus (2014), Richard Carrier concluded that Petterson’s review was “highly evangelical” and that Petterson herself was “fawningly Christian”.

As I was book review editor at the time that Petterson submitted her review, I asked Carrier how he had concluded that Christina Petterson was “highly evangelical”, and what evidence he had for calling her (elsewhere) “fawningly Christian”.

Given that Carrier is an historian who places a high value on the logical use of historical evidence, I wanted to see how he had treated this recent piece of historical evidence: a 2015 review of his book. How did he reach his conclusions about Petterson?

So I sent him a question on his website, and he has now kindly answered it.

DEANE DECEMBER 16, 2017, 10:25 PM

Dear Richard,

From the specific content of Christina Petterson’s review of your book, I wonder what evidence you have for calling it “highly evangelical”, and (elsewhere) what evidence you have for calling her “fawningly Christian”? If there is evidence of this in her review, I am sure that, like any good historian, you will not fail to produce it.

I eagerly wait to see your evidence.

Deane Galbraith


  1. You can see for yourself. I link to her article. It’s open access, so anyone can read it. Clues include her disparagement of the Jesus Seminar, and praise for James McGrath; her review in general reads like a James McGrath style poohpoohing of any challenge to orthodoxy, and never engages with the actual arguments of the book, which only a believing Christian would think to do. She’s defending orthodoxy. And assuming she need do no work to do it. While never once conceding the actual orthodoxy is that the Gospel Jesus is a myth (and the historical Jesus not like him). That’s all you need to know her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship (her Christian belief is likewise evident from her other writings).

    Although I think it’s fair to cut the word “evangelical” here, since it’s true, she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma in that article. So I’ve made that correction. I’ve gone back to its main descriptor: weird.

Carrier’s basis for calling Petterson “highly evangelical” and “fawningly Christian” was: her negative criticism of the Jesus Seminar, her positive appraisal of a piece written by James McGrath, combined with her negative review of Carrier. Based on this evidence, Carrier concludes that Petterson had behaved as “only a believing Christian would think to do”. Carrier further alleges that Petterson is “defending orthodoxy”, and that “her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship”. Furthermore, from Petterson’s “other writings”, he concludes that “her Christian belief is likewise evident”. Yet, he does now acknowledge that Petterson isn’t actually evangelizing in her review: “she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma”.

There is a good reason why Petterson wasn’t “evangelizing a kerygma” in her review of Carrier. She is not a Christian, and not religious, and never has been. She is an atheist.

This provides a good test, however, of Carrier’s inability to interpret his sources, and his ability to draw inferences from them that are simply not there. Carrier consistently assumes that anyone who disagrees with him must have an evangelical “agenda”. Sadly, this is conspiracy-theory thinking, not scholarly thinking.

Carrier has completely failed to interpret his source, taking inferences from it that simply were not there, and which were quite incorrect.

Does Richard Carrier use Bayes’ Theorem to detect Evangelicals?

In 2015, Christina Petterson wrote a fairly scathing review of Richard Carrier’s attempt to prove that Jesus was a mythical figure. The review of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt appears in Relegere vol. 5, no. 2 (2015), pp. 253-258.

As book review editor at the time, I did not make inquiries into Petterson’s personal religious stance. Her religious views are a personal matter, and unless confessional assumptions had formed the basis for her review (and they did not), I would not have cared what those personal views were.

How then has Carrier detected that Petterson’s review was a “highly evangelical review”? This was Carrier’s description in a recent reply to Daniel Gullotta’s similarly negative article on his book. Carrier frequently claims that he strictly follows historical reasoning and logic. So I ask him: by what logic and reasoning did he conclude that Petterson’s review is “highly evangelical”? Is this a matter of evidence and logic? Or does Carrier, the historian, have as much difficulty in interpreting a relatively recent (2015) source as he does interpreting Philo? I just want Carrier to make clear his evidence and reasoning for concluding that Petterson’s review is “highly evangelical”.

I doubt that he can.

Perhaps Carrier’s ‘reasoning’ amounted to “I just feel it in my gut”?

I sincerely hope not. As Carrier rightly notes,

“Feeling it in my gut” is a dubious alternative, too easily hijacked by bias, and impossible to critique. Historians need to do better. They need to explain to us why their assertions of probability are valid. And “I feel it in my gut,” isn’t an explanation.

This isn’t an isolated (mis)reading. In a reply to Petterson (7 February 2017), Carrier described her as “fawningly Christian”:

fawningly Christian

Again, by what logic and reasoning did he conclude that Petterson was “fawningly Christian”? As I said, in accepting her review for publication, I did not detect any evidence in her review concerning her religious views.  So how did Carrier detect them? Please let me know.

And if Carrier reached his conclusion about Petterson’s “highly evangelical” review and “fawningly Christian” views on the basis of probability, I ask him to calculate his probability using Bayes’ Theorem. To quote Carrier again,

History is about reaching conclusions in probability. That requires competence in understanding probability.

So, I challenge Carrier: defend your categorization of Petterson as “fawningly Christian” and her review as “highly evangelical”, please. Make clear the evidence and logical reasoning on which you based these conclusions. And if you think your conclusions are only “probable”, please provide specific calculations of the probability based on Bayes’ Theorem.

I’m waiting…


David and Goliath: The Very Scary Giant

Sunny Griffin (text) and Donna Lee Hill (illustrations),
David and The Very Scary Giant.
Ashland, OH: Landoll, 1994.

Some children’s books are quite oblique when it comes to explaining what happens to Goliath at the end of the story of David and Goliath. After a very slow build-up, with lots of background about David as a young boy and how he looked after his sheep – David and The Very Scary Giant suddenly gets to the climax:

The text explains that David’s stone killed Goliath. That is, however, the last page. There’s no actual depiction of David killing Goliath, just the expectation in Goliath’s eyes. And there is definitely no head-chopping.

David and Goliath: Toddlers Bible Library

My favourite David and Goliath children’s books are the ones aimed at very young readers. To be clear, they are my favourite. I wouldn’t let them near actual children.

Take this one, a short board book, in the series “The Toddlers Bible Library”: V. Gilbert Beers (text), David Fights a Giant. The Toddlers Bible Library (Wheaton: Paradise Press, 1993).

I dunno – something about that series title (The Toddlers Bible Library) might have perhaps provided a hint that the David & Goliath story wasn’t really suitable.

Yet the authors attempt to make it suitable for toddlers by making it obscure how exactly David killed Goliath. The two characters never appear in the same shot, but only on successive pages. So your toddler doesn’t get to see this whole scene, which I’ve spliced together for older readers (R18):

And then you get a shot of Goliath lying down. One is not quite sure why he is lying down. To sanitise it for toddlers, the authors have had to make the plot undecipherable. But they do make the reason clear for why David defeated the giant: because he asked God for help, whereas Goliath did not. (No mention that it was ‘help’ … to kill someone.)

This is either a very confusing story for toddlers, or – if their parents explain what’s happening – a very unsuitable story for toddlers. All this explains a lot about how Christians turn out, though.

The Book of Giants: Ancient Jewish Literary Creativity beyond the Bible

Slaying Humbaba - by Leonard Greco
Slaying Humbaba – by Leonard Greco

Philip Jenkins has written two useful posts on the Book of Giants, the ancient Jewish work which is found in different versions at Qumran and in Manichaeism.

In his first post, Philip provides a brief introduction to the Book of Giants. In his second post, Philip offers his comments on the significance of the Book of Giants for understanding ancient Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism. In particular, I was interested in Philip’s comments on how the Book of Giants sheds light on the development of ancient Jewish literature. Philip refers to works like the Book of Giants as “fan fiction”:

Religious debate and speculation increasingly took the form of writing new texts and pseudo-scriptures, which took the familiar canonized stories and developed them according to contemporary needs and interests. It is scarcely too much to describe some of these pseudepigraphic and apocryphal works as fan fiction.

He then considers the level of invention involved in composing this “fan fiction”:

Not only are writers developing stories, but they are doing so in amazingly florid form, creating whole new mythologies packed with abundant names and titles. Presumably, some authors are sitting down and inventing these names of demons and giants afresh, while others are taking those and adding their own contributions to the expanding mythos. As we know from modern-day fantasy writers, once that process begins, it rapidly spreads and expands.

This is a good point about the Book of Giants, which bears little resemblance to any biblical passage. In fact, while much of the content shares common material with the Jewish work, the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36), other parts, such as the names of the giants “Gilgamesh” and “Hunbabis” draw from Babylonian myth. Moreover, the story-line in the Book of Giants, so far as it can be reconstructed from the fragments, introduces some highly original and inventive traditions about the giants. So we can’t accurately categorize Book of Giants as “rewritten Bible”: it neither derives straightforwardly or substantially from biblical traditions nor involves mere “rewriting”, but creatively uses older traditions within a new and original narrative.

Philip’s brief comments complement Eva Mroczek’s view in a recent article published in the Journal of Ancient Judaism, “The Hegemony of the Biblical in the Study of Second Temple Literature”.

Mroczek urges that we seek to appreciate early Jewish literature on its own terms, without assuming that its authors were primarily interested in the texts which later became parts of the Bible. She writes:

The absolute centrality of the biblical is a theological, not a historical axiom: a concern with the biblical in the texts that we study must be shown with evidence, not assumed by default. While the history of the field is a history of people seeking the origins, development, and meaning of these iconic texts, the subjects of our study were not necessarily preoccupied with the same things; they were not marching to the biblical finishing line, but living in a culture whose intellectual, religious, and literary creativity cannot be assimilated into one dominant icon. Recognizing this will help us see Second Temple literature more clearly on its own terms.

Mroczek applies these principles to ancient Jewish David traditions. But they apply well to the Book of Giants, too.

Have a read further: