Friday, March 30, 2012

Early Christian Reception of the Sons of God Myth, part II


Early Christian Reception



Ireneaus of Lyon cites the sons of God myth in his treatise, Adversus Haerasus. Irenaeus writes,

 “Every knee should bow of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess Him, and that He would exercise judgment toward all; and that, on the other hand, He would send in eternal fire the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became rebels…”[1]


Irenaeus’ reference to the sons of God myth occurs in the context of a coda of faith that, in his estimation, is subscribed to by all of the confessing churches. In this passage, Irenaeus states the basic tenets of his teaching under the auspices of ecclesiastical authority, including the resurrection, the ascension into heaven and the recapitulation of all things in Christ. This context is significant; Irenaeus contends the myth of the sons of God comprises part of the deposit of faith received by the Apostles and transmitted unerringly by the Church, the profession of which is an indication of orthodox faith. However, Irenaeus does not reveal what rendition of the sons of God myth he holds to be part of the universal deposit of faith. Irenaeus’ reference is ambiguous enough to allude to a myth based around Genesis 6, one that follows I Enoch, or one more along the lines of Revelation. At 1.15.6, Irenaeus provides a citation that clarifies which telling of the fall of the sons of God he holds as part of the apostolic faith,

 “Marcus, maker of idols, observer of portents, skilled in astrology and in all arts of magic, whereby you confirm your erroneous doctrines. Showing wonders to whomever you lead into error, showing the works of the apostate Power, marvels which Satan, your father, teaches you always to perform through the power of angelic Azazel, using you as the precursor of godless evil.”[2]


 The citation of Irenaeus is thought to be from a poem against Marcus written by bishop Pothinus and a close reading provides us with some insight into which understanding of the sons of God myth Irenaeus thought to be canonical in the Church. The poem explicitly portrays Azazel as the agent through whom astrology and magic may be performed by a human being. This portrayal of Azazel follows the character’s appearance in I Enoch closely. Irenaeus’ most extensive citation of the sons of God myth occurs in his minor work, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Existing only in Armenian and discovered only in the twentieth century, the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching is designed to be a catechetical treatise, expressing the doctrine of the Church under the authority of the bishop. The following is an expanded citation from the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, containing Irenaeus’ statements on both the fall of Adam and Eve and the fall of the angels,


“This commandment the man kept not, but was disobedient to God, being led astray by the angel who, for the great gifts of God which He had given to man, was envious and jealous of him,47 and both brought himself to nought and made man sinful, persuading him to disobey the commandment of God. So the angel, becoming by his falsehood the author and originator of sin, himself was struck down, having offended against God, and man he caused to be cast out from Paradise. And, because through the guidance of his disposition he apostatized and departed from God, he was called Satan, according to the Hebrew word; that is, Apostate: 48 but he is also called Slanderer. Now God cursed the serpent which carried and conveyed the Slanderer; and this malediction came on the beast himself and on the angel hidden and concealed in him, even on Satan; and man He put away from His presence, removing him and making him to dwell on the way to Paradise 49 at that time; because Paradise receiveth not the sinful…And for a very long while wickedness extended and spread, and reached and laid hold upon the whole race of mankind, until a very small seed of righteousness remained among them: and illicit unions took place upon the earth, since angels were united with the daughters of the race of mankind; and they bore to them sons who for their exceeding greatness were called giants. And the angels brought as presents to their wives teachings of wickedness, in that they brought them the virtues of roots and herbs, dyeing in colours and cosmetics, the discovery of rare substances, love-potions, aversions, amours, concupiscence, constraints of love, spells of bewitchment, and all sorcery and idolatry hateful to God; by the entry of which things into the world evil extended and spread, while righteousness was diminished and enfeebled.”[3]


            The above citation from the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching provides us with Ireneaus’ most detailed appropriation of the sons of God myth. Irenaeus’ follows an expansion of the account in Genesis 6:1-4, including a literal interpretation of angelic descent, procreation with women and production of an offspring of giants. The mention of the sons of God providing humanity with “the virtues of roots and herbs, dyeing in colours and cosmetics, the discovery of rare substances, love-potions, aversions, amours, concupiscence, constraints of love, spells of bewitchment, and all sorcery and idolatry hateful to God,” seems to confirm Irenaeus’ use of I Enoch as a canonical work.
            Tertullian is most explicit in his belief in the fallen angels interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. In chapter 22 of the Apology, Tertullian writes,

            “We are instructed by our sacred books how from certain angels, who fell by their own free will, there sprang a more wicked demon-brood, condemned of God along with the authors of their race, and that chief we have referred to.”

            Tertullian continues by extrapolating upon the effects of the fallen angels upon humanity, citing them as the source for all forms of physical and spiritual maladies. Tertullian maintains the angels saw the beauty of women and left heaven to copulate with them. The angels revealed numerous hidden arts and sciences that had, at that point in history, not yet been revealed to humanity. Among these arts is the ornamentation of women. The ornamentation of women is, by its nature derived from angels who had abandoned God to satisfy sexual temptation, facilitative of both seduction and apostasy.[4] It is these same sons of God who, according to Tertullian, Paul says Christian’s are to judge at the end of the age.
            In the course of Tertullian’s appeals to the fallen angels myth one finds early indications that the myth was not universally accepted in the early centuries of Christianity. The early skepticism of the myth seems to derive from suspicion surrounding the myth’s relationship to I Enoch. Tertullian writes,

            “I am aware that the Scripture of Enoch, which has assigned this order of action to the angels, is not received by some, because it is not admitted into the Jewish canon either.”


            After acknowledging the objection towards I Enoch on account of the Jewish canon, Tertullian proceeds to argue for the book’s inspiration on account of its authenticity, if not through Enoch himself (the supposed antiquity of the book being a major stumbling block towards its universal acceptance) than through Noah, who Tertullian presumes would have naturally preserved the traditions of his great-grandfather for his posterity after the Flood.[5] The main purpose behind the composition of I Enoch, as contended by the majority of scholarship, was to provide an authoritative interpretation of the enigmatic verses comprising Genesis 6:1-4. Following Tertullian’s argument, the myth, as recorded in I Enoch, of a sexual union between humans and angels has the authority of antiquity.[6]
            Clement of Alexandria utilizes the sons of God myth in his Stromata, although some of the references are subject to a great deal of interpretation. Reed, for instance, identified Stromata I.XVI as containing an allusion to the sons of God myth. The passage discusses the supposed divine origins of Greek philosophy, commenting that certain persons have argued that Greek philosophy was delivered by “certain powers descending from heaven.”[7] Reed’s interpretation presumes philosophy may be considered part of the forbidden knowledge imparted by the sons of God. This interpretation gains more support when considering Stromata V.I where Clement offers his most detailed treatment of the sons of God myth. According Clement, the angels who descended and took wives imparted to them secret knowledge. This knowledge was spread amongst humanity, though without the guidance of divine revelation there could be no assurance that philosophers would discover true doctrine.[8]
Origen, while never disregarding I Enoch as spurious, heretical or uninspired, gradually wavers in his enthusiasm for the book. De Principiis contains Origen’s most unambiguous citation of I Enoch as authentic Scripture. Later in the fourth chapter of De Principiis, Origen quotes directly from the text of I Enoch 21:1 and I Enoch 19:3 in that order.[9] As with the earlier citation of Enoch from De Principiis, Enoch is appealed to in the context of books considered Scripture. However, Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John displays his increasing hesitancy to ascribe full canonicity to I Enoch,

“Let us look at the words of the Gospel now before us. Jordan means their going down. The name Jared is etymologically akin to it, if I may say so; it also yields the meaning going down; for Jared was born to Maleleel, as it is written in the Book of Enoch – if anyone cares to accept that book as sacred – in the days when the sons of God came down to the daughters of men. Under this descent some have supposed that there is an enigmatical reference to the descent of souls into bodies, taking the phrase daughters of men as a tropical expression for this earthly tabernacle.”[10]


Origen’s reference to the Book of Enoch attests to a development in his own use of the sons of God myth. Origen demonstrates knowledge of an allegorical interpretation of the sons of God myth circulating at the time the Commentary on the Gospel of John was composed. Origen does not specify in what circles this interpretation circulates, Jewish or Christian. In this interpretation, however, the sons of God represent human souls descending from heaven and becoming incarnate in human bodies (the daughters of man). Aside from the apparent hesitancy to advocate for the canonicity of I Enoch, Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John is notable for presenting us with the first example of Origen’s interpretation of the sons of God myth. It is notable that Origen refers to the sons of God and not the angels of God. Origen follows the original text of the Septuagint and the Masoretic text in this reading, as opposed to the angels of God in later redaction of the Greek text or the angels of I Enoch. I believe this indicates the possibility Origen may have primarily utilized Genesis 6:1-4 as the basis for his reading of the angelic descent myth.
Contra Celsum marks the point at which Origen expresses most of his reservations regarding the inspiration of I Enoch. In Contra Celsum, Celsus disputes the uniqueness of Jesus on account of the numerous accounts of angels having descended to earth. Celsus argues that even according to the books Christians hold as sacred, Jesus is not the only celestial being to have descended.[11] It would, in Celsus’ estimation, be impossible to proclaim Jesus as the only one sent from God if there are in Scripture other accounts of angels.[12] Origen argues Celsus has both misinterpreted the books believed inspired by all the churches and also misidentified a book as inspired in all the churches. Origen notes that I Enoch is not universally accepted, therefore removing it from consideration of what constitutes Christian doctrine.[13] During his response to Celsus, Origen refers to the narrative contained in Genesis 6:1-4 when interpreting the myth of angelic descent on account of Genesis universal acceptance. Origen then reprises the interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 stated in his Commentary on the Gospel of John,

“We shall nevertheless even on this point persuade those who are capable of understanding the meaning of the prophet, that even before us there was one who referred this narrative to the doctrine of souls, which became possessed with a desire for the corporeal life of men, and in this metaphorical language, he said, was termed daughters of men.”[14]


            Origen’s interpretation of the sons of God in Contra Celsum offers three points to consider. 1) When concluding this segment of the work, Origen implies there is still some room for interpretation of the meaning behind the narrative in Genesis 6:1-4.[15] 2) Origen understands I Enoch itself to be an interpretation of the text of Genesis 6:1-4, “that even before us there was one who referred this narrative to the doctrine of souls.” 3) Origen utilizes an allegorical interpretation of the myth when the veracity of the incarnation is threatened. Whatever the historical truth behind the dispute with Celsus, Origen adopts the allegorical interpretation after Celsus challenges the affirmation that Jesus is really the Son of God descended to earth.
Athenagoras treats of the myth in his Embassy for Christians. Athenagoras affirms a literal interpretation of the sons of God and daughters of man myth. There are no appeals to Enoch as an authoritative source and, when offering an account of the myth, there are none of the Enochian expansions in his writing. Before addressing the myth of the sons of God, Athenagoras proceeds with a philosophical exposition on the nature of angels. Athenagoras distinguishes God (the Father) from matter, the Son as the intelligence, reason and wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit as an effluence of the Father, “as light from fire.”[16] Angels, conversely, are created in closer proximity to matter, created for the purpose of controlling matter and the forms of matter.[17] Athenegoras writes,

“For this is the office of the angels – to exercise providence for God over the things created and ordered by Him; so that God may have universal and general providence of the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed over them.”


Athenegoras conceives of a transcendent God, impregnable by material creation. For the sustenance of the creation, angels are more immediately related to material creation, being themselves created beings. This distinction permits Athenegoras to interpret the sons of God myth literally. God, being totally outside of matter, cannot commingle with material creation. The angels, however, have been created for the purpose of intimate interaction with matter. The sons of God are angels who abandoned the purpose of their creation,

“These angels fell into impure love of virgins, and were subjugated by the flesh, and became negligent and wicked in the management of the things entrusted to him.”[18]


That the angels were subjugated by the flesh indicates how close to humanity Athenegoras conceives of the angels who fell. Athenegoras assumes the angels who fell remain on earth, unable to return to heaven and, perhaps in an allusion to the punishment of the offspring of the fallen angels, the souls of the giants are transformed into demons.[19]
            Julianus Africanus is the first Christian author in the ante-Nicene period to record a Sethinite/Caininite  interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. Julians, however, does not reject the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 completely. Rather, Julianus provides several qualifiers that need to be factored into one’s reading of the text in order for a literal interpretation to be possible. Julianus attests to the variant readings of the Greek text between sons of God and angels of God.[20] Julian himself advocates for interpreting the passage as referring to marriage between the tribe of Seth and the tribe of Cain. Seth’s seed are the sons of God due to the lineage of humanity springing from them, eventually climaxing in the birth of Jesus. Cain’s seed, meanwhile, represents the daughters of man on account of their irrelevance to the lineage of Jesus and presumed extermination with the flood.[21] Julianus is the first known Christian interpretation of the sons of God myth that identifies the narrative as concerning the comingling of two different human lines. This being said, Julianus does not reject the literal interpretation of the myth as a viable interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. Rather, Julianus advises that a literal interpretation must qualify which angels took wives from the daughters of men,

            “But if it is thought that these refer to angels, we must take them to be those who deal with magic and jewelry, who taught the women the notions of the stars and the knowledge of things celestial, by whose power the conceived giants as children.”


            Julianus’ allowance of the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 is the last hospitable reference to such an interpretation in Western Christianity. Among the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers there is a substantial rejection of such an interpretation. Ecclesial writers of the fourth century would prefer a less literal interpretation of the passage in question.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyon. Adversus Haereasus. 1.10.1
[2] Unger held that Irenaeus’ citation is a poem composed by bishop Pothinus. 214
[3] Irenaeus of Lyon. Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. 1.15, 1.17
[4] Tertullian. On the Apparel of Women. II
[5] Tertullian. On the Apparel of Women. III
[6] Tertullian concludes this section of On the Apparel of Women by defending the I Enoch via Christological interpretation. In so far as the book has content that may be interpreted as referring to Jesus Christ, the book pertains to the Church and should be read by the Church. Additionally, Tertullian cites the authority of Epistle of Jude as verifying I Enoch’s inspiration.
[7] Clement of Alexandria.Stromata. I.XVI
[8] Clement of Alexandria. Stromata. V.I
[9] Hessayon, Ariel. Og King of Bashan, Enoch and the Books of Enoch.
[10] Origen. Commentary on the Gospel of John. 25
[11] Origen. Contra Celsum. 5.53
[12] Origen. Contra Celsum. 5.54
[13] Origen. Contra Celsum. 5.54
[14] Origen. Contra Celsum. 5.55
[15] Origen. Contra Celsum. 5.55
[16] Athenegoras. Embassy for Christians. XXIV
[17] Athenegoras. Embassy for Christians. XXIV
[18] Athenegoras. Embassy for Christians. XXIV
[19] Athenegoras. Embassy for Christians. XXV.
[20] Julianus Africanus. II
[21] Julianus Africanus. II
copyright the author  2012