When we survey literature from around the time of the first century into which Christianity was born, both immediately before and after, we see a continuity of belief that the Genesis 6:1–4 narrative regarded angels copulating with mortal women. The Book of Enoch which has already been mentioned is perhaps the central text on this topic if only for the purpose that it is rather extensive in the treatment of fallen angels and seems to be the second earliest source behind the Septuagint. It was written sometime in the second century BC, and for nearly 500 years this text was unanimously popular (1). In Epistle of Barnabas, written somewhere between the late first and early second centuries, the book of Enoch is treated as Scripture. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others, supported this text and used it, some of them ascribing it a status of Scripture. Even to this day, the Ethiopic Orthodox Church regards the Book of Enoch as canonical.
While we may not view the work as divinely inspired, we can certainly concede that it was influential to Second Temple Jews and the early church. The Book of Enoch is made up of several works that comprise the whole, and the Book of Watchers (3.1–2) follows the Septuagint in its lead in interpreting Genesis 6:1–4. The sin wasn’t only that angels commingled with women, but that they also, and their offspring, taught charms and enchantments among other bouts of unrighteousness.
Also in the Book of Watchers appears other angels who serve God and are named (e.g. Uriel, Raphael). These angels are preparing to wage war against the rebellious hosts who’ve violated God’s holy creation. Enoch was the prophet sent to communicate to the rebellious angels their crime and the sentence necessitated by it. “For from thenceforward they could not speak with Him nor lift up their eyes to heaven for shame of their sins for which they had been condemned” (4.28; cf. 5.5). Of the offspring of the angels and women
And now, the giants, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth shall be their dwelling. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies; because they are born from men and from the Watchers is their beginning and primal origin; they shall be evil spirits on earth, and evil spirits shall they be called. And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble. They take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offenses. (5.28–30)
These evil spirits, demons, would eventually become idols that would lead the nations astray to sacrifice to the created elements (6.22; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19–21).
The book of Jubilees, roughly written somewhere around 100 BC, read much like the Septuagint in identifying those who in Hebrew are “sons of God” as “angels” (5.1). Jubilees went on to say that God was upset with the angels whom He had sent upon the earth for their sin with women. Therefore, He was going to have them bound in the depths of the earth (5.6, 10), likely a reference to Tartarus, or corresponding to it, as contained in 2 Peter 2:4.
Philo was a first-century BC–AD Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt. When he evaluated the account from Genesis 6:1–4, he used a text that suggested that the sons of God were angels much like the Septuagint (De Gig. 6). In another of his works, Quaestiones et solutions in Genesim (1.92), he asked why giants were born from angels and women, which only corroborates the already mentioned interpretations of this passage as regarding angels copulating with women. Even Josephus, the Jewish historian living in the second half of the first century shared Philo’s belief. In his Antiquities of the Jews, he also identified the passage under question here as about fallen angels copulating with mortal women (1.3.1).
When we go into early Christianity, we must hold that the early Christians were aware of this belief and the sources from which I quoted in this section. Therefore, a continuity of belief is witnessed. The second-century bishop of Gaul, Irenaeus, held the same view of this passage as those before him (Adv. Haer. 4.36.4).
In his treatise On the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian spent considerable time addressing Paul’s passage to the Corinthians about women wearing veils (1 Corinthians 11:2–16). Paul had mentioned the purpose of veiling oneself, among other reasons, for the sake of angels. Paul urged that the men not wear veils in this passage, while conversely urging the women to wear veils. Men wearing veils may have been connected to Roman religious life. For example, in the foundational epic of Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid, we read that the purpose of a man veiling his head was to preserve the omens of sacrifice. This also, we read, was to be bound to as a perpetual observance throughout time (Aen. 3.405–10). Since a man wore a veil in the first century, attention was drawn to the man himself while in Christian worship, attention should have been directed to the head of a man, namely, Christ.
When Tertullian turned to the Pauline passage to the Corinthians, he addressed the purpose of veiling for the sake of angels. According to him, the reason that it was for the sake of angels was due to the angelic lust of women that resulted in angels sinning. He interpreted the sons of God from Genesis 6:1–2. For a woman to veil herself for the angels’ sake was for her to avoid tempting the angels with her beauty lest more abandon their domain for the sake of copulating with women (Veiling 7). Tertullian used this same argument regarding women veiling their heads for the sake of angels in On Prayer 22.
Here on out, Tertullian interpreted “woman” rather than “wife” from 1 Corinthians 11. Some translations insert “wife” as the translation of gyne (ESV) while others use “woman” (NKJV). There is no Greek term for “wife” itself, but “wife” is usually translated whenever, in Greek, the woman is shown to be possessed by the man. An example of this would read, “She is the woman of him.” When phrased as such in Greek, “woman” would be translated as “wife” since she belongs to him. I realize that this sounds rather chauvinistic, but remember that women were the possessions of men, either of their fathers or their husbands, in Roman antiquity.
The reason that Tertullian understood gyne as “woman” as opposed to “wife” was so that it could encompass all women: mothers, daughters, wives, virgins, etc. Because he chose such an interpretation, women were to wear veils (in worship only?) as a symbol of authority on their heads (Veiling 8). He went on to write,
I pray you, be you mother, or sister, or virgin-daughter … veil your head … Put on the panoply of modesty; surround yourself with the stockade of bashfulness; rear a rampart for your sex, which must neither allow your own eyes egress nor ingress to other people’s. Wear the full garb of woman, to preserve the standing of virgin. Belie somewhat of our inward consciousness, in order to exhibit the truth to God alone. (Veiling 16)
For Tertullian, his whole purpose of this treatise was to argue against custom and for truth. He saw this issue as a truth to God alone, and not a custom (Veiling 1–3). Tertullian went on to conclude his treatise on the matter by writing,
But how severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who, amid (the recital of) the Psalms, and at any mention of (the name of) God, continue uncovered; (who) even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness place a fringe, or a tuft, or any thread whatever, on the crown of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered? (Veiling 17)
John Chrysostom (ca. AD 347–409) concluded similarly to Tertullian in his 26th homily in 1 Corinthians.
Ephrem the Syrian (Gen. 6.3.1), a contemporary of John Chrysostom, as well as Augustine (City of God 15.23), did not interpret “sons of God” from Genesis 6:4 as angels. Rather, they believed them to have been the sons of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. However, they were not the first to posit this interpretation. A contemporary of Irenaeus, Julius Africanus believed the “sons of God” to have been the sons of Seth. Nevertheless, the church’s Bible, the Septuagint, as well as the Judaism of the New Testament held Genesis 6:1–4 to have been about angels and women.
- Jay Winter, The Complete Book of Enoch: Standard Version (Kindle Edition: Winter Publications, 2015), Loc. 55.