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Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Angels that Sinned: Christadelphian Interpretations of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6

Correction 31.01.2015: it was previously stated under 'Assessing the 1 Enoch Allusion View' that Gen. 6:1-4 LXX translates the Hebrew bene elohim ('sons of God') with angeloi. This is incorrect. While the LXX translators render bene elohim with angeloi in Job 1:6, 2:1 and 38:7, they provide a literal translation, hoi huioi tou theou, in Gen. 6. The author apologises for this error. 
Addendum 12.08.2015: it seems that my previous correction still did not provide the full story on Gen. 6:1-4 LXX. In fact, there is a text-critical issue here. Some manuscripts have οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ('the sons of God') while others have γγελοι θεοῦ ('angels of God'). The standard critical text of Rahlfs-Hanhart has υἱοὶ, and Hultin states that this is probably the original reading (Hultin, J. (2010). Jude’s Citation of 1 Enoch. In J.H. Charlesworth & L.M. McDonald (Eds.), Jewish and Christian Scriptures: The Function of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-Canonical’ Religious Texts (pp. 113-130). London: T&T Clark, p. 114.) However, other scholars seem to regard ἄγγελοι as the original reading (Adelman, R. (2009). The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe De-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha. Leiden: Brill, p. 115 n. 20; Carson, D.A. (2007). 2 Peter. In G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson (Eds.), Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (pp. 1047-1061). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 1050; Mathews, K.A. (1996). Genesis 1-11:26. Nashville: B&H Publishing, p. 325 n. 90; Bateman, H.W., IV. (2013). Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 258 n. 21). I haven't seen a specific text-critical argument in any source so at this stage I will just acknowledge the uncertainty but note that the standard critical text has 'the sons of God'.

In the epistles of 2 Peter and Jude are two similar verses which appear to refer to sinful angels:
"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment" (2 Pet. 2:4)

"And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day" (Jude 1:6)
This post will assess Christadelphian interpretations of these two texts and offer what the author believes is a better interpretation. You are encouraged to click the links above and read the verses in context before proceeding.

History of Christadelphian Interpretation of these Texts

These two texts have a somewhat colourful history of interpretation even in the relatively brief period of the Christadelphian movement. The apparent reference to sinful angels creates a theological quandary for Christadelphians, who deny the existence (and in some cases, even the possibility) of fallen angels.

The founder of the movement, Dr. John Thomas, suggested in 1835 that these two passages refer to a pre-Adamic race who inhabited the earth but subsequently rebelled. At that time he also suggested that this explains the origin of Satan and demons. By 1848, when he wrote Elpis Israel, he had abandoned belief in the existence of Satan and demons as real personal beings, but upheld the interpretation of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 as referring to a pre-Adamic race. This view was maintained by his successor as the most prominent Christadelphian Bible expositor, Robert Roberts, in Christendom Astray.

Subsequent generations of Christadelphians moved away from the idea of pre-Adamic inhabitants of the earth in favour of another interpretation, which can be found in Christadelphian periodicals, the well-known resource Wrested Scripture, and the website of Christadelphian apologist Duncan Heaster. This view holds that 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 allude to the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram recorded in Numbers 16.

Recently, a new interpretation has been proposed by Steven Cox, first in a series of periodical articles (here and here) and then in a pamphlet, The Angels that Sinned: Slandering Celestial Beings. Cox proposes that 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 refer to an account of fallen angels recorded in the Jewish apocalyptic text known as 1 Enoch or The Book of Enoch. However, according to Cox, Peter and Jude are not endorsing the account as actual history but are ironically repudiating it as a blasphemous fable.

The majority of modern biblical scholars argue that 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 refer to an account of angelic rebellion which is dependent on 1 Enoch. However, the account does not originate with 1 Enoch but is based on an angelic interpretation of "the sons of God" in Genesis 6:1-4.

Which of the above four views is correct? Let us examine each of them briefly in turn.

Assessing the Pre-Adamic Interpretation

The view of John Thomas and Robert Roberts has also had some defenders in the scholarly community, but its great weakness is that the existence of a pre-Adamic race on earth is nowhere else attested in Scripture. Some have tried to infer it from Gen. 1:2 but this is entirely speculative. On the principle of interpreting scripture with scripture, the pre-Adamic view has little in its favour.

Assessing the Korah Interpretation

The Korah, Dathan and Abiram view has enjoyed popularity among Christadelphians but (to the best of my knowledge) has not been defended by any exegete outside the Christadelphian community. Proponents of this view make the following arguments in its favour:
  1. According to Numbers 16:33, Korah, Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth and "went down alive into darkness" (Num. 16:33). This is said to correspond well with 2 Pet. 2:4, which refers to the angels that sinned being cast into tartarus, a word for the prison of the netherworld which is borrowed from Greek mythology. Some Greek manuscripts of 2 Pet. 2:4 also refer to "pits of darkness" while some refer to "chains of darkness"; in Jude 1:6 it is certainly "chains of darkness".
  2. The Greek word angelos does not necessarily refer to angels but can also refer to human messengers, as in Matt. 11:10, Luke 7:24, and James 2:25. As Korah, Dathan and Abiram were leaders of the assembly of Israel who ministered to the people, it would be appropriate for them to be referred to as "messengers" (angeloi). Korah was a Levite, and priests are referred to as messengers (angeloi) in the Septuagint of Mal. 2:7.
  3. Jude 1:6 says that these angels left their first estate or principality. Num. 16 refers to Korah, Dathan and Abiram as princes or chiefs of the assembly, which corresponds to the principality that they left.
However, this interpretation also suffers from the following weaknesses:
  1. In 2 Peter 2, this allusion the angels that sinned is the first of three allusions to historical divine judgments. The other two are both in Genesis and are referenced in chronological order. Thus Peter's statement would be more symmetrical if 2 Pet. 2:4 referred to something in Genesis which was chronologically prior to the Flood, rather than an incident recorded in Numbers.
  2. Angeloi, if it is even lexically possible, is a very unlikely way to refer to Korah, Dathan and Abiram, especially in 2 Peter 2:4 where no further identifiers are given beyond "the angels that sinned". Elsewhere where angelos refers to men in Scripture, it is plain that these people were bearers of a specific message or had been sent on a mission. This is not true of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Moreover, while the word is used of priests once in Mal. 2:7 LXX, Korah and his company were not priests, and Dathan and Abiram were not even Levites!
  3. The fact that Korah, Dathan and Abiram are not named goes against this interpretation. Elsewhere when referring to incidents where the parties involved are named in the Old Testament, Peter and Jude give names to make it clear to whom they refer: Noah, Lot and Balaam in 2 Peter; and in Jude, Cain, Balaam and, believe it or not, Korah! Even when referring to incidents involving unnamed persons, they make their allusions clear: the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; the unbelieving Israelites after the exodus from Egypt.
  4. As noted above, the fact that Korah is referred to later in Jude by name makes it unlikely that he was referred to in an oblique way in verse 6.
  5. Perhaps the greatest weakness of this interpretation is that there is a much better one: see below.
Assessing the 1 Enoch Allusion View
The majority of scholars, as well as the Christadelphian writer Steven Cox, see these two texts as allusions to a fallen angels account in the Jewish apocalyptic book of 1 Enoch which was probably mostly written in the two centuries before Christ. (1 Enoch is itself dependent on an angelic interpretation of "the sons of God" in Gen. 6:1-4). This interpretation has the following points in its favour:
  1. Under this interpretation, the three allusions in 2 Pet. 4:4-8 are neatly presented in chronological order.
  2. Jude 1:7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah "likewise" gave themselves up to sexual immorality. This implies that the referents of v. 6 also engaged in sexual immorality. This is true in the angelic view of Gen. 6:1-4, but there is no record of Korah, Dathan and Abiram engaging in sexual immorality.
  3. As both Christadelphian writers Steven Cox and Duncan Heaster affirm, there are numerous allusions to 1 Enoch in 2 Peter and Jude. Indeed, Jude 1:14-15 is a direct quotation from 1 Enoch 1:9. This shows that these writers were well aware of the account of the angelic rebellion contained therein.
  4. This interpretation allows us to adhere to the primary biblical meaning of the word angeloi, that is, angels.
  5. There are strong parallels in the wording of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 and the narratives in 1 Enoch. See examples in the table below:
2 Peter 2:4/Jude 1:6
1 Enoch
…the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority
And Semjaza, to whom Thou hast given authority to bear rule over his associates. And they have gone to the daughters of men upon the earth, and have slept with the women, and have defiled themselves, and revealed to them all kinds of sins (1 Enoch 9:7-9)
…but left their proper dwelling
Go, declare to the Watchers of the heaven who have left the high heaven, the holy eternal place (1 Enoch 12:4)
Cast them into hell (tartarus) and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness
Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness (1 Enoch 10:4)

And these are the names of the holy angels who watch. Uriel, one of the holy angels, who is over the world and over tartarus (1 Enoch 20:2-3)

And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying: ' For whom are these chains being prepared?' And he said unto me: ' These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation (1 Enoch 54:4-5)
…until the judgment of the great day
Bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgment (1 Enoch 10:12)

It is worth noting that 2 Pet. 2:4 is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek word tartarus occurs (this word is borrowed from Greek mythology where it refers to the lowest part of the underworld). The verbal parallels between 2 Peter/Jude and 1 Enoch are striking, far beyond any resemblance between 2 Peter/Jude and Numbers 16. For this reason, Christadelphian writer Steven Cox has correctly abandoned the Korah interpretation and acknowledges (with the majority of today's biblical scholars) that 2 Peter and Jude were alluding to the fallen angels interpretation of Gen. 6:1-4 as elaborated in 1 Enoch.

Assessing the 'Hypothetical, not Historical' View

Cox's exegesis of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 is sound up to this point, but then takes a surprising turn. For him, the "If" in 2 Peter 2:4 shows that he presents the fallen angels account, not as real history, but as a hypothetical situation for argument's sake.

This claim appears contrived. Supporters of the pre-Adamic or Korah interpretations can easily see that 2 Pet. 2:4 presents "the angels that sinned" as historical fact. 2 Pet. 2:4-9 is a conditional (if...then) statement of the evidence-inference type. The inference is in verse 9, and concerns real present and future events: "then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment". The evidence comes in the form of three historical precedents from the Old Testament: punishments of the wicked (angels that sinned, Flood, Sodom) and rescues of the righteous (Noah, Lot).

It is noteworthy that in the Greek, there is only one "if": all three events are joined in a single protasis (if statement). "If God spared not the angels...and spared not the ancient world...and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes condemned them...then..." The three historical precedents stand or fall together, and since Peter undoubtedly viewed the Flood and Sodom as historical, the same is true of "the angels that sinned".

Cox anticipates this argument and asks, "Wouldn’t it be more natural to think that Peter simply does not consider that an example taken from the uninspired Book of Enoch is sufficient to prove his point?" This may be true, but it still follows that Peter viewed this example as true history. A false example would not merely be insufficient - it would undermine the credibility of his argument! In the same way, the fact that Peter cites a third example (Sodom and Gomorrah) does not mean he doubted the reality of the second example (the Flood). He was simply making his argument rock-solid with three historical precedents.

Furthermore, in Jude 1:6 the fallen angels allusion is sandwiched between two others that are obviously presented as historical: the Israelites who were slain in the wilderness, and Sodom and Gomorrah. This time there is no 'if statement' but simply statements of history. The three incidents are joined with conjunctions which show Jude saw no distinction in authority; and as noted earlier, he even makes a comparison between the sexual sin of the angels and that of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are numerous other criticisms that could be offered concerning Cox's pamphlet, such as his highly selective discussion of the reception of the fallen angels narrative by the early church, but space does not allow us to do so here. We have seen enough to conclude that the "hypothetical" interpretation of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 is untenable in view of the context.


Sound, consistent exegesis of 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 shows that Peter and Jude believed angels had rebelled against God in the distant past and been punished accordingly. This does not necessarily mean that these writers accepted all of 1 Enoch as inspired and authoritative. However, it does mean that if we consider 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 1:6 to be inspired and authoritative, we had better make room in our theology for the idea of fallen angels.

One may ask why Peter and Jude would cite this event when there were many other examples of divine judgment to choose from which rest on firmer biblical foundations. In my view the answer lies in the rhetorical weight that a divine judgment of angels added to their argument. Angels were viewed as being superior to humans (Psalm 8:5 cf. 2 Pet. 2:11). So if God's wrath was poured out on angels when they sinned, how much more will it be poured out on rebellious humans such as the false brethren of whom Peter and Jude warned?

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