In January 2018, I had the privilege to interview Dr. Gabriele Boccaccini, director of the Enoch Seminar.
Even in the midst of a personal tragedy, Boccaccini was kind enough to give thoughtful consideration to a number of questions about his work and motives.
Kurt Manwaring: I first learned about the Enoch Seminar in an interview with Philip Jenkins, whose latest book, Crucible of Faith, came out in 2017 through Basic Books. It was his interview that caused me to research the Enoch Seminar and eventually get in touch with you.
How would you describe the Enoch Seminar in one or two sentences that would enable a layman to understand what you do?
Gabriele Boccaccini: The Enoch Seminar is an open and inclusive forum of international specialists in early Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Scholars with different methodologies and approaches and at various stages of their academic careers, from graduate students to senior scholars, have the opportunity to meet and work together in the search for the common roots of the three “Abrahamic religions”.
Kurt Manwaring: How did the Enoch Seminar get started and what was your role?
Gabriele Boccaccini: The Enoch Seminar started in 2001. It was my idea to organize a series of small seminars in the field, putting together groups of international specialists, who often work in cognate fields without having many opportunities to share the results of their research and learn from the work of their colleagues.
I have been the director of the organization ever since, but the Enoch Seminar is now no longer a one-person enterprise but a very complex organization that involves many specialists from different countries.
Kurt Manwaring: A primary focus of the Enoch Seminar is to transcend “conventional, and often isolated, disciplinary and methodological boundaries.”
Can you explain why this cross-disciplinary focus is important and provide an especially successful example that has emerged from the Enoch Seminar?
Gabriele Boccaccini: For a long time, studies in Early Judaism and in Christian and Islamic Origins have remained separate fields. But Christianity was born as a Jewish messianic movement, and the Qur’an was shaped by Jewish and Christian traditions. Now, thanks also to the meetings and publications of the Enoch Seminar, we are reading Jesus and the New Testament as part of Second Temple Judaism, and the Qur’an in the context of the Jewish and Christian controversies of its age.
We have called our group the Enoch Seminar not because we focus on Enochic literature only, but because Enoch is ubiquitous in Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. The development of religious thought does not follow our “canonical” distinctions.
In our field, a cross-disciplinary approach means first of all a cross-canonical approach, aimed to recover the original setting of ancient documents. It is impossible to properly understand the Book of Daniel without the Book of Dream Visions, or the Synoptic Gospels without the Book of the Parables of Enoch. But how many people have read Dream Visions or the Parables of Enoch?
It was only our canonical concerns which have made us study some texts apart from the others.
Kurt Manwaring: The first Enoch Colloquium was held in 2017 in partnership with the Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University. How did this come about and what kind of impact do you hope it will have on the study of ancient apocalyptic literature?
Gabriele Boccaccini: The Enoch Colloquia are just a new series of meetings we started in conjunction with the American or international meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis (SBL), besides the biennial Enoch Seminars, the Graduate Enoch Seminars and the many Nangeroni Meetings.
The goal of the Enoch Colloquia is to offer the opportunity to more scholars to experience our meetings, while keeping their distinctive features: seminar format, interdisciplinary approach, circulation of the papers in advance so that most of the time can be devoted to discussion. The collaboration with Harvard University gave us an amazing start.
Kurt Manwaring: Who are one or two of the most promising scholars working your field today?
Gabriele Boccaccini: It would be embarrassing for me just to single out one or two among the many brilliant young scholars who attend our meetings from all over the world.
I have some good advice however: Watch out in particular for those young scholars who are now reading the New Testament (not only Jesus, but also Paul and John) as Second Temple Jewish Literature, or explore the Christian or Jewish backgrounds of Muhammad.
They are the future of our field.
Kurt Manwaring: Religious scholars run the gamut from atheists to secure-in-the-faith. What is your personal relationship with faith or religion and how has it been influenced by your academic career?
Gabriele Boccaccini: My Italian family has Christian and Jewish roots, and has directly experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust. I see the study of early Judaism and Christianity as an important contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue. The religion we now call Christianity and Judaism are sister religions, which both share a common origin in the diverse world of Second Temple Judaism. My entire academic career has been shaped by the lesson of tolerance, respect and dialogue I received from my own family.
Kurt Manwaring: What should the attitude of a scholar-believer be if they discover historical facts that do not jibe with their religious traditions? Is there a reason for believers to be afraid of history?
Gabriele Boccaccini: We should not be afraid of history. On the contrary, historical research provides a common ground for people of different faiths to understand each other and the reasons of their diversity.
History cannot prove the truth of any religion, but can teach us a great deal of tolerance. Religions also are continuously changing, adapting to different times and adjusting to meet new challenges. Some ideas that we now label “conservative” did not even exist until recent times, and some of the most “innovative” ideas have ancient roots.
We should always respect history even when it tells us something that appears to be in conflict with our most established convictions. After all, it was God’s choice to reveal through ordinary history.
Kurt Manwaring: Have you come across any Mormon scholars over the years? If so, was there anything about their approach to the research that stands out — for better or worse?
Gabriele Boccaccini: A scholar is a scholar and is not defined primarily by his/her faith. There are valid scholars who happen to be Mormons. They have contributed as scholars to the work of our seminars as much as scholars who happen to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist.
It is true, however, that personal beliefs may sometimes add particular motivations.
Enoch is an important character in the Mormon tradition, and obviously Mormon scholars have a special interest in the ancient Jewish literature associated with Enoch.
Kurt Manwaring: Is there a singular unanswered question in your field for which you would give your proverbial left arm to answer?
Gabriele Boccaccini: I wish we could know more about the religious background of Jesus and his religious education.
We know that he was a Jew, but what kind of Jew was he? There were many different Jewish groups in antiquity. Before becoming the founder of a distinctive messianic movement, Jesus grew up in a specific Jewish community.
Was it an Essene community? or an apocalyptic one? Were there “Enochic” communities in Galilee?
Christianity did not come generically from a Jewish background, but emerged as an outgrowth from a specific kind of Judaism that was deeply shaped and influenced by Enochic traditions.
I wish we could know more about it.
Kurt Manwaring: If you had to go back in time and were forced to choose an entirely different expertise, where would you direct your energies and why?
Gabriele Boccaccini: I only know two things: I would have done something that has to do with the study of the past and with teaching and education.
The past is what helps us understand the present in which we live. And education is what makes people free and less subject to be manipulated. I love music and art but I suspect I would have ended up studying the history of music and the history of art.
And I cannot imagine myself other than a teacher.