Andrei A. Orlov


Metatron as the Scribe

[an excerpt from A. Orlov, The Enoch-Metatron Tradition (TSAJ, 107; Tuebingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2005), pp. xii+383. ISBN 3-16-148544-0.]



.... The prominent scribal office of the seventh antediluvian hero was not forgotten in the later rabbinic and Hekhalot developments and reappeared in its new Merkabah form as an important duty of the new hero, the supreme angel Metatron. One of the possible[1] early attestations to the scribal career of Enoch-Metatron can be found in the Targums, where the patriarch’s name is mentioned in connection with the scribal duties of the principal angel. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 5:24 reads: “Enoch worshiped in truth before the Lord, and behold he was not with the inhabitants of the earth because he was taken away and he ascended to the firmament at the command of the Lord, and he was called Metatron, the Great Scribe ()rps )br).”[2]

It is intriguing that the passage from the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan uses the new scribal title of the exalted patriarch, which was unknown in early Enochic literature. Although the targumic text does not unfold the details of the scribal duties of Metatron, another narrative attested in the talmudic materials provides additional details elaborating this office. The narrative is found in the Babylonian Talmud, where the second-century rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, also known as Ah9er, was granted permission to see Metatron sitting and writing down the merits of Israel.

The passage found in b. H9ag. 15a reads:

Ah9er mutilated the shoots. Of him Scripture says: Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt. What does it refer to? – He saw that permission was granted to Metatron to sit and write down the merits of Israel. Said he: It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting and no emulation, and no back, and no weariness. Perhaps, – God forfend! – there are two divinities! [Thereupon] they led Metatron forth, and punished him with sixty fiery lashes, saying to him: Why didst thou not rise before him when thou didst see him? Permission was [then] given to him to strike out the merits of Ah9er. A Bath Kol went forth and said: Return, ye backsliding children – except Ah9er. [Thereupon] he said: Since I have been driven forth from yonder world, let me go forth and enjoy this world. So Ah9er went forth into evil courses.[3]

The significant feature of this talmudic tale is that the scribal functions of Metatron are connected here with his duty to write down the merits of Israel. This conflation of Metatron’s scribal role with the duty of a recorder (or eraser in the case of Ah9er) of human merits recalls the composite nature of Enoch’s scribal office which, as one may remember, necessarily encompasses the function of the witness of the divine judgment. What is of special interest to this study is whether the talmudic passage is really connected with the previous Enochic lore about the scribal functions of the seventh patriarch.

 Scholem, who normally holds the position that talmudic passages attest to the tradition of the preexistent Metatron and do not associate Metatron with the seventh antediluvian patriarch, in this case cautiously leaves room for the possibility of such connection.  He suggests that

the passage in H9agigah 15a ... may refer to the tradition about the ascension of Enoch, to whom a similar function is indeed ascribed in the Book of Jubilees 4:23: “We conducted him into the Garden of Eden in majesty and honor, and behold there he writes down the condemnation and judgment of the world, and all the wickedness of the children of man.” The two functions supplement each other.[4]  

Despite his cautious affirmation of the possible connection between the scribal offices of Enoch and Metatron in b. H9ag. 15a, Scholem’s position in this respect remains ambiguous. He adds that “the parallel proves less than it seems to prove”[5] since both the Jewish pseudepigrapha and the Hekhalot writings know several angelic scribes.[6] It appears that Scholem’s hesitation[7] to unambiguously identify Metatron with Enoch in the talmudic passage is based in part on his choice of the pseudepigraphic sources about the patriarch’s scribal duties, which he limits to the evidence found in 1 Enoch and Jubilees. He does not refer to another significant Second Temple testimony, the one in the Slavonic apocalypse. If the tradition about Enoch’s scribal activities found in 2 Enoch entered the discussion, one would notice some additional details in the description of Enoch’s scribal activities that further link the early Enochic accounts with the Metatron tradition from b. H9ag. 15a.[8] The pertinent passage from the Babylonian Talmud states that “... permission was granted to Metatron to sit and write down the merits of Israel. Said he: It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting (hby#y )l) and no emulation, and no back, and no weariness.…”[9] The important detail of this account is that the scribal duties of Metatron are combined with the motif of his having a seat in heaven. Metatron’s situation represents an exception to the rule that no one but God can sit in heaven. The talmudic passage grants this extraordinary permission to sit in heaven to Metatron because of his scribal duties, so he can sit and write the merits of Israel. The whole story of Ah9er’s apostasy revolves around this motif of the enthroned angelic scribe, who serves as the ultimate stumbling block for Elisha b. Abuyah, leading him to the heretical conclusion about two “powers” (twyw#r `b) in heaven.[10] In view of the materials found in 2 Enoch, this unique motif of the angelic scribe who has a seat in heaven can provide additional proof that the Metatron tradition from b. H9ag. 15a is linked to early Enochic lore and that this angelic scribe is in fact the translated patriarch.

While the accounts of Enoch’s scribal activities attested in 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Book of Giants do not refer to Enoch’s possession of any seat in heaven, the tradition attested in the Slavonic apocalypse does so explicitly.[11]  2 Enoch 23:4 depicts the angel Vereveil who commands Enoch to sit down. “You sit down;[12] write everything....” The patriarch is then depicted as obeying this angelic command and taking his seat on high. It is noteworthy that the possession of a seat here, similarly to b. H9ag. 15a, is directly linked to the hero’s scribal duties performed over an extended period of time, since in 2 Enoch 23:6 Enoch conveys to his listeners: “And I sat down (sidýhú)[13] for a second period of 30 days and 30 nights, and I wrote accurately.”[14]

One notices that the evidence from 2 Enoch provides a new interpretive framework for understanding the tradition found in b. H9ag. 15a and helps remove the doubts expressed by Scholem that the H9agigah’s depiction might not be connected with the tradition about the scribal duties of Enoch.

I must now attend to another relevant testimony found in Synopse §20. It is curious that in Synopse §20 (3 Enoch 16) Enoch-Metatron, similarly to the H9agigahs passage, is also depicted as having a seat/throne in heaven. Although in the Sefer Hekhalot selection Enoch-Metatron is not directly identified as a celestial scribe[15] but rather as a celestial judge, the enthronement scene of the H9agigah’s passage transferred to the Enochic context of this Merkabah text might implicitly allude to his scribal office, since in early Enochic materials the patriarch’s scribal duties are often linked with his prominent place in the economy of the divine judgment. It does not seem coincidental that in Synopse §20 Enoch-Metatron’s role as a heavenly scribe is now replaced by his role as an assistant of the Deity in divine judgment, the two functions that are closely connected in the previous Enochic lore. The passage gives the following depiction:

At first I sat upon a great throne at the door of the seventh palace, and I judged (ytndw) all the denizens of the heights on the authority of the Holy One, blessed be he ... when I sat in the heavenly court (hl(m l# hby#yb b#wy). The princes of kingdoms stood beside me, to my right and to my left, by authority of the Holy One, blessed be he. But when Ah9er came to behold the vision of the chariot and set eyes upon me, he was afraid and trembled before me. His soul was alarmed to the point of leaving him, because of his fear, dread, and terror of me, when he saw me seated upon a throne like a king, with ministering angels standing beside me as servants and all the princes of kingdoms crowned with crowns surrounding me.[16]

Philip Alexander notes that the talmudic version of the story found in b. H9ag. 15a probably has priority over the one attested in Synopse §20.[17] This means that the latter evidence about the angel’s role as a judge has its background in the tradition about the scribal office of Enoch-Metatron. In this context Christopher Rowland observes that the role of Enoch-Metatron as a heavenly witness represented in Synopse §20 (3 Enoch 16) is connected with his office as a scribe in b. H9ag. 15a and early Enochic lore. He concludes that

in Hebrew Enoch[18] Metatron is a judge in the heavenly court, whereas in B[19] he is merely the heavenly scribe who records the merits of Israel. The different pictures of Metatron reflect the different versions of the Enoch-tradition.[20] Enoch’s position as a scribe and a heavenly witness belong to the oldest part of the tradition (Jubilees 4:23; the Testament of Abraham Recension B 11; 1 Enoch 12; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen. 5.24). On the other hand, we have evidence of Enoch as a supremely more exalted figure…. In B, however, it seems that Metatron sits close to God recording the merits of Israel.[21]

At the completion of this section one notes that the hero’s transition to the new role as a judge presiding in the heavenly court in Synopse §20 appears to be predetermined by the distinctive characteristics of the Metatron tradition reflected in Sefer Hekhalot. In view of the highly elevated image of Metatron in this macroform, it is understandable why the tradition preserved in Sefer Hekhalot 16 (§20) attempts to depict Enoch-Metatron as a celestial judge overseeing the heavenly tribunal rather than simply as a legal scribe writing the merits of Israel. Such a description would not fit into the whole picture of the new celestial profile of Metatron, who now assumes such spectacular roles as the second deity and the lesser manifestation of the divine name.



[1] Scholars observe that the identification of Enoch with Metatron in this passage could be a late addition since it does not appear in other Palestinian Targums. See Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkabah Mysticism, 197.

[2] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis (tr. M. Maher, M.S.C.; The Aramaic Bible 1B; Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992) 36.

[3] I. Epstein, Soncino Hebrew-English Talmud. H9agigah 12b. The tale in almost identical  form  is  also  attested  in  Merkavah  Rabbah  (Synopse  §672):  “…  Elisha  ben



Abuyah cut off the shoots. Concerning him Scripture says: Do not allow your mouth etc. They said: When Elisha descended to the Chariot he saw Metatron, to whom permission had been given to sit (b#yl) and write down (bwtkl) the merits of Israel one hour a day. He said: the sages taught: above there is no standing, and no sitting, no jealousy and no rivalry, and no duplicity (Prw() and no affliction. He meditated: perhaps there are two powers in heaven? Immediately He took Metatron outside of the celestial curtain, and you struck him with sixty fiery blows, and He gave permission to Metatron to burn the merits of Elisha.” Schäfer et al., Synopse, 246.

[4] Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, 51.

[5] Alexander’s attitude to the evidence from b. H9ag. 15a appears to be less cautious than Scholem’s position.  He observes that “it is not clear when Metatron absorbed the Enoch tradition. In an attributed stratum of the Babli (b. H9ag. 15a) it is stated that ‘permission was granted to Metatron to sit and to write down the merits of Israel.’ This scribing role of Metatron may have been taken over from the Enoch traditions which portray Enoch as the heavenly scribe (Jub 4:23; Ps-J Gen. 5:24)….” Alexander, “The Historical Settings of the Hebrew Book of Enoch,” 164.

[6] Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, 51.

[7] It is noteworthy that, in contrast to Scholem, who argued that the passage of the Babli refers to the primordial Metatron tradition, Christopher Rowland draws the reader’s attention to a number of striking similarities with the early Enochic texts by drawing attention to 2 Enoch. He stresses that “there is early evidence to suggest that the heavenly scribe who wrote down the merits of individuals was well established in Judaism and was closely linked with the legends which developed about Enoch.” Rowland, The Open Heaven, 338.

[8] C. Rowland notes that, similarly to b. H9ag. 15a, 2 Enoch 22–24 also attests to the tradition in which Enoch sits at God’s left hand. See Rowland, The Open Heaven, 496, n. 59.

[9] b. H9ag. 15a.

[10] b. H9ag. 15a.

[11] The tablet from Nineveh, however, refers to Enmeduranki’s enthronement in the assembly of the gods.

[12] Slav. sidi.  Sokolov, Slavjanskaja Kniga Enoha Pravednogo, 1.90.

[13] Sokolov, Slavjanskaja Kniga Enoha Pravednogo, 1.90.

[14] Andersen, “2 Enoch,” 141.

[15] Himmelfarb, “A Report on Enoch in Rabbinic Literature,” 261.

[16] Alexander, “3 Enoch,” 1.268; Schäfer et al., Synopse, 10–11.

[17] Alexander, “3 Enoch,” 268.

[18] 3 Enoch 16.

[19] b. H9ag. 15a.

[20] Or more precisely different, but closely connected roles of Enoch-Metatron.

[21] Rowland, The Open Heaven, 336–7.