1902 Encyclopedia > Angel



ANGEL is a transcription of the Greek angellos, a messenger, but in signification corresponds to the special theological sense which the latter word assumed among the Hellenistic Jews (and hence in the New Testament and in Christian writings), by being adopted as the translation of the Hebrew Mal'akh. Thus both name and notion of angel go back to the Old Testament.

The Old Testament belief in angels has two sides, being, on the one hand, a particular development of the belief in special manifestations of God to man; and on the other hand, a belief in the existence of superhuman beings standing in a peculiar relation of nearness to God. These two sides of the doctrines are historically associated and cooperate in the later development of Biblical angelology, but are not in all parts of the Old Testament fused into perfect unity of thought.

The first side of the belief in angels is expressed in the word Mal'akh, a messenger or ambassador, -- more fully, messenger of Jehovah [E.V., angel of the LORD), messenger of God. The whole Old Testament revelation moves in the paradox that God is invisible and inaccessible to man, and yet approaches man in unmistakable self-manifestation. This manifestation takes place in various ways, -- in the priestly oracle, in prophecy, in the glory of God within the sanctuary (shekhina). But in particular the early history represents God as manifesting himself by his messenger. In special crises "the messenger of Jehovah" calls from heaven to Hagar or to Abraham (Gen. xxi, xxii.) Or if God seeks to commune more fully with a man, his messenger appears and speaks to him. The narratives of such angelophanies vary in detail. Generally there is but one angel, but Abraham is visited by three (Gen. xviii.) Sometimes the dignity of the heavenly visitor is detected while he is present, at other times he is mistaken for a prophet, and recognized only by something supernatural in his disappearance (Judges vi. 21 , f., xiii. 20). Jacob wrestles all night with a "man," who at length with a touch dislocates his thigh (Gen. xxxii. 24, ff.) At other times on human form is seen. It is the angel of Jehovah who speaks to Moses in the burning bush, and leads the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and smoke (Exod. iii. 2, xiv. 19).

In all this there is perfect indifference to the personality of the angel, who displays no individuality of character, refuses to give a name (Gen. xxxii.; Judges xiii.), acts simply as the mouthpiece of God. This is carried so far that in his mouth the pronoun "I" indicates Jehovah himself; while the narrative passes, without change of sense, from the statement, "the angel of Jehovah appeared, spoke," &c., to "Jehovah appeared spoke." (Cf., for example, Exod. iii. ver. 2 with ver. 4; xiii. 21, with xiv. 19.) those who see the angel say they have seen God (Judges xiii. 22; Gen. xxxii. 30). The angelophany is a theophany as direct as is possible to man. The idea of a full representation of God to man, in all his revealed character, by means of an angel, comes out most clearly for the angel that leads Israel in the very old passage, Exod. xxiii. 20, ff. This angel is sent before the people to keep them in the way and bring them to Canaan. He speaks with divine authority, and enforces his commands by divine sanction "for my name [i.e. the compass of my revealed qualities) is in him." The question naturally arises, how the angel who possesses these high predicates stands related to angels who elsewhere appear not representing the whole self-manifestation of God to his people, but discharging isolated commissions. The Biblical data for the solution of this question are very scanty. An essential distinction between the "angel of the Lord," who speaks in all things with full divine authority, and subordinate angels, is sought mainly in Gen. xviii, and in Exod. xxxii. 30, ff., xxxii. Compared with Isaiah lxiii.9. In the former case, though two of the three angels leave Abraham, Jehovah goes his way only on the departure of the third. Yet the two angels when they come to Lot are apparently as direct a manifestation of God to him as the third was to Abraham (xix. 19, ff.) And in the other passage it has not been clearly made out that there is really a distinction drawn between an angel who represents God's presence and an angel of a lower kind who does not do so. The notion (long current in dogmatic theology, and which goes back to the earliest controversies between Jews and Christians) that "the angel of the Lord," as contradistinguished from created angels, is the Logos -- the second person of the Trinity -- has found defenders down to the present day (Hengstenberg, Keil, &c), but certainly does not express the sense of the Old Testament writers. And it seems equally unprofitable to base on such passages as we have cited, a controversy whether "the angel of Jehovah" is one special angel charged throughout history with special functions towards the covenant, or is any angel who from time to time has a special commission, or is to be viewed, at least in some cases, not as a hypostatic being, but simply as a momentary sinking of the invisible God into the sphere of visibility. The function of the angel so entirely overshadows his personality, that the Old Testament does not ask who or what this angel is, but what he does. And the answer to this last question is, that he represents God to man so directly and fully, that when he speaks or acts God himself is felt to speak or act. The strongest passage perhaps is Gen. xlviii. 15, f.

The disposition to look away from the personality of the angels and concentrate attention on their ministry, runs more or less through the whole Old Testament angelology. It is indeed certain, to pass to the second side of the doctrine, -- that the angelic figures of the Bible narrative are not mere allegories of divine providence, but were regarded as possessing a certain superhuman reality. But this reality is matter of assumption rather than of direct teaching. Nowhere do we find a clear statement as to the creation of the angels [Gen. ii 1 is ambiguous, and it is scarcely legitimate in Psalm cxlviii to connect ver. 2 with ver. 5]. That they are endowed with special goodness and insight, analogous to human qualities, appears as a popular assumption, not as a doctrine of revelation (1 Sam. xxix. 9; 2 Sam. xiv. 17, xix. 27). Most characteristic for the nature of the angels is the poetical title "sons of God" (Bne Elohim, or, with a slight modification, Bne Elim, in English version incorrectly "mighty," sons of the mighty," Ps. xxix. 1, lxxxix. 6), which, in accordance with the idiomatic force of the word sons, may be paraphrased, "Beings who in a subordinate may share something of divine majesty." Perhaps in Psalm lxxxii, the name Elohim itself varies with the more usual "sons of Elohim."

Taken collectively, the angels form the hosts of Jehovah (Ps. ciii. 21, &c.), or the host of heaven (1 Kings xxii. 19), names correlative to the new title of God which springs up at the close of the period of the Judges, "Jehovah [God of] hosts." The notion of angels as divine armies is not like that of the individual "messenger" closely connected with the theophanic history (yet compare Gen. xxxii. 1, 2; Joshua v. 13, sqq.), but belongs rather to the delineation of the majesty of God in poetry and prophecy. As the whole conception of the heavenly palace and throne is obviously symbolical, we must allow for conscious poetic art when the angels are represented surrounding God's throne in the form of an assembly or privy council of holy ones (consecrated servants), praising his name, or receiving his commands, and reporting their execution (Ps. xxix, lxxxix. 6-8; 1 Kings xxii. 19 ff.; Job i.) Similarly much must be allowed for the free play of fancy when in the last judgment against the enemies of his people, Jehovah descends to battle with his heroes (Joel iv. 11), his holy ones (Zech. xiv. 5), or when he triumphantly enters Zion amidst myriads of heavenly war chariots (Ps. lxviii. 17). Compare Isa. lxvi. 15, Hab. iii., which show how closely such imagery is connected with the physical phenomena of the thunderstorm.

With the development of the idea of countless hosts of divine ministers is naturally associated, in place of the old angelic theophany, the conception of an invisible agency of angels, who are henceforth seen only in vision or to eyes specially opened (Num. xxii. 31; 2 Kings vi. 17). To the guidance of Israel by the angel of Jehovah succeeds the belief in angelic guidance of individuals (Ps. xxxiv. 7), more or less poetically worked out (Ps. xci. 11). Conversely, pestilence and other judgments are angelic visitations (2 Sam. xxiv; 2 Kings xix. 35; Ps. lxxviii. 49, where the "evil angels" of the English version are not wicked angels, but angels of evil). At length this is carried so far that all natural forces that serve God are viewed as his messengers, Ps. civ. 4: "He makes winds his messengers, flaming fire his ministers." This passage clearly shows the elasticity of the whole conception. Similar is the way in which the stars, which share with the angels the name "host of heaven," appear associated with the latter (Job xxxviii. 7). Hence the later elemental angels.

Angelic interpretation between God and man reappears in Job. xxxiii. 23 (cf. iv. 13, ff.), and converse with angels forms a large part of the visionary setting of the later prophetical books (Ezekiel, Zechariah). But these visions, to which the prophets do not ascribe objective reality, illustrate rather the religious imagination than the theology of the period.

The idea of ranks and classes of angels, though naturally suggested by the conception of a host (cf. Joshua v. 13, sqq.), was up to this time undeveloped; for neither the purely symbolical cherubin, nor the unique and obscure seraphim of Isaiah vi., have in the Old Testament the meaning later conferred on them of distinct classes of angels. But the angels of Zechariah present something of a systematic scheme, thought it seems unsafe, with Ewald and others, to see in the seven eyes of Jehovah (iii. 9, iv. 10) a developed doctrine of seven chief angels (as in Tobit xii. 15; Rev. viii. 2), parallel to and influenced by the Amesha-çpentas of the Eranian mythology. The book of Daniel shows a much fuller development in a similar line. Israel, Persia, &c., have special angels (princes), whose contests represent those of human history (chaps. x., xii., cf. Isa xxiv. 21, f.) "The great prince who presides over" Israel is named Michael (who is like God?), and the angelus interpres is called Gabriel (man of God). The analogy of these notions to those of Zarathustrism is less decided than has often been supposed; but the freedom which Old Testament writers allow themselves in matters of imaginative representation, to which these conceptions mainly belong, is such as to render foreign influence quite credible.

The ranks, classes, and names of angels are a favourite topic of post-canonical, and especially of Apocalyptic literature. In the book of Enoch, cherubin, seraphim, and even the wheels of Ezekiel's vision, become distinct classes of angels; and Rafael (cf. Tobit xii. 5), Phanuel, Uriel &c., are added to the names of individual archangels. Specially celebrated is the interpretation which this book gives of Gen. vi. 2, where the sons of God are understood as angels. This interpretation seems to have influenced Jude, ver. 6 (cf. 2 Pet. ii. 4), was current in the early church as well as in Judaism, and (though the narrative so understood is quite unique in the circle of Biblical ideas) is defended on philological grounds by the best recent scholars, the occurrence being viewed as history or as myth according as the interpreter is theosophically or critically inclined. Of other passages in later Jewish literature it may suffice to refer to the full account of the creation of angels of various functions, presiding over various powers of nature, in the Book of Jubilees (cf. Roensch, Das Buch der Jubiläen, p. 259).

The angelology of the New Testament attaches closely to the notions already developed. The ministry of angels is, as in the Old Testament, specially connected with the work of salvation (Heb. 1. 14), and with the person of Christ (John i. 51), to whom after the temptation (and at Gethsemane?) angels minister, and who can at will command their aid (Mat. xxvi. 53). As in the later Old Testament books, revelations by angels are given in vision or dream, but even waking eyes see the angel or angels who minister at the resurrection. So an angel delivers Peter (Acts xii), &c. As in the Old Testament, the figure of angels is human, their raiment white, and their aspect luminous. A multitude of angels appear singing praises at the nativity (Luke ii. 13), and in general they sympathise with the repentance of sinners and the progress of the divine kingdom (Luke xv. 10; 1 Pet. i. 12). Gabriel reappears in Luke i. The belief in special guardian angels of individuals appears as current (Acts xii. 15), but the words of Jesus (Mat. xviii. 10) hardly go farther than the statements of the Psalms. The angelic hosts of the prophetic eschatology are naturally transferred to the second coming (Parusia) of our Lord. The saints after the resurrection are like the angels (Mat. xxii. 30; Luke xx. 36). In the Apocalypse angels play a great part. Notable features, in addition to the seven highest angels (viii 2), are the angels of the seven churches (who, however, are by many taken as human figures, church officers), and the association of special angels with cosmical forces, e.g., angels of fire and water (xvi. 5, xiv. 18). The same idea appears even more sharply expressed in the writings of Paul, if, as Ritschl has rendered plausible, the elements (elemental powers) of the world (Col. ii; Gal. iv. 3) are the angels, and specially the angels of the law. This view is connected with the characteristic position of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the inferiority of the old covenant is stamped by the fact that the law was given and enforced by angels (Gal. iii., iv.; Heb. ii; cf. Acts vii. 53), an idea partly based on Exod. xxiii. 20. f., and partly on a transference to Sinai of the usual poetico-prophetic imagery of a theophany -- a transference suggested by Ps. lxviii 17, Deut. xxxiii. 2, and actually carried out in the LXX. Translation of the latter text, and in the current Jewish theology of the period. Angel worship is condemned in Col. ii (probably with reference to Essene doctrine); cf. Rev. xix. 10. In Heb. Ii, and 1 Cor. vi. 3, Christians are superior to angels.

Theological reflection on the doctrine of angels already begins among the Alexandrian Jews; and Philo, who calls them "a chorus of unembodied souls" occupying the air, places them in close parallelism to his speculation on the divine ideas or powers. From this association the transition is easy to Gnostic speculations, where the ranks of angels appear as produced by successive emanation, and thus serve to fill up the interval which Gnosticism puts between God and the world. In this connection we find also a doctrine of creation by angels (Basilides), and dualistic views of good and evil angels. Against these heresies the early church emphasizes the creation of angels and the fall of the evil angels, but Origen tells us that up to his time the ecclesiastical doctrine did not define "quando isti creati sint vel quales aut quomodo sint." On these topics, however, many subtle questions arose, e.g., whether angels have bodies of an ethereal kind, whether they were created before the world or along with the light,&c. Gradually angel-worship sprung up, and in spite of the opposition of the best fathers (Theodoret, Augustin, &c.), became firmly established, is still acknowledged in the Roman catechism. An elaborate theory of the angelic hierarchy, based on Neoplatonic doctrines, is laid down in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, De Hierarchia Celesti (5th century), and exercised much influence on mediaeval theology, which accepted the work as a genuine product of the apostolic age. The schoolmen treat of angels under the doctrine of creation, dividing rational creatures into angels, who are pure spirits, and men (Sent. Lib. ii., dist. I., sqq.), and the nature and powers of angels form the most notorious problems of the misdirected subtlety of the schools (cf. e.g., Duns on the Second Book of Sentences). Protestant theologians have always felt less interest in the subject, and generally reduce the doctrine of angels to a mere appendix to the doctrine of creation or of God's works. Recent writers often go much farther. Thus, Schleiermacher sums up the whole doctrine of angels by saying, that the possible existence of angels should not influence conduct, and that revelations of their being are no more to be looked for. A reaction, partly rooted on the later philosophy of Schelling, has led several German theologians (Hofmann, &c.) to lay more weight on the doctrine.

The Biblical doctrine of angels must be studied with the aid of the best books on Biblical theology (Schulz, Oehler, Ewald, Weiss, &c.), and of the commentaries on special passages. The book of Enoch is accessible in Dillmann's translation, and other Jewish notions may be found in Eisenmenger. The literature of the subject, theological and theosophic, is immense. (W. R. S.)

The above article was written by William Robertson Smith; joint editor of the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; Professor of Oriental Languages and Old Testament Exegesis, Free Church College, Aberdeen, 1870-81; one of the Old Testament Revisers, 1875; Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, 1883; University Librarian, 1886; author of Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia and Lectures on the Religion of the Semites.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries