Marked Messengers— angelloi in Mark, Part One

One of the problems Christians have in reading the New Testament is that their scope of semantic understanding is limited by translation. What I mean by this is that translators have to make choices about the meanings of words. Take for example the word euangellion. It simply means good news, as opposed to bad news, and is not yet a technical term for a particular kind of literature, namely a gospel. Probably it should be translated ‘good news’ (not in caps) most everywhere you find it in the NT. Furthermore, while much fuss has been made over how the use of this term as a deliberate critique of the emperor cult because we do have inscriptions (the famous Priene one comes to mind) where the term is used as part of the propaganda about the birth and good deeds of the Emperor, in fact it is perhaps as likely or more likely that the background to Mark’s use of this term in Mark 1.1 is found in Isaiah, which Mark, much more clearly, does want to show is being fulfilled in the lives of John and Jesus. The text I have in mind is Isaiah 52.7— “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” or consider a text Jesus is said to have quoted in a synagogue Isaiah 61.1— “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”. Now in neither of those texts, even in the LXX where we do find euangellion is the word used as a technical term for gospel, nor is there any evidence the usage in Isaiah is a polemic against a foreign ruler. If there is such a thing going on in Mark, its very subtle, subliminal, and entirely secondary to the real thrust of the text– namely that Jesus and John are the fulfillment of the promises in Isaiah. This brings me to another simple Greek word— angellos.

The word is of course the one from which we derive the English word angel, and therein lies the rub. The question in Mark is when does it mean ‘angel’ (see the rather fancy one above painted by Fra Angelico himself) and when does it simply means human ‘messenger’. The connection of course is that in both cases the beings referred to are messengers and indeed servants of God in one way or another. Let’s take a couple of examples from Mark, the first two from Mark 1.

Mark 1.2 refers to God sending his ‘messenger’ ‘before the face of you’ who will prepare the way for the Coming One. Here the context allows only one conclusion as to what Mark means, however one might read this polyglot quote from the OT in the original contexts. Mark means John the Baptizer, who, despite the Greek Orthodox icons which paint him with angels wings, was indeed a mere mortal.

When however we press on to Mark 1.13 something else is going on. Who are these angelloi who ministered to Jesus after his temptations? Here it is hard to doubt we have an allusion to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19.5 where an angel ministers to the prophet providing some sustenance before he journeys to Horeb. We might wish to compare what is said about ministering angels in Heb. 1.13-14. In short, only the context can help us determine the specific meaning of the term in a particular verse in Mark. We must take care how we translate polyvalent words like euangellion and angellos. In the next post on this subject, we will discuss some surprising revelations that come from this observation.

  • Peter

    I’ve been studying about Satan and the demons and it is difficult in some passages to know whether or not the angels being referred to are human. I’m looking forward to your next post!

    On a related note, do you think there’s any possibility at all that angels were created prior to the creation account in Genesis? Everything I read says they must have been created during the 6 days of creation, but isn’t it possible that there are other creation accounts (perhaps outside of our universe or in different dimensions within our universe) that God has told us nothing about?

    When Shasta asked about his friend Aravis, Aslan replied, ““I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” : )

  • Bradley Johnson

    Thanks for this, Dr. Ben. And here’s a question…what basis do you see in Isaiah for angels/messengers in Mark? I fully appreciate your take on the idea that euangelion has its Markan basis in Isaiah over against the empire, but I wonder–given the relationship of 1:2 to 1:3–if there might also be a Markan basis in Isaiah for a “sent one”. Thoughts?

  • Ben Thomas

    Thanks for this post Ben. Question, do you see Paul’s use of euangellion similiarly? I tend to agree with NT Wright when it comes to Paul’s use, who on one had agrees with you that he used it theologically as a fulfillment of the promise of YHWH in Isaiah, but politically he says ” Politically, it cannot but have been heard as a summons to allegiance to “another king”.
    (Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire by N.T. Wright Page 2 of 13… 9/03/2010)

  • Benw333

    I think that all depends on whether or not it was heard in a context where there was a strong or oppressive Roman presence. Most towns did not see Rome that way, indeed just the opposite as Rome was the big sugar daddy.

  • Mark

    Excellent post! A Middle-Eastern Aramaic scholar suggested that angels also referred to “the thoughts of God” as in, Jesus was comforted by the thoughts of God after his forty day fast and temptation. Its use was idiomatic and not literal. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

  • Benw333

    Sorry but that Middle Eastern person is quite wrong. Messengers are not the same as messages or thoughts.

  • Danny Yencich

    Regarding whether Mark’s use of euangellion sounds echoes of Isaiah or ironic ones of Caesar:

    If it is more likely the former rather than the latter (which we can easily grant, at least on the grounds that Mark is no stranger to Hebrew scripture), isn’t Mark’s use of the word euangellion still politically charged? Isaiah 61 makes mention of the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive and the prisoner and so seems to conflate the categories of socio-economic, socio-political, and spiritual duress in what its good news addresses. So Mark may not have Caesar’s “good news” specifically in mind as a foil, but the “bad news” of life under Roman rule and the Jewish temple state seems to be well enough on his radar, lending credence to the idea that Mark’s good news is perhaps polemic against powers like Rome and the temple. If the categories of social, political, and spiritual are not discrete for Isaiah, can they be similarly related in Mark’s use as well? In any case, thank you for the post, Dr. Witherington.

    Danny Yencich

  • Benw333

    Danny there is a difference between saomething being socially relevant and sometyhing being politically charged. Isaiah of course was not commenting on Caesar, but his words certainly had relevance for the discussion of social justice, as do Mark’s.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the response Ben. The scholars name was George Lamsa, a controversial figure in evangelical circles. He was an Assyrian author, born in 1892 and was the first person to translate the Pershitta into English. He grew up speaking a similar form of Aramaic as was spoken by first century Jews and lived in a very similar culture, one that had been isolated from western tradition.

    He suggested that westerners often misunderstood the traditions of the Middle East—interpreting literally ideas that actually reflected eastern thought in the form of idioms. His contention was that Christianity began as an eastern religion, the product of an oriental world view not an occidental or western one. This would seem reasonable since the Middle East sits between the greater continent of Asia on one side, Africa on the other and Europe, the center of the world as 1st century people saw it—meaning that Jesus was possibly an Afro-Asiatic-European—making him a kind of every-man—Asian, Caucasian and Negroid. That would be, if not exactly accurate, at least poetic in terms of its meaning for a racially divide world.

    A simple example of idiomatic thought would be Moses seeing a burning bush, perhaps better understood as a vision, which he suggests meant, “Trouble ahead”, similar to the way we would say, “A dark cloud is on the horizon”. That the bush was not consumed meant that Israel wouldn’t be destroyed or consumed by the difficulty. Middle Eastern people would have understood its meaning as symbolic.

    There was a study done on the use of idioms, colloquialisms and sayings in every day speech using television, newspaper, books, films, etc. They concluded that on average, idioms or some variant were used 3 to 4.2 per minute. And that if the person watching or reading was unfamiliar with the idioms that it was very difficult to understand the plot or intent of the text or program.

    For instance, if we say, “Jimi Hendrix was on fire” we mean that he played really well. To someone from a completely different culture it could sound as if he had been literally set on fire while playing. We say, “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread”. Speaking about the foolishness of men compared to the assumed wisdom of angels. This reflects the thought life as well as the actions of people, not the literal actions of angels.

    When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness is the temptation literal, as in; an external, real Satan? Or is it an internal struggle regarding what it means to be Messiah? Will I be a Messiah that rides into Jerusalem as a warrior-King like David—or as a lamb led to the slaughter? After the forty days Jesus is ministered to by angels. Our iconography has winged beings attending to a bowed Jesus, like the personal valet in a James Brown concert, draping a coat over a spent butane James, who then throws it off and begins to sing “please, please, please”! The former may be a beautiful image, but it is in many ways more compelling and certainly more human that Jesus finds comfort in the word of God at the end of his long struggle. It’s also the way in which he vanquishes Satan, by quoting the word. If Jesus suffered as men actually suffer then calling on the Heavenly Hosts during a rough patch seems too easy. None of this means that Lamsa’s interpretation is correct, but it is compelling. It may be that the angels were simply friends and family or possibly good Samaritans

    Therein is the problem as I see it. If we translate word for word, from ancient Greek into modern English it can still be very easy to misunderstand the world view of the people writing the text, and as the result, their intent. On the other hand, I could be completely wrong, but its food for thought.


  • John

    I can see that villagers would appreciate Roman government money and new infrastructure and ridding roads of highwaymen, but wasn’t there a darker side that led to the various Jewish rebels of the time? If knowledge of the various rebel (and I suppose also the messianic) movements was widespread wouldn’t that be a political context for euangelion even if village life was on the whole better?


  • Benw333

    John I’m sure you are right that Zealots and their friends would have felt that way after two very bad procurators in a row, but interestingly most Jews were not Zealots.