Pagan Angels???

Having just returned from another archaeological trip to Turkey, and having seen clear evidence of pagan belief in angels (see the picture below), I found my colleague Larry Hurtado’s excellent summary worth reposting.


by Larry Hurtado

Over the past few days, I’ve been slowly digesting a recent large article surveying Greek inscriptions referring to “angels” in Roman Asia Minor: G. H. R. Horsley and Jean M. Luxford, “Pagan Angels in Roman Asia Minor: Revisiting the Epigraphic Evidence,” Anatolian Studies 66 (2016): 141-83.

The central portion of the article gives a number of inscriptions, each with English translation and commentary, in which the Greek word “angelos” (or the plural form) appears. This is the sort of data-rich discussion that I find particularly valuable and stimulating. The commentary is also rich in references to prior studies, and there is a copious bibliography at the end of the article.

One of the broad purposes of the article is to “push back” against some earlier tendencies to posit Jewish and/or Christian influence on inscriptions that appeal to or mention “angels”. Of course, the Greek term didn’t originate with Jews or Christians, but in ordinary Greek usage, in which it can designate either a human messenger or a heavenly “divine” one. The term was adopted in the Greek OT as a good translation-equivalent for the Hebrew “malach,” and thereby became part of ancient Jewish and then ancient Christian parlance too. As the authors contend, unless you’re predisposed to seeing Jewish or Christian influences, there’s little reason to do so.

But they do accept a likely Christian influence/stance reflected in a few, such as one from Phrygia, dated third century CE, on a tomb erected by an Aurelius Zotkos Lykidas. Part of the rationale for thinking it Christian is the use of what scholars term “the Eumeneian formula” indicated here it italics: “If anyone places another (bod) here, he will have to reckon with God and the angelos of Roubes.”

A number of the inscriptions in question are in burial sites, and warn against disturbing the graves, effectively warning the ire of angels if anyone does so. They also come from a particular geographical area in present-day Turkey, and a few islands off/near the Turkish coast. A few others seem to have served to invoke city-deities for their protection of the city.

I can’t here do justice to this careful, detailed discussion of the inscriptions. One final note: The authors propose that the inscriptions give us insight into some of the anxieties of the people who had them prepared, these concerns moving them to invoke or threaten the protection of supernatural beings. In that basic sense, as with all such artefacts, we have physical remnants of the lives of ancient people.