Jesus was no Angel

Jesus was no Angel February 21, 2019

Christological Non-Starters, Part 2: “Angel Christology”

by larryhurtado
In a previous posting, I discussed the claim that the earliest christological belief was Jesus’ divine adoption, and found it unsupported by the evidence (here). In this posting I consider another “christological non-starter,” the claim that earliest Jesus-followers saw the pre-existent or risen Jesus as an angel. The issue involves some complexity, however, and requires some careful distinctions in concepts. Nevertheless, in short, it seems clear that Jewish speculations about “principal angels” formed some of the conceptual resources drawn upon by earliest Christians, but this appropriation of angelic motifs did not comprise a belief that Jesus was an angel.[1]

The basic claim that Jesus was understood as an angel goes back in scholarship at least over a hundred years (Lueken’s 1898 book arguing that Jesus was likened to the archangel Michael).[2] The more well-known argument was made by Martin Werner in the 1940s.[3] But the refutation of Werner’s case in subsequent scholarship has proven decisive for most.[4] After a few decades, however, there was renewed interest in the possible relationship of ancient Jewish speculation about angels and early efforts to formulate beliefs about Jesus.[5] But, again, this didn’t typically involve any claim that Jesus was understood to be an angel.

Darrell Hannah’s study, Michael and Christ, gives a careful and nuanced analysis, benefiting also from several other works that comprised a virtual explosion of interest in the subject in the 1970s-1990s. As he notes, the generally accepted view now is that the earliest evidence (the New Testament texts) gives scant basis for the view that earliest Jesus-believers took Jesus to be an angel. Instead, scholars tend to refer to “angelomorphic” Christology, the early Christian use of motifs and roles from principal-angel speculations in describing the exalted/risen Jesus as God’s unique emissary and agent.[6]

Probably the most telling NT evidence against the notion that early believers saw Jesus as actually an angel is the frequent contrast between him and angels. This is explicit in texts such as Hebrews 1:1-14. But the same distinction is reflected earlier in Pauline texts such as Romans 8:31-39, in which angels are only one of a number of classes of beings that are inferior to the glorified Jesus. The simple fact is that earliest Jesus-followers had a rich body of angel-speculations available to them and were convinced of the reality of angels, but they never referred to Jesus as an angel (to judge from the NT texts). The supposed reference to Jesus as an angel in Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that the Galatians initially welcomed him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus,” is a misreading of what is in context a progressive set of comparisons, and not a set of appositives. There is evidence of a critique of certain interests in angels, as in Colossians 2:16-19 and perhaps also in Hebrews 1. But neither passage reflects a view of Jesus as an angel.

Instead, NT texts more typically posit a relationship of Jesus with God, not with angels. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 refers to the “pre-existent” Jesus as “in the form of God,” not in angelic form. Or consider John 12:37-41, which makes the vision of “the Lord” in Isaiah 6:1 a vision of the glorified Jesus.

Stuckenbruck’s study of what he called “angel veneration” and its possible relationship to early christological beliefs (especially in Revelation) reinforced my earlier proposal that the treatment of principal angels in ancient Jewish traditions likely helped to provide a conceptual “space” to accommodate a second figure closely associated with God, which was drawn upon by earliest Jesus-followers to place the risen Jesus in relationship to God.[7] Stuckenbruck’s term “angel veneration” actually referred to the high standing accorded to certain principal angels, and the important roles assigned to them. But, as with other scholars who have looked at the matter carefully, Stuckenbruck concluded that there was no evidence of the acceptance of a worship of angels in Jewish tradition, in contrast to the central place of Jesus in earliest devotional practices of the Jesus-movement.

To be sure, by sometime in the second century or so, there were Christians who identified Jesus as a high angel. In the text known as The Ascension of Isaiah, for example, Jesus appears to be identified as one of the two seraphim in the Isaiah vision of “the Lord”. But these ideas seem to have been later than the initial stages of belief in Jesus. And they were found inadequate as well in the emerging “great church” circles. They were christological “non-starters,” and the assertion that earliest believers saw Jesus as an angel is a historical non-starter too.

[1] In One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed., London: T&T Clark, 2015), I proposed that there was a variety of “chief agent” figures in second-temple Jewish traditions, and that principal angels were an important strand of these traditions, esp. 71-92.

[2] Wilhelm Lueken, Michael. Eine Darstellung und Vergleichung der jüdischen und der morgenländisch-christlichen Tradition vom Erzengel Michael (Göttingen: Vandenhoef und Ruprecht, 1898). But the key study now is Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity, WUNT, 2/109 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999).

[3] Martin Werner, Die Entstehung des Christlichen Dogmas, 2nd ed. (1941; reprint, Bern: Paul Haupt, 1954); English translation, The Formation of Christian Dogma: An Historical Study of Its Problem, trans. S. G. F. Brandon (London: A. & C. Black, 1957).

[4] E.g., W. Michaelis, Zur Engelchristologie im Urchristentum: Abbau der Konstruktion Martin Werners (Basel: Heinrich Majer, 1942); J. Barbel, Christos Angelos: Die Anschauung von Christus als Bote und Engel in der gelehrten und volkstünlichen Literatur der Christlichen Altertums (1941; reprint, Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1964), although Barbel acknowledged interesting parallels between Jewish angelology and early christological motifs. And see the review of scholarship in Hannah, Michael and Christ, 2-13

[5] Richard N. Longenecker, “Some Distinctive Early Christological Motifs,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967-1968): 529-45; id., The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1970), signalled the renewed interest in the matter. Note also Jean Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964).

[6] E.g., Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998). The term “angelomorphic Christology” was apparently coined by Daniélou, Jewish Christianity, Hannah prefers “angelic Christology” but he means essentially the same thing as those who prefer “angelomorphic Christology,” and he distinguishes this sharply from “angel christology,” the view that Jesus was (or became) an angel.

[7] Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Angel Veneration and Christology, WUNT 2/70 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995). My earlier discussion is in One God, One Lord, esp. 71-92.

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