1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Angel

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ANGEL, a general term denoting a subordinate superhuman being in monotheistic religions, e.g. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and in allied religions, such as Zoroastrianism. In polytheism the grades of superhuman beings are continuous; but in monotheism there is a sharp distinction of kind, as well as degree, between God on the one hand, and all other superhuman beings on the other; the latter are the “angels.”

“Angel” is a transcription of the Gr. ἄγγελος, messenger. ἄγγελος in the New Testament, and the corresponding mal'akh in the Old Testament, sometimes mean “messenger,” and sometimes “angel,” and this double sense is duly represented in the English Versions. “Angel” is also used in the English Version for אדיר'Abbīr, Ps. lxxviii. 25. (lit. “mighty”), for אלוהים'Elohīm, Ps. viii. 5, and for the obscure שנאןshin'ān, in Ps. lxviii. 17.

In the later development of the religion of Israel, 'Elohīm is almost entirely reserved for the one true God; but in earlier times 'Elohīm (gods), bnē 'Elohīm, bnē Elim (sons of gods, i.e. members of the class of divine beings) were general terms for superhuman beings. Hence they came to be used collectively of superhuman beings, distinct from Yahweh, and therefore inferior, and ultimately subordinate.[1] So, too, the angels are styled “holy ones,”[2] and “watchers,”[3] and are spoken of as the “host of heaven”[4] or of “Yahweh.”[5] The “hosts,” צבאותSebāōth in the title Yahweh Sebaoth, Lord of Hosts, were probably at one time identified with the angels.[6] The New Testament often speaks of “spirits,” πνεύματα.[7] In the earlier periods of the religion of Israel, the doctrine of monotheism had not been formally stated, so that the idea of “angel” in the modern sense does not occur, but we find the Mal'akh Yahweh, Angel of the Lord, or Mal'akh Elohim, Angel of God. The Mal'akh Yahweh is an appearance or manifestation of Yahweh in the form of a man, and the term Mal'akh Yahweh is used interchangeably with Yahweh (cf. Exod. iii. 2, with iii. 4; xiii. 21 with xiv. 19). Those who see the Mal'akh Yahweh say they have seen God.[8] The Mal'akh Yahweh (or Elohim) appears to Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Gideon, &c., and leads the Israelites in the Pillar of Cloud.[9] The phrase Mal'akh Yahweh may have been originally a courtly circumlocution for the Divine King; but it readily became a means of avoiding crude anthropomorphism, and later on, when the angels were classified, the Mal'akh Yahweh came to mean an angel of distinguished rank.[10] The identification of the Mal'akh Yahweh with the Logos, or Second Person of the Trinity, is not indicated by the references in the Old Testament; but the idea of a Being partly identified with God, and yet in some sense distinct from Him, illustrates the tendency of religious thought to distinguish persons within the unity of the Godhead, and foreshadows the doctrine of the Trinity, at any rate in some slight degree.

In the earlier literature the Mal'akh Yahweh or Elohim is almost the only mal'akh (“angel”) mentioned. There are, however, a few passages which speak of subordinate superhuman beings other than the Mal'akh Yahweh or Elohim. There are the cherubim who guard Eden. In Gen. xviii., xix. (J) the appearance of Yahweh to Abraham and Lot is connected with three, afterwards two, men or messengers; but possibly in the original form of the story Yahweh appeared alone.[11] At Bethel, Jacob sees the angels of God on the ladder,[12] and later on they appear to him at Mahanaim.[13] In all these cases the angels, like the Mal'akh Yahweh, are connected with or represent a theophany. Similarly the “man” who wrestles with Jacob at Peniel is identified with God.[14] In Isaiah vi. the seraphim, superhuman beings with six wings, appear as the attendants of Yahweh. Thus the pre-exilic literature, as we now have it, has little to say about angels or about superhuman beings other than Yahweh and manifestations of Yahweh; the pre-exilic prophets hardly mention angels.[15] Nevertheless we may well suppose that the popular religion of ancient Israel had much to say of superhuman beings other than Yahweh, but that the inspired writers have mostly suppressed references to them as unedifying. Moreover such beings were not strictly angels.

The doctrine of monotheism was formally expressed in the period immediately before and during the Exile, in Deuteronomy[16] and Isaiah[17]; and at the same time we find angels prominent in Ezekiel who, as a prophet of the Exile, may have been influenced by the hierarchy of supernatural beings in the Babylonian religion, and perhaps even by the angelology of Zoroastrianism.[18] Ezekiel gives elaborate descriptions of cherubim[19]; and in one of his visions he sees seven angels execute the judgment of God upon Jerusalem.[20] As in Genesis they are styled “men,” mal'akh for “angel” does not occur in Ezekiel. Somewhat later, in the visions of Zechariah, angels play a great part; they are sometimes spoken of as “men,” sometimes as mal'akh, and the Mal'akh Yahweh seems to hold a certain primacy among them.[21] Satan also appears to prosecute (so to speak) the High Priest before the divine tribunal.[22] Similarly in Job the bnē Elohim, sons of God, appear as attendants of God, and amongst them Satan, still in his rôle of public prosecutor, the defendant being Job.[23] Occasional references to “angels” occur in the Psalter[24]; they appear as ministers of God.

In Ps. lxxviii. 49 the “evil angels” of A. V. conveys a false impression; it should be “angels of evil,” as R. V., i.e. angels who inflict chastisement as ministers of God.

The seven angels of Ezekiel may be compared with the seven eyes of Yahweh in Zech. iii. 9, iv. 10. The latter have been connected by Ewald and others with the later doctrine of seven chief angels[25], parallel to and influenced by the Ameshaspentas (Amesha Spenta), or seven great spirits of the Persian mythology, but the connexion is doubtful.

In the Priestly Code, c. 400 B.C., there is no reference to angels apart from the possible suggestion in the ambiguous plural in Genesis i. 26.

During the Persian and Greek periods the doctrine of angels underwent a great development, partly, at any rate, under foreign influences. In Daniel, c. 160 B.C., angels, usually spoken of as “men ” or “princes,” appear as guardians or champions of the nations; grades are implied, there are “princes” and “chief” or “great princes”; and the names of some angels are known, Gabriel, Michael; the latter is pre-eminent[26], he is the guardian of Judah. Again in Tobit a leading part is played by Raphael, “one of the seven holy angels.”[27]

In Tobit, too, we find the idea of the demon or evil angel. In the canonical Old Testament angels may inflict suffering as ministers of God, and Satan may act as accuser or tempter; but they appear as subordinate to God, fulfilling His will; and not as morally evil. The statement[28] that God “chargeth His angels with folly” applies to all angels. In Daniel the princes or guardian angels of the heathen nations oppose Michael the guardian angel of Judah. But in Tobit we find Asmodaeus the evil demon, τὸ πονηρὸν δαιμόνιον, who strangles Sarah's husbands, and also a general reference to “a devil or evil spirit,” πενῦμα.[29] The Fall of the Angels is not properly a scriptural doctrine, though it is based on Gen. vi. 2, as interpreted by the Book of Enoch. It is true that the bnē Elohim of that chapter are subordinate superhuman beings (cf. above), but they belong to a different order of thought from the angels of Judaism and of Christian doctrine; and the passage in no way suggests that the bnē Elohim suffered any loss of status through their act.

The guardian angels of the nations in Daniel probably represent the gods of the heathen, and we have there the first step of the process by which these gods became evil angels, an idea expanded by Milton in Paradise Lost. The development of the doctrine of an organized hierarchy of angels belongs to the Jewish literature of the period 200 B.C. to A.D. 100. In Jewish apocalypses especially, the imagination ran riot on the rank, classes and names of angels; and such works as the various books of Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah supply much information on this subject.

In the New Testament angels appear frequently as the ministers of God and the agents of revelation[30]; and Our Lord speaks of angels as fulfilling such functions[31], implying in one saying that they neither marry nor are given in marriage.[32] Naturally angels are most prominent in the Apocalypse. The New Testament takes little interest in the idea of the angelic hierarchy, but there are traces of the doctrine. The distinction of good and bad angels is recognized; we have names, Gabriel[33], and the evil angels Abaddon or Apollyon[34], Beelzebub[35], and Satan[36]; ranks are implied, archangels[37], principalities and powers[38], thrones and dominions[39]. Angels occur in groups of four or seven[40]. In Rev. i.-iii. we meet with the “Angels” of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. These are probably guardian angels, standing to the churches in the same relation that the “princes” in Daniel stand to the nations; practically the “angels” are personifications of the churches. A less likely view is that the “angels” are the human representatives of the churches, the bishops or chief presbyters. There seems, however, no parallel to such a use of “angel,” and it is doubtful whether the monarchical government of churches was fully developed when the Apocalypse was written.

Later Jewish and Christian speculation followed on the lines of the angelology of the earlier apocalypses; and angels play an important part in Gnostic systems and in the Jewish Midrashim and the Kabbala. Religious thought about the angels during the middle ages was much influenced by the theory of the angelic hierarchy set forth in the De Hierarchia Celesti, written in the 5th century in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite and passing for his. The creeds and confessions do not formulate any authoritative doctrine of angels; and modern rationalism has tended to deny the existence of such beings, or to regard the subject as one on which we can have no certain knowledge. The principle of continuity, however, seems to require the existence of beings intermediate between man and God.

The Old Testament says nothing about the origin of angels; but the Book of Jubilees and the Slavonic Enoch describe their creation; and, according to Col. i. 16, the angels were created in, unto and through Christ.

Nor does the Bible give any formal account of the nature of angels. It is doubtful how far Ezekiel's account of the cherubim and Isaiah's account of the seraphim are to be taken as descriptions of actual beings; they are probably figurative, or else subjective visions. Angels are constantly spoken of as “men,” and, including even the Angel of Yahweh, are spoken of as discharging the various functions of human life; they eat and drink[41], walk[42] and speak[43]. Putting aside the cherubim and seraphim, they are not spoken of as having wings. On the other hand they appear and vanish[44], exercise miraculous powers[45], and fly[46]. Seeing that the anthropomorphic language used of the angels is similar to that used of God, the Scriptures would hardly seem to require a literal interpretation in either case. A special association is found, both in the Bible and elsewhere, between the angels and the heavenly bodies[47], and the elements or elemental forces, fire, water, &c[48]. The angels are infinitely numerous[49].

The function of the angels is that of the supernatural servants of God, His agents and representatives; the Angel of Yahweh, as we have seen, is a manifestation of God. In old times, the bnē Elohim and the seraphim are His court, and the angels are alike the court and the army of God; the cherubim are his throne-bearers. In his dealings with men, the angels, as their name implies, are specially His messengers, declaring His will and executing His commissions. Through them he controls nature and man. They are the guardian angels of the nations; and we also find the idea that individuals have guardian angels[50]. Later Jewish tradition held that the Law was given by angels[51]. According to the Gnostic Basilides, the world was created by angels. Mahommedanism has taken over and further elaborated the Jewish and Christian ideas as to angels.

While the scriptural statements imply a belief in the existence of spiritual beings intermediate between God and men, it is probable that many of the details may be regarded merely as symbolic imagery. In Scripture the function of the angel overshadows his personality; the stress is on their ministry; they appear in order to perform specific acts.

Bibliography.—See the sections on “Angels” in the handbooks of O. T. Theology by Ewald, Schultz, Smend, Kayser-Marti, &c.; and of N. T. Theology by Weiss, and in van Oosterzee's Dogmatics. Also commentaries on special passages, especially Driver and Bevan on Daniel, and G. A. Smith, Minor Prophets, ii. 310 ff.; and articles s.v. “Angel” in Hastings' Bible Dictionary, and the Encyclopaedia Biblica. (W. H. Be.)

  1. E.g. Gen. vi. 2; Job i. 6; Ps. viii. 5, xxix. 1.
  2. Zech. xiv. 5.
  3. Dan. iv. 13.
  4. Deut. xvii. 3 (?).
  5. Josh. v. 14 (?).
  6. The identification of the “hosts” with the stars comes to the same thing; the stars were thought of as closely connected with angels. It is probable that the “hosts” were also identified with the armies of Israel.
  7. Rev. i. 4.
  8. Gen. xxxii. 30; Judges xiii. 22.
  9. Exod. iii. 2, xiv. 19.
  10. Zech. i. 11 f.
  11. Cf. xviii. 1 with xviii. 2, and note change of number in xix. 17.
  12. Gen. xxviii. 12, E.
  13. Gen. xxxii. 1, E.
  14. Gen. xxxii. 24, 30, J.
  15. “An angel” of 1 Kings xiii. 18 might be the Mal'akh Yahweh, as in xix. 5, cf. 7, or the passage, at any rate in its present form, may be exilic or post-exilic.
  16. Deut. vi. 4. 5.
  17. Isaiah xliii. 10 &c.
  18. It is not however certain that these doctrines of Zoroastrianism were developed at so early a date.
  19. Ezek. i. x.
  20. Ezek. ix.
  21. Zech. i. 11 f.
  22. Zech. iii. 1.
  23. Job i., ii. Cf. 1 Chron. xxi. 1.
  24. Pss. xci. 11, ciii. 20 &c.
  25. Tobit xii. 15; Rev. viii. 2.
  26. Dan. viii. 16, x. 13, 20, 21.
  27. Tob. xii. 15.
  28. Job iv. 18.
  29. Tobit iii. 8, 17, vi. 7.
  30. E.g. Matt. i. 20 (to Joseph), iv. 11 (to Jesus), Luke i. 26 (to Mary), Acts xii. 7 (to Peter).
  31. E.g. Mark viii. 38, xiii. 27.
  32. Mark xii. 25.
  33. Luke i. 19.
  34. Rev. ix. 11.
  35. Mark iii. 22.
  36. Mark i. 13.
  37. Michael, Jude 9.
  38. Rom. viii. 38; Col. ii. 10.
  39. Col. i. 16.
  40. Rev. vii. 1.
  41. Gen. xviii. 8.
  42. Gen. xix. 16.
  43. Zech. iv. 1.
  44. Judges vi. 12, 21.
  45. Rev. vii. 1. viii.
  46. Rev. viii. 13, xiv. 6.
  47. Job xxxviii. 7; Asc. of Isaiah, iv. 18; Slav. Enoch, iv. 1.
  48. Rev. xiv. 18. xvi. 5; possibly Gal. iv. 3; Col. ii. 8, 20.
  49. Ps. lxviii. 17; Dan. vii. 10.
  50. Matt. xviii. 10; Acts xii. 15.
  51. Gal. iii. 19; Heb. ii. 2; LXX. of Deut. xxxui. 2.