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History of Angels

Source: The Straight Dope "What's the Deal with Angels?"

.... In the earliest Biblical books, angels are merely servants or messengers, running errands for God, including jobs such as guardians, counselors, judges, warriors, matchmakers, gravediggers, and cooks. By the Middle Ages and after, angels are some sort of supernatural being, an intermediary between God and man. Angels are members of heavenly choirs, they sit around the throne of judgment, and they deliver messages of prophecy or doom. They fight battles and inspire hope. They do miracles and save Jimmy Stewart's Christmas.

What do angels look like? That's changed a lot over time. Since angels are (presumably) spiritual beings rather than material beings, they (also presumably) would not have physical bodies. However, the authors, prophets, and poets who first wrote about angels in biblical times did not know how to describe invisible spirits except in anthropomorphic terms--that is, they depicted the angels as human. For example, Abraham sees three men approaching (Genesis 18:2) who turn out to be angels bringing messages, and King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:25) sees four men in the fiery furnace when he only threw in three, and Acts 1:10 mentions "two men in white who stood by" at Jesus'' tomb. So, the bible reports angels that can be easily mistaken for humans, usually males. Female angels (and demons), such as Lilith (see Staff Report at .html) were few and far between.

Note that these earliest angels do not have wings. In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to the sky, and angels "going up and down on it"--they didn't fly. Halos and harps also came much later in the evolution of angels.

Other later, more poetic mentions of angels, for example in some of the books of Prophets, offer very different descriptions. Isaiah 6:2 describes angels with six wings, each pair having its own function--two to cover his face, two to cover his feet (read: genitals) and two to fly. Ezekiel has a vision of angels with six wings and multiple faces (1:6ff), and also of angels as fiery wheels, or thrones, with many eyes (1:15ff).

The variety of descriptions led scholars and theologians to conclude that there were several kinds of angels. After all, a huge creature with six wings and four faces would not be mistaken for a human by anyone, let alone Abraham. Hence, there must be different classes or species of angels, even fallen angels (devils and demons being merely classes of angel).

By the Middle Ages, the number of species and the ranks of angels were being hotly debated. Cecil wrote about this in "Did medieval scholars argue over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?" at 2.html.  Thomas Aquinas's lectures in 1259 set down everything known about angels, reasoning from scriptural and extra-scriptural sources. Aquinas concluded that angels were intellect, not matter, animals without bodies who can assume bodies at will, who eat and drink and appear among mankind. Aquinas also fixed the hierarchy of angels, and his pronouncements have prevailed in Christianity for three-quarters of a millennium....

A few decades later, around 1320, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri followed the hierarchy set forth by Aquinas in the Divine Comedy, with definitive rankings and poetic descriptions of all the heavenly creatures, both good and evil. Dante mostly wrote of angels as transcendent beings of light and song.

By the Renaissance, Martin Luther (1463-1546) referred to angels as "guides." However, Protestants generally didn't pay much attention to angels. John Calvin (1509-1564) called writings about the angelic hierarchy "the vain babblings of idle men" and deplored such speculations as fruitless and unprofitable. (Ha!) 

In 1664, the English poet John Milton wrote Paradise Lost. He ignored Aquinas's angelic order and orthodox tradition--he was English, after all. Milton's angels were basically non-corporeal humans, who ate and drank and had sex (yep, sex!).

Today angels are part of the tradition of at least four world religions--Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

....Supernatural beings who visit earth did not begin with the bible, of course. Over a thousand years before the first biblical texts were written, the ancient Sumerians carved winged figures descending from the first of their seven heavens to pour water into the cup of the king.

In the earliest Biblical books, angels appear infrequently, and then primarily as messengers, running errands for God. As noted, they usually appear as men, but not always. The first biblical appearance in Genesis 3:24 says cherubim with a flaming sword were set to prevent access to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. (For a description of cherubim, see below.)

In the Pentateuch, various angels prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, direct Hagar to water in the desert, protect Lot, destroy Sodom, and harden Pharaoh's heart, among other deeds. These angels are anonymous and not described. Through the later Old Testament books of Judges and Kings, angels inspire military leaders (Judges 6:11) and destroy armies (II Kings 19:36). 

After the Babylonian captivity (mid 500s BC), the prophets and Hebrew authors drew a great deal of imagery from Babylonian and Persian culture. In the last-written books of the Old Testament, such as Daniel, Chronicles and Ezekiel, angels became a bit more prominent but remained unnamed and without distinctive identities. There are two (or three) exceptions:

  • In the Book of Daniel, Michael and Gabriel are specifically named as two angels, called "watchers."
  • There is mention of the satan in the Old Testament books of Job, Chronicles, Psalms, and Zechariah. As discussed in the Staff Report on Job ( ml), the satan is the Adversary, a prosecutor who brings charges. It was the title of a job or an office, NOT the name of an angel. More on this later.
  • Raphael appears in the book of Tobit, accepted in the Catholic Bible, but considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews.

During the Rabbinic period (roughly 100 BC to 200 AD), angels were named and described and had tales told about them. Such stories often paralleled pagan myths or offered between-the-lines commentary on the bible. Michael overthrew mountains, Gabriel bore Abraham to Babylon, the voice of Hadraniel penetrated through the firmaments, and Ataphiel kept heaven from falling down by balancing it on three fingers (take that, Atlas!).

The Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC-50 AD) wrote that God manifests Himself to people as an angel. Not that God changes, but that people perceive God in different forms, and those are the angels. Thus, Michael is the burning bush, and Metatron is the staff of Moses, etc.

Apocalyptic writings (writings about the end of days) appeared around the same time, full of the mythology of angels. Most of these writings were rejected from the biblical canon. The apocalyptic Book of Revelation was included in the Christian Bible, and is full of poetry about angels. For example, Revelation 8:2 describes "the seven angels who stand before God; and to them were given seven trumpets." One of the earliest sources of angelology carried to extreme is the intertestamental "Book of Enoch," especially chapters 40 and 69.

Of the two major religious/political parties in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, the Sadducees thought that angels didn't exist, but were only human fancies or fantasies. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in angels. By the time of the New Testament (say, about 80 to 200 AD), many angels were named and personified. Angels rescue Peter from prison, announce to Mary that she is pregnant, comfort Jesus after the temptation of Satan, roll the stone from the tomb, etc. etc.

It was difficult for the early Church to deal with angels. Interest in angels, and even worship of angels, sprang from the peasants, arising from polytheistic folk worship, and was viewed as a threat to worship of Christ. For example, in Colossians 2:18, Paul himself warned that groveling to angels is wicked.

Early Church theologians in the third and fourth centuries, like Eusebius and Theodoret, condemned the worship of angels. A Church council at Laodicea (343 BC) condemned angel-worship as idolatrous. But only a few decades later, St Ambrose suggested it was OK for Christians to "pray to the angels, who are given to us as guardians." You can't fight the grassroots. At the Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD), the Church reversed itself and the limited worship of angelic beings was formally approved.

In the 7th and following few centuries, Islam took the names and stories about angels and adapted them to Arabic traditions and the new revelations. Angels in the Quran are often mentioned in connection with the end of days, "when the heavens and clouds are split asunder." On the Night of Power, the angel Gabriel dictated the Quran to Mohammed, and Jesus (called Isa in the Koran) stands in the company of angels, nearest to God, and is himself of semi-angelic character. Angels are also mentioned often in the Hadith, the traditional sayings associated with Mohammed. Islamic tradition (but not the Quran) says that the angel Israfel was the companion to Mohammed. Belief in angels is, in fact, an article of faith for Islam.

For the next several centuries, scholars identified, wrote about, and classified angels. Angelogy went amok in the 11th through 13th centuries. Jewish mystics (kabbalists) and Christian scholars named angels, created hierarchies, and determined sub-orders within hierarchies. The quantity of literature is staggering. Davidson suggests that angels were invented by (1) mixing some letters of the Hebrew alphabet, often through an anagram or acronym; and (2) adding the term -el (meaning "of God") or -irion to the end. Thus Hod ("splendor") became Hodiel ("Splendor of God"). Gevurah ("strength") became Gevurael, Cherubiel became the eponymous leader of the order of cherubim and Seraphiel ditto of the seraphim.

The names of hundreds of angels were created in this fashion. Greek, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman gods and heroes became angels. The Greek god Hermes became the holy Hemesiel and Nergal the Akkadian lord of the underworld became the angel Nasargiel. Angels appeared in religious and secular literature, and some achieved canonical status.

....Angelology had its heyday in the late Middle Ages, roughly from 1100 through the 1300s. Once the Renaissance bloomed, the New World was discovered, and the spiritual was replaced by the scientific, people no longer believed that the sun and moon and planets were angels, nor that they were kept in motion by angels. Angelology faded, replaced by invention and discovery.

But angels remained with us, at least in Western cultures. Museums are full of paintings and sculptures of angels from almost every decade. In the late 1800s, Rudolf Steiner proposed a new hierarchy of angels, completely ignoring the orthodox one. Angels continued to appear in popular songs ("Teen Angel," say), on wedding invitations, and atop Christmas trees (ask me why sometime). Angels are sold today as souvenirs, jewelry, religious and semi-religious bric-a-brac, and snow-globes. They show up surprisingly often in the entertainment media, with TV shows and movies based on angelic rescues. It's a Wonderful Life continues to be a popular movie at Christmas time...

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