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

February 4, 2019

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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  1. Jeroen permalink

    In which period would you expect that ‘starter of christology’ to have emerged. Before crucification, in the weeks after the crucification, when the letters of Paul were written, when the gospels were written, or even later.

    • See my discussion of “forces and factors” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ. Obviously, Jesus is one factor, and became the polarizing issue for followers and opponents during his ministry. But there were other factors too, including particularly the experiences of the risen/glorified Jesus.

  2. john permalink

    “…you will see heaven opened; and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51). “No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13). “…to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:10).

    I think that as the “Son” early Christians believed Jesus was superior to angels. They thought of him as a man given special powers by God, superior to angels, superior to even Michael. In some sense, however, this “Son-man” is also the leader and judge of all the angels, as God is leader and judge of all the angels. If the PE belongs to the time just before and during Jesus’ ministry, then we have contemporary evidence for this belief about the “Son” as superior, to lead and to judge.

    • Uh, John. There is no divine “son” in the Parables of Enoch. There is a messianic figure called “the Elect/Chosen One”, who is also repeatedly, and in several expressions designated as a particular human figure. You need to re-examine your fixation on the PE as the source of everything.

  3. Is part of the draw to ‘angel christology’ passages such as “having become as much superior to angels…For to which of the angels did God ever say…” (Heb. 1:4-5)? Is there wiggle room for proponents to read these read as ‘having been an angel now you have been promoted to higher status’?

    • Not really. The thrust of Heb 1 is that all along Jesus was “son”, not angel. After his death and resurrection, he was then made God’s plenipotentiary, superior to all angels.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Thanks for this post on early angel Christology, I was hoping for more engagement with the arguments in Werner, which I find compelling. For example Werner argues that the title “Lord”, as used for angels in Acts, compares with how the early Christians addressed Jesus. (Compare Acts 9:10 and 10:2)

    Since the title “Lord” was not commonly used for God in first century Judaism, but it was used as a title for angels, the proposition Is that early Christian use of this title for Jesus identifies him as an angelic being.

    This article argued that evidence from the DSS supports Werner’s angel Christology:

    Wold, B. G. (2004). Reconsidering an Aspect of the Title Kyrios in Light of Sapiential Fragment 4Q416 2 iii. Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Kunde der Alteren Kirche, 95(3/4), 149-160.

    On the subject of Gal 4:14, Bart Ehrman says the phrase is in apposition and identifies Jesus as an angel, and you say it is not. How are non-scholars supposed to judge between the two claims?

    • Uh, Donald, your information is incorrect. “Lord” (Heb adonany) was regularly used for God, as in the LXX. And the Aramaic form, Mar, used as well for God. The issue over Gal 4:14 is settled in the larger context of Galatians, and the rest of Paul’s writings, which consistently make a distinction between Jesus and the angels.

  5. Griffin permalink

    Hebrews 1 is indeed taking great pains to show that Jesus is no longer like an angel. But what should we make of the language which suggests he had once been like an angel? And that 1) he only “became” vastly superior to them later. (Heb. 1.4 NIV). Perhaps only when he went to heaven (1.3).

    We might also wonder 2) why Paul protests so much; this might also suggest there a strong earlier Christian school that he felt it necessary to vociferously oppose.

    • No. Heb doesn’t say that Jesus is “no longer like an angel”. It says he was “son”, in distinction from angels. His post-resurrection superiority was in comparison to his human/earthly status previously.

      • Griffin permalink

        Thank you for your clarification. Which seems at least partly right to me. But in that case, Heb. 1 doesn’t quite indicate a high Christology; not during Jesus’ lifetime. It says that Jesus was born as a mere man, lower than the angels. Becoming more, only during his crucifixion, suffering, martyrdom (2.9-10), and ascension (1.3-4).

        Granted, the status of Hebrews itself is uncertain, according to some.

      • Griffin, you really must try reading the texts in question more carefully. Heb 1:1-2 ascribes to the “pre-existent” Jesus agency in creation. His career doesn’t start with his earthly life. And Heb 2:9 refers to Jesus as “for a little while made lower than the angles, now crowned with glory and honor.” Hebrews, in short, reflects a pre-xistence, incarnation christology.

      • Griffin permalink

        Hebrews 1.1 acknowledges that God spoke to people of “old” in many ways. “But” then, shifting to the then-present, “these … days,” it says that during or after the crucifixion, he spoke through the sacrificed Jesus.2.9.

        ‘Pre existing” is not a quote from any translation I have heard. And that whole rather Platonistic notion seems unlikely, given very concrete references to an allegedly historical crucifixion, that closely matches the “historical” gospels.

        Can you cite scholarship on the pre exististant notion? Or if this originating in some kind of apologetics, an apologetics source?

      • Griffin: PLEASE. Read the texts! Heb 1:1-2 says that this “son” was the one through whom God created all things. Obviously, this = what scholars call “pre-existence”. It’s a well known term in scholarship. Likewise, Philippians 2:6-8 has a “pre-existent” Christ “in the form of God” who then becomes a human and submits to the cross. Check any commentary on either text.

      • Griffin permalink

        “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through which he also created the world. He reflects the glory of God….” (Heb. 1.1-3 RSV).

        Here God and Son are mentioned as in many ways, distinct. Or not as completely one and the same. Jesus is “heir,” but not God himself, exactly. He “reflects” God, but is not one and the same with him. In this frame, the referent of “he” creating the world, is almost certainly God, and not his heir, Jesus.

        Then the text affirms thereafter that Jesus was not entirely God, or approved by him, until his sacrifice proved to God, his devotion. It was only “after” that that Jesus acquired much status (1.3 NIV). So Jesus was not always great; he only “became” great. 1.4. In 2.8, “now.” Only after suffering (2.10).

        So the whole unhistorical notion of a pre-existing, fully divine Jesus, at least in Hebrews, seems rather sermonic, denominational, and not scholarly. Or even biblical.

      • Griffin: We aren’t going to get anywhere until you start reading the text carefully, and also get off your high-horse of denunciation. The text says God created the world THROUGH THE SON. So, “the son” was there at, and involved as the agency of, creation. I.e., the son “pre-existed” before Jesus’ earthly career. Do you get it now???
        Of course, Jesus “the son” and God “the father” are distinguished. That’s always been the case. But they are also uniquely linked in this and other NT texts. Do leave off your polemical language and try to hear what the texts and scholars are actually saying.

      • Griffin permalink

        Through “which ” and not “whom,” may suggest that “things,” and not Jesus, was the referent agency through which God created the world.

      • Griffin: Again, you’re not reading the text. Hebrews 1:2 says that it was Jesus, the son “through whom [NB]” God also created the world. The Greek pronoun is the masculine singular, referring back to “the son”. Stop your obstinate squirming and read the bloody text more carefully!

  6. Lew Ferris permalink

    Greetings Dr. Hurtado,

    In your opinion, is the Angel/Messenger of the LORD/YAHWEH of the OT the Preexistent Christ?

    • The NT writers don’t make this connection, although later Christians such as Justin Martyr did.

  7. Martin Werner was also, as you well know, the scholar who bestowed on us the assumption that the so-called ‘delay of the parousia’ was a major force in the development of dogma…

  8. Robert permalink

    Hi, Professor Hurtado.

    I imagine that you consider Saying 13 of the gospel if Thomas to be late and dependent upon the synoptics. I do anyway. Do some of the proponents of an early angel christology focus on this saying (in which Simon Peter compares Jesus to a righteous angel) as early evidence? Bart Ehrman does not mention it even though he does consider the gospel of Thomas to be independent of all of the gospels.

    Do you consider it evidence for a later angel christology? Within this pericope, it seems like Thomas implicitly rejects this and other lower christologies. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Thank you in advance.

    • I don’t think anyone takes GThomas 13 as actually reflecting the views of Peter or the other disciples. It’s not typically cited in arguments for/against “angel christology.” For my thoughts on GThomas, see my discussion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans 2003), 442-79.

      • Robert permalink

        I wonder why proponents of angel christology, at least those who consider the gospel of Thomas to be independent or even early, don’t focus more attention on this saying. I wouldn’t expect anyone to ascribe this belief to Simon Peter, but at least it was a view in circulation at some point.

        I will look up your discussion of Thomas Thanks!

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