Angels in different traditions
Angels are spiritual beings often depicted as messengers of God in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles along with the Quran. The English word angel is derived from the Greek ἄγγελος, a translation of מלאך (mal’akh) in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh); a similar term, ملائكة (Malāīkah), is used in the Qur’an. The Hebrew and Greek words originally mean messenger, and depending on the context may refer either to a human messenger (possibly a prophet or priest, such as Malachi, “my messenger”, but also for more mundane characters, as in the Greek superscription that the Book of Malachi was written “by the hand of his messenger” (ἀγγήλου)) or to a supernatural messenger, such as the “Mal’akh YHWH,” who (depending on interpretation) is either a messenger from God, an aspect of God (such as the Logos), or God Himself as the messenger (the “theophanic angel.”)
The term “angel” has also been expanded to various notions of spiritual beings found in many other religious traditions. Other roles of angels include protecting and guiding human beings, and carrying out God’s tasks. The theological study of angels is known as angelology. In art, angels are often depicted with wings; perhaps reflecting the descriptions in Revelation 4:6-8 — of the Four Living Creatures (τὰ τέσσαρα ζῷα) and the descriptions in the Hebrew Bible—of cherubim and seraphim (the chayot in Ezekiel’s Merkabah vision and the Seraphim of Isaiah). However, while cherubim and seraphim have wings in the Bible, no angel is mentioned as having wings.
Three angels hosted by Abraham, Ludovico Carracci (1555 - 1619), Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale. The word angel in English is a fusion of the Old English word engel (with a hard g) and the Old French angele. Both derive from the Latin angelus which in turn is the romanization of the ancient Greek ἄγγελος (angelos), “messenger”, which is related to the Greek verb ἀγγέλλω (angellō), meaning “bear a message, announce, bring news of” etc. The earliest form of the word is the Mycenaean a-ke-ro attested in Linear B syllabic script.
Philosophically, angels are “pure contingent spirits.” Philo of Alexandria identifies the angel with the Logos as far as the angel is the immaterial voice of God. The angel is something different than God Himself, but is conceived just as a God’s instrument. According to Aristotle, just as there is a First Mover, so, too, must there be spiritual secondary movers. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) expands upon this in his Summa contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.
Main article: Angel (Judaism)
The Bible uses the terms מלאך אלהים (mal’akh Elohim; messenger of God), מלאך יהוה (mal’akh YHWH; messenger of the Lord), בני אלהים (b’nai Elohim; sons of God) and הקודשים (ha-qodeshim; the holy ones) to refer to beings traditionally interpreted as angels. Later texts use other terms, such as העליונים (ha’elyoneem; the upper ones).
Scholar Michael D. Coogan notes that it is only in the late books that the terms “come to mean the benevolent semidivine beings familiar from later mythology and art.” Daniel is the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels by name, mentioning Gabriel (God’s primary messenger) in Daniel 9:21 and Michael (the holy fighter) in Daniel 10:13. These angels are part of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions and are an important part of all apocalyptic literature. Coogan explains the development of this concept of angels: “In the postexilic period, with the development of explicit monotheism, these divine beings—the ‘sons of God’ who were members of the divine council—were in effect demoted to what are now known as ‘angels’, understood as beings created by God, but immortal and thus superior to humans.” This conception of angels is best understood in contrast to demons and is often thought to be “influenced by the ancient Persian religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, which viewed the world as a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil, between light and darkness.” One of these “sons of God” is “the satan”, a figure depicted in among other places according to the Book of Job.
In post-Biblical Judaism, certain angels took on particular significance and developed unique personalities and roles. Though these archangels were believed to rank among the heavenly host, no systematic hierarchy ever developed. Metatron is considered one of the highest of the angels in Merkabah and Kabbalist mysticism and often serves as a scribe; he is briefly mentioned in the Talmud and figures prominently in Merkabah mystical texts. Michael, who serves as a warrior and advocate for Israel (Daniel 10:13), is looked upon particularly fondly. Gabriel is mentioned in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 8:15–17), the Book of Tobit, and briefly in the Talmud, as well as in many Merkabah mystical texts. There is no evidence in Judaism for the worship of angels, but there is evidence for the invocation and sometimes even conjuration of angels.
Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides explained his view of angels in his Guide for the Perplexed II:4 and II:6:
…This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the ‘angels which are near to Him’, through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move… thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world.
— Guide for the Perplexed II:4, Maimonides
According to Kabalah, there are four worlds and our world is the last world: the world of action (Assiyah). Angels exist in the worlds above as a ‘task’ of God. They are an extension of God to produce effects in this world. After an angel has completed its task, it ceases to exist. The angel is in effect the task. This is derived from the book of Genesis when Abraham meets with three angels and Lot meets with two. The task of one of the angels was to inform Abraham of his coming child. The other two were to save Lot and to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
Famous angels and their tasks:
• Malachim (translation: messengers), general word for angel
• Michael (translation: who is like God), performs God’s kindness
• Gabriel (translation: the strength of God), performs acts of justice and power
• Raphael (translation: God Heals), God’s healing force
• Uriel (translation: God is my light), leads us to destiny
• Seraphim (translation: the burning ones), sing and praise God
• Malach HaMavet (translation: the angel of death)
• Satan (translation: the adversary), brings people’s sins before them in the heavenly court
• Chayot HaKodesh (translation: living beings)
• Ophanim (translation: arbits) Guardians of the Throne of God
Main article: Christian angelic hierarchy
The Archangel Michael wears a late Roman military cloak and cuirass in this 17th century depiction by Guido Reni
Early Christians inherited Jewish understandings of angels, which in turn may have been partly inherited from the Egyptians. In the early stage, the Christian concept of an angel characterized the angel as a messenger of God Angels are creatures of good, spirits of love, and messengers of the savior Jesus Christ. Later came identification of individual angelic messengers: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, and Satan/Lucifer. Then, in the space of little more than two centuries (from the third to the fifth) the image of angels took on definite characteristics both in theology and in art.
By the late fourth century, the Church Fathers agreed that there were different categories of angels, with appropriate missions and activities assigned to them. Some theologians had proposed that Jesus was not divine but on the level of immaterial beings subordinate to the Trinity. The resolution of this Trinitarian dispute included the development of doctrine about angels.
The angels are represented throughout the Christian Bible as a body of spiritual beings intermediate between God and men: “You have made him (man) a little less than the angels…” (Psalms 8:4-5). Some Christians believe that angels are created beings, and use the following passage as evidence: “praise ye Him, all His angels: praise ye Him, all His hosts… for He spoke and they were made. He commanded and they were created…” (Psalms 148:2-5; Colossians 1:16). The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared that the angels were created beings. The Council’s decree Firmiter credimus (issued against the Albigenses) declared both that angels were created and that men were created after them. The First Vatican Council (1869) repeated this declaration in Dei Filius, the “Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith”. Of note is that the Bible describes the function of angels as “messengers” and does not indicate when the creation of angels occurred.
Many Christians regard angels as asexual and not belonging to either gender as they interpret Matthew 22:30 in this way. Angels are on the other hand usually described as looking like male human beings. Their names are also masculine. And although angels have greater knowledge than men, they are not omniscient, as Matthew 24:36 points out.
Interaction with angels
An angel comforting Jesus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.
The New Testament includes many of interactions and conversations between angels and humans. For instance, three separate cases of angelic interaction deal with the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. In Luke 1:11, an angel appears to Zechariah to inform him that he will have a child despite his old age, thus proclaiming the birth of John the Baptist And in Luke 1:26 the archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation to foretell the birth of Jesus Christ. Angels then proclaim the birth of Jesus in the Adoration of the shepherds in Luke 2:10. Angels also appear later in the New Testament. In Luke 22:43 an angel comforts Jesus Christ during the Agony in the Garden. In Matthew 28:5 an angel speaks at the empty tomb, following the Resurrection of Jesus and the rolling back of the stone by angels. Hebrews 13:2 reminds the reader that they may “entertain angels unaware”.
Since the completion of the New Testament, the Christian tradition has continued to include a number of reported interactions with angels. For instance, in 1851 Pope Pius IX approved the Chaplet of Saint Michael based on the 1751 private revelation from archangel Michael to the Carmelite nun Antonia d’Astonac. And Pope John Paul II emphasized the role of angels in Catholic teachings in his 1986 address titled “Angels Participate In History Of Salvation”, in which he suggested that modern mentality should come to see the importance of angels. As recently as the 20th century, visionaries and mystics have reported interactions with, and indeed dictations from, angels. For instance, the bed-ridden Italian writer and mystic Maria Valtorta wrote The Book of Azariah based on “dictations” that she directly attributed to her guardian angel Azariah, discussing the Roman Missal used for Sunday Mass in 1946 and 1947. 21st century mystic and medium Danielle Egnew is referenced in Steve Barney’s book The Sacred and the Profane as a prominent example of modern day communication with angels, during which Egnew reports channeled angelic messages of individual assistance as well as future world events.
12th-century icon of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel wearing the loros of the Imperial guards. The earliest known Christian image of an angel—in the Cubicolo dell’Annunziazione in the Catacomb of Priscilla (mid-third century)—is without wings. In that same period, representations of angels on sarcophagi, lamps and reliquaries also show them without wings, as for example the angel in the Sacrifice of Isaac scene in the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (although the side view of the Sarcophagus shows winged angelic figures). The earliest known representation of angels with wings is on the “Prince’s Sarcophagus”, discovered in the 1930s at Sarigüzel, near Istanbul, and attributed to the time of Theodosius I (379-395). From that period on, Christian art has represented angels mostly with wings, as in the cycle of mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (432–440). Four- and six-winged angels, drawn from the higher grades of angels (especially cherubim and seraphim) and often showing only their faces and wings, are derived from Persian art and are usually shown only in heavenly contexts, as opposed to performing tasks on earth. They often appear in the pendentives of church domes or semi-domes. Saint John Chrysostom explained the significance of angels’ wings: “They manifest a nature’s sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.”
One of Melozzo’s famous angels from the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli, now in the sacristy of St. Peter’s Basilica. In terms of their clothing, angels, especially the Archangel Michael, were depicted as military-style agents of God and came to be shown wearing Late Antique military uniform. This uniform could be the normal military dress, with a tunic to about the knees, an armour breastplate and pteruges, but was often the specific dress of the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor, with a long tunic and the loros, the long gold and jewelled pallium restricted to the Imperial family and their closest guards. The basic military dress was shown in Western art into the Baroque period and beyond (see Reni picture above), and up to the present day in Eastern Orthodox icons. Other angels came to be conventionally depicted in long robes, and in the later Middle Ages they often wear the vestments of a deacon, a cope over a dalmatic; this costume was used especially for Gabriel in Annunciation scenes—for example the Annunciation in Washington by Jan van Eyck.
Main article: Islamic view of angels
Angels (Arabic: ملائكة , Malāʾikah; Turkish: Melek) are mentioned many times in the Qur’an and Hadith. Islam is clear on the nature of angels in that they are messengers of God. They have no free will, and can do only what God orders them to do. An example of a task they carry out is that of testing of individuals by granting them abundant wealth and curing their illness. Believing in angels is one of the six Articles of Faith in Islam.
In his Book of Certitude Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, describes angels as people who ‘have consumed, with the fire of the love of God, all human traits and limitations’, and have ‘clothed themselves’ with angelic attributes and have become ‘endowed with the attributes of the spiritual’. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes angels as the ‘confirmations of God and His celestial powers’ and as ‘blessed beings who have severed all ties with this nether world’ and ‘been released from the chains of self’, and ‘revealers of God’s abounding grace’. The Bahá’í writings also refer to the Concourse on High, an angelic host, and the Maid of Heaven of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision.
“Angel” is sometimes used as a translation of related concepts in non-Abrahamic traditions.
Main article: Zoroastrian angelology
In Zoroastrianism there are different angel-like figures. For example, each person has one guardian angel, called Fravashi. They patronize human beings and other creatures, and also manifest God’s energy. The Amesha Spentas have often been regarded as angels, although there is no direct reference to them conveying messages, but are rather emanations of Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”, God); they initially appear in an abstract fashion and then later became personalized, associated with diverse aspects of the divine creation.
In Hinduism, the term deva is sometimes translated as “angel” (besides “god” or “deity”). But essentially deva is not an angel. Instead deva is the embodiment of a natural element with explicit manifestation in physical realms.
In Sikhism, the references to angelic or divine deities is often objected as the religion focuses on the liberation of the soul and ultimately joining with Waheguru. However, in early scriptures written by Guru Nanak Dev Ji indicate specific heavenly deities to help in the judgment of the soul.
Azrael (as Azraa-eel) is named as the angel of death in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture and the final Guru of the Sikhs. In So Dar and Raag Asa Sat Guru Nanak mentions clearly two beings Chitar and Gupat who record the deeds of men. These beings are Angels assigned with this Divine task by the Creator. Chitar records the deeds that are visible to all and Gupat records that which is hidden in thought or secret action. Their names themselves allude to the tasks which the All Mighty has bestowed upon them. The celestial beings are often seen at the gates of heaven, dressed in the most adorned and decorated gowns, holding the records on the actions and feelings of the soul in the line for judgement.
New religious movements and occultism
In the teachings of Theosophy, Devas are regarded as living either in the atmospheres of the planets of the solar system (Planetary Angels) or inside the Sun (Solar Angels) (presumably other planetary systems and stars have their own angels) and they help to guide the operation of the processes of nature such as the process of evolution and the growth of plants; their appearance is reputedly like colored flames about the size of a human. It is believed by Theosophists that devas can be observed when the third eye is activated. Some (but not most) devas originally incarnated as human beings. It is believed by Theosophists that nature spirits, elementals (gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders), and fairies can be also be observed when the third eye is activated. It is maintained by Theosophists that these less evolutionarily developed beings have never been previously incarnated as humans; they are regarded as being on a separate line of spiritual evolution called the “deva evolution”; eventually, as their souls advance as they reincarnate, it is believed they will incarnate as devas. It is asserted by Theosophists that all of the above mentioned beings possess etheric bodies that are composed of etheric matter, a type of matter finer and more pure that is composed of smaller particles than ordinary physical plane matter.
compiled by Amonakur