Saturday, November 08, 2014

Anxious angels

PHILIP JENKINS has been publishing a series of posts on angels in ancient Judaism and early Christianity over at the Anxious Bench. Here they are, with a brief excerpt from each:

Naming Angels
Angels certainly feature in the Old Testament, as divine envoys and as mighty figures in the divine court – see for instance the overwhelming Cherubim in Ezekiel 1. But they are nothing like as central as they would become in what we sometimes call the inter-testamental period, and in the subsequent history of Judaism and Christianity. Nor are these older figures given anything like an individual identity.
Enoch’s Angels
At some point in Jewish history, texts began referring to angels with specific names like Gabriel or Michael, and that trend reflects a basic shift in concepts of the supernatural hierarchy. That shift is significant itself in terms of the history of Western religion, but it particularly matters for anyone interested in early (or medieval) Christianity.
Angels at the Dead Sea
My recent posts concerned angels, and specifically when and why they acquired names and individual identities. Angels are fully developed characters in 1 Enoch, probably from the third century BC, and that text was well known in the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. That group had a special interest in angels and their doings, and their role in cosmic warfare.
Angels from the East?
But the story is neither simple nor straightforward. One basic problem is that we really don’t know as much as we should about the Persian system and the great prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra). Based on analogies with Western religions, we tend to assume that Zarathustra had some great insight, founded a religion, which eventually became the official creed of the mighty Persian Empire. Well, yes and no.
Thrones and Dominions
Cautiously, then, let me suggest this. Whatever the holes in our knowledge, we can safely say that the Persian world view during the occupation of Judea was Dualistic and did involve a large number of spiritual beings, good and evil, some of whom were major figures at the heavenly court. If we had more surviving writings from that Persian faith, we would perhaps see more of a resemblance to the angels and cosmic warfare that we know from 1 Enoch. So yes, with all due skepticism, I believe that the practice of naming and individualizing angels is indeed a Persian borrowing,