DOI:10.5508/jhs.2010.v10.r23

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Reiterer, Friedrich V., Tobias Nicklas, Karin Schopflin (eds) Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings - Origins, Development and Reception (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Yearbook 2007; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007). Pp. xi+714. Hardcover. US$118.00. ISBN 978-3-11-019294-0.

This is an extensive volume detailing the many different facets of angelic beings from the earliest sources to modern popular culture. In the preface, the editor notes the wide range of “angelologies” that are found throughout history and this diversity of angelic figures is a prominent feature of the articles. The volume is divided into seven parts, each covering a specific time period or particular type of literature.

The first section presents general overviews of divine beings in the ancient Near East (Egypt, Mesopotamia) and the Greco-Roman world. Bernd U. Schipper's article “Angels or Demons? Divine Messengers in Ancient Egypt” sets an important tone for the rest of the book. He correctly notes that the terms “angels” and “demons” are misleading as they imply beings who are polarized as either “good” or “bad.” He notes that this might be true of later Christian theology but cannot be applied to ancient Egypt. Demons are again the subject of the second essay “Demons and Benevolent Spirits in the Ancient Near East” by Manfred Hutter. He examines these beings within the larger culture of the ancient Near East, specifically Mesopotamia, Northern Syria, Anatolia and Iran. Rather than use the problematic term of demon, Hutter argues that these figures should be called “lesser gods” or “anti-gods.” The final essay in this section, “The Divine Messenger in Ancient Greece, Etruria and Rome” by Wolfgang Speyer examines the concept of angelic mediation with relation not only to the god Hermes but also the goddess Iris. Moreover, he argues that mediation between the gods and humans also was accomplished through the use of birds, divine voices and spirits as messengers.

Angelic beings in the Hebrew Bible are the focus of the second section. Matthias Köckert's “Divine Messengers and Mysterious Men in the Patriarchal Narratives of the Book of Genesis” notes the problematic and ambiguous nature of the term “messenger,” which is used to designate both human and divine beings. He links the use of “mysterious men and divine messengers” in Genesis to surrounding ancient Near Eastern traditions and the growing understanding of God's transcendence. Alexander A. Fischer argues in “Moses and the Exodus-Angel” that the Exodus-Angel is part of a redactional layer that comprises not only Exodus but the book of Judges. He indentifies this insertion of the Exodus-Angel as part of a theological reflection on God's presence. In Erasmus Gass' essay, “The Angel as One Form of Divine Communication in the Balaam Narrative,” the focus shifts from redactional to literary criticism. He argues that the angel's role is to highlight the blindness of the seer and to reiterate that it is God who brings sight to the prophets. Erik Eynikel's essay “The Angel in Samson's Birth Narrative” contrasts modern day misconceptions about angelic beings with what is found in Judges 13. He argues that this text in particular discourages not only human identification with angels but maintains a firm boundary between the angelic and the human. Karin Schöpflin's “YHWH's Agents of Doom: The Punishing Function of Angels in Post-Exilic Writings of the Old Testament” takes a completely different perspective by looking at angels who are sent to punish rather than protect. These beings do not necessarily carry the title of “messenger” but these punishing agents always act on the command of God, thus allowing God to distance himself from their violent actions. Pancratius C. Beentjes' essay “Satan, God, and the Angel(s) in 1 Chronicles 21” spends more time focused on the reworking of the Samuel narrative by the Chronicler than on a detailed analysis of the actual angel and its role in 1 Chronicles 21. Friedhelm Hartenstein's “Cherubim and Seraphim in the Bible and in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Sources” examines both the literary and iconographic evidence. His focus on the ancient Near Eastern traditions is illuminating and helps provide the background for the use of these angelic beings in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1–3, 8–11. Karin Schöpflin's second contribution “God's Interpreter: The Interpreting Angel in Post-Exilic Prophetic Visions of the Old Testament” focuses on a lesser studied angelic being known as the angelus interpres. Unlike other scholars who have argued that Ezekiel 40–48 is the origin for this figure, Schöpflin refutes this claim and maintains that the angelus interpres originates in Zechariah and the concept of the divine assembly. The final essay in this section, “Angelic Revelation in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature” by Stefan Beyerle, begins to move out of the biblical material as he examines angelic beings in Zechariah, Daniel, 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra. Beyerle also focuses on the angelus interpres but he downplays the influence of Zechariah and instead emphasizes the development of angelic revelation in the later apocalypses.

The third section addresses angels and demons in the book of Tobit. Irene Nowell's essay “The ‘Work’ of Archangel Raphael” brings a new perspective as she argues that the angel Raphael functions mainly as a guide and protector. In contrast to the popular assumption that Raphael acts as a healer in Tobit, Nowell argues that he only imparts the knowledge of healing to Tobiah. Thus, Nowell offers a helpful corrective by showing that Raphael acts as more of a teacher than a healer in this text. In Beate Ego's, “The Figure of the Angel Raphael According to his Farewell Address in Tob 12:6–20,” the focus is on the angel Raphael's own self-revelation concerning his identity and mission. Ego argues that Raphael is not only characterized by his own description of his actions but more so by his speech act. According to Ego, the angel Raphael is revealed as a teacher of wisdom. Friedrich V. Reiterer's essay “An Archangel's Theology” also focuses on Raphael's acts of speech, especially those concerning his concept of God. At times this essay focuses more on what is said about God than on the character and function of the angel Raphael, leaving us little more informed about the angel's role. According to Reiterer, Raphael is not only God's instrument but “is the personified message of salvation.” The last essay of this section by J. Edward Owens “Asmodeus: A Less than Minor Character in the Book of Tobit” is especially interesting as it focuses on the demon Asmodeus rather than the angel Raphael. He adopts a narrative-critical approach to argue that Asmodeus is an important figure in the overall structure of Tobit despite being such a minor character.

The fourth section looks at angelic beings in the New Testament. Tobias Nicklas begins with the article “Angels in Early Christian Narratives on the Resurrection of Jesus.” He argues that the resurrection narratives of the synoptic gospels, John and the Gospel of Peter do not have a homogenous view of angelic roles; rather, each demonstrates their own distinctiveness. Hans Klein's “The Angel Gabriel according to Luke 1” notes some interesting differences between the angel Gabriel described in the Gospel of Luke and the Gabriel of the Jewish apocalypses. According to Klein, unlike many Jewish texts which allow for humans to ascend to heaven, Luke 1 sharpens the divide between heaven and earth as only angels are given passage to proclaim God's message to humanity. Dominika A. Kurek-Chomycz' “Guardians of the Old and the Dawn of the New” explores the role of angels in the Pauline epistles. Kurek-Chomycz takes up the question “Why does Paul limit the roles of angels?” and offers the following suggestion: for Paul, the importance of Christ overshadows any speculation about other angelic beings. In the essay “Rivals in Heaven: Angels in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Georg Gäbel examines the negative portrayals of angels in this book. He argues that the first two chapters are not directed as a polemic against angel-worship but instead that the rivalry between Christ and the angels is used to demonstrate Christ's superior relationship to God. Albert L.A. Hogeterp's “Angels, the Final Age and 1–2 Corinthians in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls” examines how the relationship between angels and humans is developed in Paul's eschatology.

The fifth section examines the role of angels in Second Temple literature. Christopher Berner's “The Four (or Seven) Archangels in the First Book of Enoch and Early Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period” opens this section by analyzing the two different lists of archangels in 1 Enoch. He argues that the roles of the archangels are not clearly defined and that their identities as individual angels are only beginning to emerge at this time. In his essay “Guardian Angels and Angelic National Patrons in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity,” Darrell D. Hannah traces the evolution of the notion of guardian angels from its ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic roots to ancient Israel. He argues that guardian angels are not found widely in Second Temple literature but that the notion of angels as guardians of the nation is a much more developed concept. Stefan Schreiber's “The Great Opponent” explores the figure of the devil in early Jewish and Christian literature. He proposes that the devil becomes a “stock figure” that embodies opposition against God and always remains subordinate to God. Kelley Coblentz Bautch's “Heavenly Beings Brought Low: A Study of Angels and the Netherworld” demonstrates that modern views of hell as a separate sphere ruled by the devil are not reflected in early Jewish literature. Bautch argues instead that many of these texts describe these realms as under the control of God and that it is his own angels who are in charge of its governance. The final essay in this section, “The Motif of the Angels' Fall in Early Judaism” by Jan Dochhorn attempts to demonstrate which early Jewish traditions pertain to later Christian traditions of “fallen angels” especially in relation to the figure of Satan.

The sixth section concentrates on angels in later Jewish works with one article dealing with angelology in Islamic art and literature. Cecilia Wassen's “Angels in the Dead Sea Scrolls” presents a comprehensive overview of angelic activity not only in the heavenly realm but also amongst humanity. She also argues that despite the many overarching similarities amongst the scrolls, it is impossible to speak of a systematic angelology. In his essay, “Angels in the Work of Flavius Josephus,” Christopher Begg brings to light an area of research that has been largely ignored by scholars. He finds that Josephus does not eliminate references to angelic beings found in the biblical material; however, he does insert his own references to angels and at times reshapes the material. Turning to another lesser studied text with relation to angels, Christopher Begg's “Angels in Pseudo-Philo” surveys all fifty-nine occurrences of the terms angelus/angeli. He concludes that in contrast to the Hebrew Bible, Pseudo-Philo only uses the term angelus when referring to heavenly messengers. Like Josephus, he finds that Pseudo-Philo deviates from the biblical text to both add and omit his own accounts of angelic beings. Rimon Kasher's “The Conception of Angels in Jewish Biblical Translations” demonstrates that the targums do not present a uniform view concerning angels. Some targums mention angels frequently while others like Targums Onqelos and Jonathan largely ignore them. In his essay, “Angels and Demons in the Book of Jubilees,” Jacques van Ruiten surveys many different aspects of angelic beings including their creation, the angel of the presence, the watchers and their offspring the demons. He concludes that the author of Jubilees, although relying on Gen 6:1–4, does not find his inspiration for the demons in the biblical text but in 1 Enoch 15–16. Thomas J. Kraus' “Angels in the Magical Papyri” focuses on the archangel Michael. He argues that the overall picture of the Greek magical papyri do not necessarily correlate with conceptions of “orthodox” Christianity but testify to a much more heterogeneous world view. In his essay, “Angels in Rabbinic Literature,” Bill Rebiger proposes that a growing system of angel hierarchies became prominent in the rabbinic literature; however, angels are always seen as subordinate to humans. The final essay in this section, “Nothing can be Known or Done without the Involvement of Angels: Angels and Angelology in Islam and Islamic Literature” by Husain Kassim explores a completely new area of research for this volume. His goal is to present a systematic overview of angels in Islam and he demonstrates that angels are a necessary component of the cosmology, as they are not only intermediaries between God and humans but also between God and everything in the universe.

Finally, the seventh section departs from the previous focus on literary works and examines angels in inscriptions, art and popular culture. Jutta Dresken-Weiland's “Angels in Early Christian Grave Inscriptions” examines the rare occurrences of such inscriptions. Angels are found in three principal areas: in relation to death, the afterlife and the Parousia. Unfortunately, Dresken-Weiland does not offer any explanation for the paucity of angels in such inscriptions. Michael Ernst presents an overview of the various depictions of angels in his essay “Angels in Orthodox Practice and Art.” He demonstrates that the worship of angels is part of everyday life for the Orthodox tradition, not only in their art but also their liturgical practices. The final essay by Uwe Wolf, “The Angels' Comeback: A Retrospect at the Turn of the Millennium” examines their growing popularity in modern culture. This essay will be of more interest to readers with knowledge of European popular culture.

This volume presents a thorough overview of the role of angelic beings from the earliest times to the modern era. It covers a wide geographical span that introduces readers to many unfamiliar aspects relating to celestial beings. For the most part, the articles provide a good introduction to each major type of angelic being found in both the Hebrew Bible and in other Jewish and Christian texts. A particular strength of this volume is the attention paid to problematizing the designation of angel or “messenger” and the realization that later dualistic conceptions of “good” versus “bad” angelic beings do not necessarily translate to earlier cultures. In addition, this volume presents readers with a good introduction to European scholarship in the areas of angels and cosmic spheres.

Despite the comprehensiveness of the survey, it is surprising that the Apocalypse of John receives no attention in the New Testament section. Other texts such as Jubilees and 4 Ezra are given some space but it is quite limited. An entire section of this volume is devoted to the book of Tobit with four essays dedicated to it. While such sustained attention is helpful, it is unclear why there is such a focus on one particular book when others are, like the Apocalypse of John and 4 Ezra, largely ignored. Although the articles are good introductions to the subjects, some read more like summaries and are limited in their usefulness to those familiar with the material. Finally, it is disconcerting to find numerous gender-exclusive terms throughout the volume, as “man” and “mankind” are frequently used to designate humanity in general.

Heather Macumber, St. Michael's College