Angels: Here, There, and Everywhere – By Robin Darling Young

Robin Darling Young on Ellen Muehlberger’s Angels in Late Ancient Christianity

Ellen Muehlberger, Angels in Late Ancient Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2013, 296pp., $69
Ellen Muehlberger, Angels in Late Ancient Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2013, 296pp., $69

“Some have entertained angels unaware,” according to the author of Hebrews — but not many. Most ancients were all too aware of their presence. Angels were uncanny, divine agents: blinding, deafening, and often terrifying. The prophet Daniel fell into a coma in front of the linen-clad, gold-belted angel who accosted him beside the Tigris: “His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a crowd.”

As the angelus interpres (“the interpreting angel”), an angel could arrive suddenly to instruct and reveal. In 4 Ezra, a contemporary of the Book of Revelation, Uriel tutors Ezra-Shealtiel on the subjects of human destiny and Jerusalem’s restoration until Ezra is ready to converse directly with the Almighty and compose additional scriptures for his community. The Book of Revelation depicts fearsome angels led by God’s proxy, Michael, who start and end a war to obliterate human wickedness. In later saints’ lives, the presence of angels signaled a person’s holiness; one was said to have taught Greek to Ephrem the Syrian so he could speak to Basil of Caesarea.

If they were divine and human servants, angels were also harbingers of a future state of existence. According to Daniel, righteous people would be like the angels after the resurrection: “the wise shall shine like the dome of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” Angels disputed the burial-place of the patriarch Moses. Christian authorities debated their corporeality — in Genesis 6 they frolicked (and had children, the race of giants) with women — but the question was never resolved.

For most, though, angels were guardians, guides, messengers, and sometimes twins of human beings. They were ecumenical, too. Late-ancient Zoroastrians and Jews knew the same angels — some by the same names — and the magical papyri attest that under varying names angels were invoked ecumenically for their help. Mani encountered his own heavenly twin, and the Gospels assert that Jesus had more than one angel at his disposal, if only he asked his father for them. Early Christian writers saw angels as instructors and liturgical masters-of-ceremony: they accompanied monks successful in defeating their demonic shadows. They lived on in the imagination of late ancient Christianity, which, in the form of the Roman Canon, still requests of God that his “angel take this offering to your altar in heaven.” The Orthodox liturgy hails Mary as “higher than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”

Muehlberger’s study focuses upon the rhetorical usefulness of angels — the way in which they became part of late ancient Christian discourse. Thus she rightly focuses on their ancient and continuing appeal as helpers and intermediaries. For ancient and medieval Christians, and for numerous contemporary ones, angels are not just a way of speaking about human communities. Though invisible, they continue to be part of the Christian imagination even while hell has faded, along with its demons, for many Christians. Evidence for angels’ continued credibility is abundant: there are milagros and ex-votos for public testimony, holy cards for private use, and even contemporary gravestones incised with cherubs or guardians. But Muehlberger shows that while angels remained real, experienced, and believable in late ancient Christianity, they also functioned as symbolic indices of status. The teachers of the newly dominant church catalogued and systematized earlier information about them in the differing scriptures and pedagogical literature that formed the early Christian library.

Earlier scholars, like Jean Daniélou and Erik Peterson, wrote historical-theological accounts of angels in early Christianity, and recent investigations have hardly stopped. Marshall’s bibliography Angels lists 4,355 entries, 400 of which are from the 1990s alone. Muehlberger wants to take a different direction. She does not write about legends or accounts of angels as matters of the historical development of Christian ideas on the margins of more important concerns. Even if no church council ratified a doctrine of angels, they were no minor concern. At the same time, a variety of ideas about angels took shape according to “specific local social contexts,” in which local and particular practices developed.

Detail of the ceiling of the Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the ceiling of the Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Muehlberger also begins at a turning point in the development of discourse about angels. Although earlier scriptural commentators like Origen had developed an incipient theory of angels, Christian writers during the fourth and fifth centuries began to think through their meaning, writing extensively to develop a discourse of angels that served widely differing purposes. To speak about angels, it seems, was to reveal one’s own particular interests. Muelberger proposes that, for these writers, angels functioned within two distinct, emerging social roles: the ascetic and the bishop. Her first chapter is devoted to the differing approaches of two brilliant Christian teachers at the end of the fourth century: Evagrius of Pontus, the sophisticated philosophe au desert (so Guillaumont), and Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Muehlberger characterizes the approach of these two as “cultivation” and “contestation,” respectively. And they become symbols for Christian discourse.

Evagrius, elaborating upon the writings of Clement, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, viewed the angelic state as the penultimate stage in the return to union with God, thus the cultivation of human — and even demonic — restoration from their temporary states of distance from God. Augustine, in her view, regarded that same state as a sign of stability that “circumscribed” alternative versions of Christianity. The rest of the book follows from this distinction between cultivation and circumscription. The second chapter examines the contestation before Augustine that surrounded and shaped the relationship of the Son of God to the angels. Do the theophanies of the Old Testament, where an angel represents the divine, mean that Christ is an angel, and therefore subordinate to God? Here angelic discourse intersected with the Nicene controversy.

Muehlberger then returns to the matter of angels among the ascetics. For the monks, angels were companions and guides, similar to their role in much earlier, apocalyptic texts. But angels also symbolized the ascetic life, yielding the expression “angelic life”; as such, they could become a reproach to unsuccessful monks. Here the author examines the cultivation of angelic discourse among a wide group of ascetic teachers prior to Evagrius. These teachers cultivated the presence of angels as markers of ascetic progress.

These two different uses of angels are set in conversation with one another in the last part of the book. Muehlberger examines Athanasius’ Life of Antony and Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses; John Chrysostom’s combative use of the trope of the bios angelikos, and the attempt to train Christians to imagine angels in the liturgy by means of catechesis. She reviews the catechetical texts of Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth and fifth century, respectively) and On the Priesthood of John Chrysostom to see how these authors understood the rituals of the church to mirror and echo the worship of the angels in the heavenly court.

Muehlberger is right in thinking that angels have been neglected in recent scholarly discussions of theology and scripture. Although she does not explore the reason for this disregard, it seems likely that later theological discussions have led to the angels being ignored in post-Reformation systematic theology and thus dropping out of serious consideration. Karl Barth viewed angels as witnesses attested in scripture, and for Karl Rahner they were “remote.” Serious churchmen left their investigation to theosophists. Demythologization turned angels into museum pieces, the province of historians of culture — at best a fancy, at worst an embarrassment for systematic theology.

Only at the end of her book does Muehlberger arrive at the late ancient master of the discourse of angels. Early sixth-century Syria was a province fertile for Christian discussion, and a philosopher claiming to be a disciple of Paul wrote a comprehensive theology beginning in liturgy and ending in illumination. Adopting the name “Dionysius the Areopagite” (and so playing the role of an earlier writer like the writings of “Enoch,” or “Ezra”), this speculative thinker understood himself as explicating the visionary experience of the apostle Paul. Dionysius presented himself as Paul’s convert and student, and to accompany his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy he composed a long treatise, The Celestial Hierarchy, on the taxonomy of angels and their role in the ascent of Christian worshippers to angelic contemplation. With the work of Dionysius, we return — but in a philosophical mode — to late Second Temple form and experience: an ancient, sacred name, an ascent through ritual to heaven, an illumination assisted by angels. Now, in the sixth century, Dionysius catalogues this experience with the attention to detail accumulated over two centuries of Christian learning. It comes equipped with the Neoplatonic terminology that connects his work to that of the pagan philosopher Proclus.

Muehlberger ends her study before that late-ancient development. She resists the classification and description of early Christian angelology as an obscuring technique, for ancients and contemporary scholars alike. One may disagree that for Dionysius the taxonomy of angels was a form of contemplation and praise, but Muehlberger’s purpose is different. The presence and description of angels in any particular Christian writing is an index of variety, context, and purpose among varying Christian authors. As “high” theology became increasingly focused and polemical, the wilder stretches of Christian thought and practice — such as the movements and character of angels — could still be freely imagined, apart from the uniformity requisite for other instances of Christian teaching and practice such as the celebration of Easter or the treatment of heretical books. Ellen Muehlberger has brought the angels back into view. And we, her readers, can be pleased that they have refused to fade away.

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