The Gospels convey two types of information to readers: intentional information and unintentional information. Much of what we know about Jesus is represented by this first type; the evangelists intended to inform us that Jesus was a powerful teacher, an awesome wonderworker, and an obedient son. This is biased information but it is still information.
Some of what we know about Jesus, however, comes to us as unintentional information, information that the evangelists include accidentally or as collateral context. Mark didn’t intend to imply that Jesus was sometimes possessed by the spirit, but he does. Luke didn’t intend to imply that Jesus frequently fraternized with Pharisees and religious leaders, but he does. And Matthew didn’t intend to imply that Jesus often healed through prayers made to God on behalf of the patient, but he still does.
It is in these cases of unintentional information that we find unfiltered glimpses of the historical Jesus, Jesus as he was before history became theology.
I often write about these cases because I find them endlessly fascinating.
- Did Jesus own a house?
- Was Jesus’ family life stable?
- Was Jesus sometimes overcome by God’s spirit?
- When did the spirit come upon Jesus and his followers? How many times?
- Did Jesus heal by means of prayer and spittle?
- Did Jesus like his disciples? Did he like the Pharisees?
- Why did Jesus submit to John’s baptism?
In each of these articles I’ve attempted to build an argument about the historical Jesus founded upon the strange, embarrassing, and often-overlooked details unintentionally preserved by the first Christian writers. I investigate to see how such details often subvert dominant interpretations, those forged in the furnace of theology. I want to hear what the texts say when our theological commitments are cast out, if only for a moment.
So in the same vein, I want to consider another obscured aspect of Jesus’ life: his association with angels. Just beneath the surface of the Gospels we get the impression that Jesus maintained an intimate relationship with angelic beings, a relationship not often examined.
Angels served him
On two occasions we are notified that Jesus was comforted by angels in a time of difficulty. After his wilderness testing Jesus is “served” (διακονέω) by angels (Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:11, cf. 1 Kings 17:4-6), and later at Gethsemane he is “strengthened” (ἐνισχύω) by an angelic visitor (Luke 22:43).
Although the evangelists comment explicitly on Jesus’ dealings with angels only on these two occasions, a few other texts suggest that angelic experiences were a more consistent element in Jesus’ religious life. While no single point below decisively establishes my thesis, the cumulative effect is, at the least, interesting. As with the presence of the holy spirit, angelic visitations appear to have been one means by which Jesus communed with and was empowered by God.
- When a divine voice breaks through heaven to assure Jesus of his glorious fate, some bystanders in the crowd suspect “an angel has spoken to him” (John 12:29, cf. Acts 23:9). Since the Johannine writer has no interest in a mediated relationship between Jesus and God (cf. 12:49), this note probably represents a popular speculation about Jesus and the strange phenomena surrounding him. Although on this particular occasion the crowds are incorrect about the source of the voice, the text indicates that Jesus was known as someone with whom angels corresponded.
- Jesus claims in John 1:51 that his disciples will have a revelatory experience akin to the one John the Baptist received at Jesus’ baptism. Just as John saw “the spirit descending [from heaven] as a dove and resting upon [Jesus]” and thereby recognized Jesus as God’s son (1:32-34), Nathaniel and Phillip will “see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending upon the son of man” and thereby have their faith in Jesus’ divine sonship confirmed (1:43-51). Despite the fact that the evangelist does not narrate the fulfillment of the saying, the statement is evidence that Jesus may have initiated his disciples into the angelic mysteries he was accustomed to.
- During the wilderness testing the Devil assumes Jesus is under the protection of angels (Matthew 4:6) and Jesus claims as much to Peter at Gethsemane: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). This notion that Jesus could have summoned angels to his aid strengthens the possibility that he in fact did on certain occasions. Mark 1:13 and Luke 22:43 are no doubt vestiges of this memory.
- Like some other Jews of the time, Jesus and his followers appear to have believed in the existence of personal guardian angels (Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:15, cf. LXX Gen 48:16, Test. Jacob 1:10). Jesus apparently believed angels took a keen interest in him and his followers (Luke 15:7; 10, Mark 13:32, cf. 1 Cor 4:9).
- Just as angels attend to Jesus on occasion in the Gospel narratives, the Jesus of eschatological imagination has a personal retinue of angels at his disposal at all times (Mark 13:27, Matthew 13:41-42, 16:27, 25:31, 1 Thess 4:16, 2 Thess 1:7, Jude 1:14, Revelation 14:14-20). These angels, we are told, form the son of man’s personal squadron. They are “his.” Based on this it seems possible that the personal angelic assistance Jesus received during his life gave rise to the belief that he would return as commander of angels at the end of the age.
- Early Christians could not tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth without a full ensemble of heavenly messengers. If angelic activity characterized his birth (and eschatological existence), perhaps so too did angelic activity characterize his life.
The data surrounding Jesus is augmented by the massive interest in angels his first followers exhibited. Although they were not entirely unique among second temple Jews in this fascination with angels, the earliest Christians were extraordinarily fascinated nonetheless.
- Jesus’ followers are frequently helped by angels in the book of Acts. Angels instruct the disciples immediately after Jesus has ascended (1:10). On two occasions believers elude imprisonment with angelic assistance (Acts 5 & 12). An angel directs Phillip to evangelize the Ethiopian (8:26), and Cornelius to seek Peter (10:3). An angel strikes down king Herod on behalf of believers (12:23), and strengthens Paul before a storm and shipwreck (27:2).
- Early Christians believed they were watched by (1 Cor 11:10) and visited by angels (disguised or otherwise—Galatians 1:8, 4:14, 2 Cor 12:7, Hebrews 13:2, cf. Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of John). Some Christians even worshiped angels (Colossians 2:18).
- At times Christians could speak in angelic languages (1 Cor 13:1, 14:2, 2 Cor 12:4, cf. Mark 16:17, Acts 19:6, Test. Job 11:24).
In my view the best explanation for this excitement regarding angels lies squarely in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself was the source of the angelic enthusiasm we see among the first believers as he was a man intimately associated with angels. Jesus was both a repeat recipient of angelic help and, in fact, a summoner of angels (cf. Matthew 26:53).
Servants sent by God
If this conclusion has some merit, what reasons might the early Christians have had for obscuring Jesus’ thoroughgoing angel-spirituality? I think there is a somewhat clear explanation.
The first Christians, the evangelists included, preferred to think of Jesus as maintaining direct rather than indirect communication with God. From their perspective, Jesus never needed any intermediary through whom to access the presence of God. By means of the spirit, God was always with Jesus, always providing for his needs. In presenting angels as mediators of God’s nourishment, empowerment, and enlightenment then, the uninterrupted communion between Jesus and God was subverted, if only to a small degree.
While Christians were comfortable with angels serving Jesus in the context of final judgement, they were by in large uninterested in a Jesus who sometimes relied on angels for divine sustenance (cf. Hebrews 1:14).