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22312Re: [XTalk] once more, Jesus and angels

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    Jun 6, 2007
      To: XTalk
      In Response To: Jeffrey Gibson and others
      On: Angels
      From: Bruce

      In his most recent note on this subject, Jeffrey remarked, a propos the
      rarity of angels in Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus, as against matter
      seemingly derived from the Gospel writers themselves, "Why do the
      evangelists not have Jesus buttress what they believe?"

      To me, this is one of the basic questions. In general, movement founders are
      pretty plastic in the hands of the later traditions of those movements. But
      there also seem to be limits in particular cases. And when there are limits,
      they are often historically suggestive. In the Buddhist case, though Buddha
      is invariably portrayed as personally answering some question arising from
      monastic practice, he usually does so from offstage, as it were, and not as
      himself the head of a resident monastic institution. This, to me at least,
      reflects a reticence in the later sutra writers about portraying Buddha in a
      role which he could not historically have held. The Confucians too, for at
      least a century after Confucius's death, still retain the image of a
      Confucius who was poor and disadvantaged in his youth (though later on, this
      does change). As for the Christian texts, I have always admired the way gJn
      carefully distinguishes between the disciples, who *did* baptize, and Jesus,
      who "did not."

      So the rarity of angel talk among the sayings of Jesus might usefully
      reflect a historical fact, namely that angels in any serious sense are
      features of later, not earlier, Christian belief. I think it is useless to
      mix the data from all the Gospels together, in defiance of all we know about
      their relative age. I thus find it consequential that angels, in the
      Synoptics, are very much features of Mt/Lk, but are scarce in Mk. [I will
      take up the Mk passages in just a moment].

      Putting the baptism issue the other way, one can see the adoption of baptism
      in the first disciple generation as a reassimilation of Christianity to the
      Baptist movement from which, in all probability, the Jesus movement had
      originally diverged. So also with the question on fasting: Jesus himself is
      made to say in Mk 2:18-20 that though his movement did not observe fasting
      during his lifetime, it would do so after his death. These might then be two
      points of reabsorption of early Christianity into the Baptist movement.
      There are grounds in the Gospels, though not in the earliest ones, for
      thinking that the Lord's Prayer also represents later Baptist influence (Lk
      11:01). That would make three points.

      A lot is going on in the second-tier Gospels (Mt/Lk), including some mere
      retention of earlier tradition from Mk, which somewhat confuses the picture,
      but one of the new things that seems to be going on, at any rate in the Mt
      half of things, is a movement back to Judaism, from which, especially in
      matters of law, the Jesus movement seems at first to have strongly distanced
      itself, whence nearly all of the "conflict stories." Might not angels fit
      into this category also? Angels seem to be highly developed in Judaism, but
      it is, again, only in the second tier of the Christian writings that they
      make much of an effect.

      We might at this point consider the entire roster of occurrences of angels
      in Mk, to see if even that material gives a consistent picture. My
      concordance gives me the following:


      Mk 1:13 "and the angels ministered to him." Legendary development of the
      initiation ordeal of Jesus; much further developed in Mt/Lk. It should be
      remembered that not only was Jesus a Jew, so were all his original
      followers. Their imaginations will very naturally have run along angelic
      lines. Here, at any rate, the angels are doing something on their own. See
      further below (ap Mk 13:27).

      Mk 8:38 "of him will the Son of Man be ashamed, when he comes in the glory
      of his Father with the holy angels." Angels here are little more than an
      attribute of God; part of the aura of his presence. They have no separate

      Mk 12:35 "they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels
      in Heaven." This occurs in a dispute with the Sadducees, who held special
      views about Resurrection questions. Jesus here is made to say that the
      angels in Heaven, and the spirits of the dead in Heaven, are disembodied.
      This of course conflicts with the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body
      (and of the stories of Jesus's appearance, in the body, after his own
      Resurrection). That doctrine can easily be shown to be a late development
      within early Christianity. This passage would represent earlier tradition.
      As in the previous passage, angels are something spiritual that exist in
      Heaven, with God, and accompanying God; see Isaiah 6:1, where the text
      departs from its future predictions to a present-tense vision of God - along
      with angels. If there are two books with which Jesus (on the strength of the
      Markan testimony) was acquainted, they are probably Psalms and Isaiah.

      Mk 13:27 "And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from
      the four winds." Apart from 1:13, this is the only place in Mk where angels
      *do* anything other than accompany the presence of God, or exist in
      disembodied state in Heaven generally. Now, Mk 13 is at variance with the
      picture of the Last Days which one might assemble from the rest of Mk, and
      it has often been described as a bit of Jewish Apocalyptic, somehow included
      (or inserted) in the text. I think this probable. Then this one active role
      of the angels has, or is influenced by, a source other than the sayings of
      Jesus, and should not be used as evidence for his own views about angels.

      Mk 13:32. "But of that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels
      in Heaven, nor the Son . . ." Here the angels are represented as being
      normally privy to the thoughts and plans of God. This agrees, if one likes,
      with their role (see Mk 1:13, 13:27) as occasional messengers of God. But
      the same objection applies as with Mk 13:27. This is in all probability a
      Jewish-influenced construct, not a Jesus-derived memory.


      As far as Mark goes, and I for one care to go no further (all else is
      commentary, as Rabbi Hillel said in a different context), Jesus most
      probably believed in angels as something disembodied, existing in Heaven
      with God, and accompanying human visions of God, but having neither minds
      nor missions of their own. This, I would say, is a merely pictorial concept.
      Angels have no function in the present scheme of things; they represent the
      future scheme of things. When you see actual angels overhead, not in a
      vision but in the regular blue sky, you will know that the future has
      intruded into the present, like Elfland into "the world we know" at the end
      of one of Lord Dunsany's novels.

      Respectfully suggested,


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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