The history of angels: U-M research

Nov 16, 2011 by Diane Swanbrow
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Song of the Angels (1881)

(PhysOrg.com) -- Angels are everywhere today—on lapel pins, magnetic dashboard figures, keepsake ornaments and in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But interest in angels is more than a contemporary fad. According to a University of Michigan historian, angels stirred intense interest in the early years of Christianity as well.

"Just as many people today think of pets as part of their families, many people in the first 500 years of Christianity were convinced that angels were part of their lives," said Ellen Muehlberger, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and history at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Various types of angels are named, but not defined, in the Bible. Christians worked out what angels did and what they were during the fourth and fifth centuries, according to Muehlberger, who is writing a book on angels in late ancient times. An author living in Syria around the year 500 organized what little was known about angels into a "Celestial Hierarchy": Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

In late antiquity, the identity of angels was much broader than what it is now: some Christians spoke of Christ as an angel, or suggested that Christian ascetic monks who renounced family, food, drink and sex and lived out in the desert were really angels. But Muehlberger says when the Egyptian monks learned they were being considered angels, they emphatically rejected the idea.

"They said, 'We act like animals, not angels,'" Muehlberger said.

The monastic emphasis on humility was in direct conflict with the reputation ascetics had as special, holy people, equal to the angels, she explains.

Exactly how angels looked and acted, and what humans could do to gain or lose their help was a frequent topic of debate, according to Muehlberger.

Most people did not envision angels looking the way we imagine them today—as beautiful winged creatures in diaphanous gowns.

"In antiquity, some Christians believed that angels were minds, or intellects, detached from bodies," Muehlberger said. "In a way, angels were like computers—very, very good at figuring things out and getting things done because they had rational minds but did not have the difficulty of having desires and passions, like humanity."

One of the most widespread modern notions about angels emerged in the late ancient era of Christianity that Muehlberger is studying. In those times, while some Christians assumed that guardian angels protected all human beings, others were convinced that angels were only given to those who had demonstrated their virtue. These were "companion angels," and not everyone had one.

"Certain monks in late ancient Egypt didn't believe that they were born with a guardian angel who watched over them throughout their lives. Instead, they expected to get a companion angel only as a reward for virtuous behavior," Muehlberger said. "Your companion angel was an assistant who could help you fight off demons, and only arrived if you proved yourself worthy. But if you went away from the community, into the village, and engaged in 'worldly' activities, that companion angel might leave you."

While non-Christians also believe in angels, Muehlberger says the belief is especially prevalent today in Christianity, especially in the United States.

"North American Christianity has always been innovative, adaptive and diverse," she said. "I see the contemporary interest in angels as an example of this."

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User comments : 17

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Guy_Underbridge
4.4 / 5 (8) Nov 16, 2011
"North American Christianity has always been innovative, adaptive and diverse," she said.
Such a nice way of putting it.
John_balls
4.4 / 5 (9) Nov 16, 2011
It's like still believing in santa clause.
panorama
5 / 5 (7) Nov 16, 2011
It's like still believing in santa clause.

I put all my faith in Tim Allen movies...
Bob_B
3.5 / 5 (10) Nov 16, 2011
And now on physorg.com (a great science news site) a NEWS item on angels and the idiots that live in a fairy tale dream. Gee, when can we expect more news on religion at this wonderful science web site?
Nerdyguy
3.8 / 5 (12) Nov 16, 2011
My guess is that none of you geniuses took the time to actually read the article. It's really about the scholarly work of a University of Michigan professor. It's not a "news item about angels".

It doesn't promote angels.

It doesn't promote religion.

And, don't worry, it won't bite you and infect you with the religion bug. OR WILL IT?
panorama
4.8 / 5 (5) Nov 16, 2011
I equate this to the evolution the public perception of Aliens. As the culture around a myth changes so does what is perceived by those who believe it. I found this article interesting.
Callippo
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2011
The angels are rudiment of heathen polyteism.
Nerdyguy
3 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2011
The angels are rudiment of heathen polyteism.


How so? Do you mean as in the gods of Greek myths?
Callippo
5 / 5 (2) Nov 16, 2011
The angels are rudiment of heathen polyteism.


How so? Do you mean as in the gods of Greek myths?
Yep, as an example. What else the omnipotent/omnipresent God would need such a servants for at the heavens?
Callippo
4.3 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2011
St. Thomas Aquinas: ......"Some have maintained that the local movement of an angel is instantaneous. They said that when an angel is moved from place to place, during the whole of the preceding time he is in the term "where from"; but in the last instant of such time he is in the term "whereto." Nor is there any need for a medium between the terms, just as there is no medium between time and the limit of time. But there is a mid-time between two "nows" of time: hence they say that a last "now" cannot be assigned in which it was in the term "where from," just as in illumination, and in the substantial generation of fire, there is no last instant to be assigned in which the air was dark, or in which the matter was under the privation of the form of fire: but a last time can be assigned, so that in the last instant of such time there is light in the air, or the form of fire in the matter. And so illumination and substantial generation are called instantaneous movements."....
Callippo
1 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2011
Modern interpretation of angels in quantum physics: the world of density fluctuations of vacuum moving in superluminal speed, the world of overlapping giant ghost angels, forming our vacuum. What can we expect, when we would look from inside of black hole? The mirror-like undulating blobby surface, shinning in giant majestic waves from brightest silver. You'll see the heavens. It seems, the archetypal consciousness of mankind became familiar with these phenomena in its very past. The medieval theology isn't so distant from contemporary physics, as it appears at the first sight.
Vendicar_Decarian
1.9 / 5 (9) Nov 16, 2011
I believe in garden gnomes.

I do not fear clowns, ghosts or dragons and intend to give the Christian Gawad, should I ever see him, a good kick in the holynuts, for producing such a stupid thing as the human race.

Cynical1
2 / 5 (2) Nov 16, 2011
...and intend to give the Christian Gawad, should I ever see him, a good kick in the holynuts, for producing such a stupid thing as the human race.


Well, some might say - if he hadn't, you wouldn't be here to write that comment... You wouldn't even have had that thought.
And the rest of us wouldn't even be here to read it...

Bu, Nerdy is right - the article about a professor who researched peoples concept of angels - NOT their existance.
flashgordon
2.7 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2011
Hebrews chapter one has Jesus Christ evolving from the angels; Hebrews is considered a pre-gospel.

As for this articles relevance on this science news site . . . i don't know If I'd consider this article archaeology; and, once again, i find physorg's choice of scholarly articles on biblical research peculiar; there's so much and better stuff!
scidog
not rated yet Nov 17, 2011
run the head of a pin thing by me again--
roboferret
5 / 5 (8) Nov 17, 2011
...the world of overlapping giant ghost angels, forming our vacuum. What can we expect, when we would look from inside of black hole? The mirror-like undulating blobby surface, shinning in giant majestic waves from brightest silver...


You're either (A) taking too much medication, or (B) not enough, I can't tell which.
I was almost going to address the last part of your post seriously, but the rest was so bat-shit crazy it's pointless.
Some of the comments on this site are so bizarre I wonder how their authors retain enough sanity to (presumably) get dressed in the morning and use a computer without choking themselves or swallowing something sharp.

Nerdyguy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 17, 2011
Some of the comments on this site are so bizarre I wonder how their authors retain enough sanity to (presumably) get dressed in the morning and use a computer without choking themselves or swallowing something sharp.


Made me laugh so hard I almost spit my coffee on my laptop! :) For my part, I put my pants on before I type!
roboferret
Nov 17, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.