Angels, Demons, and Absolutism

So, I’m taking some time to develop my upcoming Anthropology of Religion syllabus a bit more and it has me thinking about my “Genesis as Myth” unit. More specifically, about my lecture-discussion on the development of (absolute) monotheism in Christianity.

Although most people now take it for granted, one of the strangest developments in the history of Christianity is its outright denial of the existence of other gods. While many Christians believe that their absolute monotheism is Biblical, in reality it is a skeptical legacy of the late Enlightenment.

To avoid misunderstanding, I am speaking here purely of the belief that other gods exist (other than the Christian God), and not of any moral evaluation of various gods as good, evil, or ambivalent. This is because that what is important to note here is that ancient Jews and early Christians were henotheistic. They did not deny that other gods existed, they simply worshiped one God as supreme among them.

Absolute monotheism – the idea that not only one deity is worthy of being regarded and worshiped as god, but that only one god even *exists* – developed very gradually in Christianity.

Early on in the development of the faith, Christians claimed that the ‘gods of the nations’ were “demons” – but the word ‘demon’ did not yet have the connotations of absolute evil it acquired in the Middle Ages. For an early Christian to say to a pagan, ‘Your gods are just demons’ was to demote the status of the pagan gods to that of the daimones: meaning ‘small gods’ regarded as morally ambivalent beings (a bit like fairies in later folklore). It didn’t necessarily imply pagan gods were evil or in any way related to Satan/the Devil.

But as the Neoplatonic theology of daimones receded into the past in a Christian world, demons were seen as progressively more evil (the reasons for this are complex). Medieval Christians therefore furthered the idea that pagan idolaters were offering sacrifices to “demons.” But “demons,” in this case, now meaning ‘gods of the pagans’ as evil, supernatural, entities masquerading as gods. So when and how did this change?

At the time of the Reformation, Protestants tended to accuse Catholics of ‘vain superstition,’ and sometimes accused them of being little better than pagans for following “empty” religious observances related to Mary and the saints. But because the rhetorical equation of Catholicism with paganism undermined the original Christian critique of paganism as the worship of demons; the idea gradually drifted out of Christian consciousness, squeezed out by intra-Christian polemic.

Finally, in the 1690s, Balthasar Bekker went the whole way and denied that demons had any capacity to act in the world (including the capacity to deceive people into worshiping them), effectively ending centuries of Christian belief in the reality of pagan gods. Later on, some Christians even went so far as to deny that demons existed at all – although that is a proposition that still remains controversial within contemporary Christianity.

And that brings us, at last, to the primary evidence of henotheism in the Bible: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The language here is pretty specific in that it does not say “there are no other gods.” It is intentionally phrased as “no other gods **before** me.” (There’s more; this is just the most obvious.)

As such, the outright denial of the existence of other gods owes more to Enlightenment critiques of ‘superstition’ than to Scripture or Christian tradition. And even today, there is notable variation in how different Christian denominations view theological ontology.

Because you definitely don’t want to get me started on angels.

Or, maybe you do…

The Christian belief in angels significantly changed over the last few centuries. Today, many Christians tend to view angels in one of two ways: as deceased humans watching over them (“she’s an angel in Heaven now”) or as the celestial servants of God who came into being sometime during the seven days of Creation.

Early Biblical accounts of angels, however, get muddied up in the translation. The word angel arrives in modern English from the Old English “engel” (with a hard g) and the Old French “angele.” Both of these derive from the Late Latin “angelus” (literally “messenger”), which in turn was borrowed from Late Greek ἄγγελος (angelos). Furthermore, Dutch linguist R. S. P. Beekes notes that ángelos itself may be “an Oriental loan, like ἄγγαρος (ángaros, ‘Persian mounted courier’).” Perhaps then, the word’s earliest form is actually the Mycenaean a-ke-ro, attested in Linear B syllabic script.

But what is more important for our purposes here is in understanding that the rendering of “ángelos” is the Septuagint’s default translation of the Biblical Hebrew term “malʼākh,” again meaning simply “messenger” without connoting its theological nature. In the associations to follow in the Latin Vulgate, this meaning becomes bifurcated: where, if malʼākh or ángelos is supposed to refer to a human messenger, words like nuntius or legatus are used in its place. If the word refers to some supernatural being, the word angelus appears instead. Such differentiation has been taken over by later vernacular translations of the Bible, early Christian and Jewish exegetes, and eventually modern scholars.

In the Jewish Torah, the Hebrew terms מלאך אלהים (mal’āk̠ ‘ĕlōhîm; messenger of God), מלאך יהוה (mal’āk̠ YHWH; messenger of the Lord), בני אלהים (bənē ‘ĕlōhîm; sons of God) and הקודשים (haqqôd̠əšîm; the holy ones) are used to refer to beings traditionally interpreted as angels. Later texts use other terms, such as העליונים (hā’elyônîm; the upper ones). What is notable about the Jewish usage of these terms today is that, depending on context, they can either refer to a human messenger (such as a prophet) or a supernatural one and most Jewish traditions still do not make significant distinctions about angels when it comes to theological ontology.

Modern Christian belief in angels is, however, largely derived from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels by name, mentioning Gabriel (God’s primary messenger) in Daniel 9:21 and Michael (the holy fighter) in Daniel 10:13. These angels are part of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions and are an important part of much of the apocalyptic literature that follows.

Furthermore, in Daniel 7, Daniel receives a dream-vision from God that reads: […] As Daniel watches, the Ancient of Days takes his seat on the throne of heaven and sits in judgement in the midst of the heavenly court […] an [angel] like a son of man approaches the Ancient One in the clouds of heaven and is given everlasting kingship.

Scholar Michael Coogan explains the development of this concept of angels thusly: “In the postexilic period, with the development of explicit monotheism (see my post above), these divine beings—the ‘sons of God’ who were members of the Divine Council—were in effect demoted to what are now known as ‘angels’, understood as beings created by God, but immortal and thus superior to humans.” This conception of angels is then best understood in contrast to demons (again, see above) and is often thought to be influenced by the ancient Persian religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, which viewed the world as a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil, between light and darkness. For example, one of these Zoroastrian “angels” is hāšāṭān, a figure depicted in (among other places) the Book of Job. (Yes, you can also see here part of the evolution of the word “satan,” a Hebrew word meaning “accuser” or “adversary.”)

Lastly, the New Testament is the Scripture most often referenced in terms of modern understandings of angels as messengers of God; where they appear at the annunciation of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, at the adoration of the shepherds, at the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the Resurrection, and so on. It won’t be until Swedenborgianism (1700s) where a theological school posits angels as once all having been human and where angels live lives of general usefulness (i.e., the concept of guardian angels).

Now, there’s plenty more to say about the later developments of angelic beliefs throughout Evangelical Christianity, Kabbalah, and post-Biblical Judaism, but suffice to say, “angels” as a kind of benevolent friend to humanity is a relatively recent theological development that coincides with the rise of demons as evil tormentors and absolute monotheism. And it was all later depictions in Medieval art that gave us the classic winged man, halo, archetype we know and love today.

But that really is for another day.

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