Representations of Angelic Beings in Early Jewish and in Christian Traditions

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Amsalu Tefera, Loren T. Stuckenbruck
  • Tübingen: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , January
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Born from a joint workshop on Judaic and Ethiopic/Christian Angelology held in February 2017 at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich), this edited volume, Representations of Angelic Beings in Early Jewish and in Christian Traditions, consists of nine selected contributions from an impressively diverse group of scholars, both in sociocultural background and perspective. The essays themselves are wide-ranging in the subject matter addressed and literary corpora engaged.

The volume begins with Loreen Maseno’s contribution on Hagar’s encounter with the “angel of the Lord” in Genesis 16. Engaging African women’s theologies, Maseno examines the Hagar narrative from three perspectives: the viewpoint of Sarah, the potential identity of the “angel of the Lord,” and the blurring of boundaries between the angelic being and the deity, which Maseno sees as providing dialectical space within which Hagar is given rights and voice. Maseno poignantly concludes that Hagar’s naming of the deity expresses dignity amid oppression and who she envisages the deity being for her going forward.

Eshbal Ratzon examines the intersection between angelology and cosmology in ancient Near Eastern tradition and as expressed in the Hebrew Bible and the Qumran corpus. Ratzon convincingly argues that the muted discourse regarding the luminaries in the Hebrew Bible is reflective of a wider concern of worship of the luminaries among ancient Israelites, whereas later Second Temple literature, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates a more engaged continuation of the ancient belief of the heavenly abode of the luminaries. That the luminaries are a more prominent subject matter in later literature should not be adduced as evidence of a “remythologization” under Hellenistic influence, but rather as a continuation of ideas already present in the First Temple period but muted within the Jewish canon.

Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten’s contribution presents a systematic overview of the prominent role angels play within the book of Jubilees, both as forces for good and evil. Van Ruiten particularly notes that both the angel of the presence and the angel of holiness in Jubilees acquire a greater focus and significance within Ethiopic tradition, where they are understood through a trinitarian lens to be the Son and the Holy Spirit respectively. In this light, Jubilees emerges a significant witness within Ethiopic tradition.

In his contribution, Loren Stuckenbruck investigates the tradition of ascribing honorific positions to certain angelic beings in Second Temple texts. Focusing on the benedictions in Tobit 11:14 and 11QSefer ha-Milḥamah (11Q14) 1 ii 2–6, Stuckenbruck cogently argues that both sources preserve a liturgical fragment that can be traced to a common tradition, one which has been adjusted to fit their differing contexts. The adjustment in Tobit 11:14, while preserving a more primitive form of the tradition, works strategically within the wider literary context to distinguish the worship of God over that of angels. On the other hand, 11Q14 adds a blessing upon Israel that is reflective of the belief of divine activity, both God and angelic, on behalf of the community. Here, the praise of angels (plural) alongside God appears to maintain the liturgical context of the original and fits the belief of angelic activity as a sign of God’s favor upon the community.

Matthias Reinhard Hoffmann diachronically analyzes the development of angels and angelic figures in early Jewish and early Christian magical texts and their subsequent reimagination within medieval and later magic grimoires. Hoffmann concludes that while “magic” is often portrayed as forbidden or rejected within religiously normative writings, angels can serve as a legitimizing feature for certain magical practices. Beyond this legitimizing function, Hoffmann suggests that the employment of angels within magical texts function to make these magical practices more powerful and efficacious.

The final four essays focus more sharply upon specific texts within the Ethiopic tradition. Amsalu Tefera addresses the theme of angelology within the Ethiopic Homily of Uriel (Dərsanä Ura’el), a text Tefera sees as one of the most useful for understanding angelology within Ethiopic tradition. Tefera demonstrates that the homily is not only reflective of the connection between angelic figures and certain aspects of Ethiopian Orthodox religious life, but also offers fresh insight into the composition and literary development of homilies writ large.

Tedros Abraha examines the presence and role of angels as reflected in Mäṣḥafä Qəddase. Providing a substantive analysis of the text, Abraha suggest that rather than being the recipients of worship, angelic beings find their uniqueness both in their location within the inner circle of the Trinity and as heavenly guards. Thus, angels are envisaged as servants of God and of humanity.

Dan Levene traces the formulation of a common formula preserved in the Homily of Michael (Dərsanä Michael) within later literary and material artifacts, such as printed prayer books and amulets, magic scrolls, and various codices. Noting the centrality of invention and adaption to Ethiopian scribal activity, Levene suggests that the making of amulets and personalized holy texts demonstrates a tension between a state of permanence derived from the act of writing and the mutability expressed in pluriformity. This mutability is considered a natural feature that still preserves the essence of the tradition.

In the final contribution, Ralph Lee seeks to address the lacuna regarding the development of giants tradition within Ethiopic literary tradition and those preserved in the Book of Giants. Through an examination of the Ethiopic Giant’s Tale preserved in Rətuʿa Haymanot, Lee concludes that while no direct correspondence between the compositions can be made definitively, the evidence does not rule out the possibility of the author having contact with the wider Second Temple giants tradition.

The editors of this volume are to be applauded for producing a collection of essays wide-ranging in scope yet simultaneously successful in its goal of illuminating the role of angelology within early Jewish and Christian tradition. This volume is surely a model for such engagement and an essential resource for anyone working within the field of angelology in Judaism and Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael DeVries is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amsalu Tefera is since 2011 assistant professor at Addis Ababa University and in 2015–18 Humboldt Scholar at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Loren T. Stuckenbruck is since 2012 Chair of New Testament Studies (with Emphasis on Ancient Judaism) at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany.


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