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Christ as an Angel in Paul

I continue here with another post about something that I learned about or changed my mind about while writing How Jesus Became God. I have to admit, that for many years I was puzzled by the apostle Paul – specifically his Christology. All the various things he said about Christ didn’t seem to add up to a coherent whole to me, even though I thought and thought and thought about it. But I finally found the piece that, when added to the puzzle, made it all fit together. I think now I can make sense of every Christological statement in Paul’s letters. This not because I myself finally figured it out. It’s because I finally read some discussions that actually made sense, and saw that they are almost certainly right. Here’s what I say about it in the book. It’s a result that I would have found very surprising just two years ago.

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Many people no doubt have the same experience I do on occasion, of reading something numerous times, over and over, and not having it register. I have read Paul’s letter to the Galatians literally hundreds of times in both English and Greek. But the clear import of what Paul says in Galatians 4:14 simply never registered with me, until, frankly, a few months ago. In this verse Paul indicates that Christ was an angel. The reason it never registered with me is because the statement is a bit obscure, and I had always interpreted it in an alternative way. Thanks to the work of other scholars, I now see the error of my ways.

In the context of the verse Paul is reminding the Galatians of how they first received him when he was ill in their midst, and they helped restore him to health. This is what the verse in question says:

Even though my bodily condition was a test for you, you did not mock or despise me, but you received me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ.

 

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Interview with Trinities.org on How Jesus Became God
The Disciples who Doubted the Resurrection

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Comments

  1. luke0468  April 10, 2014

    Sorry to bother you. Is this what the earliest manuscripts of Galatians say? Which manuscripts are most trusted and accurate? Is there a book or source that lists and explains all the different manuscripts and which are most trusted and what their dating is?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      Yes, there is no serious textual variation at this point. The most important manuscripts are discussed in Bruce Metzger’s book Text of the NT. More are discussed in Barbara and Kurt Alands’ book of the same title.

  2. JBSeth1  April 10, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Do you think there is a difference in “an angel of God” and “an angel”.
    Do you think Paul meant that Christ was “an angel of God” or perhaps “the angel of God”?

    John

  3. SJB  April 10, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    So the view that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being had appeared already in the tradition by the 50s?

    Do you think James and Peter ever came to have this view?

    If not could some of the controversy between Paul and the folks in Jerusalem have been caused not just by their atttitude towards Jewish practice by converts but by conflicting Christologies?

    Is there a difference between the exalted Christology of Paul and of John? If so could you discuss a bit?

    Thanks!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      Yes, absolutely. James and Peter: I don’t know. We simply don’t have the evidence. Yes, there is a difference between John and Paul’s Christology. You need to read my book!!

  4. whicks1  April 10, 2014

    I wonder if we conflate the meaning of “Angel” too much with our 20 centuries of baggage? Messenger makes more sense right? As to his ‘state’: http://jnt.sagepub.com/content/21/74/65 is an old, but decent read for others with access to an academic library, good stuff happening in the latter pages.

  5. jhague  April 10, 2014

    Any personal thoughts or ideas as to why Paul thought he had an authentic vision of Christ the angel that he then equated with the human Jesus? That’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me. If he really was fighting against the Jesus Movement Jewish sect, then this vision and conversion does not make sense the way it is presented. What makes more sense is that he was a hellenistic non-practicing Jew who was looking to create a new religion that borrowed the Jewish antiquity so he could have his Gentile friends join a religion and have what the Jewish people have.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      He thought Jesus was an angel *before* he became a human. There were probably some psychological processes involved in his “vision,” though at this distance and with such few sources of information, we can’t say what they were, though it’s not hard to guess (e.g., guilt, confusion, things not adding up otherwise, and other htings)

    • Arlyn  April 13, 2014

      Paul seems enough of an enigma for a wide range of theories about him. My personal one is that he started as a Roman spy but after the stoning of Stephen felt remorse, had a genuine conversion, became a priest after a three year Essene apprenticeship, changed his name and mostly avoided Jerusalem and his past Roman connections, ultimately had to play the Roman connection card to save himself, and the Romans shipped him to Rome to answer for having vacated his Roman connections.

      Of course there are many reasons for the conclusions.

  6. gavriel  April 10, 2014

    I still have problems reconciling your interpretation with Romans 1: 4. If Paul , in accordance with the hymn of Philippians and your view on Gal 4:14, thought Jesus to be an angel before being born, he would surely already be a Son of God before incarnation?
    Maybe Paul, even more than modern authors, did not have a logically coherent understanding of every aspect of his belief. It is like when we are told that the early apocalyptic Christians thought that Heaven would descend on earth, but then Paul talks about meeting the Lord in higher altitudes in an upward motion.

  7. VirtualAlex  April 10, 2014

    “As the Angel of the Lord…he can be called God;”

    But how? Would it be acceptable for a Jew to equate an angel with God? Were all angels God, then?

  8. cheito
    cheito  April 10, 2014

    Dr Ehrman:

    Do you believe Christ was an angel before he became a man?
    Do you think that Michael whom Daniel mentions in Daniel 12 is the one who became Jesus?
    He’s called the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people (Israel) by Daniel.
    Do you believe the Word, whom John states, was there with God in the beginning and was God, was an angel? Angels like Christ had the appearance of man. The three men that appeared to Abraham, one of whom Abraham calls the Lord of all the Earth, looked exactly like the other two who were referred to as angels. Genesis 18:1,2 and 19:1 What do you think?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      No, I don’t believe these things. As you probably know, I’m an agnostic.

      • cheito
        cheito  April 13, 2014

        DR Ehrman:

        Yes I know you’re an agnostic. I understand that we can’t know the nature of God through the scriptures. The scriptures have been altered to some degree, therefore it’s impossible to arrive at any accurate theological or historical truth. However the question of Jesus resurrection is answered as true or false. Did this historical person Jesus literally rise from the dead or not? I believe he did rise from the dead. I accept the testimony of the ‘eyewitnesses. Blessings!

  9. hwl  April 10, 2014

    In Greek, how did authors distinguish heavenly angelic beings, from the generic “messenger”? How come the Greek language never found the need to create two separate words to describe two very different entities? In Jewish thought, angels are messengers of God – but also much more. But for Greco-Romans, angels surely did not feature in their religious cosmology?

  10. hwl  April 10, 2014

    How do we know Paul is using “aggelos” to refer to Christ as a heavenly being, instead of a generic messenger of God?

  11. Adam0685  April 10, 2014

    Any thoughts on the finding in the Harvard Theological Review:

    “Over the past two years, extensive testing of the papyrus and the carbon ink, as well as analysis of the handwriting and grammar, all indicate that the existing material fragment dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE [Common Era]. None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery.”

    http://wunc.org/post/gospel-jesuss-wife-papyrus-not-forgery-harvard-says

  12. Jim  April 11, 2014

    Are there any examples in Jewish literature from antiquity that describe something similar to an angel being born as a human and then living among humans for some relatively long period of time (comparable to three decades or so), or is this something totally innovative that Paul introduces?

  13. jgranade  April 11, 2014

    Is being elevated from a pre-existing angel to equal with God known as the Jackie Wilson (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher) Exaltation Christology?

    Lyrics:
    Your love, lifting me higher
    Than I’ve ever been lifted before

  14. RonaldTaska  April 11, 2014

    I look forward to the additional post. One of your best features is how you change your mind with evidence as shown in this series of posts.
    Your blog readers might want to Google “Jesus Wife Manuscript Probably Isn’t a Forgery.” which was part of today’s MSN News.

  15. fishician  April 11, 2014

    When I heard you discuss this in your seminar at UNC last fall I was skeptical that the Galatians verse was enough to make such a conclusion, but I think the more important point is that such a view is consistent with the rest of Paul’s writings. Can you address what the book of Hebrews says about Jesus in comparison to angels in its 1st chapter? Is this supportive of the view that they saw Jesus as an exalted angel, or not?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      No, I think the author saw him as superior to the angels. What his readers thought is harder to say….

  16. Sinfjotli  April 11, 2014

    I find it refreshing that you’re willing to change your mind on some of your previously-held views in light of new information. I think it shows that you really are in search of the historical truth and not just seeking to find evidence to justify your own stance. This seems to stand in contrast to many on the other side of the aisle. I attended a seminar here in Denver last year called Unpacking Atheism, featuring Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, and other intellectual apologists (none of whom were biblical scholars) and really wanted to ask them a question about their motives during the Q & A seesion but never got the chance. They all claim they’ve come to their beliefs by virtue of analysis and study of all the options before finally arriving at Christianity as the only logical belief system, but I have my doubts. I wanted to ask them, if there were suddenly some new evidence that shattered their worldview and forced them to reconsider everything, would they turn away from Christianity if the evidence definitively pointed elsewhere? In other words, are they really trying to find the truth, or are they just trying to find reasons to believe? I get the sense they have a destination in mind when they begin their search, whereas you follow the evidence wherever it may lead. To me, that’s a more intellectually honest approach, and something I wish the apologists would concede more often.

  17. profdave  April 11, 2014

    Hi, Bart-

    Wasn’t this the way that John Milton presented “The Son” in Paradise Lost? Sounds like it to me. If so, then maybe he read the Greek the same way you do.

  18. jmmarine1  April 11, 2014

    It’s funny you should mention your problem of a ‘gloss’ reading of Galatians 4:14. It was through your TC series on the Historical Jesus that I first realized the ‘gloss’ reading I had been doing of the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. My goodness, there it was all along, though I was now only seeing it for the first time, Jesus’s plan of salvation in parable form. Nicely answers the tricky issue regarding those who had not heard, and seemed quite comprehensive in that it was tangible and not based in ‘correct belief.’ It was something any/everyone could do, or not. Within weeks of this awakening, I heard a knock at the door, and there were four men standing on my porch asking me if I wanted to participate in a survey of religious sentiment in my neighborhood. I consent and the first question was whether or not I believed that there was yet to be a ‘second coming’ of Christ. I said that I did not believe that Jesus was coming back. The elder in the group opted to argue with me, and I simply laughed and asked how it was that there could be a wrong answer on a survey of religious sentiment in my neighborhood. Needless to say, the survey (which was never completed) was a red herring, and we chatted for nearly 3 hours (they were from a local SDA missionary training school in the area). I was offered the L, L, L, argument of C.S. Lewis, and simply added a fourth L; literary creation of incidents/sayings/titles. I then offered them Matthew 25:31-46. I was told that this passage was not relevant because it was a parable. Alright, I said, then tell me, what does it mean? They told me that they would get back to me; that was November of 2009.

  19. Peter  April 11, 2014

    Bart.

    I haven’t read your book yet, so excuse me if you’ve dealt with this question therein.

    Is there a “majority opinion” among NT scholars, particularly among those whose who are not hardcore Evangelicals, regarding Christology?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 11, 2014

      Yes, on some things. No, on others. (well, there’s probably a “majority” opinion on everything, but not necessarily a consensus.)

  20. thelad2  April 11, 2014

    Bart: I always thought that Paul drew a clear distinction between the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ. However, I read commentaries that suggest that for Paul, Jesus and Jesus Christ are the same thing. What sayest, thou?

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