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Was Christ an Angel, According to Paul?

I have received a number of comments and questions on last week’s about Paul’s understanding of who Christ was, based especially on the key passage called the “Christ Poem” in Philippians 2:6-11.  An intriguing passage!  But very puzzling in light of what Paul says elsewhere about Christ, as readers have pointed out, and asked about.

 

So I thought I should return to the matter and lay out how I understand Paul’s “Christology” – his “understanding of Christ.”    I talked about it at length in my book How Jesus Became God, and have dealt with it on the blog on occasion.  But here I want to address it head on.

 

To make sense of my comments it is important to remember two sets of terms that scholars have long used for early understandings of Christ.

 

  • A “low Christology is one that understands Christ primarily as a HUMAN who somehow and in some way became divine. A “high” Christology is one that understands him primarily as GOD in some sense from before his birth.

 

I don’t much like those terms, for reasons I lay out in my book.  But sometimes they are useful as a theological short hand.  The typical idea scholars have had (that I in fact argue for in my book) is that Jesus’ followers understood him as fully human long before they understood him to be fully divine – so that a very *high* Christology would be a later development in the Christian tradition.

 

Second set of terms:

 

  • An “exaltation” Christology is one that says that Christ started out as human (he wasn’t divine to begin with). But at some point of his existence (at his resurrection?  His baptism?  His birth?  In the womb?) he was exalted to be made a divine being.   So he was human first, then God.  An “incarnation” Christology, on the other hand, maintains that Christ existed as a divine being before  he became human.  So he was God first, then man.  (Incarnation means “coming in the flesh”)

OK, those are terms.  And so what was Paul’s view of Christ?   Here’s how I lay it out in my book.

 

**************************************************************

 

I have read, pondered, researched, taught, and written about the writings of Paul for forty years, but until recently there was one key aspect of his theology I could never quite get my mind around.   I had the hardest time understanding how, exactly, Paul viewed Christ.   Some aspects of Paul’s Christological teaching have been clear to me for decades – especially his teaching that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that makes a person right with God, rather than following the dictates of the Jewish Law.  But who exactly did Paul think Christ was?

One reason for my perplexity was that Paul is highly allusive in what he says.  He does not spell out, in systematic detail his views of Christ.   Another reason was that in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that – until recently – I thought could not possibly be as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive.  How could Paul embrace “higher” views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke?   Didn’t Christology develop from a “low” Christology to a “high” Christology (using these terms that I am no longer fond of) over time?   And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul?  But they’re not!  They are “lower.”  And I simply did not get it, for the longest time.

But I get it now.   It is not a question of higher or lower.   The Synoptics simply accept a different Christological view from Paul’s.  They hold to exaltation Christologies and Paul holds to an incarnation Christology.  That, in no small measure, is because Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.

 

Christ as an Angel in Paul

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.[1]

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.

I had always simply read the verse to say that the Galatians had received Paul in his infirm state the way they would have received an angelic visitor, or even Christ himself.    In fact the grammar of the Greek suggests something quite different.   As the aforementioned Gieschen has argued, and has now been affirmed in a book on Christ as an angel by New Testament specialist Susan Garrett, the verse is not saying that the Galatians received Paul as an angel or as Christ; it is saying that they received him as they would an angel, such as Christ.[2]  By clear implication, then, Christ is an angel.

As I indicated, the reason for reading the verse this way has to do with the Greek grammar.   When Paul uses the construction “but as … as” he is not contrasting two things; he is stating that the two things are the same thing.  We know this because Paul uses this grammatical construction in a couple of other places in his writings, and the meaning in these cases is unambiguous.   For example, in 1 Corinthians 3:1 Paul says: “Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ.”   The last bit “but as…as” indicates two identifying features of the recipients of Paul’s letter: they are fleshly people and they are infants in Christ.  These are not two contrasting statements; they modify each other.   The same can be said of Paul’s comments in 2 Cor. 2:17, which also has this grammatical feature.

But this means that in Galatians 4:14 Paul is not contrasting Christ to an angel; he is equating him to an angel.   Garrett goes a step further and argues that Gal. 4:14 indicates that Paul “identifies [Jesus Christ] with God’s chief angel” [p. 11].

If that’s the case, then virtually everything Paul ever says about Christ throughout his letters makes perfect sense.   As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a pre-existent being who is divine; he can be called God; and he is God’s manifestation on earth in human flesh.   Paul says all these things about Christ, and in no passage more strikingly than in Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that is often called by scholars the “Philippians Hymn” or the “Christ Hymn of Philippians,” since it is widely thought to embody an early hymn or poem devoted to celebrating Christ and his incarnation.

My friend Charles Cosgrove, a life-long scholar of Paul who is also one of the world’s experts on music in the early Christian world, has convinced me that the passage could not have been an actual hymn that was sung, since it does not scan properly, as a musical piece, in the Greek.   And so it may be a poem or even a kind of exalted prose composition.  But what is clear is that it is an elevated reflection on Christ coming into the world (from heaven) for the sake of others and being glorified by God as a result.  And it appears to be a passage Paul is quoting, one with which the Philippians themselves may well have already been familiar.  In other words, it is another pre-Pauline tradition (see the discussion of Romans 1:3-4 on pp. xxx).

 

 

[1] See note xxx on p. xxx above.

[2] See note xxx on p. xxx above.


Did Paul Think Jesus Was a New Adam, Not a Divine Being?
How Ancient is the Idea of Christ’s “Incarnation”?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    meohanlon  February 24, 2020

    Fascinating post, Prof. Ehrman!
    So if Paul is identifying Jesus as the highest angel, is this the one known as Metatron? (Never understood, btw, why the Jews use a Greek name and not a Hebrew one in this case) – this would seemingly explain why Paul took so little interest seemingly in his ´incarnate’ life.
    This would also mean that, for Paul, Jesus Christ is more like the return of Enoch, than like Elijah or Elisha, with whom he is usually compared.
    So what do you think, if any, is a likely precedent for Paul´s departure from the standard tradition of the messiah being merely a human figure (divinely appointed, but not divine himself)? Are we seeing some Greek influence here (ie.the Logos), or does it make sense within a Jewish framework?
    Lastly, on the very intriguing ¨who do you say I am” line that Jesus asks his disciple, does this reflect the contrasting views that had emerged by the time the gospels or at least Q were written (rather than original to Jesus)- that includes in the ´angel´ comparison in one of the answers as possibly the Pauline view, that the gospel writers (or Q scribes) were not sold on, in lieu of Peter´s messiah answer( which Jesus, appears to affirm, albeit a reconception, a la the suffering servant) – or is there some sense herein that Jesus is all of the given answers to that question?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Metatron is a later development, first attested some centuries after jesus. And yes, other Jews did understand teh messiah to be a divine figure.

  2. Avatar
    high_Q  February 24, 2020

    Hi Prof Erhman,

    Do any of your books respond to Dunn’s view that Philippians 2:6-11 is about a contrast between the man Jesus and Adam, and that the passage is not about an ‘incarnation’ of a pre-existent being?

    Also, some of the pre-Nicene fathers identified Jesus as the OT “Angel of the Lord”. Do any of them use Galatians 4 to justify the application of that description to Jesus?

    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Ah, I posted today’s post without seeing your question! Gal 4: I don’t think so.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  February 24, 2020

    Again, I think what we may be seeing here is two traditions–one based on memories of the real Jesus, and the other based on visions of him after the crucifixion, and well after his followers said he had risen. No question at all, exaltationist Christology came first. Because it had to. It was a necessary development for incarnation Christology to come into being.

    Paul, we are told, became a posthumous follower of Jesus after having a vision where Jesus spoke to him–without ever having seen him in the flesh. To Paul, this was the most profound possible way to interact with Jesus–without the intervening veil of the flesh to obscure his true nature, his true meaning.

    But the great majority of early Christian leaders–the disciples, both male and female–had known him as a man. Their experience of him had been intimate, loving, earthly. They had eaten and drunk wine with him. They had traveled long distances, stayed together in various homes. To be a bit crude, they’d seen him relieve himself along the way. He was a man to them, and while they came to see him as more, they had that experience of his humanity–they saw him laugh, cry, get angry. They had even argued with him. They had loved him as a man, first and foremost. And had felt his love in return. That anchored everything else they came to believe about him. Paul never had that. And may have been by nature inclined to value the abstract over the tangible.

    Okay, so that was one person impacted by memories of Jesus who never met him. There could have been others. Hence the incarnationist tradition.

    Of the earliest Christian texts we have, the first are Paul’s letters (the poem in Philippians may or may not be earlier, but we only have it through Paul). And yet almost all the others are exaltationist. It’s only one of the very latest–John’s Gospel–that embraces incarnation. Isn’t that evidence that the exaltation Christology was dominant for most or all of that time, and incarnation only started to take hold as the very first generation–the ones who had known Jesus–were dying off?

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 24, 2020

    This is fascinating. Does Paul’s christology then suggest that Jesus, as an angel, was a created divine being? I guess the question now is, how were angels understood in those times? I guess it would be as Jews understood what an angel would be, whatever that was, and then another question follows: in the Judaism of that time, was there a kind of common agreement on the character and status of angelic beings? More questions! Did Paul think of Jesus as a Divine being, an angel, incarnated into human flesh on God’s initiative, as something sent from God and by God to mankind for a specific purpose, or did Jesus incarnate on his own initiative, on a mission to humankind independently of God, but apparently with God’s approval? Things get murky pretty quickly, and then get murkier.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      eys, I thin kit does mean that. there were different levels of angels in Jewish thought. And yes, Jesus was ‘sent” by go.

  5. Avatar
    tadmania  February 24, 2020

    Excellent. That makes much sense. Thanks!

  6. Avatar
    fishician  February 24, 2020

    Earlier in Galatians 4 Paul says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law…” Wouldn’t it be a bit unusual to think of an angel as being “born of a woman?” But I confess I don’t know a lot about what 1st Century Jews or Christians believed about angels.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Yes it would. Then again, it would be unusual for the eternal Son of God to be born of a woman too. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  February 24, 2020

    Intriguing – this sort of begs the question: what was Paul’s broader understanding of angels, if he had one? Did he think Christ was one of many pre-existent angelic beings who simply distinguished himself by the incarnation, or did he maybe think Christ was the preeminent angel, created before and therefore already placed above all the others by God? Perhaps there is no way to tease out Paul’s broader cosmogony?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Yes, he certainly believed in many angels, and in ranks; almost ceratinly the preexistent Christ would have been the top one.

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  February 25, 2020

        What Paul and many other Jews apparently believed seems then to verge on some gnostic ideas– a divine being with many ranks and orders of other divine beings below it. If early Judaic belief was polytheistic, as many believe, and not really explicitly monotheistic until Deuteronomy centralized worship, getting rid of regional gods and shrines, then these angelic beings could have been the old gods under a new rubric– angels rather than gods. A distinction without a difference? I wonder then if gnosticism might have had roots in an earlier Judaic polytheism.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 26, 2020

          Yes, it used to be debated if the NT authors relied on gnostic ideas. Now more commonly it is thought htat Gnostic ideas *arose* out of earlier views that proved amenable to the ways they were starting to think of things.

  8. Avatar
    Hormiga  February 24, 2020

    Is the Holy Spirit to be found anywhere in this? I.e., its job seems to be to go into the world to do things for God, which sounds as if it’s an angel. Like your take on Paul’s view of Christ, no?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Paul never develops a full-fledged idea about the Spirit, at least in the writings we have.

  9. Avatar
    tteichma  February 24, 2020

    Hi Bart,
    I’ve wondered about the following for a few weeks:
    What is it about the way early Christians thought, about their religeous concepts, that made it natural for them to elevate Jesus over the decades from a human rabbi to God, to part of the co-equal Trinity?

    If Paul described him in the earliest writings as a human-like angel (pagan concept?) and later in the Gospels he also seemed somewhat human at first and then by the time of John he was seen as semi or fully divine, and then later was seen as equal to the high God, how is it that this progress or these states of understanding made sense to the early Christians?

    They seem to me to be reflections of pagan ideas, to the ideas of the pagan converts’ original religeous teachings. Similarly, later and more structured teachings by the church appear to be rooted in pagan ideas. At some basic level the pagan gods were replaced by the Trinity, archangels, angels, guardian angels, saints, ancestors in heaven, and so on and so forth.

    And, it seems that this Christian hierarchy of divine beings is not rooted in Jewish tradition, or it is much more difficult to find roots there.

    Does this seem likely and/or correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 24, 2020

      Ah, that’s the entire topic of my book How Jesus Became God! The very thing I deal with, chapter by chapter!!

  10. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 24, 2020

    But angel of god just means messenger of god – and it doesn’t imply that’s all Jesus is for Paul.

    He is also the son and heir, and the one lord of the cosmos through him all things exist.

  11. Avatar
    Zak1010  February 25, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    Angels are messengers- intermediaries – carry divine messages. So are prophets. However, linguistically they are used in different context. ( in semetic language ) Messengers can be human or non-human.
    Malachi in hebrew means my messenger / Malak in arabic means angel, which refers to an entity/ being that controls a specific task assigned to them. Both hebrew and arabic, semetic languages do not refer to Malak or Malachi as divine. Do you know the equivalent meaning of Angel / messenger in Aramaic or Greek?

    Jesus was a messenger not an Angel. He never said he was. – Jesus was sent with messages. He claims he was sent.
    — Of his messages was Prayer:
    “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
    —Another message was Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of ….heaven…
    “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to….. judgement…. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into …. hell…..
    Clearly emphasizing the oneness of God ( not to himself ) and indicating judgement, heaven and hell.

    Angels are created– can not be divine – God was not created. Angels are assigned tasks – God assigns tasks not gets assigned tasks.

    Dr Ehrman

    Do you agree that : If Jesus were an Angel he surely would have mentioned it ( pretty important claim ) just like he would have mentioned he was divine – pre-existed or God or part of a trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2020

      No, I don’t see why he would have. But we aren’t talking here about what jesus thought about himself; we’re talking about what Paul thought about him later, after his death.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 25, 2020

    For those new to the blog, Dr. Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God” is a terrific book.

  13. Telling
    Telling  February 25, 2020

    The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, written 500 years or more before the Jesus entry, is about the Lord Krishna who is God, coming to earth to help mankind learn the way to wisdom-knowledge, and he doesn’t just come once, he comes again and again in different incarnations in different times and places for this same purpose. The Jesus story well fits with the Hindu narrative, bringing some Hindus to conclude that Jesus is one such incarnation.

  14. Avatar
    danielbice  February 27, 2020

    The footnotes in this blog post lack content. And there is no first reference to Gieschen, though the blog post assumes there is. Minor points, but I was interested in the footnotes.

  15. Avatar
    danielbice  March 2, 2020

    Would someone please fill in the citations in the two blank footnotes? I’m interested in seeing who Ehrman is citing.

  16. Avatar
    ftbond  March 13, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    re: “Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human” — based on “and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.”

    OK, so, you are saying that Paul’s view of the Very Nature of The Messiah Himself – The foundational basis of the High Christology that Paul exudes throughout so many of his writings – The Grand Pronouncement of the Identity of Christ – is found in this one statement?

    If we didn’t have Galatians 4:14, there is absolutely nothing else in Paul’s writings that would indicate he thought the Messiah was an angel. Nothing. It’s just not there. If we didn’t have Gal 4:14, there is nothing else in Paul’s writings that would ever prompt one to think “oh, Paul is saying Jesus was an angel”.

    How is it that Paul can relegate such an earth-shattering Revelation of Jesus Christ – the *fact* that he was an Angel – the *basis* for Paul’s Whole Christology – on this one, singular phrase, and NEVER again discuss this profoundly important “Truth” anywhere else, in any of his writings? How can the very *basis* of Paul’s understanding that Jesus Was an Angel never, ever be discussed – at all – in any of Paul’s writings?

    Without relying on this one (debatable) interpretation of this one phrase, can you make any such case from Paul’s writings that he believed Jesus was an angel?

    My suggestion is that this statement is a gushing “oh, I appreciate you guys so much.. You treated me like an angel! Like Jesus Himself” that could well have been written on a Hallmark Thank-You card. And, that’s all it is.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2020

      No, I’m absolutely not saying that the pre-existent angel concept is the key to NT (or even Pauline) views of the messiah. the concept of “messiah” has very different roots, in the expectation of a future ruler who would reestablish God’s kingdom on earth.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  March 13, 2020

        In your original post, you asked “But who exactly did Paul think Christ was?”

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but it (to me, perhaps wrongly) appears that your answer was that Paul thought the Messiah was an angel.

        I’m totally OK with not “getting it”, and will even allow that you might have a great point here (which, perhaps due to my understanding, I just don’t “get”).

        I think Paul was just saying that the Galatians treated him like a “messenger of God, as Jesus Christ”, where “aggelos” can refer to simply a messenger, an envoy, a human “messenger of God” (ie, a prophet), or – a celestial being. And, in this case, I see no reason to consider that Jesus is of the class of created, celestial beings of (what we call) “angels”.

        Malachi 3:1 – “…And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight”

        • Bart
          Bart  March 15, 2020

          Paul came to believe Jesus was the messiah before he came to believe he was an angel, and so they are not equivalent in his mind. And yes, he was a “messenger” from God. A messenger who comes from the presence of God to earth in the Bible is an “angel” more or less by definition.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  March 17, 2020

            1 Enoch says “And there I saw the One to Whom belongs the time before time, and His head was white like wool. With Him was another being, whose countenance had the appearance of a man, and his face was full of graciousness,* like one of the holy angels*. I asked the angel who went with me […] concerning that son of and who he was, and whence he was, and why he went with the One to Whom belongs the time before time.

            He answered and said to me: ‘This is the son of man who has righteousness, with whom dwells righteousness, and who reveals all the treasures of that which is hidden, because the Lord of the spirits has chosen him, and whose lot has the pre-eminence before the Lord of the spirits in uprightness for ever. ”

            The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that Enoch referred to the Messiah as an “angelic being” – and as seen in the passages above, the “son of Man” was “LIKE one of the holy angels”. (JE – “Messiah”)

            I have to wonder if, in Galatians, the better translation of “ὡς” would be “like”, and not “as”, in this case.

            There is a big difference, for example, in saying “sleeping like a log”, and “sleeping as a log”. “Like” conveys a “similarity”, but “as” conveys a “same-ness in identification”. (thus, nobody ever says “sleeping as a log”)

            So, for Paul to say “like an angel, like Jesus Christ”, he is implying nothing more than Enoch implies. To say “as an angel, as Jesus Christ”, implies what you are implying – that Jesus *was* an angel, not simply that he was *similar to* an angel.

            If there were any other of Paul’s writings in which he made any direct comments about the Messiah being an angel, I’m sure I’d agree with your viewpoint. But, as is, I think it’s more likely that Paul is saying Messiah is “like” (similar to) an angel, perhaps alluding to the statement in Enoch.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 18, 2020

            It’s the *context* that explains which of the possible uses of ως is more likely, and the other ways he uses it in his writngs. (It could mean a range of things.) If you’re interested in an full interpretation, check out Sue Garrett’s book More than an Angel.

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