Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jewish vs. Christian Angels

["Two angels," postcard by E.M. Lilien]

Commenting on my entry on Uriel, (Uriel: Angel of the Presence, the Light of God) one reader asks:

Whats the difference of christian angels?

Its kind of a terse question. I assume the reader is asking, "what are some of things that distinguish Jewish angel traditions from Christian angel traditions?"

Well, first of all, the Christian tradition has been far more elaborate and taxonomic in its angelology. There are many, many lists of angel classes, their order, rank, and function found in Christian angel literature. While there are examples of this in Jewish writings (look, for example, at the 4th chapter of RaMBaM's Hilchot Yesodei-ha-Torah, where he identifies ten classes of angels), most of Jewish writings are episodic and narrative. It is also the case that in most Jewish passages that describe angels, something other than the angels themselves is of primary interest to the author. Comprehensive works on angels, such as Sichat Malachei ha-Shareit, were not compiled until the modern era. So in summary - Christians are just more fascinated and pre-occupied by angels and their functions then Jews.

Second, Judaism rejected the Apocalyptic sources, like Enoch I, that claim some angels "fell"(SEE: Did Satan Fall?: The Devil is in the Details ). This "fallen angel" tradition, of course, becomes a major feature of Christian mythic narratives about the cause of evil in the world. Judaism offers other notions of the demonic (SEE: Jewish Demonology: Demon Origins ).

A third is the Jewish tradition of a rivalry between humanity and the angels (that does not result in a heavenly revolt, because angels really don't possss that kind of freewill), with the implicit theme that being human is really superior to being an angel (SEE: Moses: Torah Warrior, Master of Angels and Moses: The Jewish Prometheus ). I'm not sure this is much found in Christian angelology, where the superiority of angels is assumed.

There are also nominal differences...literally. Lists of angel names vary enormously between Christian and Jewish sources. We share the 'biggies,' like Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, etc., but there are literally thousands of named angels that are found in one tradition but not the other. Even the famous term "Archangel" is Christian, not really having an exact equivalent in Hebrew.
Those are some things that spring to mind, though I freely admit I do not know all the nuances of Christian angelology.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This very informative entry reminds me of a wonderful, and wonderfully brief, Donald Barthelme story, "On Angels." I highly recommend it.

1:12 PM  

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