CHRISTIANITY begins with an angel. “I am Gabriel who stands in God’s presence,” he announces, as he reveals himself at the start of the Gospel of Luke. His task is to reveal the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, but first, Gabriel must prepare the ground by appearing to Zechariah.
There is no mention of wings, no sudden burst of light from the heavens, but still the mission of this visitor is a familiar one. Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, until now childless, are to have a son. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, this is a couple getting on in years.
Gabriel makes certain stipulations: that the boy child should be named John; and that he “must drink no wine”. In return, Zechariah is told, his son will be “great in the sight of the Lord”, bringing “many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God”.
And it is a promise that is fulfilled for, in Luke’s account, the infant grows up to be John the Baptist, paver of the way for Jesus.
The clearest echo of Isaac, that other late, late baby announced by an angel in Genesis, comes in how the news is received. When ninety-something Sarah overheard that she was to have a child, she laughed out loud at the biological impossibility — and was sternly rebuked for her lack of faith by Yahweh.
Now, when Zechariah expresses incredulity, the angel is harsher still, punishing him by depriving him of the power of speech until the baby arrives.
The first angel of the New Testament is, then, no cosy companion, but rather a stern task-master. The message for readers may be clear — do not doubt God’s word — but it is still a curiously heartless act since this elderly man must now convey life-changing news to his equally elderly wife about their miracle arrival by scribbling notes on a pad.
How, otherwise, to treat this story? There has long been a tendency within mainstream Christianity, particularly encouraged by a traditional or narrow faith education, to downplay its debt to Judaism. It took Catholicism, for example, until 1965 formally to absolve the Jews of killing the Son of God.
And so, too often, the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible are treated as if separate in time, effectively the “before” and “after” of Jesus’s birth, even while still accepting that passages in the first are prophesying what will happen in the second.
THE reality, however, is a great deal of continuity. The later books of the Old Testament and the first books of the New were written in broadly the same period between 300 BCE and 100 CE that is called “intertestamental” by scholars, somewhat misleadingly, since it suggests a gap, not an overlap.
Yet overlap there is, since the letters of St Paul — the earliest accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, dating from between 50 and 63 — and the four authorised Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, from roughly 70 to 100, all fall within this “intertestamental” era.
They are contemporaries of the outpouring of literature in Judaism, as set out in the previous chapters, in which angels were embraced with great enthusiasm as a means of bridging the chasm that appeared to have opened up between Yahweh and his chosen people.
And, where Judaism led in giving angels names, greater prominence and enhanced roles, the Christianity that emerged from within the Jewish fold naturally followed suit, as in Luke’s portrait of Gabriel at the very start of his Gospel.
There is nuance, though, in the interplay. Yes, Luke names Gabriel, taking his lead seamlessly from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, but the angel’s role in relation to Zechariah owes more to the unembellished one of God’s messenger, as set out way back in Genesis.
Another factor to weigh in is the symbolism that is carried by each and every significant detail in both sections of the Bible. When Christianity was dominant in Western society, there would have been no need to point this out. Hearing the words of the Gospels read aloud from the pulpit, seeing them recreated in religious art and, for that minority in medieval times who were literate, studying the texts, was intuitively understood to be a double process.
In the same way that, in the eucharist, bread and wine were simultaneously the body and blood of Jesus Christ, so episodes recounted by the Gospel-writers were both literal and symbolic.
One way of understanding why the writer of Luke places at the start of his text such an obvious parallel to the Abraham/Sarah/Isaac story is to see it as a contribution to that debate going on within Judaism about the extent of angels’ roles.
THE writer of Luke is reasserting the traditional job description of angels, more messenger than mediator, and therefore is pushing back against those Jewish teachers and scribes who were writing at the same time of a looming cosmic battle that would signify end-times, and who were urging that angels be given ever more scope and ever greater influence, to the point at which some feared they risked becoming minor deities in their own right.
After visiting Zechariah — who, it is worth noting in passing, when seeing the links between Old and New Testaments, shares a name with the Old Testament prophet who experienced a prolonged vision of an unnamed messenger angel — Gabriel next turns to his main task. He is “sent by God” to Elizabeth’s “kinswoman”, Mary, in the town of Nazareth in Galilee. “Rejoice, so highly favoured!” he greets her. “The Lord is with you.”
She is, he tells her, to bear a son whom she will call Jesus. He will be the “Son of the Most High”, rule over the House of Jacob, “and his reign will have no end.” Again, in the Gospel’s description of this extraordinary encounter, there is no suggestion of wings, a halo, an accompanying horde of cherubim, or any disturbance in the light (or even that Mary is little more than a girl, as Christianity has traditionally asserted).
Yet this scene, the Annunciation, has become the most depicted of any biblical episode, and the many artists tackling it, often commissioned by the Church, have included some or all of these features in their depictions.
Back on the page in Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel leaves Elizabeth and Zechariah to their own devices when it comes to the birth of their son, and it is the anonymous “angel of the Lord” who is on hand when Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem, appearing to shepherds near by to tell them what is happening.
“And the glory of God”, it is recorded, “shone around them.” Here, then, is that oft-depicted shaft of heavenly light, although the text can be read as the angel giving off the light himself, sufficient to “terrify” the shepherds.
Here, too, is mention of the ranks of angels that today decorate our Christmas cards with their hosannas. “And suddenly with the angel, there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing.” The reference is back to Isaiah and “The Song of the Angels”.
THE belief in angel attendants at the birth of every child was popular in Judaism at the time. Included in the Talmud is the wider suggestion that every child ever born was fashioned by God in the first six days of creation, and thereafter waited for his or her moment to enter the world, secure in a place called Arabot, the last of what both the Talmud and later Rabbinic Judaism taught were seven heavens.
When the time comes for that unborn child or “soul” to be implanted in a woman’s body at the moment of conception, it is written, God “commands the angel who is the guardian of the spirits [in Arabot], saying, ‘bring me such a spirit which is in paradise and hath such a name and such a form’.”
As part of that ongoing interchange between emerging Christianity and Judaism, something very similar is also found in the writings of the influential Early Church theologian, and convert to Christianity, Clement of Alexandria. At the end of the second century, in his Prophetic Eclogue, he describes how the soul enters the body of a baby in its mother’s womb after being “introduced by one of the angels who presides over generations”.
Clement goes on to note explicitly the connection between this remark and the stories in the Bible of angels announcing the birth of a child. In both Old and New Testaments, the moments when angels are most likely to manifest themselves are at times of strain or crisis — including childbirth.
And it also shines a light on to the widespread and enduring belief that everyone has a lifelong guardian angel — something that figured so strongly in my own childhood.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian widely held as Christianity’s greatest ever theologian and its leading angelologist, argued that the guardian angel is there from the very moment every child is born.
This is an edited extract from Angels: A history by Peter Stanford, published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-1-473-62209-8.