(Latin angelus; Greek aggelos; from the Hebrew for "one going" or "one sent"; messenger). The word is used in Hebrew to denote indifferently either a divine or human messenger. The Septuagint renders it by aggelos which also has both significations. The Latin version, however, distinguishes the divine or spirit-messenger from the human, rendering the original in the one case by angelus and in the other by legatus or more generally by nuntius. In a few passages the Latin version is misleading, the word angelus being used where nuntius would have better expressed the meaning, e.g. Isaiah 18:2; 33:3-6.
It is with the spirit-messenger alone that we are here concerned. We have to discuss
- the meaning of the term in the Bible,
- the offices of the angels,
- the names assigned to the angels,
- the distinction between good and evil spirits,
- the divisions of the angelic choirs,
- the question of angelic appearances, and
- the development of the scriptural idea of angels.
The angels are represented throughout the Bible as a body of spiritual beings intermediate between God and men: "You have made him (man) a little less than the angels" (Psalm 8:6). They, equally with man, are created beings; "praise ye Him, all His angels: praise ye Him, all His hosts . . . for He spoke and they were made. He commanded and they were created" (Psalm 148:2-5; Colossians 1:16-17). That the angels were created was laid down in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The decree "Firmiter" against the Albigenses declared both the fact that they were created and that men were created after them. This decree was repeated by the Vatican Council, "Dei Filius". We mention it here because the words: "He that liveth for ever created all things together" (Ecclesiasticus 18:1) have been held to prove a simultaneous creation of all things; but it is generally conceded that "together" (simul) may here mean "equally", in the sense that all things were "alike" created. They are spirits; the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister to them who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?" (Hebrews 1:14).
Attendants at God's throne
It is as messengers that they most often figure in the Bible, but, as St. Augustine, and after him St. Gregory, expresses it: angelus est nomen officii ("angel is the name of the office") and expresses neither their essential nature nor their essential function, viz.: that of attendants upon God's throne in that court of heaven of which Daniel has left us a vivid picture:
I behold till thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days sat: His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like clean wool: His throne like flames of fire: the wheels of it like a burning fire. A swift stream of fire issued forth from before Him: thousands of thousands ministered to Him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before Him: the judgment sat and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10; cf. also Psalm 96:7; Psalm 102:20; Isaiah 6, etc.)
This function of the angelic host is expressed by the word "assistance" (Job 1:6; 2:1), and our Lord refers to it as their perpetual occupation (Matthew 18:10). More than once we are told of seven angels whose special function it is thus to "stand before God's throne" (Tobit 12:15; Revelation 8:2-5). The same thought may be intended by "the angel of His presence" (Isaiah 63:9) an expression which also occurs in the pseudo-epigraphical "Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs".
God's messengers to mankind
But these glimpses of life beyond the veil are only occasional. The angels of the Bible generally appear in the role of God's messengers to mankind. They are His instruments by whom He communicates His will to men, and in Jacob's vision they are depicted as ascending and descending the ladder which stretches from earth to heaven while the Eternal Father gazes upon the wanderer below. It was an angel who found Agar in the wilderness (Genesis 16); angels drew Lot out of Sodom; an angel announces to Gideon that he is to save his people; an angel foretells the birth of Samson (Judges 13), and the angel Gabriel instructs Daniel (Daniel 8:16), though he is not called an angel in either of these passages, but "the man Gabriel" (9:21). The same heavenly spirit announced the birth of St. John the Baptist and the Incarnation of the Redeemer, while tradition ascribes to him both the message to the shepherds (Luke 2:9), and the most glorious mission of all, that of strengthening the King of Angels in His Agony (Luke 22:43). The spiritual nature of the angels is manifested very clearly in the account which Zacharias gives of the revelations bestowed upon him by the ministry of an angel. The prophet depicts the angel as speaking "in him". He seems to imply that he was conscious of an interior voice which was not that of God but of His messenger. The Massoretic text, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate all agree in thus describing the communications made by the angel to the prophet. It is a pity that the "Revised Version" should, in apparent defiance of the above-named texts, obscure this trait by persistently giving the rendering: "the angel that talked with me: instead of "within me" (cf. Zechariah 1:9-14; 2:3; 4:5; 5:10).
Such appearances of angels generally last only so long as the delivery of their message requires, but frequently their mission is prolonged, and they are represented as the constituted guardians of the nations at some particular crisis, e.g. during the Exodus (Exodus 14:19; Baruch 6:6). Similarly it is the common view of the Fathers that by "the prince of the Kingdom of the Persians" (Daniel 10:13-21) we are to understand the angel to whom was entrusted the spiritual care of that kingdom, and we may perhaps see in the "man of Macedonia" who appeared to St. Paul at Troas, the guardian angel of that country (Acts 16:9). The Septuagint (Deuteronomy 32:8), has preserved for us a fragment of information on this head, though it is difficult to gauge its exact meaning: "When the Most High divided the nations, when He scattered the children of Adam, He established the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God". How large a part the ministry of angels played, not merely in Hebrew theology, but in the religious ideas of other nations as well, appears from the expression "like to an angel of God". It is three times used of David (2 Samuel 14:17-20; 14:27) and once by Achis of Geth (1 Samuel 29:9). It is even applied by Esther to Assuerus (Esther 15:16), and St. Stephen's face is said to have looked "like the face of an angel" as he stood before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:15).
Throughout the Bible we find it repeatedly implied that each individual soul has its tutelary angel. Thus Abraham, when sending his steward to seek a wife for Isaac, says: "He will send His angel before thee" (Genesis 24:7). The words of the ninetieth Psalm which the devil quoted to our Lord (Matthew 4:6) are well known, and Judith accounts for her heroic deed by saying: "As the Lord liveth, His angel hath been my keeper" (13:20). These passages and many like them (Genesis 16:6-32; Hosea 12:4; 1 Kings 19:5; Acts 12:7; Psalm 33:8), though they will not of themselves demonstrate the doctrine that every individual has his appointed guardian angel, receive their complement in our Saviour's words: "See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you that their angels in Heaven always see the face of My Father Who is in Heaven" (Matthew 18:10), words which illustrate the remark of St. Augustine: "What lies hidden in the Old Testament, is made manifest in the New". Indeed, the book of Tobias seems intended to teach this truth more than any other, and St. Jerome in his commentary on the above words of our Lord says: "The dignity of a soul is so great, that each has a guardian angel from its birth." The general doctrine that the angels are our appointed guardians is considered to be a point of faith, but that each individual member of the human race has his own individual guardian angel is not of faith (de fide); the view has, however, such strong support from the Doctors of the Church that it would be rash to deny it (cf. St. Jerome, supra). Peter the Lombard (Sentences, lib. II, dist. xi) was inclined to think that one angel had charge of several individual human beings. St. Bernard's beautiful homilies (11-14) on the ninetieth Psalm breathe the spirit of the Church without however deciding the question. The Bible represents the angels not only as our guardians, but also as actually interceding for us. "The angel Raphael (Tobit 12:12) says: "I offered thy prayer to the Lord" (cf. Job 5:1 (Septuagint), and 33:23 (Vulgate); Apocalypse 8:4). The Catholic cult of the angels is thus thoroughly scriptural. Perhaps the earliest explicit declaration of it is to be found in St. Ambrose's words: "We should pray to the angels who are given to us as guardians" (De Viduis, ix); (cf. St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus XX.21). An undue cult of angels was reprobated by St. Paul (Colossians 2:18), and that such a tendency long remained in the same district is evidenced by Canon 35 of the Synod of Laodicea.
As divine agents governing the world
The foregoing passages, especially those relating to the angels who have charge of various districts, enable us to understand the practically unanimous view of the Fathers that it is the angels who put into execution God's law regarding the physical world. The Semitic belief in genii and in spirits which cause good or evil is well known, and traces of it are to be found in the Bible. Thus the pestilence which devastated Israel for David's sin in numbering the people is attributed to an angel whom David is said to have actually seen (2 Samuel 24:15-17), and more explicitly, I Par., xxi, 14-18). Even the wind rustling in the tree-tops was regarded as an angel (2 Samuel 5:23-24; 1 Chronicles 14:14, 15). This is more explicitly stated with regard to the pool of Probatica (John 5:1-4), though there is some doubt about the text; in that passage the disturbance of the water is said to be due to the periodic visits of an angel. The Semites clearly felt that all the orderly harmony of the universe, as well as interruptions of that harmony, were due to God as their originator, but were carried out by His ministers. This view is strongly marked in the "Book of Jubilees" where the heavenly host of good and evil angels is ever interfering in the material universe. Maimonides (Directorium Perplexorum, iv and vi) is quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologicæ I.1.3) as holding that the Bible frequently terms the powers of nature angels, since they manifest the omnipotence of God (cf. St. Jerome, In Mich., vi, 1, 2; P.L., iv, col. 1206).
In addition to works mentioned above, see St. Thomas, Summa Theol., I, QQ. 50-54 and 106-114; Suarez De Angelis, lib. i-iv.
About this page
APA citation. Pope, H. (1907). Angels. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 15, 2023 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01476d.htm
MLA citation. Pope, Hugh. "Angels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 15 May 2023 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01476d.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Jim Holden.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.