Thursday, October 10, 2013


Ellen Muehlberger, Angels in Late Ancient Christianity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 279. ISBN 9780199931934. $65.00.

Reviewed by Rangar H. Cline, University of Oklahoma (

Version at BMCR home site


Ellen Muehlberger's Angels in Late Ancient Christianity utilizes patristic sources to analyze fourth and early-fifth century intra-Christian discourse about angels. The book demonstrates that angels provided models for understanding the liturgy and priestly authority, explores how Christian exegetes interpreted angels in biblical texts, and examines the tradition of companion angels and the "angelic life" among desert ascetics. Muehlberger places Christian fourth- and fifth-century discussions about angels within their historical context and purposefully avoids comparing that era's discourse about angels with the subsequent, influential angelic hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500 CE), whose work tends to dominate studies of angels. The result is a historically contextualized study of how late ancient Christian writers defined ways of reading angels in scripture and conceptualizing angels in religious life. The book will be of use to those curious as to how Christians thought about angels, and the author's focus on Christian discourse will also make it useful to those interested in Christian rhetoric and self-representation following the Peace of the Church.

Muehlberger groups discourse about angels into categories of "cultivation" – the discussion of angels as assistants or models for Christians seeking unity with God – and "contestation" – the role of angels in theological debates. Muehlberger argues that cultivation discourse developed among desert ascetics such as Antony of Pispir, Shenoute of Atripe, and Evagrius Ponticus as a way to articulate concepts of angelic companions and angels as models for behavior. Contestation discourse emerged in the urban context of contested authority, exemplified by Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and others. For these writers and theologians, angels were a tool for understanding scripture and justifying competing theological claims. These categories serve as an organizing principle for the book's chapters, most of which focus on one or the other of these types of discourse.

Chapter One compares Evagrius Ponticus' conceptions of angels as spiritual assistants with Augustine's exegetical practices of reading angels in the Bible. The comparison highlights two very different approaches to angels. As Muehlberger discusses, Evagrius envisioned a world of angels that could descend to help humans overcome their passions in order to achieve union with God. Muehlberger usefully examines Evagrius' writings and compares his ideas of angels and demons to those of Gregory of Nazianzus, arguing that Evagrius' theory of angels is tied to an Origenist theology transmitted via Gregory and other desert ascetics. The result of viewing angels through such a theological lens is a fluid cosmos in which humans can overcome their human nature with angelic assistance. Augustine envisioned a much more static cosmos for angels. Based on his reading of biblical texts, especially Genesis, Augustine found angels within the hierarchy of creation, fit them into his understanding of the origin of evil, demons, Satan, and free will, and placed them as permanent residents of the City of God, to which humans can aspire. Muehlberger discussesAugustine's argument in the Enchiridion and the City of God that angels were created when God made "light" and that evil angels (and darkness) originated in turning away from God and the Light. The comparison of Augustine's scriptural and theological approach to angels with Evagrius' more practical approach to angelic assistance serves as a logical introduction to the two models of discourse explored in the remainder of the book. Of course, Augustine's declaration that angels were created under the category "light" has an older precedent in the book of Jubilees (2:1-3) and near-contemporary comparisons in the Hexameron homilies of Ambrose (1.5 [19]) and Basil of Caesarea (2.5), not cited in the book. Muehlberger also omits reference to the most recent studies of Lactantius' discussion of the oracle of Apollo, discussed in the chapter (51-52).1

Chapter Two examines how Christian writers read angels in scripture, focusing on Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Eunomius of Cyzicus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. As Muehlberger identifies, Christian exegetes debated how to understand appearances of the "Lord" in the Old Testament (OT). Some Christians understood appearances of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ, some understood all OT epiphanies as angels, and some understood angelic descriptions of the Lord as reflective of Christ's nature, among other possibilities. Muehlberger begins by examining Justin Martyr, who identifies one of the men/angels at Mamre in Genesis 18 as the "Word" because the angel appears to speak as the "Lord." Justin thus provides early testimony to a tradition of finding the pre-incarnate Logos where the Lord appears in the OT. That tradition continues into later Christian exegesis, and Muehlberger examines its manifestation and consequences in fourth-century debates among Christian writers. A compelling section of this chapter analyzes debates between Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Cappadocians Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. For Eunomius, passages in the Old Testament that could be read as referring to the Lord or Christ as an angel revealed the angelic nature of Christ, which would consequently subordinate the Son to the Father. Basil and Gregory challenged Eunomius' method of reading "angel" as referring to the nature of Christ, arguing that the term described his role (not nature) in those passages. Thus, Basil and Gregory could understand passages in the OT that referred to an angel or to the Lord as referring to Christ without having to understand that Christ had an angelic nature.

Although not in direct conversation with the Cappadocians, Augustine had a very different view, as Muehlberger demonstrates. She argues that Augustine took issue with identifying the "Lord" in the OT as Christ, specifically in passages in Genesis like the visitation to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18), where one of the men/angels appears to speak as the "Lord." Augustine's objection was based upon Paul's statement that God sent his son in the "fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). Augustine concluded that the Son did not appear prior to the incarnation and "that any appearance of a divine actor in the Old Testament was materially manifested by angels" (83). Muehlberger 's discussion of Augustine provides an illuminating contrast with the Cappadocians and Evagrius. However, evidence of the reception of Augustine's reading would strengthen the chapter's assertion that "Augustine's solution was revolutionary" (84). Indeed, depictions of the "Lord" at Mamre at Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore (5th c.) and San Vitale at Ravenna (6th c.), along with Sozomen's (HE 2.4.1-3) fifth-century account of rituals at Mamre would suggest that Augustine's reading had little impact.2

Chapters Three and Four examine the tradition of companion angels among fourth-century desert ascetics. Chapter Three largely presents the companion angel tradition from the ascetics' own point of view, focusing on texts written by or attributed to the ascetics themselves. Chapter Four discusses texts written about ascetics by others. Together these two chapters present a balanced examination of Eastern Mediterranean discourse about the companion angel tradition. Muehlberger identifies the roots of the ascetics' conceptions of companion angels in the academic tradition of divine guides. Shebriefly discusses the tradition of Socrates' daimon, Apuleius' divine guide, and Origen's and Gregory Thaumaturgus' transformation of this idea. Most revealing is Muehlberger's discussion of the Letters of Antony and the Life of Antony by Athanasius. Both sets of texts demonstrate the ambiguity with which Antony and his successors appear to have described the helping spirit or angelic companion. As Muehlberger observes, previous scholars have identified the helping spirit of Antony's Letters as the Holy Spirit (102- 103), and the Life of Antony guides its reader to understand Antony's helper as the Lord (128-130). However, as the author notes, these sources are often ambiguous about the nature and status of this companion, and, as Muehlberger argues, the companion bears a strong similarity to the companion that Gregory Thaumaturgus and Evagrius specifically describe as an angel. Muehlberger's point here is well made, but the reasons for Anthony's and Athanasius' hesitancy to use the term "angel" might warrant further study. As the author discusses, ambiguity regarding the identity of spiritual companions also appears in Gregory of Nyssa. This elusiveness and ambiguity suggests that there was something potentially heterodox about the companion angel, and other studies have discussed condemnations of angel invocation in the same era.3

Chapter Five examines discourse on the "angelic life," a phrase used to describe the lifestyle of ascetics. While the "angelic life" of ascetics has been treated in studies of early monasticism, Muehlberger's chapter offers insightful analysis comparing emic and etic perspectives. The author accomplishes this by examining texts meant for outsiders like the Apophthegmata Patrum and Historia Monachorum, collections of the sayings and the lives of the Desert Fathers, and insider texts like the Coptic sermons of Shenoute, the 4th-5th c. monastic leader from Upper Egypt. She argues that ascetics often had an ambiguous relationship with the phrase "angelic life," as they understood that their lives were often far from heavenly. The concept served a useful purpose for those outside the monasteries, however, as it allowed ascetics to be categorized as holy in a way that was distinct from, and did not diminish, the lives of ordinary Christians and church officials. The chapter's analysis of Shenoute's writings demonstrates how the comparison of monks to angels could be used to motivate misbehaving ascetics to live more like angels; conversely, the example of fallen angels could be used to warn monks against excessive pride and complacency.

Chapter Six examines how the understanding of angels and the liturgy changed from the earliest paradigm, which imagined the earthly liturgy as imitating the angelic one in heaven, to a late-fourth century model that understood angels to be present in the earthly liturgy and responding to priestly performance. As Muehlberger argues, this latter model did not deny the heavenly liturgy, but it prioritized the earthly liturgy and the priest's performance. Muehlberger's argument is based upon examining the catechetical treatises of Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia and comparing those with John Chrysostom's writings, in particular On the Priesthood, which describes a vision of angels gathered around the Eucharist. To demonstrate the reception of these ideas, Muehlberger presents the Syrian writer Narsai (5th c.), who incorporates John's ideas of angels in the liturgy along with Cyril's teachings about angels' presence at the baptism, and Theodore's ideas of symbolic representation of angels. The chapter makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between liturgy and priestly authority in late antiquity. Moreover, this analysis provides a model of innovative scholarship, incorporating such often-neglected sources as the catechetical treatises.

Muehlberger succeeds in demonstrating that angels were an important source of lively speculation and contestation within fourth and early-fifth century Christian discourse. The book also reveals how discourse on angels can provide an entry into other aspects of Christianity, like conceptualizations of the liturgy. There are some bibliographic omissions (noted above), but the author's overall argument is clear and compelling. My only stylistic criticism concerns the author's occasional practice of using quotations from prominent scholars to finish sentences without introducing the author.4 Because the book uses endnotes, in such cases the reader must turn to the back of the book to determine whether author is quoting a primary or secondary source. Otherwise, the book is a well-written and original discussion of Christian writers' discourse on angels.


1.   Cline, Ancient Angels: Conceptualizing Angeloi in the Roman Empire (Leiden, 2011) 19-45; Mitchell, "Cult of Theos Hypsistos" in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity ed. Athanassiadi and Frede (Oxford, 1999).
2.   Visual representation of Mamre: Frazer, "Syncretistic Pilgrim's Mould from Mamre (?)" Gesta 18 (1979), 137-145. Angels at Mamre: Cline (2011), 106-118.
3.   Peers, Subtle Bodies (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001), 15-16; Cline (2001), 137-165.
4.   e.g. pp. 33, 46, 90.

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