Review of Peter Carrell’s Jesus and the Angels: Angelology and the Christology of the Apocalypse of John

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 60/1 (1998) 159-62. Used with permission.]

Peter R. Carrell, Jesus and the Angels: Angelology and the Christology of the Apocalypse of John. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 95.) xxii, 270. $54.95, hardback.


Carrell’s book undertakes a detailed examination of the influence of angelology on the depiction of Christ in Revelation, and in particular on the visionary depictions in Revelation 1:13-16, 14:14; and 19:11-16. The work is thorough, judicious, and sober. It offers a solid reference point for further reflection on the relations among appearances of God (theophany), of angels, and of Christ, both within the canon of Scripture and in apocalyptic material up to the second century A.D.

After an introductory chapter formulating the issues (chapter 1), the book divides itself roughly into two parts. The first part studies backgrounds in apocalyptic literature: angelic figures in Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (chapter 2); outstanding angelic figures in extrabiblical apocalyptic (chapter 3); human beings appearing in angel-like form (chapter 4); and some fascinating passages that appear to associate the logos with angels and with angel-like description and function (one section within chapter 4). Chapter 5 investigates extrabiblical sources for possible evidence of Christological thinking influenced by angelology.

The second part studies the depiction of Christ in the Book of Revelation, against the background of the angelic associations discovered in the first part. Chapter 6 considers how Revelation in general treats the relation among God, Christ, and the “revealing angel.” Subsequent chapters consider Revelation 1:13-16 in relation to angels and theophany (chapter 7); the specific imagery in Revelation 1:13-16 (chapter 8); Revelation 14:14 (chapter 9); Revelation 19:11-16 (chapter 10). There follows a conclusion summarizing the results from the whole book (chapter 11).

One main concern of the book is to respond to a view initially raised by Christopher Rowland. Rowland argues that some Jewish apocalyptic involves “a bifurcation in the conception of God” (p. 5, from James Dunn,Christology in the Making [2d. ed.; London: SCM, 1989], xxiv). Specifically, “Ezekiel 1.26-8, 8.2-4, and Daniel 10.5-6 disclose a trend whereby the human form of God (Ezek. 1.26-8) is separated from the divine throne-chariot and functions as ‘a quasi-angelic mediator’ (Ezek. 8.2-4) similar to the angel in Daniel 10.5-6” (p. 5). This separation becomes in turn the foundation for divinity of the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13. Daniel 7:13 in turns leads to attributing divine status to Jesus in Revelation 1:13-16. Carrell rejects Rowland’s view, arguing rather that Ezekiel 8:2-3 and Daniel 10:5-6 describe angelic beings. Daniel 10:5-6 depends on Ezekiel 9:2 as well as other passages. A broader survey of apocalyptic literature leads Carrell to the conclusion that the so-called “bifurcation” of God, or worship of a highest angel alongside of God, does not clearly appear before the second century A.D.

A second main question is whether Revelation presents Jesus as an angel. Is Revelation evidence for an “angel Christology”? Though something like angel Christology can be found among the Ebionites as well as the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is not supported by Revelation. Rather, Revelation presents Jesus as not only having the names of God, but receiving worship and sharing with God one throne. Jesus is one with God. By contrast, angels are clearly subordinate to God and repel attempts to worship them (Rev 19:10; 22:9). Carrell argues that Jesus performs some functions that at other points are performed by angels. He notes that many of the glorious features in the vision in Revelation 1:13-16 belong at other points to angels (especially Dan 10:5-6). Some of these features are also associated at times with theophany. But the OT as well as extrabiblical apocalyptic furnish sufficient examples to show that Judaism could depict both angels and exalted human beings with glorious features reminiscent of theophany. It did so, however, without thereby destroying the Creator/creature distinction. Ontologically, God remained distinct from all creatures. Functionally, angels and exalted men could be accompanied by visual imagery similar to aspects of theophany.

The book concludes, then, that in Revelation Christ is regarded as divine, but that the depictions of Christ may incorporate elements similar to angelic appearances. Christ is “angelomorphic,” but is not literally an angel. The most attractive source for such thinking appears to be in the depiction of the logos in angelomorphic form (pp. 90-96, 227-30).

Carrell’s book is commendable for its thorough and careful weighing of evidence. Its conclusions are reasonable, and in many respects sound.

I believe, however, that there is room for further clarification on two fronts. The first concerns the very complex relations among appearances of God, of angels, and of Christ. Carrell is careful at the beginning to introduce definitions. Angels are “heavenly beings distinct from God and from human beings” (p. 14). The divinity of Jesus Christ means that “Jesus Christ both has status as God and is essentially distinct from the created order of beings” (p. 19). But the book soon slips into fuzzy language that appears to undermine the clarity of the earlier definitions. “Talk of an angel as ‘a divine being’ will depend on the context, but essentially an angel as a divine being will mean that either the angel was believed to be a second god alongside the God of Jewish and Christian belief or the angel was identified in some way with God” (p. 20). At least the second half statement, “the angel was identified in some way with God,” is in tension with the book’s earlier definition of angels as “heavenly beings distinct from God.”

Unclarity in the modern terminology derives to a certain extent not only from the intrinsic difficulty of the subject, but from vagueness in the ancient terminology. The word mal’ak in Hebrew, often translated “angel,” actually means “messenger.” It describes the function exercised, not the ontological status of the agent. Such should be clear from the fact that Jacob sent human messengers (Gen. 32:4(3)), and that Malachi, John the Baptist, and the Messiah are also described as messengers (Mal. 1:1; 3:1). Thus the “angel of the LORD” is really the “messenger of the LORD.” The word itself does not tell us whether the messenger is angelic or divine. At times the context apparently implies divinity (Exod. 23:20; Gen. 16:13), at times not (e.g., Ps. 103:20). In later centuries the word mal’ak in Hebrew, as well as angelos in Greek, becomes more like a technical term that simply denotes an “angel” in the modern English sense.

Unfortunately, the book never draws explicit attention to this semantic problem. However, it does give attention to the character of the “angel of the LORD” in earlier parts of the OT (pp. 27-28). “On some occasions in the OT ‘the angel of the LORD’ is ultimately indistinguishable from the LORD, but on other occasions, especially in Zechariah, ‘the angel of the LORD’ is distinct from the LORD, yet nevertheless invested with power and authority to represent the LORD” (p. 28).

But on this issue the book still moves toward its conclusions too quickly. Let us take one case. The “angel of the LORD” in Zechariah 1:12 intercedes with God, which “shows that he is not to be identified with the LORD” (p. 25). Hence, the angel is not divine. But to show some kind of differentiation is not thereby to show the subdivine status of the being thus differentiated. Even in the OT, divine action might show adumbrations of the differentiation of Persons that becomes manifest in the NT. In particular, if Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity can address the Father in John 17, we cannot a priori exclude an OT foreshadowing of his intercession in Zechariah 1:12.

Similarly, in considering Daniel 10:5-6 Carrell’s book observes that the figure here mentioned is probably the same figure who in Daniel 10:11 “has been sent.” So the book concludes that the figure is not an appearance of God, but an angel (p. 41). Maybe so. But again, the fact of being “sent” is similar to the later claim in John that the Son is “sent” by the Father. Daniel 10:11 might be an adumbration of this later Trinitarian truth. Moreover, Carrell’s book has already made a large concession in this direction by admitting that even in the Pentateuch the “angel of the LORD” may be “ultimately indistinguishable from the LORD” (p. 28). At the same time the very term “angel,” that is, “messenger,” implies a previous act of sending by the LORD. The “angel” is both “indistinguishable from the LORD” according to Carrell and yet distinguishable in terms of the distinction between the agent of sending and the one sent. One can hardly evade the impression that we have here a very mysterious unity and differentiation together. In the light of the entire canon, this mystery is clearly an anticipation or foreshadowing of the NT teaching concerning the Father sending the Son.

Thus, the book has missed a marvelous opportunity to explore one of the real antecedents to NT Christology. It leaps too quickly to the conclusion “angel,” rather than admitting that there remains mystery.

The book could also have profited from interaction with Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980). Kline’s book makes it clear that the appearance of angels in a form analogous to some of the features of theophany is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it is part of a general pattern of imaging, manifested in the tabernacle and the temple, the theophanic cloud, and the creation of man. The pattern ultimately traces back to the Trinitarian character of God. The Son, the exact Image of the Father (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), and the Spirit who gives life to creation, are the archetypes on whom rest the acts of creation. Angels replicate the glory of God in certain respects on a creaturely level. Though the angels are creatures, they display by analogy something of the power, majesty, and authority of God who sends them. In fact, they display by analogy the glory of the Son and the Spirit.

Thus it is understandable that in some phenomena related to theophany we cannot always be immediately sure whether we are dealing with an appearing of God himself or with angelic beings who are instruments of God’s will.

Carrell appears to be unaware of Kline’s work. The result is that he assumes too quickly that we can in principle classify each instance as either an appearance of God, of Christ, or of an angel. Instead, he should admit that sometimes the text may not by itself supply enough explicit information to settle the question. In many instances, it does not matter, because through angelic appearances God can indeed indirectly reveal something of himself as well. The ministry of angels in the OT foreshadows something of the eschatological ministry of Christ and the Spirit in the NT. The theology of imaging provides an explanation for these structures, which might otherwise appear to be merely “conventional” ways of presenting God, angels, or exalted men.

In spite of these weaknesses, Carrell’s book provides a reasonable starting point for reflection. And it avoids the oversimplifications and heretical views associated with the claim that Revelation represents Christ simply as an angel because it thinks that he literally is an angel. Orthodoxy, thinking with the totality of the canon, is then able to deepen Carrell’s book by showing the foundation of biblical imagery in the Trinitarian character of God.


Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania