Does Paul think of Jesus as an “angel of God”?

In his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, Bart Ehrman argues that in Galatians 4:14 Paul in effect speaks of Jesus as an angel:

You know that because of a weakness of the flesh I first proclaimed the good news to you, and you did not despise or spit out your trial in my flesh, but as (all’ hōs) an angel of God you received me, as (hōs) Christ Jesus.

Ehrman says that like most readers he always took this to mean that “the Galatians had received Paul in his infirm state the way they would have received an angelic visitor, or even Christ Jesus.” But he now agrees with Grieschen that the meaning is that “they received him as they would an angel, such as Christ” (253).

The claim is based on the observation that in two other passages where Paul has a “but as… as” construction, the second object is the same as the first:

And I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as spiritual but as (all’ hōs) fleshly, as (hōs) infants in Christ. (1 Cor. 3:1)

…for we are not as (hōs) the many peddling the word of God, but as (all’ hōs) out of sincerity, but as (all’ hōs) from God before God in Christ we speak. (2 Cor. 2:17)

The point is not very well explained, but it seems to be that the two “as” expressions are regarded as two ways of speaking about the same thing. Therefore, “as an angel of God” and “as Christ Jesus” have the same referent. Therefore, Christ Jesus is an “angel of God”.

Erhman then suggests further, based on the work of Garrett, that this is not just any old angel but God’s “chief angel”. This then may be used to support the argument that the New Testament identifies Jesus with the “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament—ie., with YHWH himself. So Ehrman writes:

As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a preexistent being who is divine; he can be called God; and he is Gods manifestation on earth in human flesh.

Briefly, the argument is unconvincing.

  • The expressions “as fleshly” and “as infants in Christ” in in 1 Corinthians 3:1 have the same referent—the believers in Corinth—but they are not synonymous. In Galatians 4:14 “as an angel of God” and “as Christ Jesus” are both applied to Paul, but they do not have to be synonymous.
  • The sentence structure in Galatians 4:14 has “you received me” between “as an angel of God” and “as Christ Jesus”, which I think makes it more likely that “as Christ Jesus” qualifies Paul rather than—epexegetically—“as an angel of God”.
  • The supposed parallel in 2 Corinthians 2:17 is complicated by the fact that we have an extra negative “as” expression: “not as (hōs) the many peddling the word of God.” But arguably, in any case, it works against Ehrman’s exegesis because the “but” (alla) is repeated in the second of the parallel expressions: “but as (all’ hōs) out of sincerity, but as (all’ hōs) from God”. That would lead us to expect “but as Christ Jesus” in Galatians 4:14.
  • In the Septuagint the anarthrous “angel of God” (ie., with no definite article: angelos theou) is rare, but it is used twice comparatively to describe a human person. The woman of Teloa says to David, “as an angel of God so is the Lord my king” (2 Sam. 14:15 LXX); and Esther says to the king, “I saw you, Lord, as an angel of God” (Esth. 15:13 LXX). I think it much more likely that Paul uses angelos theou in this sense than as an alternative form of to angelos tou theou (“the angel of the Lord”). This may be the crucial consideration for interpretation.
  • Can we be so sure that angelos in the Galatians text means “angel” and not “messenger”, picking up on the point that this is all about how they received him when he proclaimed the gospel to them: they received him as a gospel-messenger from God? Then, perhaps, they received him as they would have received Christ Jesus if he had turned up unexpectedly to preach the gospel to them.
  • Given the emphasis on a distasteful “weakness of the flesh”, the point of the second comparison may be that they received as a representative or representation of the suffering Christ. Paul makes much of the fact that he boasts only in the cross of Christ, and that he bears in his body “the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:14, 17). His argument in chapter 4 is that whereas at first the Galatians received him as an embodiment of the suffering Jesus, he is now “in the anguish of childbirth” until Christ should be formed in them (Gal. 4:19).

In the context of the letter as a whole, therefore, there are good ways of understanding the parallelism between “as an angel of God” and “as Christ Jesus” that do not require us to take the unprecedented step of identifying Jesus as an angel or as the angel of the Lord.

Submitted by Phil L. on  Tue, 03/17/2020 - 13:53

I definitely resonate with the point about “messenger.” That’s how I initially read the passage. It didn’t even occur to me that Paul might be saying, “Receive me as you would a divine being.”