Do Angels Have Wings?

April 28th, 2011
Photo © Peter Roan | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Our English word angel is taken directly as a cognate from the Greek angelos. The word angel in the New Testament derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible prior to the time of Jesus. Angel means "messenger." In Hebrew, the term is malak, and in the Common English Bible the Old Testament editors always translate malak as "messenger." In a few Old Testament texts, the malak is apparently the Lord perceived as a messenger. In the New Testament, however, the CEB editors decided to stick with a transliteration of angel because the word angel is a cognate in English and is commonly used in popular English-speaking culture for the New Testament gospel stories, the Acts of the apostles, and in the visions of the Revelation scroll.

The trendy fascination with angels in popular culture can also result in fanciful hyper-imagination for books, songs, and film. Angels are most often depicted with wings in music, books, and films. However, throughout the Bible, the divine messengers known as malak or angelos apparently don't have wings. (The book of Revelation has angels that "come down from heaven," which might trigger the imagination of a bird-like creature descending from the sky.) They are messengers sent from God, apparently in the bodily form of a human being. The 2011 speculative film about the will of God, The Adjustment Bureau, probably handles the role of divine messenger correctly—without wings—though the powerful fedora hats on the "adjusters" are a clever symbol for (all-male) authority. The cherubim and seraphim in the Old Testament are described as winged heavenly creatures, but these beings are not the divine messengers sent from God in the Bible. The cherubim (winged creatures) are instead associated with the presence of God in the chest containing the covenant, and the rare seraphim seem to have six wings when they interact in a mysterious divine council.

In sum, when God is not communicating directly with human beings in the Bible narratives, God sometimes sends a divine representative to convey a message. When God's Son came down to dwell among us in human form, Christians obtained a reliable or consistent form of access to God's message or Word (Jesus is the Word), which is one reason why many followers of Jesus don't depend much on other messengers when seeking God's will.

Paul Franklyn is Associate Publisher and Project Director for the new Common English Bible translation. (Photo Credit: Peter Roan)

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