Angels and Veneration in Ancient Judaism

The following excerpt is from Monotheism, Principal Angels, and the Background of Christology by W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh. This is a pre-publication version of an invited chapter to appear in The Oxford Handbook to the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins.


Jewish traditions place stress on God’s uniqueness and authority compared to other heavenly beings. He the Creator and the King.

“Bauckham’s astute observation about the topos of angelic refusal of worship in certain Jewish texts was followed up in Stuckenbruck’s published doctoral thesis (1995), an important study in which he conducted a thorough survey of all references to the veneration of angels, and the limitations of it, in ancient Jewish texts, inscriptions and magical material.  Stuckenbruck noted that there was no evidence of a fixed ‘cultic devotion’ to angels, in the sense of angels being the recipients of corporate worship in the ways that God was in ancient Jewish settings. But he also contended that there were various uses of ‘venerative language’ with reference to angels: e.g., (1) occasional invocation of angels (but usually with God) for help, vengeance or protection, (2) angels presented as exemplary worshippers of God (e.g., 4QShirShabb), and (3) expressions of thanksgiving (to God) for actions attributed to angels (Stuckenbruck 1995: 200-3).”

“Yet he judged that none of these various kinds of ‘angel veneration’ was conceived as a substitute for, or infringement on, the worship of the one God, noting that ‘most often the venerative language [for angels] is followed by an explanation which emphasizes the supremacy of God’ (Stuckenbruck 1995: 201).”

“In summary, in second-temple Jewish tradition a firm commitment to the uniqueness of the one God, expressed both in religious rhetoric and in cultic practice clearly sat easily with beliefs about powerful and exalted adjutant figures, among which principal angels were prominent, sometimes portrayed as uniquely deputized to act in God’s name as God’s chief agent.  In its earliest expressions, Jesus-devotion was a distinctive example of this, albeit novel in ways noted and, of course, particularly noteworthy in terms of its historical impact, the risen/exalted Jesus portrayed as God’s uniquely glorious agent of creation and redemption.  The Qumran texts have added enormously to our store of evidence concerning second-temple Judaism, and help us thereby to reconstruct the religious context of earliest circles of the Christian movement.”

Christian monotheism and Pagan polytheism: Can they be reconciled?

In case any of you are wondering how I reconcile Christian monotheism with Pagan polytheism, here’s a brief if somewhat incomplete explanation of how I understand deity.
In essence, I differentiate between an uncreated One, who is the source of all life, and many created ones, who influence life in all its many aspects. Whether these created ones, these intermediaries, are knowns as gods or angels or spirits or otherwise is of secondary concern to me. I tend to think in more functional terms, recognising that many of these functions tend to translate across cultures even if the names don’t.
So, do I worship these created ones? No, I reserve worship for the uncreated One alone. However, I do consider them worthy of respect, and although their influence is limited in both space and time and in relation to the uncreated One it is still considerable. So I pay my respects where appropriate.
So, how do I understand Jesus in relation to deity? I recognise Jesus as the embodiment of the uncreated One – not in his masculinity, for the uncreated One is the source of all gender, but in his unconditional love and faithfulness which he demonstrated when he was amongst us, for that is the true character of the uncreated One.
As for the uncreated One, I get why the Jews were reluctant to name this one casually. Naming tends to limit and we are talking here of the limitless. If I use the word God or Deity or Spirit it is with the recognition that this word can confuse as much as enlighten.