Macquarie University
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An angelic community: the significance of beliefs about angels in the first four centuries of Christianity

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posted on 2022-04-07, 01:26 authored by Norman Ricklefs
There was no intrinsic reason for angels to survive in early Christian thought: Their mediatorial role was played by Christ; they were also not needed as opponents of demons and demonic magic, as Christ filled that role too. They were, thus, peripheral to mainstream Christian thought in the ante-Nicene period. We do not, therefore, find much discussion of their nature in early Christian writings, and no genuine angelologies before the fourth century. The descriptions of angels which we find are generally couched in the symbolic language of clothing imagery, which was derived from Jewish sources. Yet Christians were interested in lesser heavenly beings, and they survived in popular devotion, until in the fourth century (after Arianism and Nicaea) they became a recognized part of Christian philosophic discourse. Why then did a belief in angels survive at all in Christian thought? Christians remained interested in angels, not primarily as mediators or as demon-fighters, but as models for emulation. This emulation of angels was primarily expressed in Christian ascetic celibacy, in imitation of the angels mentioned by Christ in the synoptic Gospels (Mt 20:30, Mk 12:25, Lk 20:35-6). Angels were models of perfection, they were beings who personified the state of being that many early Christians aspired to. Implicit in this emulation of angelic behaviour is the notion that acting in a particular manner (i.e. imitating heavenly beings) meant something — that it had a result — thus it gave ordinary people some agency, some control over their spiritual state.


Table of Contents

Introduction -- The state of research -- A functional nature: the ancient Christian understanding of the nature of angelic beings -- Symbolic frontiers: contact between the angelic and the human realm -- Christian ascetic emulation of angels -- Conclusion.


"April 2002 Includes bibliographical references A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy"

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University Division of Humanities, Department of Ancient History

Department, Centre or School

Department of Ancient History

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alanna Nobbs

Additional Supervisor 1

Samuel Lieu


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Norman Ricklefs 2002.




1 online resources (xix, 347 pages)

Former Identifiers

mq:31101 2169505