Saturday, April 23, 2011

One angel or two?

Unbelievers make heavy weather of the fact that Mark mentions one angel at the tomb while Luke mentions two. But if you ask me, I’d chalk this up to Lukan/dominical numerology. Consider the stereotypical use of “2” in parabolic discourse:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty” (Lk 7:41).

“There was a man who had two sons” (Lk 15:11).

“I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left” (Lk 17:34).

“There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left” (Lk 17:35).

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Lk 18:10).

Numbering things by two seems to be a narrative cliché.

Consider some other parallels:

While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel” (Lk 24:4).

“And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah” (Lk 9:30).

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:13).

So Luke is fond of grouping things by two. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every use of “two” must be conventional. But the use of “two” as a storytelling convention ought to forewarn us not to press Lukan usage with mechanical literality. 


  1. There's also the fact that when there are two, there is one. Also Mark doesn't say that there is one angel, it says that there was an angel (a young man). He doesn't use the word "one" so we can't automatically eliminate the possiblity that the other one wasn't there.
    Something similar occurs in Luke 18, Mark 10, and Matthew 20 with Bartimeaus the blind beggar of Jericho. Except that Matthew favors two beggars and Mark and Luke only one.

  2. A trivial (but interesting) aside: the King James version of the passage you mentioned (Luke 17:34) has

    "I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left."

  3. I'm not sure which is worse. Rhology's "Where there's two angels there's one angel" argument, or this one. They're practically tied in my mind. :)

  4. Well, David, what is worse is your inability to cobble together anything resembling an argument.

  5. Even if the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark really 1. BELIEVED that there was only one angel and 2. WROTE ONLY ABOUT one angel doesn't prove a contradiction/discrepancy or call into question either the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture because neither Matthew nor Mark claim/assert there was ONE, AND ONLY ONE, angel. Neither claim to be exhaustive about the details of the events of that day. Much less do they claim to be precisely chronological in their accounts.

    It only makes sense that the writer of the Gospel of Luke would be more precise about the number of angels present because The writer claims to have written his Gospel based on in-depth research. The implication being that he interviewed as many people as he could and that he was relying on (and consulted) other written accounts (some of which may be lost to history; contributed to the other canonical Gospels; or *were* among what we would now call canonical Gospels).

    If that's the case, then he may have personally interviewed the very women who were at the tomb much more carefully than the writers of Matthew and Mark (if they interviewed them at all).

    Interestingly, Luke is the Gospel that has the most to say about woman. He seems to be more willing to accept female testimony because of his more Hellenistic sensibilities (regardless of whether he was Jewish or Gentile).

    The details about Mary that's missing in the other Gospels, but written about in Luke could only have come from Mary herself or (in all likelihood) other women who had a tradition that goes back to Mary.

  6. Infallible and inerrant knowledge of the details of certain events isn't a prerequisite for being a divinely chosen and inspired writer of Scripture. Matthew and Mark could have been wrong in their personal belief that there was only one angel. But the way they were inspired to write their Gospels doesn't necessitate that there ACTUALLY was ONE, AND ONLY ONE angel. The way they wrote their Gospels allows for there to have been more than one angel (two, three, four, or even a legion).

    Angels are immaterial and naturally invisible to human physical perception. So, it wouldn't surprise me if there were more than two angels there for that momentous event, but only two were allow to be seen by the women lest they die from shock. They were already saddened by the death of their rabbi. Any more emotional shocks to their system might be too much for them. It's not uncommon both in Scripture and in modern testimonies of angelic visitations that the sight of some angels induced intense fear.

    A well known example is the story of the missionary family of John Patton. Here's a random website that briefly recounts the story.

  7. Having said all that, it's not clear that Matthew or Mark actually believed there was ONE, AND ONLY ONE angel. One or both writers may have KNOWN there were at least two angels, but choose to focus only on one angel when writing their Gospel.

  8. I would assume that most of the readers of this blog have seen the movies "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and its sequel "Temple of Doom". In the first movie there was an incident where a swordsman is about to attack Indiana Jones. Then Jones just shoots the attacker. In the sequel, a similar incident happens, but when Jones reaches for his gun, he realizes that he doesn't have it with him.

    Now, if you've seen the movie, and if someone were to ask you how many people were a threat to Jones in the incident in the first movie what would be your answer? What about in the sequel? I'd suspect that most people would say that there was at least one person that was going to attack Jones in the sequel but would be unsure about how many.

    The answer is there were TWO people who were going to attack Jones in the sequel. You might say, that this time he forgot to make sure to have his gun with him (or not lose it). But in actual fact, Temple of Doom is a PREQUEL. Temple of Doom is set in the year 1935 while Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with a sequence that's set in 1936. Now if you were to verbally retell the stories in the sequence the movies were released (rather than by strict chronology) would you necessarily be lying if you didn't state that it was chronological? Obviously not.

    What if, you recounted the the sword incident in the Temple of Doom so that you only mentioned one swordsman because you could only remember one (when in fact there were two)? Would you necessarily be lying? Obviously not because there WAS ONE swordsman who was attacking Jones. But NOT JUST ONE. The trustworthiness of personal testimonies or recollection doesn't depend on inerrant memories or exhaustive description of details. Moreover, as shown above, one can have errant memories and still convey an inerrant recounting of events.

  9. If someone doesn't like my resolution, then Steve's is another alternative. As he said, "But if you ask me, I’d chalk this up to Lukan/dominical numerology. Consider the stereotypical use of “2” in parabolic discourse"

    So, in my opinion, if David were honest, he'd have to admit that his criticisms are rather weak.