Thursday, August 31, 2017

One angel or two?

1. How many angels were at the tome? One (Mt 28:2; Mk 16:5)? Or two (Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12)?

2. One explanation, favored by unbelievers, is legendary embellishment. Luke is jazzing up Mark. There are, however, problems with that explanation. 

i) If Luke duplicated angels to jazz up the Resurrection account, why does he only have one angel appear to Zacharias? For that matter, only Zacharias actually sees the angel. The congregation must infer that he had a vision. Would it not be more impressive to make the congregation see the angel?

ii) Are two angels really more impressive than one? If Luke wants to garnish the account to make it more sensational, surely he could invent something more spectacular. 

3. The standard conservative explanation is that there were no less than two, so it's not contradictory to mention fewer than the sum total.

4. That may be an adequate harmonization. But here's another tack. What if some numbers are idiomatic? Take some examples from vernacular English, viz. second fiddle, second thought, six feet under, eleventh hour, cloud nine, inching along, third degree, one-horse town, take five, a dime a dozen, five will get you ten, forty winks, ten-to-one, nine lives, nine times out of ten, six ways from Sunday, whole nine yards. 

That list could be easily extended. 

Let's consider some biblical examples. Jesus talks about his ability to summon more than twelve legions of angels (Mt 26:53). While that may well be literally possible, the figure is simply meant to convey vastness. 

Take 40 days or 40 years. That motif is a numerical convention. Although it refers to real events, it wasn't meant to specify the actual interval.

Or take the refrain in Amos 1-2: "For three sins of X and for four," where the numbers are rhetorical. 

Or take Daniel's prophecy of 70 weeks (Dan 9:24). In my opinion, that's a symbolic interval, yet to denotes a real event.  

Or take the Joseph cycle (Gen 37-50), which has 3 pair of dreams: the dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh, as well as the butler and the baker. Three sets of two dreams.

So what if two of something is sometimes an idiomatic number or numerical convention? It refers real individuals, but the sum wasn't meant to be literal. The actual number is indefinite. 


  1. The term אֶחַד in Aramaic functions as the indefinite article. See Dan 8:3: "I lifted my eyes, and I looked, and behold, a ram (אַילִ אֶחַד) was standing before the canal." Rahlfs' LXX here contains the reading κριὸν ἕνα μέγαν "one large ram," a result of strict lexical, rather than semantic, transferrence.
    So, if εἶς is used in the Gospels in these instances (it doesn't seem to occur in these examples—perhaps I'm mistaken), the semantics of the indefinite article could reflect Semitic/Aramaic transference through Greek. This would be similar to how the LXX transfers Semitic idiom with "ungrammatical" Greek categories (e.g., ל/εἰς marking direct object).
    More work needs to be done on this on my part; I'm sure somebody has already noticed it. Just some thoughts.

  2. A Cop’s Solution to the Angel’s Problem (or, in other words, A Relatively Obvious Solution to the Angel Problem)


    For those of us who have actually dealt with real-life eye-witness testimony in stressful settings, there is actually a very reasonable way to account for the apparent ‘one or two’ angel problem. In fact, this reasonable solution may actually serve as a sort of undesigned coincidence which once again shows how the Gospels support each other without meaning to.

    Fear, Dazzling, and Trembling

    The first part of the solution is the following: the women were shocked by the lack of Jesus’s body as well as the sudden appearance of the dazzling and fear-inducing angels, and in such a circumstance—where the women were in shock, in fear, and not fully observant of their surroundings—it would not be surprising if one women only saw one angel, whereas another saw both. In essence, it would not be surprising if not everyone saw the full picture of the situation under such circumstances.

    And note that the differing Gospel accounts actually provide supporting evidence for this hypothesis. For example, Matthew 28 notes that the angel’s appearance was like lightning, and it also implies that the women were afraid of the angel. Mark 16 notes that the women were alarmed and afraid. Luke 24 notes that the angels had dazzling apparel, and that the women were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground. (And finally, note that John’s account is irrelevant to this issue, for the account of the angels in John 20:11-13 is already after Mary had brought the disciples to the tomb, so there is no issue matching John’s account to these other initial appearances of the angels.)

    By way of analogy for such a situation, consider this example. Imagine that a group of women enter a bank, expecting to do some normal banking transactions. After they enter, suddenly, there is massive noise and commotion. Bank-robbers, dressed in bright and dazzling cloths, run into the bank. The women are in fear. They drop to the ground and look down. Suddenly, the men talk to the women and tell them to run outside and tell the police that the bank is being robbed and that they, the men, want a bus delivered to the bank in 10 minutes. The women then run out of bank.

    In such a situation, no police officer would be surprised if one of the female witnesses told him that there were three bank-robbers, whereas another told him that there were only two, and yet another said that there were four. Such discrepancies would not mean that the bank-robbery did not happen, nor that there were no bank-robbers, it would only mean that the women’s fear, the situation, and the shock of the event made the exact details of the situation uncertain. But we could nevertheless fully trust that the event actually happened. And so, it is with the Gospels and the angel’s situation.

    (1 of 3 – Con’t)

  3. (Con’t)

    Body-Positioning Matters Too

    It should also be noted that body positioning can dictate the number of people who are seen to exist in a certain situation. For example, there have been cases where a person directly facing two attackers obviously saw both attackers, but a person who only saw the scene directly from the side and at a slight distance only saw one attacker because the other attacker was actually obstructed from view by the first one. So body positioning, and where people are in a given situation, matters a great deal to what is seen and heard by the witnesses in that situation.

    And interestingly, the Gospels also give us the grounds to believe that body position matters in this case as well.

    First, note that Matthew 28 implies that the angel was on the stone that was outside of the tomb. By contrast, Mark 16 claims that the angel was actually inside the tomb. And finally, Luke notes that the two angels stood by the group of women. But this account in Luke is fully compatible with the idea that one angel appeared at the front of the group inside the tomb, as per Mark, while the other angel appeared outside the tomb, as per Matthew. This would also account for why some women, being inside the tomb at that point, only saw the angel inside the tomb, whereas other women, being outside the tomb, only saw the angel outside the tomb. It would also account for why Luke reports both angels, because Luke is also the one who claims to have dealt with many eyewitnesses and followed things closely from the beginning (Luke 1:1-3), and so it would be expected that Luke, if anyone, included both angels given that he likely spoke to women who were both inside and outside the tomb, thereby giving him an account of both situations.

    Additionally, in the undesigned coincidence category, it is also interesting that Luke claims that the two angels said the same thing to the women, and both Matthew and Mark have their singular angels saying roughly the same thing even though they are in different locations. But it would be possible that an angel on the outside of the tomb and an angel on the inside said the same thing, and so that is what all the women heard.

    And again, this is not hard to understand. For take our bank-robber analogy from earlier. Imagine that instead of being inside the bank, half the women were inside the bank whereas the other half were still outside the bank. Imagine now that one bank-robber—who was already inside the bank—suddenly attacked the women inside the bank. By contrast, another bank-robber, outside the bank, attacked the women outside the bank. Both bank-robbers gave the women the same command. Now, in such a situation, it would not be surprising that some of the women—remember, women who were shocked, afraid, and looking down—in giving a witness statement, would claim that there was only one bank-robber inside the bank. And it would not be shocking that other women would claim that there was only one bank-robber outside the bank. And finally, it would not be shocking that the investigating detective would conclude that there were actually two bank-robbers, even though some women only saw one, whereas other women saw another one. And this is, quite plausibly, what we find in the Gospels.

    Finally, note again that John is irrelevant to this appearance of the angels, for John does not mention it in John 20:1-2. However, once again, it is possible to account for this fact. After all, if John was the last Gospel to be written, and if John knew about the other Gospels, then he would know that those other Gospels already mentioned the incident with the two angels, and so he would not need to mention the first incident with them again. By contrast, the second incident with the angels, as per John 20:11-13, had not been recorded in the other Gospels, and so it would have made sense for John to mention that incident, which he did. It is also interesting to note that John 20:11-13 does support Mark 16:9.

    (2 of 3 – Con’t)

  4. (Con’t)

    A Mark of Truth

    In the end, and perhaps ironically, the discrepancy with the angels can actually be taken as a sign of truth for the Gospels. Why? Because it shows that the Gospel writers were not willing to change embarrassing discrepancies just to make their account more harmonious. This is just like two eye-witnesses who see different things, and yet stick firmly to their story even though their accounts seem difficult to harmonize. It is then left to the police officer to examine the circumstances and then explain how the situation and/or subjective impressions of the witnesses account for their differing testimony. And in this case, Luke serves as a type of police officer, marrying the accounts of various witnesses to claim that there were indeed two angels present, even though some women only saw one in one location, whereas some others saw another in another location.


    Now, of course, skeptics will not be persuaded by such reasoning, for the skeptics will claim that it is ad hoc or contrived. But, as stated, skeptics are rarely people who have dealt with real-life testimony in real-life situations. For those of us who have, the way of accounting for the angel discrepancy mentioned above is entirely plausible and reasonable.

    And so, in the end, the point is that the Christian has nothing to fear from the ‘one or two angels’ problems. If anything, it is easily solvable, and it also supports the authenticity of the Gospels, for it shows that the Gospel writers did not seek to harmonize their accounts to make them appear more plausible, and yet the Gospels are still quite harmonizable once the accounts are thoroughly examined with a critical lens.


    RD Miksa