Saturday, March 31, 2018

Angels at the tomb

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed (Mk 16:1-5).

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified (Mt 28:1-5).

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel (Lk 24:1-4).

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet (Jn 20:11-12).

1. The number of angels at the tomb is a familiar crux. Some readers chalk it up to legendary embellishment and/or divergent sources. Some readers don't think there were any angels at the tomb. Many inerrantists harmonize the accounts by saying that if there were two angels, then there was at least one angel, and so it's an issue of selective emphasis. 

However, this isn't just about inerrancy. If the Gospels get details wrong in the Resurrection accounts, that lowers confidence in the reliability of the reports. 

2. I'd like to approach this from a different angle: 

i) One potential problem is that readers all along the theological spectrum are bringing an unexamined assumption to the text. Ask yourself, from the viewpoint of Scripture, if you were at the tomb that morning, what you'd see. If angels were there, would you see them? Would everybody who went to the tomb see the same thing vis-a-vis angels? 

ii) Not necessarily, or even probably. In Scripture, angelic apparitions take different forms. Sometimes angels appear to be indistinguishable from humans. What gives them away is if they appear or disappear out of thin air, or reveal supernatural powers. Take the angels in Gen 19 who blind the Sodomites. 

ii) Sometimes angels have a radiant appearance. In that case, their luminescence divulges their supernatural identity.

iii) Sometimes angels assume corporeal form. These are physical apparitions. They are present as external objects to the observer. In that event, everyone would see the same thing. In that modality, if two angels were present, everyone would see two angels. The phenomenon involves an external sensory stimulus.

iv) Sometimes angels appear to people in dreams and visions. These are telepathic apparitions. Angels can access the minds of the human recipient. 

These aren't figments of the imagination. The cause originates outside the mind of the recipient, but it's still a psychological phenomenon. A telepathic projection. 

v) In the case of (iv), angels control the perception of the recipient. They are only seen by those to whom they reveal themselves telepathically. In that modality, if a group of people went to the tomb, they might simultaneously see different things. One observer might see no angels at all while another observer might see what appears to be an ordinary man, while another observer might see a radiant angel, while another observer might see two angels. 

As a result, they'd give different accounts of what they saw, or didn't see. Yet their reports would all be consistent in principle. Two observers can be present at the same place at the same time, yet angels might be detectable to one but indetectable to another. 


  1. I think all the accounts are consistent as far as the number of angels at any given time, because asserting "an angel" isn't denying "two angels." That's also not an inerrancy issue, because it was even a principle in English law and comes up in secular contexts as well.

    The angels *do* appear to have had the ability to "show up" or not show up at different times, so that Peter and John don't (it sounds like) see any angels at all, whereas a short time later (we don't know exactly how long) Mary Magdalene looks into the same tomb and sees two angels. This needn't be a telepathic matter, even. Being supernatural beings, or beings (like aliens) that operate according to their own nature that is unfamiliar to us, they could have the equivalent of a "cloaking device" or be able to disappear and reappear at will.

    1. Yes, that's a good simple point. That angels were seen by some witnesses in the cemetery doesn't imply that they were continuously present there. If one or two angels were seen by some witnesses inside the tomb, that doesn't entail that they sat in the tomb for hours. They might appear just to be seen by a particular witness, then disappear.

  2. I agree with both Steve and Lydia. I've thought along similar lines of what Steve wrote for a while, but hesitated to say it because it would seem ad hoc to non-believers.

    A possible example of the phenomenon is the case of the announcement of the birth of Messiah to the shepherds. At first it seems there's only a single angel who makes the announcement (Luke 2:9). But then immediately afterwards a HOST of angels appear (Luke 2:13). I think the host of angels were there all along, but only made themselves perceptible to the shepherds afterwards. I don't think they happened to just then arrive.

  3. The reason it isn't ad hoc is because frankly, we don't know a whole lot about angels. Since these are records of some of the encounters between humans and angels, this is how we learn empirically what they are like, what they do and don't do, what powers they have, etc. Very much like aliens in a sci-fi novel. If an earthling encounters aliens and discovers that sometimes they seem to be there and others not, or that sometimes they are invisible and other times visible, no one says that this is ad hoc. Rather, the earthling says, "Oh, I guess that is what these aliens are like." Angels will certainly appear like aliens to us, because, if they exist at all, they are more powerful than the beings we usually deal with and because their portion of nature lies outside of our common experience. So we figure it out by observation and make guesses. The resurrection happens to be one of those opportunities for guessing.

    1. I agree it's not technically ad hoc given Christian presuppositions. My concern was whether non-Christians (esp. skeptics) would consider it so. But your analogy of extra-terrestrials and empirical observation is a good point I'll use in the future.

  4. BTW, for the Biblically illiterate, Steve, Lydia and myself have had in the background of our comments the incident of Elisha and the the invisible army of angels that became visible to Elisha's servant (2 Kings 6).

    15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?"
    16 He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them."
    17 Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.- 2 Kings 6:15-17

  5. Could one of you develop the idea of seeing one angel isn't denying two or more?
    What's the reference to English law? I'm not familiar with this.

    1. Suppose I spoke to two coworkers today, Jim and John. Suppose at dinner tonight I mention to my wife a conversation I had with Jim. Then, later that evening, I mention to my son a conversation I had with Jim and John. The fact that I only mention my conversation with Jim when talking to my wife is mathematically consistent with my speaking to both Jim and John. There's a difference between not saying I spoke to both and saying I did not speak to both. Those aren't equivalent claims. Failure to mention both is not a denial that I spoke to both. It just means I didn't have occasion to bring that up when talking to my wife.