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Tim Henderson relates (confesses?) that he is now only 51% convinced of the two-source hypothesis. Namely, that Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as sources for their Gospels. In a post at Earliest Christianity, he summarizes a portion of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective dealing with the evidence from Papias for the early history of the Gospels.
Watson is the latest big name to argue in favor of the alternative Farrer hypothesis: Matthew used Mark as a source, Luke used both Mark and Matthew, and there was no Q.
At one point in his argument, Watson turns to the evidence from Papias and suggests that it may, in fact, point toward something like the “Farrer” theory. I will summarize his points briefly, hopefully not doing them a disservice in the process.
Luke implies in his prologue that previous gospels were not properly ordered, or at least that his gospel is more properly ordered than those of his predecessors.
Papias explicitly states that one of the inadequacies of Mark’s gospel is that it was not written “in order,” and that it is not “an ordered account.” Therefore, both Luke and Papias share the view that Mark’s account is not as orderly as it could have been.
It appears that Papias discusses Mark first, followed immediately by Matthew, since this is the order in which Eusebius mentions things.
When the topic shifts from Mark to Matthew, Papias introduces his commentary with the word “So” (Greek οὖν): “So Matthew set the sayings in order in the Hebrew language, and each person translated them as far as he was able.” This further suggests that, in Papias’ understanding, Matthew wrote after Mark.
Papias states that, in contrast to Mark’s disordered account, Matthew has written an orderly account and apparently improved upon Mark’s work.
Papias’ statement claims that other gospel writers used Matthew’s gospel as a source, translating (“interpreting”?) Matthew’s gospel for their own new gospels.
What if the only thing Papias gets wrong is the “Hebrew” language of Matthew? Watson suggests that this detail is apologetically motivated – it emphasizes the authenticity of Matthew’s version, since it preserves Jesus’ words in their original language. But once Matthew’s gospel is written in Hebrew, it would need to be translated into Greek by later gospel writers who used it as a source. If Watson is correct on this point, I think his reading of Papias is quite compelling in many ways.
The Gospel of Mark was the first draft of a doctoral candidate’s dissertation. He submitted it to his advisor who suggested the need for more background information about Jesus’ birth, maybe some more teaching material, and a stronger ending. The student rewrote his dissertation and submitted the Gospel of Matthew.
His advisor thought the revision was much stronger but felt that the teaching material should be better integrated into the narrative, thought a story about Jesus’ youth might be helpful, and suggested that the genealogy could be expanded back to Adam, etc. The PhD candidate did another major revision and produced the Gospel of Luke.
Once again the advisor was critical and asked for major revisions. Frustrated, the student took drugs and wrote the Gospel of John. – Jordan R. Scharf
(H/T: James McGrath)
I have to say that there are two approaches to the Gospels which I ardently despise. First, some über-secularists want to read the Bible as nothing more than a deposit of silly ancient magic, mischievous myths, whacky rituals, and surreal superstitions. They engage in endless comparisons of the Bible with other mythic religions to flatten out the distinctive elements of the story. Added to that is advocacy of countless conspiracy theories to explain away any historical elements in the text. This approach is coupled with an inherent distaste for anything supernatural, pre-modern, and wreaking of religion. Such skeptics become positively evangelical in their zealous fervor to prove that nothing in the Bible actually happened. Second, then there are those equally ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye auld English, bound in pristine leather, words of Jesus in red, complete with Scofield footnotes, and charts about the end-times. Such persons regard exploring topics like Johannine chronology just as religiously affronting as worshipping a life size golden statue of Barack Obama. Now I have to say that both approaches bore the proverbial pants off me. They are equally dogmatic as they are dull. They are uninformed as they are unimaginative. There is another way!
2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
I think the closest I’ve ever been to a “mountaintop experience” was on a riverboat.
I had just arrived in Louisville, Kentucky to start attending seminary. Crescent Hill Baptist Church always rented the Belle of Louisville for a Wednesday night cruise around the time a fall semester started, and they always gave free tickets to incoming seminarians.
So in the fall of 1986 I hitched a ride with some classmates I barely knew and rode out to the riverboat to see the sights and maybe make new friends before plunging into my classes.
I assure you, my expectations for the evening were every bit as mundane as that. But as that great theologian Forrest Gump has said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
What I got was an impromptu hymn-sing in the middle of the Ohio River. I had already figured out that the guys on the second floor of Sampey Hall weren’t plain, normal Christians like me. We were a pretty diverse crowd of liberals, conservatives, closet Pentecostals, and Episcopal wannabes. To be honest, it had only been a week on campus and I was already beginning to wonder if I had made some kind of massive mistake.
But somehow, sitting around in a circle on the uppermost deck of the Belle of Louisville, as the sun was setting and a cool breeze was blowing, somebody—I don’t remember who—suggested a song, and two or three others joined in.
It didn’t take long before all of us were sharing our favorites: “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Those who knew how to harmonize did so. Those who didn’t just tried to keep up. It didn’t take too long for me to feel that everything was going to be alright in this strange new world of seminary education.
There were no bright lights, heavenly voices, whirlwinds, or chariots of fire. To be honest, there wasn’t much of anything but a cool river breeze and a bunch of guys who thought they could sing.
But somehow that gave me a fleeting glimpse of heaven.
I tell you this story because we have before us today two stories about mountaintops and the kinds of experiences people of faith sometimes have there. And I tell you this story because, strange and unlikely as it may seem, the Bible says that our destiny as Christians is to be like Jesus: not just in our ordinary lives, but in glory. “We shall be like him,” the Elder says in 1 John, “for we shall see him as he is.”
The Bible says we are destined for glory—a glory like that of Jesus, a glory that will make us shine with heavenly light.
On the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, the church traditionally reads the story of the Transfiguration. We climb to the top of the mountain each year, and we do it for the same reason Moses climbed Mount Nebo: to catch a glimpse of the promised land.
And that’s foolishness to a lot of people. You know what I mean. We’ve all heard the saying that some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good. We all know we need to be engaged in feeding the hungry and working for a better society because the gospel of Jesus isn’t just about getting our ticket to heaven but about doing God’s work in the world. I’ve heard those sermons. I’ve preached those sermons!
Elijah rode to heaven on a whirlwind. The disciples caught a glimpse of Jesus in his heavenly glory. But I’ll forgive you if you think it might be somewhat abstract or irrelevant—and maybe even just a tad selfish—to think much about heaven.
You may have heard how Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, declared in a recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian that there is no heaven. In fact, he called it a “fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”
Now, Dr. Hawking is obviously a brilliant scientist, and he has every right to his opinions, but it strikes me as rather strange that someone whose work in theoretical physics opens the door for an infinite number of parallel universes would be so dogmatic about how many levels reality is allowed to have.
But I can’t fault him for wanting certainty. There’s a part of me as well that isn’t always comfortable with ambiguity, with mystery. It’s just human nature to want things tied down.
And, if we’re honest, maybe that desire for certainty has an influence on how we read these stories of heavenly chariots and divine voices. Believe me, I can understand how some people will read the Transfiguration story, arch their eyebrows with Spocklike skepticism.
It feels good to be able to sit back and admire how all our ducks line up in a row. If only that were what we were called to do. But in fact, God is not so much interested in whether we’ve got all our questions answered but rather that we follow.
Following doesn’t always seem like a great deal!
Did you notice that Elijah tried to convince Elisha to quit following him three times? But he wouldn’t. Elijah was his teacher and mentor, and Elisha was determined to stay with him until the end.
It wasn’t exactly a good time to be a prophet in Israel. Ahab’s unholy dynasty was still on the throne. Their imperial ambitions were about to be tested by a rebellion brewing in Moab, and Elijah had already been commissioned to go anoint Jehu, the army commander who would soon lead a coup against Ahab’s successors and proclaim himself King of Israel.
It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to hang around with Elijah during those days of turmoil.
And do I really need to spell out the turmoil in the life of Jesus? Six days before the scene in Mark 9, Jesus announced for the first time what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem— “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Three times in three chapters, Jesus predicts his coming death. Each time, he follows this up by teaching about the nature of discipleship: deny self, take up your cross and follow me; whoever wants to be first must (like a little child) be last of all; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and the greatest of all will be the servant of all.
Amazingly, six days after Jesus first called them to deny themselves and take up their crosses, the disciples—like Elisha—were still following.
But I don’t know if they felt good about it. I’m pretty sure they wished someone could explain to them precisely what was going to happen.
But then Jesus takes three of them—Peter, James, and John—on an unannounced mountain-climbing expedition. For a moment, they receive a glimpse of glory. It’s just a glimpse, just a momentary flash, but it gives them an inkling of where they are heading.
In the midst of their human fears and struggles, they see heavenly power. When Jesus arrives at the mountaintop his figure is changed, and the outside of him, which had always been ordinary and like us, shone as if he was not like one of us at all.
Now, the nature of the Transfiguration is not obvious. Was it a “literal” metamorphosis or transformation of Jesus? Was it an ecstatic vision on the part of the three disciples? Was it, as some scholars suspect, a misplaced resurrection story?
Whatever we think of this episode, we must tread carefully. Nothing is easier for Christians who have become over-familiar with the Gospel texts and traditions than to domesticate and diminish them. We have become quite accomplished at taming and trivializing these indescribable moments of grace.
We’ll open the door for a little bit of mystery—but not too much! Best to keep these things manageable, domesticated, under control. The Transfiguration exposes our inclinations toward sucking the life out of the Gospel stories lest they make us uncomfortable. Let’s face it: it’s easier to deal with the Jesus we’ve got figured out—even if he doesn’t look an awful lot like the one who meets us in the pages of Scripture. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
We have become quite adept at managing mystery. Sometimes we manage it to within an inch of its life. One way we attempt to manage mystery is by shoving it to one side when it gets too threatening. But there’s something else we can do. Sometimes we try to turn it into a commodity.
What do you say when heaven breaks out all around? The old hymn says, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” I don’t think Peter knew that hymn!
Leave it to Peter to provide us an unfiltered commentary on the events in this passage. First he says the obvious: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Then he begins to make a plan to prolong the experience. “How about we just stay up here on the mountain, Lord? We can set up tents for you and Elijah and Moses. Does that sound like a good idea?”
Now, Mark tries to cover for Peter by telling us he didn’t know what to say because they all were terrified. He’s probably right. When something scares us, we want to feel we can control it, make it conform to something we understand. A tent or three would provide some structure for what was happening and hopefully keep it going—just at a safe distance. Peter saw mystery as something like a power source that ought to be available whenever needed and directed towards the ends he desired.
In college I visited for a while New Hope Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan before I finally landed at the church where I spent the remainder of my college years. There was a nice older fellow there (let’s call him John) who sort of befriended me during those few months at New Hope.
John and his wife seemed to be the kind of plain, simple Christians that makes up the majority in every congregation in the world. He was sincere in his faith and very welcoming toward me. But I heard he left New Hope not too long after I did. I don’t know the details, but I remember him complaining later that he had left New Hope for another church because “that’s where the Spirit is.”
Later, I suppose the Spirit came back to New Hope, because John did, too. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” And that ought to warn any of us against getting so wrapped up in mountaintop experiences that we fail to notice the Spirit’s elusive blowing.
Some believers seem to think they should be in a constant state of spiritual stimulation. If the Spirit won’t cooperate, we’ll pull up our tent stakes and move from one experience to another, looking for more and more amazing things, like a drug addict for whom a lesser fix no longer has the kick it used to.
Do you remember what happened in the story six days previously, when Jesus announced he was going to die in Jerusalem? Peter rebuked Jesus for even raising that possibility. And Jesus had to remind him to focus on divine things, not human things.
Peter had problems with figuring out which was which. And in his defense, it isn’t entirely obvious that the most divine thing is not to be a conquering, triumphant messiah but to face a humiliating death.
Getting stuck on Peter’s mountaintop wasn’t part of Jesus’ plan. He was still on a journey, you see. He was on his way to his own mountaintop in Jerusalem. And getting there meant his death.
The voice of God rings out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And we know what Jesus is saying. Follow me. Follow me all the way down this mountain, and into Jerusalem. Follow me all the way to the cross.
What if, instead of managing mystery, we decided we simply tried to accept and embrace it? We do, after all, need heavenly strength sometimes in the midst of human trials.
But accepting and embracing mystery means that God is at liberty to either show up or not. And so an attitude of openness to mystery requires that we also accept and embrace the ordinary. God doesn’t just show up on mountaintops. God also shows up on riverboats, or picnic tables, or hospital rooms, or even (I’ve heard it rumored) church sanctuaries.
The problem with ecstatic experiences is that they never last. They’re not supposed to. Maybe the problem with us is we think they should. But things like this are meant to be rare. We can’t have Easter every Sunday, either. We’d wear ourselves out if we did.
The most striking thing about the Transfiguration story is how it ends. Actually, both stories end similarly. There is blazing glory. There is fear in the presence of the Holy. There are things to see and hear.
Then, suddenly, everything is back to normal.
Right? Maybe normal, but hopefully different.
Mountaintops don’t last, but they do have staying power. My faith is still strengthened by something that happened to me twenty-five years ago on a riverboat. We can travel far on the unearned and unexpected blessings God provides. By God’s grace, we can even receive a glimpse of Easter that will help us get through Lent.
In the midst of daily struggles, doubts, apprehensions, and frustrations, every now and then, when we least expect it and have done nothing to earn it, we find heavenly strength.
We find it not by managing the mystery but by following the Savior. Like the disciples, and like Elisha, we must accept and embrace not only the mountaintops but also the deserts and the valleys. Because Jesus promised he’d be with us—whether we see his glory or not.
Which brings us to this table. What an ordinary thing it is! It’s kind of silly, if you think about it. How odd to think that God could wrap a mystery in a nibble of bread and a sip of wine. But let’s do ourselves a favor and resist the urge to manage, organize, quantify, and domesticate whatever it is that Jesus intends to do when he breaks the bread and pours the cup.
It’s not our job to manage the mystery. It’s simply our job to follow—and sometimes, through pure grace, to receive a glimpse of glory and be good stewards of it.
Brothers and sisters, Christ is here. The top of Poplar is a stop on his road to Jerusalem. The Beloved Son of God is with us, speaking to us, urging us to follow. Listen to him.
And be careful when you celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s supper. Think twice before you receive that bread. Watch out as you lift that cup to your lips.
The God you serve is full of mystery, and you don’t know what you’re going to get.
As I sat around the table with the grieving family you could almost tangibly feel the sense of grief and despair. Their teenage daughter (sister, cousin) had been brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Our church was the closest thing any of them had to a religious affiliation, so it was my job to conduct the funeral. They told me about their precious one’s life, the joy she brought to others, her extensive community involvement. I thanked them for helping me understand something of the life of this young lady I had never met.
Then Dad expressed, for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, his belief that his daughter was now an angel. “You’ve got to tell them that now she is an angel,” he told me.
Where does this idea come from that humans (at least good ones) become angels when they die? It seems to be a common belief in popular culture, maybe even the majority opinion. It is the premise of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, TV shows like Highway to Heaven, and scores of “Family Circus” cartoons. We might state the proposition as: “All morally good humans become angels when they die.” Often there is a corollary, either stated or implied: “All angels were once humans.”
Does this idea have any basis at all in the history of biblical interpretation or is it merely a modern invention?
Metatron and Sandalphon
In fact, there are a couple of ancient stories about humans becoming angels without dying first. The most famous is the story of Enoch, as recounted in the fifth-century AD Hebrew Apocalypse of Enoch (also called 3 Enoch).
Third Enoch is written under the pseudonym of Rabbi Ishmael, an early second-century scholar. In the opening chapters of the book, Ishmael has a vision of the angel Metatron, who introduces himself by describing the seventy names God had bestowed upon him and his many responsibilities in the heavenly hierarchy. When Ishmael asks why Metatron has been so honored, he responds,
“Because I am Enoch, the son of Jared. When the generation of the flood sinned and turned to evil deeds, and said to God, ‘Go away! We do not choose to learn your ways,’ the Holy One, blessed be he, took me from their midst to be a witness against them in the heavenly height to all who should come into the world, so that they should not say, ‘The Merciful One is cruel!’ … Therefore the Holy One, blessed be he, brought me up in their lifetime, before their very eyes, to the heavenly height, to be a witness against them to future generations. And the Holy One, blessed be he, appointed me in the height as a prince and a ruler among the ministering angels.” (3 Enoch 4:2-3, 5)
The other angels, however, object to this proposed elevation:
“When the Holy One, blessed be he, desired to bring me up to the height, he sent me Prince Anapi’el YHWH and he took me from their midst, before their very eyes, and he conveyed me in great glory on a fiery chariot, with fiery horses and glorious attendants, and he brought me up with the Shekinah to the heavenly heights. As soon as I reached the heavenly heights, the holy creatures, the ophanim, the seraphim, the cherubim, the wheels of the chariot and the ministers of consuming fire, smelled my odor 365,000 myriads of parasangs off; they said, ‘What is this smell of one born of a woman? Why does a white drop ascend on high and serve among those who cleave the flames?’ The Holy One, blessed be he, replied and said to them, ‘My ministers, my hosts, my cherubim, my ophanim, and my seraphim, do not be displeased at this, for all mankind has rejected me and my great kingdom and has gone off and worshiped idols. So I have taken up my Shekinah from their midst and brought it up to the height. And this one whom I have removed from them is the choicest of them all and worth them all in faith, righteousness, and fitting conduct. This one whom I have taken is my sole reward from my whole world under heaven.’” (3 Enoch 6:1-3)
God then bestows heavenly honors upon him, transforms him into a vast supernatural being, bestows upon him various symbols of authority (throne, robe, crown), and sets him in authority over the rest of the heavenly hierarchy. When God places the crown upon his head, the rest of the angels tremble before him.
A second human described as being elevated to the ranks of the angels is Elijah, who in some legends became the archangel Sandalphon (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible [JPS, 1956] 589). Sandalphon is sometimes said to be the twin brother of Metatron. Both figure in medieval Jewish mystical texts and at least have cameo appearances in the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. It is noteworthy that in Scripture itself neither of these figures actually died: Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more because God took him” (Gen 5:24); Elijah was taken to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:1-12). Both therefore figure prominently in various speculative, apocalyptic texts.
These are the only humans ever depicted in Jewish or Christian speculation as being transformed into angels. But where, then, did people get the idea that lots and lots of people turned into angels at death?
New Testament Texts
There are a handful of New Testament texts that might imply some sort of human-to-angel transformation. The first is Mark 12:25 and parallels: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Obviously, Jesus is not teaching that the righteous become angels. First, he explicitly says they are merely “like” angels. Second, the righteous are also explicitly in possession of physical bodies, since he is describing what happens “when they rise from the dead.” Third, in the context of the Sadducees’ hypothetical puzzle of a widow who had been married to multiple husbands in life, the point of the comparison is explicitly with the fact that neither angels nor resurrected saints participate in the institution of marriage. Still, the fact remains that a comparison can be made between the final state of the righteous dead and the nature of angels. Perhaps this was enough to set the stage for later piety to propose the idea that death equates to angelic transformation.
More to the point is a minority interpretation of a couple of other passages. Matthew 18:10 says, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”
Acts 12:12-15 describes how Peter, fresh from his escape from prison (with angelic assistance) flees to safety:
As soon as he realized [that it wasn’t just a dream], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.”
These two passages are usually interpreted as early hints at something like a doctrine of “guardian angels.” At least in the Acts passage, such an angel is assumed to look (and sound) like the person to whom they are assigned. Since at least the nineteenth century, however, there has been an alternative interpretation that should be noted. In his 1887 essay, “The Angels of Christ’s Little Ones,” B. B. Warfield suggested that in these passages what are called “angels” are actually disembodied spirits:
There is yet another explanation which has sometimes been suggested, but which has been received with very little consideration by scholars. This is the very simple one that by “angel” in these passages is meant just “the disembodied soul.”
Assuredly, if we could dare take the word “angel” in these passages in the sense of disembodied spirit, the requirements of both passages would be satisfied. What more natural than that the Christian brethren assembled in Mary’s house, when assured by the maid that Peter stood at the door, speaking with Peter’s voice – though they knew him to be closely guarded in prison, or perhaps already in worse case than even this – should have sprung to the only other possible explanation of the phenomenon: “It is his spirit!”… There is every suggestion that they knew he was destined for death and feared the worst; and there is no reason why they may not have jumped to the conclusion that the worst had come and they were being only now and thus advertised of it.
In the passage in Matthew, nothing could seem more appropriate than the sense of “disembodied spirits.” What could so enhance the reverence with which “these little ones”—especially if literal children are meant—should be treated here than the assurance that it is specifically their souls which in heaven stand closest to the Father’s throne?
In his Commentary on Matthew (Zondervan, 1995), D. A. Carson agrees:
The most likely explanation is the one Warfield defends. The “angels” of the “little ones” are their spirits after death and they always see the heavenly Father’s face. Do not despise these little ones, Jesus says, for their destiny is the unshielded glory of the Father’s presence. The present tense (they “always see”) raises no difficulty because Jesus is dealing with a class, not individuals. The same interpretation admirably suits Acts 12:15: what the assembled group thinks is standing outside is Peter’s “spirit” (angel), which accounts for Rhoda’s recognition of his voice.
But can the word “angel” be pressed into this interpretation? Certainly Jesus teaches that God’s people in the Resurrection “will be like the angels in heaven” as to marriage (22:30) and immortality (Luke 20:36). Similar language is also used in 2 Baruch 51:5, 12 (cf. also 1 Enoch 51:4): the righteous will become angels in heaven, will be transformed into the splendor of angels, and will even surpass the excellency of angels. The evidence, though not overwhelming, is substantial enough to suppose that “their angels” simply refers to their continued existence in the heavenly Father’s presence.
The text Carson cites from 2 Baruch is especially enlightening as an early indication of this sort of speculation. In describing the “shapes” of the righteous and the unrighteous when the final judgment has been passed, the writer has God say,
Also, as for the glory of those who proved to be righteous on account of my law, those who possessed intelligence in their life, and those who planted the root of wisdom in their heart—their splendor will then be glorified by transformations, and the shape of their face will be changed into light of their beauty so that they may acquire and receive the undying world which is promised to them. Therefore, especially they who will then come will be sad, because they despised my Law and stopped their ears lest they hear wisdom and receive intelligence. When they, therefore, will see that those over whom they are exalted now will then be more exalted and glorified than they, then both these and those will be changed, these [i.e., the righteous] into the splendor of angels and those [i.e., the unrighteous] into startling visions and horrible shapes; and they will waste away even more. (2 Baruch 51:2-5)
If one follows this interpretation of Matthew and Acts, then only by the most generous definition can one say that the departed saints “become” angels. It would be far more accurate to say that they “have” angels, that is, spirits. They are nowhere depicted as performing angelic duties—ministering at the heavenly altar, carrying prayers to God, conveying messages to humans, etc. The righteous dead are, however, compared to angels in that they are non-corporeal beings (still awaiting the resurrection) made holy by proximity to the divine. And I should point out that there is nothing in this interpretation that overturns the explicit teaching of Scripture that angels and humans are two distinct orders of creation (see Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:13-14; 1 Pet 1:12, etc.).
In fact, Paul goes so far as to state that in the resurrection the saints will actually be higher than angels in the heavenly hierarchy (1 Cor 6:3). Unless your name is Metatron, you don’t want to be transformed into an angel in heaven—it would be a demotion!
Why Do We Believe that Humans Transform into Angels?
This still doesn’t answer the question of why it is such a prevalent cultural assumption or where this assumption came from. The chances that many people who hold this view have been reading 3 Enoch—or even B. B. Warfield—are infinitesimal. I suppose we could chalk it up to wishful thinking and sentimentality on the part of some whose theological foundation is a bit shaky. As it is most often formulated, it seems to be a thoroughly modern belief. It is most assuredly not the official position of any Christian church of which I am aware.
It may, however, be as simple as this. Any Catholic or Orthodox church is full of depictions of angels and departed saints. It thus attempts to represent who is in heaven and what they are doing (i.e., offering their worship to God and to Christ: see Heb 12:18-24; Rev 4–5, etc.). Combine these sorts of representations of the “demographics” of heaven with deep piety, shallow theology, and natural human curiosity about the afterlife and one can imagine how some people might wander into this view by connecting dots that were never meant to be connected: the saints died and went to heaven > angels are in heaven > the saints turn into angels when they get to heaven.
“You’ve got to tell them that now she is an angel.”
No, sir. With all due respect, I hope for more than that for your daughter—and for us. Therefore I’ve got to tell them about Jesus, who died and rose again to save us, who now lives and reigns with God and with the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. I’ve got to tell them that we can entrust your daughter to his grace and merciful care.