Angel or Messenger? Some Interpretation in Translation

When it comes to translation, sometimes there are instances where English (and other languages) express multiple concepts that are contained within a single word in the source language (Hebrew or Greek in this case). The words commonly translated as “angel” or “messenger” are perfect examples of this.

The Hebrew word we get “angel” from is the word malakh (מַלְאָךְ‎). When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, malakh was rendered as angelos (άγγελος), and this usage was then imported into the Greek of the New Testament. Both of these words, in a very basic sense, mean “messenger.” These words can be used to refer to a human messenger or heavenly messenger, but in terms of the vocabulary used in Hebrew and Greek, the word was exactly the same. The same word was used to communicate both concepts. For an equivalent in English, we could imagine a scenario where every instance of malakh and angelos was translated as “messenger” and we had to let the context help us decide what kind of messenger was in view. Consider the following examples:

And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

Genesis 32:3

And the messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.

Exodus 3:2

But as he considered these things, behold, a messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:20

In the sixth month the messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.

Luke 1:26–27

Does it feel strange to read “messenger” in place of “angel”? Yet does the context not still plainly show that human messengers are in view in the first example, while heavenly messenger is best understood in the rest? This is probably the best way to think of how the words functioned in Hebrew and Greek; context helped determine which concept should be understood.

In ordinary English, however, we do not truly have this option. We in the English speaking world are inheritors of the translation tradition of the Latin Vulgate, which differentiated between earthly and heavenly messengers in its translation. English Bible translations have thus been forced to differentiate between whether to translate these words as “messenger” or “angel,” depending upon what the context demanded. To suddenly refuse to use the word “angel” would be startling because the word and concept is so ingrained in our imagination.

If we do not know that the same word is rendered as both “messenger” and “angel,” we might not be aware that there are some places where ambiguity exists. One good examples of this is Acts 12:14–16, when we read of the reaction to Peter being miraculously released from prison:

Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her [Rhoda’s] joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed.

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think I would be so ho-hum about an angel standing outside the door. But I might be about a messenger.

Or consider the angels in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. We see the repeated refrain of “To the angel of the church of Ephesus/Pergamum/Thyatira, write.” Has it ever struck you as odd that John is being instructed to write to an angel of a church? Might it be possible that angelos in this context should be rendered simply as “messenger,” and the figure in question is a representative for that local congregation? 

There are counter-arguments to both of these, and thus good reasons that Bible translators have maintained “angel” at these points. It could be that the response of the people praying for Peter was in line with the Jewish tradition of the time that believed guardian angels resembled those whom they protected. Or it could be that a heavenly being, an angel, is precisely what John had in mind in the chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, particularly given the apocalyptic genre and given that every other mention in the book is best understood as “angel.” What English translators are forced to do in these contexts is to interpret the text, and then translate accordingly. But honest interpreters could disagree on these points.

One other interesting place where some ambiguity exists is how best to translate malakh is in the book of Malachi. We typically understand Malachi as a proper name, but in Hebrew it could also be understood as malakh with the first person possessive suffix “i”, resulting in malakhi, meaning “my messenger.” This is apparently the way that the Septuagint understood the first verse of Malachi:

The burden of word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of his messenger (Λήμμα λόγου Κυρίου ἐπὶ τὸν ᾿Ισραὴλ ἐν χειρὶ ἀγγέλου αὐτοῦ).

Malachi 1:1

Compare to the NASB:

The pronouncement of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.

The NASB also includes a footnote indicating Malachi could instead be understood as “my messenger.” There is some translation ambiguity, and the footnote helps make us aware of it. Malachi may be a specifically named person commissioned to bring the Lord’s message, or it could be that he is an unnamed figure functioning as the Lord’s messenger.

Translation is inherently interpretation to one degree or another, and sometimes the vicissitudes of the receptor language means that a higher degree of interpretative specificity must go into a translation than is inherent in the source language. Whether to translate malakh and angelos as “messenger” or “angel” is something that depends upon context. Most of the time, that context is clear, though occasionally there is some ambiguity and honest interpreters could argue one way or the other. 

Personally, I like the idea of thinking of every occurrence of the word “angel” as “messenger.” The word “angel” in English now carries some baggage that malakh and angelos never did, such as winged beings wearing white robes with halos above their heads, floating around on clouds with harps in their hands. Thinking primarily in terms of “messenger” helps keep that later imagery to the side, and it helps remind us that the primary role we see for angels in Scripture is that they are divine messengers. But since English is my native tongue, I will have to continue to regularly use the word “angel.”

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