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Angels in Late Ancient Christianity

July 15, 2013

Authored by: Ellen Muehlberger, Assistant Professor of Christianity in Late Antiquity, University of Michigan, author of Angels in Late Christianity, available via Oxford Scholarship Online.

I began the research for Angels in Late Ancient Christianity with the assumption that, to borrow from the title of a famous book, early Christians believed in their angels. That is to say, angels were real to early Christians, and this despite the fact that angels were not easily seen, heard, or touched. As I explained in an interview about the writing of this book, many other historians have analyzed early Christian ideas about angels as if they existed only to serve a function in ancient society; doing so made it easy to just skip the question of the reality of angels. So, I took a different approach, and over the course of finishing the book, I saw that angels were not just real in early Christian culture, but important and even necessary parts of it.

Not that long ago, scholars were asking the same questions about digital-format books: are they actually real?  While lots of people express preference for print books, other voices urge us to let go of our attachment to material books as the only “real” ones. Interestingly enough, late ancient Christians thought quite a bit about books, their contents, and their reality; over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a writer whose project explores the ontology of books in antiquity. Her work, especially focused on the ancient Christian text The Gospel of Truth, showed that some early Christians expected that “books” were in fact living things, and, what is more, expected that Christians themselves had in their hearts or minds living, continuously-evolving books that offered divine messages.

It may not be a coincidence that the field I work in—late antiquity—has eagerly embraced digital-format options. Bryn Mawr Classical Review and The Medieval Review, both founded in the early 1990s, continue to demonstrate that online review journals can be swift, yet every bit as thorough and critical as print journals; specialty journals like Hugoye make great use of online publication. Many enterprising organizations use the open range of public domain to put important early Christian texts online in translation. Some scholars have really stretched the possibilities of the digital format: Joel Kalvesmaki’s bibliographic Guide to Evagrius Ponticus is an outstanding example of how online capabilities make possible things that are impossible in print. And even my university participates in a vast project to make more print-only books available digitally. With all of these options available, I do still read some books in print, but even they stay with me in a kind of virtual form, their arguments riding around inside my mind and inflecting how I think about things. Holy Feast and Holy Fast and Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity are two of my favourites that I had, at first, read in print—and now, of course, they’re also available as e-books.

Angels in Late Ancient Christianity is available in print and through Oxford Scholarship Online.

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