Justin Martyr and his angelic Jesus

Was Jesus an angel according to Justin Martyr?: Shabir Ally Versus William Albrecht

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

In the recent debate with Dr. Shabir Ally, Catholic apologist William Albrecht charged his fellow interlocutor with misrepresentation of Justin Martyr, one of the major early patristic authorities. In the rebuttal period of the debate, Dr. Shabir Ally made mention of the fact that Justin Martyr had the belief that Jesus was God’s angel and this did not sit too well with Albrecht who then spent his entire allotted time in the crossfire period pressing the matter. Dr. Shabir informed Albrecht that his information is derivative of a scholarly work by Richardson and in turn, Albrecht attempted to show familiarity with the cited source but failed in doing so as he mistook Richardson with Robertson (and this was no slip of the tongue as he made the mistake in attribution twice). We do not know which Robertson he meant, but Dr. Shabir Ally’s reference was Richardson or to be more specific Cyril C. Richardson, who was the Washburn Professor of Church History in the Union Theological Seminary, New York. His work on the patristics was a collaboration with three other professors; Eugene Fairweather, Edward Rochie Hardy and Massey Hamilton Shepherd.

After mistaking Richardson for some unspecified Robertson, Albrecht claimed that Justin Martyr never saw Jesus as an angel but did in fact affirm Trinitarianism by identifying Jesus as Almighty God. He contended that even if Justin Martyr had mentioned Jesus as ‘aggelos,’ which is the Greek word for ‘angel,’ he would have meant it in the sense of a ‘messenger’ as how it is used for John the Baptist’s disciples in Luke 7 or Rahab’s spies in James 2:25. Granted that the word ‘aggelos’ may be used of humans without intending that those humans were heavenly winged beings, such usage, however, is rare. Typically, when ‘aggelos’ is used, the primary sense is meant, i.e., a supernatural being of heavenly origin. This is the primary definition that one would encounter in most lexicons. If we were to go by Albrecht’s logic, then, it would be difficult to determine when God really means God because Moses is called God (Exodus 7:1) and Satan is identified as God (2 Corinthians 4:4), too. To those not trained in linguistics, the phenomenon of polysemy may prove too overwhelming. In layman’s terms, the way to determine the meaning of any given word– that has possible multiple shades of meaning –that is intended by the author is by simply putting it in the context in which it occurs.

Did Justin Martyr believe Jesus to be ‘aggelos’ in the primary sense, i.e., a supernatural, heavenly being, or did he intend the secondary sense of the word, i.e., a messenger that may or may not be of heavenly origin? Richardson makes the point rather clear for us:

“Nor again does Justin bother to state precisely how the Spirit and the Logos are distinguished from the lesser angelic powers, who follow the Son (pre-eminently God’s Angel), and who in one passage are named between him and the prophetic spirit.” [1]

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, he clearly identifies Jesus as an angel:

“[By] calling him “the Angel of great counsel,” did not Isaiah predict that Christ would be a teacher of those truths that he expounded when he came upon the earth? For he alone openly taught great counsels that the Father intended for those who either were or shall be pleasing to him as well as for those people or angels who withdrew from his will.” [2]

As a matter of fact, Justin Martyr is notably credited as the first person to identify the mysterious ‘Angel of the Lord’ as Jesus:

“Justin Martyr (ca. 100-ca. 165 C.E.) was the first to advocate that the Angel of the Lord was a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ in the guise of an angel.” [3]

But did Justin Martyr simply believe that Jesus was wearing a kind of costume when he was an angel, so that he would appear to onlookers like an angel but in reality he was something else? Edgar G. Foster, who is adjunct assistant professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University and teaches the New Testament and Old Testament at Catawba Valley Community College, says that Justin Martyr understood Jesus to be an angel in the sense of ‘per substantiam’ (in substance) or ‘kat ousian’ (in essence):

“While he acknowledges that Angelorphic Christology is contained in Tertullian’s theological treatises, Gieschen* is quick to point out that former’s terminology does not mean the apologist believes Christ possesses an angelic nature. On the other hand, Justin Martyr evidently did affirm that Christ is an angel per substantiam or κατ’ ουσιαν: “But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of other god angels who follow and are made like Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught (1 Apology 6.1-2). Gieschen explains the famed Justinian passage as follows:
“What is striking about this text is both Justin’s acknowledgement that angels are made like Christ (i.e., of the same nature) and the inclusion of angels as receiving ‘worship and adoration’ (sebomeqa kai proskunoumen) in a sequence after the Father and the Son and before the (prophetic) Spirit.”” [4]

The evidence from the horse’s mouth, i.e., Justin Martyr’s commentary, and the clear evidence from the scholarly literature prove Dr. Shabir Ally right in his claim concerning Justin Martyr. Albrecht’s obvious aghast with the idea that his beloved Justin Martyr could have conceived Jesus as really an angel is evidence in and of itself that further use of this personality as an orthodox authority ought to be second-guessed. Since we have demonstrated that Justin Martyr did indeed hold that Jesus was an actual angel, Albrecht’s compunction with the idea is indicative of the following unavoidable syllogism:

Premise 1: As an orthodox theologian Justin Martyr could not have conceived Jesus as an actual angel.

Premise 2: Evidence shows that Justin Martyr did believe Jesus to be an angel in essence and nature.

Conslusion: Justin Martyr is not an orthodox authority but should be seen as heterodox instead.


[1] Richardson, C. C. (1953). Early Christian Fathers, Volume 1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. p. 234

[2] Justin Martyr (2004). Isaiah 9:2-7. In Steven A. McKinion (ed), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament X, Isaiah 1-39. Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 75

[3] Guiley, R. E. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Angels. New York: Facts On File, Inc. p. 25

* Gieschen is Charles A. Gieschen who is Professor of Exegetical Theology and Dean of Academics at Concordia Theological Seminary. In the above quotation from Foster, he is making references to Gieschen’s 1998 work on the subject called Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums

[4] Foster, E. G. (2005). Angelomorphic Christology and the Exegesis of Psalm 8:5 in Tertullian’s Adversus Praxean: An Examination of Tertullian’s Reluctance to Attribute Angelic Properties to the Son of God. Maryland: University Press of America. p. 8

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