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In Acts 12, Peter is miraculously released from prison when an angel visits him at night. Peter escapes and returns to the house where a group is gathered praying. A servant girl, Rhoda goes to answer the door, hears Peter's voice and is so excited she forgets to open the door but runs back to tell the others that Peter is there.

"You’re out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." (Acts 12:15 NIV emphasis mine)

What does this phrase mean? Is it similar to saying, "It must be his ghost/spirit?" Did Peter have a guardian angel who was familiar to the gathered church (and mistakable for Peter)? Should it simply be understood as his messenger, perhaps sent from prison?

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In Hebrew, the word malach is a messenger, and if it seems to be a divine messenger we might translate that as "angel". (For example, Avraham's three visitors are malachim.) Does the Greek word used in this passage have a similar ambiguity, or is it more clear-cut? –  Gone Quiet Sep 14 '12 at 1:51
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@MonicaCellio It's similar to the Hebrew, although whereas in the OT the usage is about 50/50 angel/messenger, in the NT it leans heavily towards angel. But there are occurrences still like Luke 9:52 where it means messenger. –  Soldarnal Sep 14 '12 at 2:00
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4 Answers

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+100

I take it as being they thought Peter's guardian angel had assumed his appearance to talk to them. We should note that this interpretation does not mean the Bible is teaching that guardian angels can assume their wards appearance but that these believing Jews in the first century believed such to be true.

The understanding of Peter's aggelos being his guardian angel with Peter's likeness did not appear in the English translations without precedent. Apparently some ancients believed that angels, especially a person’s guardian angel (Matthew 18:10), could take on the characteristics of a person.

The apocryphal writing Tobit 5:4-13 contains one such example as Tobias speaks with Raphael, not knowing that Raphael is an angel until later in the conversation.

4: Therefore when he went to seek a man, he found Raphael that was an angel.

5: But he knew not; and he said unto him, Canst thou go with me to Rages? and knowest thou those places well?

6: To whom the angel said, I will go with thee, and I know the way well: for I have lodged with our brother Gabael.

7: Then Tobias said unto him, Tarry for me, till I tell my father.

8: Then he said unto him, Go and tarry not. So he went in and said to his father, Behold, I have found one which will go with me. Then he said, Call him unto me, that I may know of what tribe he is, and whether he be a trusty man to go with thee.

9: So he called him, and he came in, and they saluted one another.

10: Then Tobit said unto him, Brother, shew me of what tribe and family thou art.

11: To whom he said, Dost thou seek for a tribe or family, or an hired man to go with thy son? Then Tobit said unto him, I would know, brother, thy kindred and name.

12: Then he said, I am Azarias, the son of Ananias the great, and of thy brethren.

13: Then Tobit said, Thou art welcome, brother; be not now angry with me, because I have enquired to know thy tribe and thy family; for thou art my brother, of an honest and good stock: for I know Ananias and Jonathas, sons of that great Samaias, as we went together to Jerusalem to worship, and offered the firstborn, and the tenths of the fruits; and they were not seduced with the error of our brethren: my brother, thou art of a good stock...

21: For the good angel will keep him company, and his journey shall be prosperous, and he shall return safe.

The Shepherd of Hermas (an early Christian book that was not recognized as canonical but was still deemed useful for reading) also has an angel appearing in human form.

Shepherd of Hermas Vision 5:1-7. 1 As I prayed in the house, and sat on the couch, there entered a man glorious in his visage, in the garb of a shepherd, with a white skin wrapped about him, and with a wallet on his shoulders and a staff in his hand. And he saluted me, and I saluted him in return.

2 And he immediately sat down by my side, and he saith unto me, "I was sent by the most holy angel, that I might dwell with thee the remaining days of thy life."

3 I thought he came to tempt me, and I say unto him, "Why, who art thou? For I know," say I, "unto whom I was delivered." He saith to me, "Dost thou not recognize me?" "No," I say. "I," saith he, "am the shepherd, unto whom thou wast delivered."

4 While he was still speaking, his form was changed, and I recognized him as being the same, to whom I was delivered; and straightway I was confounded, and fear seized me, and I was altogether overwhelmed with distress that I had answered him so wickedly and senselessly.

5 But he answered and said unto me, "Be not confounded, but strengthen thyself in my commandments which I am about to command thee. For I was sent," saith he, "that I might show thee again all the things which thou didst see before, merely the heads which are convenient for you. First of all, write down my commandments and my parables; and the other matters thou shalt write down as I shall show them to thee. The reason why," saith he, "I command thee to write down first the commandments and parables is, that thou mayest read them off-hand, and mayest be able to keep them."

6 So I wrote down the commandments and parables, as he commanded me.

7 If then, when ye hear them, ye keep them and walk in them, and do them with a pure heart, ye shall receive from the Lord all things that He promised you; but if, when ye hear them, ye do not repent, but still add to your sins, ye shall receive from the Lord the opposite. All these the shepherd, the angel of repentance. commanded me to write.

Amongst rabbinic writings, Devarim Rabbah, the rabbinic commentary on Deuteronomy, has an angel take on the appearance of Moses.

Devarim Rabbah 2:29, “Bar Kappara said: an angel descended in the likeness of Moses and made him flee and the Egyptians thought that the angel was Moses”;

Kohelet Rabbah, the commentary on Ecclesiastes, has an angel appear looking like Solomon and sitting upon his throne.

Kohelet Rabbah 2:4; “At that time an angel descended in the form of Solomon and sat upon his throne”;

Bereshit Rabbah, the commentary on Genesis, states that Jacob wrestled Esau's guardian angel. Interestingly, it uses sar instead of malach for angel. (The use of sar as a synonym is attested in the ancient writings.)

Bereshit Rabba 77:3 "it is the angel of Esau."

More information can be found in J.H. Moulton, “IT IS HIS ANGEL,” JTS 3[1902]516, 519-520 and Strack and Billerbeck 1:781-783; 2:707.

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I think this comment is well thought out, but it assumes as an unspoken premise that the ones who Rhoda ran up to were a bunch of Jews from one particular sect of Judaism, not a bunch of newfound Christians in a very plural world of Hellenes, Jews, Romans, Pagans, Witches, Prostitutes, etc. And the shepherd of hermas is also the one who said that one post-baptismal sin (one sin after you were baptised) was all that a Christian was allowed, after that we're no longer in the family. I wouldn't use large chunks of his writings to prove orthodoxy in the early church. –  user831 Oct 30 '12 at 23:23
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@John Hundley: Remember that the story occurred in Jerusalem, before Paul and Barnabas were sent out, and on the heels of Peter's vision of nonkosher food being offered to him. I think it unlikely that any of the people Rhoda ran to were gentile. More importantly, we aren't here to "prove orthodoxy". Our goal here is to deepen our understanding of the texts of the Bible. (That might mean voting for answers that we don't believe are correct, but are even so well supported and argued.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 31 '12 at 16:19
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In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright points out that continued existence after death was a belief that divided the Sadducees and the Pharisees:

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.—Acts 23:6-8 (ESV)

Wright argues that the Pharisees agreed that the resurrection would occur at some point in the future, but disagreed about what state the just will continue to exist in. Some held that after death people became incorporeal soul along the lines suggested in Greek philosophy. Others, including some early Christians it seems, thought people could come back to visit the living as Samuel had. We might call this idea a belief in ghosts, but the dead might bring comforting rather than frightening messages.

It's interesting that Peter was actually rescued by an angel:

Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”—Acts 12:6-11 (ESV)

Interestingly, Peter assumes that he is having a vision. It must have been amusing, when the story was retold, to notice that everyone assumed Rhoda was having a vision or was seeing Peter's ghost.

Conclusion

The people gathered at Mary's house, being convinced that Peter was dead, assumed that the being that stood at the door was Peter's spirit come to visit. In their understanding, "Peter's angel" was Peter himself in a state that awaited full resurrection.

Alternatively, they may have assumed that Rhoda was experiencing a vision in much the same way that Peter had assumed of himself.

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Could you quote more from NT Wright about the state the dead would exist in until the resurrection (that's what holding off my upvote)? I have never found Jewish writings regarding shades, but also haven't looked it up specifically. –  Frank Luke Oct 29 '12 at 16:33
    
@Frank Luke: Wright traces the Jewish development of a conception of life after death in his book. According to him the ideas were still in a state of flux and had begun interacting with Greek ideas. A pivotal text is the story of the witch of Endor. There's also indications of this sort of belief when the disciples think they see a ghost when Jesus walks on the water near them and by their reaction to the resurrected Jesus. (He assures them both times that his body is solid.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 29 '12 at 17:31
    
Yes, it would have to be after Hellenization (I had forgotten about the "ghost" references in the NT). Is there any evidence of aggelos being used as a synonym for phantasma? –  Frank Luke Oct 29 '12 at 17:38
    
@Frank Luke: I don't think so. That's the conjecture on Wright's part, I think. (I'm not fully convinced my answer, actually. ;) –  Jon Ericson Oct 29 '12 at 18:04
    
even though you used Wright (a trustworthy source), I can't upvote because there is no link between aggelos and phantasmos. (I'm not downvoting either. :)) –  Frank Luke Oct 31 '12 at 21:31
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I tend to just take ἄγγελος as simply messenger in this context. As the word is around ½ of the time simply meaning messenger and the other ½ of the time meaning an angel (i.e. messenger from God) we must choose from the context.

Imagine we are praying for Peter and an excited woman told us Peter was at the door. She claims she 'heard' Peter through the door but did not ‘see’ him. When someone claims to have witnessed something hard to believe we naturally attempt to construct the most probable every day life explanation. Naturally we in the same situation would imagine that the woman had merely heard a voice, possibly muffled, possible with the word ‘Peter’ being spoken. Naturally then the easiest explanation is that Peter had managed to find someone to send with a message to them. It was not really Peter! That would be so improbable; I was probably just a messenger Peter sent.

As the woman was acting with so much excitement the more sober explanation would be that she was being silly and there must be a less dramatic explanation to calm her down as the men were in deep serous prayer. So they tell her "It is not Peter, just his messenger.' 'Please calm down woman and compose yourself, we are in serious prayer'. Ironically their prayers were made in no small amount of unbelief, yet God still seems to answer them. Their unbelief is especially manifested when they were 'astonished' at seeing him.

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ἄγγελος can certainly mean both "angel" and "messenger," but here I would argue that it means messenger. In the context, since we're already dealing with disbelief (they didn't believe that Peter was at the door, "it is the ἄγγελος of him"), the likelihood that these guys thought, "no way, can't be Peter, it must be a divine spirit!!" seems a bit ridiculous to me.

When one begins to learn to enter into the original Greek text it becomes clear that for centuries we've been making interpretive decisions to put into English not only a different language but an entirely different culture as well. Therefore, the culture must be taken into consideration (obviously). Furthermore, there is often ambiguity in the Greek that is unseen in translation, as is evident in the word ἄγγελος.

We could argue about who the "angel" is for years, but one glance at the Greek would tell any educated reader that this context doesn't call for "angel." They think Peter's messenger is at the door.

Take a look at the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon (the go-to lexicon for the academic study of Classical Greek), or, for a more specifically koine reading (the dialect of early Christian literature), the BDAG Lexicon.

In the BDAG the #1 definition of ἄγγελος is messenger, the #2 is angel. In the LSJ "angel" doesn't show up until the third possibility.

I hate to see our translators getting stuff wrong in texts like the NIV, but this was probably one of those passages that was translated in a specific way in the KJV and remained so in later translations, for tradition's sake. God knows how many Bible studies have been delayed over this little translation issue in Acts 12. Let's just be glad that the theological implications of this particular issue don't send us all to hell with corrupt doctrine! (That last line is, of course, in jest.)

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Do you know why the BDAG has "angel" as the second possibility and LSJ has it as the third? And what does it mean that the definitions are not first in the list? –  Frank Luke Oct 30 '12 at 2:45
    
Because the LSJ is first and foremost for the understanding of non-biblical Greek texts, from the "Classical Period." These non-biblical texts with which the LSJ is primarily concerned rarely make use of the sign ἄγγελος as "angel." Only in a few places outside of early Christian and ancient Jewish sources does "angel" appear in translation. This is because in the Classical Greek religions and mythologies the gods spoke either directly or with oracles through prophets and priests/priestesses, not angels. Especially with nouns, earlier appearance on the list = more common in usage. –  user831 Oct 30 '12 at 3:08
    
Once we start talking about biblical texts, the LSJ is of less importance than BDAG. When working out the meaning of a word in the biblical text, the most important question is how is it used in the rest of the Bible, starting with works by the same author. For an NT question like this, we also need to see how the word aggelos is used in the LXX. –  Frank Luke Oct 30 '12 at 17:43
    
Yes-on the BDAG import. Definitely-on the necessity of looking at the rest of the Bible, especially with regards to authorship. But let me pose a potentially dangerous question: How do we know that the English translators in our texts have gotten the English word right in all those other places ? There are countless times in the NT where ἄγγελος could be translated either angel or messenger. There is not often, however, a problem with either definition in most occurrences. If someone wants to think that those in the house thought that Peter's angel was at the door, that's okay. –  user831 Oct 30 '12 at 18:00
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Right. I'm suggesting studies in the Greek of the NT and the Greek LXX to determine the meaning of a word in question. How English translations have handled the word can weigh in but it is further down the list of authorities. I remember a discussion several years ago where someone argued from Strong's Concordance, "See. The word can mean X sometimes so it can that here." It was lost on him that Strong was simply showing the different ways the KJV had translated the word, not arguing that it was correct to do so. –  Frank Luke Oct 30 '12 at 18:32
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