Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.
This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.
How did the tradition arise that Christ appeared four times in the Old Testament prior to his incarnation?
The Old Testament is full of prophecies about Jesus and images that foreshadow him. However, many believe that a certain recurring character in the Old Testament can be identified with the pre-incarnate Jesus, meaning that he appears in the Old Testament as well as the New. There is a tradition that Jesus can be identified as the Angel of the Lord who appears to Hagar, Abraham and Moses, and in Judges and Zechariah. This is not actually a modern interpretation, but was espoused by the Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr (in his Dialogue with Trypho). The Church Fathers were early interpreters of the Bible and greatly influenced Church doctrine in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death.
Before we analyse why, we need to be clear that the word ‘angel’ simply means ‘messenger’, and this does not indicate that the Church Fathers thought of Jesus as a spirit being separate from God in the same way that angels like Gabriel and Michael are. These angels are created beings that act on God’s behalf, but are not God. Part of the force behind the argument that the Angel of the Lord is Jesus is that the Angel of the Lord is linguistically identified with God himself:
And there are many other examples.
So the Angel of the Lord speaks as though he is God, unlike for example Gabriel, who speaks about God in the third person (Luke 1.11–13). This is interpreted by Justin (and other early Christians) to indicate that the Angel of the Lord is something more than a regular angel. So is he a separate person from God himself?
The Angel of the Lord is the one who appears to people in a visible form, but in John 1.18 we read that no one has ever seen God (the Father) face to face. This further indicates that the Angel of the Lord, is not God the Father, but might still be God. The Church Fathers saw a trinitarian explanation for this: if a being is understood to be God, but not God the Father, then it must be either God the Holy Spirit or God the Son. As the Holy Spirit also never takes a physical form, and Jesus does, the conclusion is that Jesus is the Angel of the Lord.
But there is more to it than that. Before Jesus’ birth, Jewish theologians too were trying to figure out the nature of the mysterious Angel of the Lord. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo identified the Angel of the Lord with the Logos, the Word of God. In the Gospel of John, the Word of God or Logos is explicitly identified with Christ, and his pre-incarnation existence is talked about in John 1.1–3.
However, identifying Jesus with the Angel of the Lord does not fully answer the question, as the Angel of the Lord appears throughout the Old Testament far more than four times! The Church Fathers believed Christ appeared under other guises as well. Here are three more:
Jesus himself called himself the Son of Man. This is a title used to describe Ezekiel in the prophet’s book, and emphasised his humanity. But it is also used in the book of Daniel to denote a figure who receives all kingship, glory and dominion over the earth. This is a holy figure and seems to receive the honour and glory that belongs to God. It could be that Jesus was alluding directly to this figure.
It was the belief of Church Fathers such as Tertullian that the one who accompanied Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, said to be ‘like a son of God’, really was the Son of God (Against Marcion, Book IV). However, the phrase could also be translated ‘son of the gods,’ which does not have the same prophetic connotations.
Theodoret of Cyrus writes: ‘[Exodus 3] shows that it was God who appeared to Moses. But Moses called him an “Angel” in order to let us know that it was not God the Father whom he saw – for whose Angel could the Father be? – but the Only-begotten son, the Angel of great counsel.’
This relies on the understanding that Jesus can be identified with the Angel of the Lord, as in the burning bush it was the Angel of the Lord who appeared. This is also one of Justin Martyr’s main arguments.
Not everybody agrees that the Angel of the Lord was anything more than an angel or that the son of man or the one like a son of God/the gods can be identified with Christ. It's an ancient tradition, but not something anyone can be very certain about.