Question from NG, United Kingdom.
What did the angel Gabriel look like?
Gabriel is the name given to the angel who announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus supernaturally (Luke chapter 1, verses 26-38), having already announced the conception of John the Baptist to John’s father Zechariah (Luke chapter 1, verses 11-20). The name was also applied to the angel who interpreted visions for the prophet Daniel in Daniel chapter 8, verses 15-26 and chapter 9, verses 20-27.
The white school nativity outfit complete with a tinsel halo and pretty wings is a conflation of ancient Greek imagery (see a previous freelance theology article for more about haloes) and other Biblical passages that talk about angels having wings (eg Isaiah chapter 6, verse 2).
Descriptions of angels shining brightly in Luke chapter 2, verse 9 tallies with Old Testament descriptions of God’s glory (called ‘shekinah’ in Hebrew). In Revelation heavenly residents are described as being clothed in white (Revelation chapter 4, verse 5, and chapter 9, verse 9), so it follows that angels would be similarly clothed.
While there are a number of different spiritual beings described in Scripture, including winged figures (Isaiah chapter 6, verses 1-7), many-eyed wheels (Exekiel chapter 1, verses 15-18), and bizarre hybrid creatures (Revelation chapter 4, verses 6-8), it would seem that Gabriel looked like a human. Daniel describes him as “one who looks like a man” (chapter 8, verse 15), although then Gabriel “terrified” Daniel and caused him to fall prostrate in fear (verse 17).
Although the account in Luke does not describe Gabriel, Zechariah is “gripped by fear” when he appears (Luke chapter 1, verse 12). Gabriel tells Zechariah that “I stand in the presence of God” (verse 19), indicating a human-looking body, capable of standing. Mary, in contrast to Zechariah, is not scared by the angel’s appearance, but is ‘troubled’ by his greeting (chapter 1, verse 29). So it is perhaps safe to assume that Gabriel looked, to Mary, like an ordinary man.
The English word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos’, which literally means ‘messenger’. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word ma’lak which was used to describe supernatural messengers was also applied to ordinary humans entrusted with delivering a particular message. In other books that were written at about the same time a more complicated ‘angelology’ began to form, and most of the imagery applied to angels can be traced back to these ideas.