When it comes to scripture as well as religious iconography, in the context of at least attempting to figure out a grain of truth if one exists, we must keep in mind that stories and symbols and images supposedly relating to a certain time and place may actually be much older stories and / or symbols that are a reflection of a different much older time and place. We cannot discount the idea that certain similar events may happen more than once across stretches of time, however, it is also possible that one event may inform a whole host of stories in different times after the original event. In short, the stories of angels, particularly in the Christian context, may be reflections of older stories, or they may not. Regardless, what I am looking for is the original source ideas for the angel characters and for the situations they are involved in, that we encounter in so much religious tradition and scripture.
Below is a short list of some of the works of western art depicting Gabriel, mostly the Annunciation to Mary of the impending birth of Jesus. (I plan on adding much more to this list.) Afterwards I list the few references to Gabriel that can be found in scripture and what some of these references might point to.
The Angel Gabriel in Scripture and Art
Oldest known image of the Annunciation is a fresco in the catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salari in Rome, dating to the second half of the 2nd century or first half of the 3rd century. Wings on the angel do not seem to be depicted.
12th or possibly 11th century
North transept, Church of St. Foy, Conques, France
The Annunciation – Jan Van Eyck 1435 C.E.
Leonardo Da Vinci – The Annunciation 1472 – 1475 C.E.
Scriptural References to the Angel Gabriel
Obviously out of the few references to Gabriel in scripture a majority relate to the fact that Gabriel seems to be on the scene apparently whenever a woman who cannot possibly be pregnant, either because of age or because of sexual inactivity, is or will be pregnant. In the case of John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, she is old, way past child bearing age. And the same for Sarah the wife of Abraham. In the case of Mary the idea that she has basically not had sex with any man seems to be emphasized. In short the message seems to be that these women will conceive and they will give birth, regardless of the fact that it is physically impossible. When it comes to Islamic scripture, the tradition is that the 96th Surah of the Qur’an, “The Clot” is the first chapter revealed by Gabriel to Mohammed. This chapter is basically about how man was created by “the Lord” from a clot of congealed blood. At the end of the day, in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions there seems to be an association between the angel Gabriel and a kind of conception that does not follow the normal applicable rules.
The point I want to get to and so I’m just going to make the leap, is that what if this idea of “immaculate conception”, that is, conception and birth using a human female and ascribing the male contribution to “God” is merely a primitive technologically unadvanced people passing down and thus worshiping, the technology of an advanced civilization, E.T. or not, from a long long long time ago, possibly pre -flood? Just a thought.
If we are going to entertain the idea that advanced civilizations have certainly existed on this planet long before the current one, then, is the notion that what these stories are really talking about is in-vitro fertilization or some other form of genetic manipulation of the species, too much of a stretch? I really don’t think so.
Old Testament / Torah References
It is often assumed that Gabriel is among the three angels who stop by to see Abraham in Genesis 18
Announcing to Abraham and Sarah the expected birth of Isaac
Genesis 18:9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah in the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes you did laugh.”
Daniel 8:15 – 27 When I Daniel had seen the vision, I tried to understand it. Then someone appeared standing before me, having the appearance of a man, and I heard a human voice by the U’lai, calling, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.” So he came near where I stood; and when he came, I became frightened and fell prostrate. But he said to me, “Understand, O mortal (Heb – son of man), that the vision is for the time of the end. ” As he was speaking to me, I fell into a trance, face to the ground; then he touched me and set me on my feet. He said, “Listen, and I will tell you what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end. As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kinds of Media and Persia. The male goat is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power. At the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones. By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall be great. Without warning he shall destroy many and shall even rise up against the Prince of princes. But he shall be broken, and not by human hands. The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true. As for you, seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.” So I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days; then I arose and went about the king’s business. But I was dismayed by the vision and did not understand it.
Daniel 9:21 -27
-while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen before in a vision, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He came and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So consider the word and understand the vision. Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city ; to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place (or thing or one). Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time. After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.”
New Testament References
Announcing to Zechariah the expected birth of John the Baptist
Luke 1:11 -19 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Announcing to Mary the expected birth of Jesus.
Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end..” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin? (Gk. – I do not know a man)” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born (other ancient authorities – “of you”), will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Gabriel is mentioned only a couple of times by name in the Qur’an.
Surah 2:97-98 Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel – for he brings down the (revelation) to your heart by Allah’s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe. Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and Messengers, to Gabriel and Michael, – lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith.
The 96th chapter of the Quran, The Clot, is believed by Muslims to have been the first chapter revealed by Gabriel to Muhammad.
Surah 96 Iqraa, or Read! or Proclaim! or Al-‘Alaq, or The Clot of Congealed Blood.
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
- Read! (or Proclaim!) in the name of your Lord and Cherisher, Who created –
- Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
- Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Bountiful, –
- He Who taught (the use of) the Pen, –
- Taught man that which he did not know.
- Nay, but man transgresses all bounds,
- In that he looks upon himself as self sufficient.
- Verily, to your Lord is the return (of all).
- Do you see the one who forbids –
- A votary when he (turns) to pray?
- Do you see if he is on (the road of) Guidance? –
- Or enjoins Righteousness?
- Do you see if he denies (Truth) and turns away?
- Doesn’t he know that Allah sees?
- Let him beware! If he does not desist, We will drag him by the forelock, –
- A lying, sinful forelock!
- Then, let him call (for help) to his council (of comrades):
- We will call on the angels of punishment (to deal with him)!
- Nay, do not obey him: but bow down in adoration, and bring yourself the closer (to Allah)!
Gabriel in Islamic Art
The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library
© Brefney Charlton 2016