Was Jesus the “angel of the Lord” who warned Joseph?

Q.  We were looking at the Christmas story in Matthew and noticed that Joseph was warned to go to Egypt by the “angel of the Lord.”  Now I know many contend that the “angel of the Lord” in the OT refers to a pre-incarnation Jesus.  And, Matthew is very tuned in to the OT.  So…..does this mean that Jesus warned Joseph?  I am guessing there is a Greek/Hebrew explanation for this.

I think there are a few reasons why it’s probably not actually Jesus, in the person of the “angel of the Lord,” warning Joseph in the Christmas story:

(1)  First, the text should probably be translated “an angel of the Lord” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”  Most contemporary English translations read this way, “an angel,” although some translations say “the angel.”  (For the Greek/Hebrew specifics, see the bottom of this post.)

(2)  Also, in Matthew this angel always appears in a dream.  In the First Testament the angel of the Lord tends to appear in person.  (Notice how, when an angel appears to Jacob in a dream, the phrase is “the angel of God” rather than “the angel of the Lord.”)

(3)  While some interpreters do believe that the “angel of the Lord” in the First Testament is a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Jesus, I think it’s better to consider it more generally a “theophany,” that is, an appearance of God in human form, without being any more specific than this.

So for these reasons I wouldn’t say that Jesus is warning Joseph to protect Jesus!

I hope you and your family had a merry Christmas.  And as the story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that Jesus became a refugee shortly after he was born, let us remember all those in our world today who are refugees with our help and prayers.

Giotto, “The Flight Into Egypt”

Specifics regarding translation:  Each of the three times the phrase occurs in the Joseph narrative (when the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife; when the angel warns him to flee from Bethlehem; and when the angel tells him to return to Israel), “angel” appears in the nominative case in Greek with no article, which generally means an indefinite noun rather than a definite one, thus “an angel of the Lord.”  By contrast, the phrase in the First Testament for these theophanies is definite, “the angel of the Lord,” because “angel” is in the construct state and dependent on YHWH, which as a proper name is always definite and so makes “angel” definite as well.  If a Greek writer wanted to express in Greek that the noun was definite, using an article would be the clearest way to do this, but no article is present.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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