Angels are everywhere today—on lapel pins, magnetic dashboard figures, keepsake ornaments and in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But interest in angels is more than a contemporary fad. According to a University of Michigan historian, angels stirred intense interest in the early years of Christianity as well.

“Just as many people today think of pets as part of their families, many people in the first 500 years of Christianity were convinced that angels were part of their lives,” said Ellen Muehlberger, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and history at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Various types of angels are named, but not defined, in the Bible. Christians worked out what angels did and what they were during the fourth and fifth centuries, according to Muehlberger, who is writing a book on angels in late ancient times. An author living in Syria around the year 500 organized what little was known about angels into a “Celestial Hierarchy”: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

In late antiquity, the identity of angels was much broader than what it is now: some Christians spoke of Christ as an angel, or suggested that Christian ascetic monks who renounced family, food, drink and sex and lived out in the desert were really angels. But Muehlberger says when the Egyptian monks learned they were being considered angels, they emphatically rejected the idea.

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