Izaak Hultser details how the two angels who welcome Mary Magdalene after Christ’s resurrection are full of biblical significance—specifically in connection to the Cherubim of the Ark. John’s gospel mentions these particular creatures on either side the empty-tomb, and in doing so weaves together biblical symbolism from the Garden to the Temple.
Though exegetes as old as Augustine recognized this, it’s nice to see fresh, modern formulation.
Details are important. The angels of John 20:12 are distinguished by having white clothes, (which is a common symbol of purity) are two in number, and their presence points to something supernatural.
Many patristics noticed these two seem like they should be upon the Ark of the Covenant, positioned on either side of Christ’s resting place, just like on the original mercy seat. In shorthand, they’re saying John’s Gospel implies that where Christ lay was the ultimate mercy-seat, the stone he took upon himself the sin of the world. His blood is the ultimate atonement.
“If the two angels welcoming Mary are understood as the cherubs on the Ark in the Holy of Holies the scene could also express in a Johannine way that the curtain of the temple was tom (Matthew 27,51; Mark 15,38; Luke 23,45).” (108)
Yet, to ensure on exegetical terms that the Fathers were right to catch an allusion here, what must further be demonstrated is “an identification of the angels with the cherubs requires the basic assumption that άγγελος could be understood as cherub.” (101). Hultser does so with a range of citations.
“Leading up to the New Testament, in intertestamental times, cherubs were regarded as άγγελοι.” (1 Enoch, e.g., 14,11-18; Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice 4Q403 1 ii 15; 4Q405 20 ii-21-22,1-14, cf. 11Q17 vii 1-14); Berakhot (4Q286 1 ii 2); Testament of Job 50,2.3), Ethiopic Enoch 61,10, 71,7; Slavonic Enoch 19,6; 20,1; 21,1; Testament of Abraham 9,8; Apocalypse of Abraham 10,9; History of the Rechabites 16,1; Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers 4,985־12,14.8110־; Greek Apocalypseo and Testament of Adam 4,1-8).”
In essence, “All [of] these texts demonstrate Jews in the first centuries CE understood άγγελος primarily as a generic term for messengers, angels, ‘heavenly beings’, but also linked this word with specific categories of άγγελοι, such as cherubs. The two angels in John 20,12 could thus be understood as the cherubs on the Ark.” (104).
We see angels can be considered cherubim, and the effect for us hightens under the reality that Jesus is recognized as God in a tomb, not a temple. He is seen in the depths of the world, not just its heights.
The ‘ark’ is in the ground, not on the ocean. It is in the heart of the earth, the sign of Jonah, from which Christ’s divinity is confirmed, our salvation secure, and the resurrection completed. Jesus, in this way, by the presence of just two angels is signified as having divine unity with the Father, despite not being worshiped in the Temple of Jerusalem (now destroyed, by the time John wrote).
Empty space is void, but not devoid of meaning.
“In the narrative of John 20, the space between the angels is empty because of the resurrection; in the Old Testament the space between the cherubs is empty because Yhwh did not reveal Himself in such a way that the Israelites could satisfactorily sculpture Him (see Deut 4,12; cf. John 5,37; 6,46 and 1,14.18).” (106)
Moreover, other verses, such as Exodus 25:22, could be connected to this passage—as Moses had communion with God between the cherubs. The allusions may go as far back as Genesis, since we probably are to connect this passage somehow with Jacob’s ladder, which was alluded to in John 1:51.
And even possibly the Edenic Garden, though this connection would be undoubtedly more vague. Hindering these connections is that Genesis 3:24 does not imagine the position or number of the angels which locked out Adam and Eve. But, regardless, angels were actually present at their departure from Eden.
And, unlike those angels, these ones do not hold flaming swords, and do not hinder access to Edenic paradise. In fact, Mart Magdalene is given unhindered access to God through Christ, though she may not cling to him yet—a fact eventually exclaimed by Thomas, “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:28).
The Two Angels in John 20,12: the Old Testament Hulster, Izaak J de. Source: Biblische Notizen, 162 2014, p 97-120.