While much of what separates Protestants from Orthodox (or any branch of Apostolic Christianity) is couched in soteriological differences, if we are honest the main points of differences pertain to orthopraxy. The Orthodox stand, they repeat prayers, they have icons, they sort of believe in Purgatory, they pray to saints/angels as well as God, and etcetera. In this article, we cover the earliest known prayers to guardian angels in an attempt to see if their origins can be traced back to Apostolic times.
In previous articles, we found that first century Jews explicitly believed in the Orthodox conception of the afterlife (i.e. what is popularly called Purgatory), every single Marian doctrine that separates Orthodox from Protestants has second century attestations, prayers to saints likewise have third century Christian attestations and second or third century Jewish attestations, and there is even Biblical evidence of Jewish practices pertaining to praying to the saints.
The reason the preceding is important is because Protestants often mistake prayer as worship and in so doing, find Orthodox practices in this regard as bizarre. However, when we reflect upon the fact that all of these “bizarre” practices were common among Christians and Jews in early centuries, this may be interpreted as these practices originating for a singular source: Jewish practice preceding the time of Christ.
If this is the case, then it lends credibility to the idea that the Apostles did not believe that prayers need to be made exclusively to God.
Probably the least spoken about point of difference between Protestants and Orthodox is the issue of guardian angels. As far as I know, Protestants do not reject the existence of guardian angels. The Scriptures appear to take their existence for granted (Matt 18:10, Acts 12:15). A first century BC Aramaic Targum (paraphrase of the Scriptures) also appears to make reference to a guardian angel in Gen 33:11.
Yet, Protestants with good reason reject praying to guardian angels. The Scriptures are not clear about the practice nor are their many ancient attestations to the practice. Nevertheless, we do have two known prayers to guardian angels in Jewish and Christian sources from before the middle ages:
- A Jewish prayer to a guardian angel before entering an unclean place (i.e. an outhouse). The dating of the prayer is the fourth century at the latest, as it quotes an early fourth century rabbi, Abaye, who responds to this prayer with one of his own. The prayer is recorded in Berakhot, which in its earliest forms was kept by the Essenes at Qumran before the time of Christ. (Source 1, Source 2)
- A fourth century prayer to a guardian angel by Saint Macarius the Great in the late fourth century.
Otherwise, we are not aware of any other such prayers before the middle ages. The possible exception of this is Ps 148:2, but it is probably best to interpret this passage as poetic and not literally as a petition to angels. One Jewish scholar notes, “Although no actual prayers [to guardian angels] have come down to us from this time [before the Middle Ages], a strong indication that they did exist is the fact that a not inconsiderable number are known from a later period, the Middle Ages.” Judaism maintains prayers to guardian angels to this day.
But why so few prayers? It was not because there was doubt over the existence of guardian angels. It should be noted that Saint John Chrysostom speaks of the widespread practice of praying to God for the guardian angel:
Therefore we pray, asking for the Angel of peace, and everywhere we ask for peace (for there is nothing equal to this); peace, in the Churches, in the prayers, in the supplications, in the salutations; and once, and twice, and thrice, and many times, does he that is over the Church give it,
Peace be unto you.
The reason we do not have many attestations may be because prayers to guardian angels are not a very visible practice even in modern Orthodoxy. In fact, many laymen may be unaware that they even exist as they do not seem to come up in liturgies or common prayer services. For example, the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom contains a prayer for a Guardian Angel, but not a prayer to one. Yet, there are prayers to angels in all Orthodox prayer books.
As many of the most ancient Jewish and Christian writings were polemical in nature, or otherwise theologically oriented, we have very few ancient Christian hymns and spiritual songs from before the fifth century. Likewise, we have very few prayers to the saints and even prayers to God Himself other than those found in passing in books not otherwise about prayer. It may be a justified assumption that prayers to the saints and guardian angels existed, but they may have not been part of formulated prayer rules nor practiced with the sort of regularity prescribed by Orthodox prayer books today.
In closing, we have ancient evidence that prayers to guardian angels existed, the Jewish evidence clearly lends credibility to them being widely in practice in the late third century at the very least. However, due to Christians also having these prayers in the fourth century, this raises the probability that they share a common origin.