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cZR’L, The Angel of Death and the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter

S. R. Burge
(University of Edinburgh)
s0345338@sms.ed.ac.uk

‘Is Ezrael the angel Sariel of 1 En. 20:7? Otherwise we know nothing of

him.’(Buchholtz 1988: 316)

The angel cEzrā᾿ēl, an angel of Hell, appears in the Ethiopic text of the Apocalypse of

Peter five times (7:10, 9:1, 10:5, 11:4 and 12:3), but apart from these attestations the

name is seemingly unknown in Ethiopic and is not included in Dillmann’s Lexicon.

The name, however, is not unknown to those working in Islamic Studies, where the

name is commonly used for the Angel of Death. This article aims to outline the

various attestations of the name cZR’L and to suggest a history of its usage in Near

Eastern religion. Whilst the study of the ‘Pseudepigrapha’ and ‘Apocrypha’ are

beyond my main interests and knowledge, I hope that the use of this name in Islamic

tradition may add to the debate about the date of the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter.

Whilst there have been a number of studies on angels and their nomenclature

in Judaism (e.g. Olyan 1993; Davidson 1992), similar research in Islamic studies is

relatively unknown. However, in general, Arabic primary source materials show a

clear preference for the use of the formula The Angel of X, as opposed to the

theophoric forms commonly found in Jewish (and Christian) texts. The name cZR’L is

found most widely in Arabic and, to a lesser extent, Jewish literature and folklore

(Wensinck 1978: 292 – 293; El-Shamy 1995 2:36; Nov 1971:955), but even in

Islamic tradition its usage is relatively limited. The name does not appear in the
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Qur’ān, nor is it that common in wider Islamic tradition. For example, Al-Tha’labī

one of the most respected compilers of the Qisas al-anbiyā’ (Tales of the Prophets)

genre, which incorporates much extra-Qur’ānic material, uses the name only once (al-

Tha’labī 1985: 136; Brinner 2002: 225). To cite another example, in Jalāl al-Dīn al-

Suyūti’s late collection of traditions about angels, Al-Habā’ik fī akhbār al-malā’ik

(The Arrangement of the Traditions About Angels), the name only appears twice in

eighty traditions about the angel (Al-Suyūtī 1988:37 – 53). There are also two

different vocalisations of the first letter: cAzrā’īl and cIzrā’īl; suggesting further that

the name was not that frequently used (al-Zabīdī 1965: 13:27; Lane 1984:2035). In

comparison, whilst there is some variation in the orthography of the Arabic version of

the name for Gabriel (Jibrīl) in early Qur’anic manuscripts, Islamic exegetes came to

use Jibrīl as the standard form (Jeffery 1936: 100-101), but in the case of cAzrā’īl /
c
Izrā’īl, the issue was never resolved and both vocalisations are usually given in

lexicons.

The name cAzrā’īl / cIzrā’īl is almost certainly a borrowing from another

Semitic language, as the nomenclature follows the standard form that Hebrew,

Aramaic and Syriac theopohoric names took when translated into Arabic. The Arabic

equivalent of ‘-ēl’ in these angelic names is invariably vocalised ‘-īl’. This suffix is

meaningless and it is not an actual Arabic word or name for God. When Arabic

lexicographers in the classical period came across any names with an ‘-īl’ ending,

they acknowledged that it meant ‘God’ in Hebrew (Al-Zabidī 1965; 28:45) as there

was no way of accepting the ending as an Arabic form. All this suggests that Islamic

tradition adopted the name cAzrā’īl / cIzrā’īl for the Angel of Death from an external

source.
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Having established that the name is likely to have been borrowed and

assimilated into Arabic from a different language, the task of finding which language

and which angel needs to be addressed. Attempts have been made in the past to

identify the name cAzrā’īl / cIzrā’īl with a Jewish (or Christian) angel (e.g. Bowman

1948: 206-207) and the most likely origin is that it is a corruption of cAsri’el, which

was suggested by the eminent Islamic scholar, A. J. Wensinck (Wensinck 1927:570;

although this is omitted in the second edition; 1978: 292 - 293). The only change to

the name is the consonant shift from samekh to zayin, one that was relatively common

in the move from Biblical to Rabbinic Hebrew (Péréz Fernández 1997:13). However,

whilst this theoretically explains the name’s origins, I have been unable to find any

Rabbinic text that actually uses a zayin in the name. No other suggestions have been

made for the name’s origins and there are also no other similar angelic names extant

in Jewish or Christian texts that explicitly refer to the Angel of Death and the name
c
ZR’L (cf. Michl 1950:200 - 239; Petersen 1926:393 - 421 and Davidson 1967). So, in

plotting the use of the name cZR’L it would seem important to focus on the uses of the

name with this form, rather than any other earlier forms, such cSR’L.

However, apart from the use of the name in the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter,

there are also attestations of the name cAzra’ēl extant in five Aramaic incantation

texts;1 but, because of the nature of these incantation texts, there is no evidence to link

the name to the angel’s (Islamic) function as the Angel of Death, with the name

simply appearing in a list. Likewise, two similar names (cZRY’L / cZRW’L) appear

in some Hekhalot texts (Schäfer 1988: 2:508) but only ever in lists of other angels,

those usually associated with the Throne (cf. §222 Schäfer 1987:177 and §372

Schäfer 1989:68).
1
Isbell (1975) 44 & 98; §12:14 & 41:7); Isbell 12 ≡ Montgomery 1913 §8; Isbell 41 ≡ Gordon 1914 §5.
The name also appears in a much later amulet on parchment (Casanowitz, 1917:55); Naveh and Shaked
(1985) §1:13; 2:16; 7:3, pp. 40 – 41, pp. 46 – 47 & 68 – 69.
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The five Aramaic incantation texts mentioned above date to around the 7th

century CE (Yamuchi 1965:511; Isbell 1975:3-12); however, there is some

archaeological evidence to suggest an earlier date. Regarding two amulets [§2 & 3]

which contain the name cZR’L, Naveh and Shaked comment: ‘It seems likely to us

that the two amulets belong to the later part of the occupation of Building 300, i.e. late

6th or early 7th century C.E.’ (Naveh and Shaked 1985:46). This suggests that the

name was in use before the advent of Islam, yet it is impossible to tell whether the

angel was associated with death at this stage. The uses of the name in these

incantation texts are important because they reflect an angelology that was a popular

and integral part of folk-religion in the Near East on the eve of, and during, the

expansion of Islam. Such a popular aspect of religious belief must have had some

impact on the formation of Islamic folk-religion and early traditions about angels, and

by extension the name of the angels themselves. As has been already mentioned

above, the theopohoric form of the name does suggest that it was assimilated into

Islamic tradition through interaction with North-West Semitic (folk) beliefs.

Returning to the Ethiopic version of the Apocalypse of Peter, we may observe

that the name cZR’L appears again, this time with the vocalisation cEzrā’ēl. The rarity

of the name in both Arabic and Ethiopic must suggest a link between the two angelic

names. Furthermore, the use of the root cZR’L, which is not found widely in Jewish

literature, suggests that Arabic may have influenced the Ethiopic name on a

philological level.

Whilst there is some similarity in the function of the angels in both the

Apocalypse of Peter and Islamic tradition, there is one notable difference. In Islamic

tradition, cIzrā’īl is the Angel of Death, whereas in the Apocalypse the angel is a

(minor) angel of hell. The five references to cEzrā’ēl portray the angel as a ‘good’
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angel, who shows those who were persecuted during their life in this world the pain

and punishments of those who wronged them. This does, again, provide some

difficulty in assessing the history of the name. Whilst both of the angels have

important post-mortem roles in that they deal with and deliver human souls, the

Ethiopic cEzrā’ēl is not exactly the same as the Arabic cIzrā’īl. Is it possible to

establish a link between these two angels?

A further question then needs to be asked about the use of cEzrā’ēl and its

provenance. Does the Islamic cIzrā’īl have its roots in Ethiopian beliefs that

influenced Islam or vice-versa? Whilst the original Greek Apocalypse of Peter,

usually dated to the early second century CE (Buchholz 1988:412; Detlef and Müller

1991:622; Elliott 193:593 – 598), predates the advent of Islam, the only manuscript of

the Ethiopic text dates to the sixteenth century (Buchholz 1988:418). It is also

generally believed that the text was translated from Greek into Coptic, then into

Arabic, and finally into Ethiopic (Detlef and Müller 1991:622; Bratke 1893:454 -

493). The fact that the name cEzrā’ēl is not used to name the angel of Hell in the

eighth / ninth century Akhmim fragment (cf. Ap. Pt. 7:10 & 9:1 with Akhmim ll. 27 &

33; Detlef and Müller 1991:630 – 631) provides further possible evidence of an

isolated Arabic influence on the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter. There are Arabic

versions extant of the Apocalypse of Peter (Mingana 1930a, 1930b & 1931) but these

do not mention the angel cEzrā’ēl / cIzrā’īl and the relationship between these Arabic

versions and the other extant versions of the apocalypse remains complicated (Detlef

and Müller 1991:622).

Notwithstanding the possibility of some Arabian influence on the text,

external evidence also suggests that the Ethiopic version appears to have a close

resemblance to the original, but lost, Greek text (Detlef and Müller 1991:623 - 624).
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Buchholz argues, through an analysis of Chapter 14 and an early Greek fragment that:

‘The original text of the Apocalypse of Peter is closely reflected by the Ethiopic text’

(Buchholz 1988:424). This creates a somewhat paradoxical situation, with some

evidence suggesting an early date for the Ethiopic text and others a later one. More

generally, the name cEzrā’ēl for the Angel of Death does not seem to have taken hold

in Ethiopian literature and folk-religion, as there are no other attestations of the name

in Ethiopic.2 The inclusion of name cEzrā’ēl probably indicates that the Ethiopic text

was written after the advent of Islam, dating to around the eighth century or more

likely, a little later. It is difficult to tell whether the use of the name in the Apocalypse

of Peter was influenced by Judaism or Islam, but the name certainly does not appear

to have been in use before the sixth century, and was not popularised until the coming

of Islam in the eighth century. However, it should be stressed that the use of the name
c
Ezrā’ēl will only reflect the date of the introduction of name for the angel into the

text. The inclusion of a name may simply indicate when the name was inserted into an

earlier Ethiopic (or other) version, reflecting a concurrent Arab milieu, making use of

a name that readers would recognise.

In conclusion, the use of the name cEzrā’ēl in the Ethiopic Apocalypse of

Peter possibly indicates the adoption of the Islamic name for the Angel of Death,

applied to an angel with a similar role. This in turn could aid the dating of this version

of the Apocalypse. The influence of Islam on the use of the name is supported by both

(i) the general relative obscurity of the name in Jewish and Christian texts and in

Ethiopic literature in particular, and (ii) the relative popularity of the name in Islamic

tradition. The form of the name in Arabic also suggests that Arabic adopted the name

from earlier Jewish folk-religion, as the name follows the standard Arabic
2
For example the Ethiopian Jewish falsashas have a number of texts, dating to around 14th century and
later that refer to the Angel of Death by the name Suryal (perhaps related to Suriel) and not cEzrā’ēl
(Leslau 1969; Ullendorf, 1961 and Wurmbrand 1962:435).
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transliteration of angelic names derived from North-West Semitic languages. The

attestation of the name in the incantation texts mentioned above would appear to

support the name’s origin in Judaism, and particularly the Judaism of sixth – seventh

century Mesopotamia. The consonantal shift from samekh to zayin in Rabbinic

Hebrew, suggests that the name was originally Asri’ēl, and whilst the variant form of

the name, cZR’L, is used in incantation texts and the Hekhalot literature, it does not

appear to have been popularized until the period of Islamic expansion, where the

name became directly associated with the Angel of Death. Thus the name seems to

have adopted by the scribe of the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter for the name of one of

the angels of hell. It is, of course, possible that the name originated in Ethiopic, but it

seems unlikely.

More generally, the name cZR’L shows that angelic names circulated freely

between Jewish folk religion in Mesopotamia, Muslim tradition, and Christian

apocryphal literature, providing a testament to the relative freedom of cross-cultural

exchange between Jewish, Christian and Muslim folk-beliefs about angels. It does

also highlight the potential influences of Islamic tradition on later Jewish and

Christian pseudepigraphical and apocryphal literature that could well benefit from

further research.

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