The English word “angel” is derived directly from the Greek word aggelos, which was used by the authors of the books of the New Testament of the Bible. Aggelos means “messenger,” and can be used either for a human messenger, or a supernatural messenger sent by God. The related Hebrew word, translated as angel in the Old Testament, is malak. It too means messenger, and can be used for human or supernatural messengers, depending on the context.
Every time a heavenly aggelos or a malak appears in the Bible and interacts with a human, that being is described as looking like a human male, and there is never any mention of wings. In fact, in a number of instances, the person with whom the being makes contact doesn’t realize that it was an angel until the angel “disappears”! The following passage would make no sense if angels all had wings …
Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
How many people would mistake a being with huge birdlike wings coming out of his back as just “a stranger”?! So just where did the notion come from that angels have wings?
Since such wings aren’t mentioned in the Bible, could it be because these beings are said to “fly”? If so, and unless they fly like Superman, wouldn’t that implies that they have wings.
There are only two instances in the King James Version of the Bible where a supernatural being who is identified as a malak or an aggelos is said to “fly.” In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel encounters the angel Gabriel:
Daniel 9:21 … while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man [identified in the New Testament as an “archangel”] I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice.
The words translated “swift flight” here do not imply “flying in the sky” like a bird at all. (There are other Hebrew words used throughout the OT to definitely describe that action.) They are from a root word meaning to be “wearied, fatigued, tired out.” In other places in the Old Testament that this root word is used, it is translated as “faint.” In other words, Gabriel’s arrival was like someone pulling into a driveway after a grueling trip.
It is not even clear if the English translators of the KJV intended this term to imply “flying in the sky.” The word “flight” has long been used to indicate hurried movement. In fact, we still might refer to a criminal charged with a crime as a “flight risk,” not indicating he might specifically try to go away on an airplane at all, but that he might just hurriedly leave the jurisdiction of the court.
The other instance of the term “flying” being connected with an angel in the King James Version is in a vision in the New Testament book of Revelation:
Revelation 8:13 And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!
But the word translated as angel here does not appear in a significant number of ancient manuscripts … instead, the Greek word that appears is aetos, and means eagle. And thus most modern Bible translations render the passage differently from the KJV:
NIV As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice… Amplified Then I [looked and I] saw a solitary eagle flying in midheaven, and as it flew I heard it crying with a loud voice …
NASB Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice … American Standard And I saw, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid heaven, saying with a great voice…
In symbolic visions, many unusual things occur, including animals—and birds—being able to speak! So it would not be surprising at all for this vision to have included an eagle with a loud voice.
This is the sum total of Bible passages that give evidence of angels having wings. There are other supernatural beings, such as cherubs and seraphs (Hebrew: cherubim and seraphim), which are specifically said to have wings. But these are never referred to in the Bible by the terms malak or aggelos. (You can read more details about these other beings, in an article on “Biblical Angelology” on my Answers About Angels website.)
But of course, these facts from the Bible have never stopped the enthusiasm of artists and writers who wanted to depict angelic messengers as having wings. They long ago absorbed the mythology of winged angels, and evidently never bothered to line up their preconceived notions with the scriptures themselves.
Or … perhaps they just didn’t care. For there is no question that the imagery of winged angels is very exciting and impressive, and makes for beautiful paintings and word pictures! A favorite theme for many is the “guardian angel” with broad wings watching over small children, shown here in sentimental artwork.
The “angel” in most of these appears as a feminine rather than a masculine being, perhaps to emphasize “motherly care.” And the wings may even subliminally evoke the idea of a mother bird protecting her young under her wings.
In the past two hundred years or so most angel art (and crafts, including “Christmas tree topper” angels) have almost exclusively portrayed angels as having pure white wings, perhaps in imitation of white doves. But earlier artists, particularly in the Middle Ages, were much more creative in their depictions.
Here is a potpourri of archangel wings from the period:
But in conclusion, the Bible has almost nothing to say about the appearance of angelic messengers. It most certainly never describes them as being winged beings–either with plain old white wings, or these gaudy multi-color ones.
And thus all the artwork and written descriptions regarding them for the past two millennia are based entirely on the imagination and speculation of humans. It’s one more sample of Popcorn Theology.