This is the second of a short series of daily notes commemorating the birth of John the Baptist (trad. June 24). In the previous day’s note, two passages from the Lukan Infancy Narrative (Lk 1:16-17 and Lk 1:76-77) were discussed, from the standpoint of John as Elijah (or a prophet like Elijah). This is an important, if somewhat overlooked, association. Christians and readers of the Gospels are generally familiar with it, but it has long ceased to hold much real significance for believers. This is not the case in the earliest years of the Church, as can be seen upon a close and careful examination of early Gospel tradition. Two points are clear enough:
- Early Christian and Gospel tradition drew upon the idea of Elijah as an eschatological (end-time) “Prophet to Come” which was already current in the Judaism of the period.
- There is evidence for the figure (or role) of Elijah associated with both John the Baptist and Jesus.
By way of comparison, I will first look at the evidence for John as Elijah (today’s note), and then the evidence for Jesus as Elijah (next day’s note). With regard to John the Baptist, I will discuss each relevant point (and passage) in turn.
1. The introductory (Gospel) citation of Malachi 3:1
“A voice crying out in the desert,
‘Make ready [e(toima/sate] the way of the Lord,
make straight his trodden (path)s!”
“See—I set forth my Messenger before your face [prosw/pou],
who will pack down (fully) [kataskeua/sei, i.e. “properly prepare/equip”] your way”
The author has added in an association otherwise known from Synoptic tradition (see below). The “Messenger” of Mal 3:1 may have originally been understood as an angel (i.e. heavenly messenger), but in Mal 4:5-6 [3:23-24 Hebrew] (possibly a later/secondary addition], the Messenger is specifically identified with Elijah.
2. The description of John the Baptist
The description of John in Mark 1:6 par seems to echo that of Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). While it is possible that this simply reflects a typical image of a Prophet (Zech 13:4), early Christians and other Jews of the period would certainly have recognized the identification with Elijah. The wilderness association may also be relevant (cf. 1 Kings 19:1-18).
3. The Herod/Herodias episode
Commentators have noted the loose parallel between the persecution suffered by Elijah at the hands of Ahab/Jezebel with that suffered by John at the hands of Herod/Herodias, as narrated (in flashback form) in Mark 6:14-29 (par Matt 14:1-12). Luke mentions the arrest and execution of John, but has nothing corresponding to the flashback narrative, having presumably omitted it intentionally (though admittedly a vivid and dramatic account, it is something of a digression in the narrative of Mark/Matthew). Luke 9:7-9 also may be relevant here, for this passage records rumors (in reference to the miracles of Jesus) that John had returned (from the dead), specifically in connection with the (traditional) idea of Elijah’s return.
4. Matthew 11:14
This is the first of two passages in which Jesus himself refers to John as Elijah: “and if you are willing to receive (it), he himself is Elijah, the ‘(one) who is about to come'”. This verse specifically identifies John as both (a) Elijah and (b) the end-time “Prophet to Come”. This association will be discussed in more detail in the next day’s note. Matthew 11:2-19 is part of so-called “Q” (material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark); the corresponding passage is Luke 7:18-35. In both versions, we also find Malachi 3:1 cited (Matt 11:10; Lk 7:27), as part of Jesus’ affirmation that John is a prophet, but even more than a prophet—i.e. presumably Elijah of end-time tradition. However, in Luke there is no saying specifically identifying John with Elijah (as in Matt 11:14). It is possible that verse 14 is a Matthean addition; but it is just as possible that Luke has omitted it (see below). In all likelihood this “Q”-section represents a cluster of sayings/teaching related to John the Baptist, which may not have been given all on the same occasion.
5. Mark 9:11-13 / Matthew 17:10-12
In the Synoptic tradition, following the Transfiguration scene (in which Elijah appeared), Mark and Matthew record a question by the disciples as to why scribes/scholars say that “it is necessary first for Elijah to come” (Mk 9:11). By this certainly is meant the tradition as recorded in Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6; Sirach 48:10, etc., whereby the prophet Elijah will come before (that is, ahead of) the great and terrible “day of the Lord” (i.e. the end-time Judgment). Jesus’ response may seem somewhat odd (from a later Christian perspective):
“Indeed (it is necessary for) Elijah to come first (and) set down (again) [i.e. restore] all things, and how it is written upon [i.e. about] the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be made out (as) nothing…” (Mk 9:12)
This first statement juxtaposes two elements: (a) the traditional end-time appearance of Elijah, and (b) the (impending) suffering of the Son of Man (Jesus himself). The first is a conventional eschatological motif; the second is thoroughly unconventional—there is little (if any) evidence, either in the Old Testament, or in Jewish literature prior to the New Testament, that the Messiah (or Son of Man) would suffer. Moreover, though there are passages where Jesus (like many Jews of the period and most early Christians) suggests an imminent end-time Judgment, the idea that he envisioned this coinciding with his suffering and death is especially difficult for orthodox believers to accept, since nothing of the sort took place (except perhaps in a spiritual/symbolic sense); but note the position of the Eschatological discourse of Mark 13 par, etc. As for the association of these themes in Mark 9:12, they are expounded somewhat in verse 13:
“…but I say to you that (indeed) Elijah has come, and they did to him as much as they wished, even as it is written upon [i.e. about] him.”
Is Jesus here speaking of John? Certainly one understands a possible reference to John’s imprisonment and execution, but the language here seems to relate more properly to Jesus’ own (impending) suffering. Though somewhat difficult to discern entirely, Jesus’ approach to the disciples’ question seems to be:
- Beginning with the traditional eschatological understanding of the prophet Elijah’s role, and, while affirming it
- An implicit identification of John with Elijah, but in terms of his suffering and death
Much the same thing takes place in Acts 1:6ff, where disciples ask Jesus if now, following his resurrection, he will “restore the kingdom to Israel”—this is a question, like the one in Mark 9:10, which is framed according to a traditional eschatological understanding. And, as in Mark 9:11-12, Jesus again partially affirms, but essentially redirects their question toward a much deeper, less conventional meaning—the impending reality of the coming of the Spirit and the beginning of the apostolic (Christian) mission.
It is noteworthy that Luke has omitted (or does not include) the section corresponding to Mark 9:11-12. It is possible that he, too, wishes to downplay a direct identification of John with Elijah. In the angelic announcement of the Infancy narrative (Lk 1:16-17) it is stated that John will go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah”—this is somewhat different than saying that John himself is actually Elijah come again.
For further study, you may wish to consult the special note (on Mal 3:1ff) in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and also the notes on the Baptism of Jesus in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.
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The centrality and importance of Isa 40:3 for both John the Baptist (Mark 1:3 par) and the Community of the Qumran texts [Dead Sea Scrolls] (cf. the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16) has led to the suggestion that John may have been associated at some time with the Qumran Community (usually identified as Essenes). It is a speculative, but not implausible, theory; and the following points have advanced in support of it:
- John was born into the priestly line (according to Luke 1:5), but (apparently) never served officially as a priest. Many of the leading figures of the Qumran community were priests opposed to the current religious (Temple) establishment in Jerusalem. John’s parents were quite old when he was born, and likely would have died while he was still young; a child orphaned from priestly parents would have made a strong candidate for adoption by the Qumran community, as Josephus states was occasionally done by the Essenes (Jewish War II.120). Moreover, as a serious, religious-minded youth, John may well have been attracted to the Qumran community, even as Josephus was drawn to the Essenes as a young man (Life §10-11).
- The Qumran community practiced ritual washings, which symbolized cleansing/purification from sin and entry/participation in the community (cf. 1QS 3:3ff; 5:13-14). As such, it provides a distinct parallel with early Christian baptism, which is related in turn to the earlier baptism practiced by John. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of cleansing by water and the Holy Spirit (and fire) in 1QS 4:20-21, as we see expressed by John in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16.
- John’s ministry along the Jordan river included the desert regions around the Dead Sea not all that far from the site of Qumran. It is certainly possible that John may have had some contact with members of the Community.
For a more detailed summary, see the recent article “John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Scrolls”.