June 26: John 1:21, 25, etc

In the previous day’s note, I looked at the Gospel evidence identifying John with Elijah. The connection is relatively strong in Synoptic tradition, largely due to the interpretation and application of Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6. Luke retains the association in Lk 1:16-17, 76-77; 7:27 (cf. also Lk 9:7-9), but he omits the specific identification made by Jesus in Matt 11:14 and Mark 9:11-13 / Matt 17:10-12. There are also, however, other strands of Gospel tradition which seem to identify Jesus with Elijah. The passages here will be discussed in turn, followed by a concluding notice.

1. John’s testimony in Jn 1:21, 25

The only reference to Elijah in the Gospel of John is found in Jn 1:21 and 25, where the Baptist responds to questions by Jewish leaders from Jerusalem (vv. 19ff). John specifically denies that he is Elijah, contrary to Synoptic tradition (and Jesus’ own words). He denies both that he is Elijah and “the Prophet” (i.e. the eschatological Prophet-to-Come)—these are apparently understood as separate figures, with “the Prophet” likely referring to the Prophet “like Moses” (cf. Deut 18:15-19). His denial would seem to imply that both roles are reserved for Jesus. For more on this, see below.

2. References to Jesus as “the Prophet”

In the Gospel of John, there are several references to Jesus as “the Prophet”—that is, the eschatological Prophet-to-Come: Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40 (also 7:52). It is noteworthy that in these, and similar, passages, it is the people who make the identification (cf. also Matt 21:11; Lk 7:16; 24:19; Jn 4:19; 9:17); however, there is no suggestion by the Gospel writer that this is in any way incorrect. Though not a connection with Elijah as such, it shows preserved in early tradition the idea that Jesus was the expected (Anointed) eschatological Prophet. In the early Gospel preaching of Acts, Jesus is specifically identified as the eschatological “Prophet like Moses” (Acts 3:22-23; 7:37, quoted from Deut 18:15-19).

3. The Synoptic saying of Jesus in Mark 6:4 / Matt 13:57 / Luke 4:24

In the scene of his rejection at Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6 / Matt 13:53-58 / Luke 4:16-30), Jesus refers to himself as a prophet (for a similar saying, see Luke 13:33). In Luke’s version of the episode, Jesus draws a specific parallel between himself (as a prophet) and Elijah/Elisha (Lk 4:25-27).

4. The use of Isaiah 61:1ff

In the previously mentioned Nazareth scene (Lk 4:16-30), in the synagogue Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 (vv. 18-19), applying the passage to himself (v. 21). In so doing, he identifies himself as an Anointed (Messiah) figure, gifted by the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, etc, and to work miracles. Remember that in this same narrative, Jesus refers to himself as a prophet (v. 24), and draws a parallel with Elijah/Elisha (vv. 25-27). The juxtaposition of these three elements is significant—i.e. Anointed-Prophet-Elijah.

An echo of Isa 61:1-2 can also be found in Matt 11:5 / Lk 7:22, Jesus’ response to a question from John (Lk 7:19 par): “Are you the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] or to we look toward (receiving) another?” The expression “the one coming” probably refers, not to the Davidic Messiah, but to the eschatological (Anointed) Prophet, who will be present to usher in the coming Judgment of God (as predicted by John in Lk 3:16-17 par, cf. Mal 3:1 etc, and my earlier note on this passage). If this is the reference, then Jesus’ response, drawing upon Isa 61:1-2 (cf. also Isa 29:18-19; 35:5-6), without providing a direct answer, makes clear that he is the Anointed (Messiah), but with an emphasis on: (a) proclaiming good news to the poor, and (b) working miracles of healing (including raising the dead). Of all the Old Testament Prophets, the power to work miracles (and even raise the dead) was associated almost exclusively with Elijah (with the anointing/gifting also bequeathed to his disciple Elisha). Of course, in the Matthean version of this (Q) section, in Matt 11:14 Jesus proceeds to identify John with Elijah; however, this is not found in the Lukan version.

An interesting parallel can be found in the fragmentary text 4Q521 from Qumran, where (in fragment 2 ii) we read: “…heaven and earth will hear/obey his Anointed (One) [i.e. Messiah]”. The passage which follows draws upon Isa 61:1f and Psalm 146:8-9, and includes a reference to raising the dead, as in Lk 7:22 par. The distinctive association of Elijah with resurrection is attested in later Jewish tradition (m. Sota 9 end; j. Sheqalim 3:3; Pesikta de R. Kahana 76a), and the reference to “heaven and earth hearing/obeying” also fits the Elijah tradition (Sirach 48:3). That the Anointed figure of 4Q521 is Elijah (or according to the type of Elijah) would seem to be confirmed by the additional fragment 2 iii, which cites Malachi 4:6 [3:24 Hebr]. For several of the references above, and additional discussion of this passage, cf. J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (ABRL 1995), pp. 117-122.

5. The Transfiguration

In the Transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus and converse with him (Mk 9:4 par). Moses and Elijah are typically thought to represent the Law and the Prophets, respectively; however, I feel it is more likely, at least at the earliest level of the tradition, that they both represent the Prophetic—in particular, the end-time Prophet-to-Come. This is a well-established association in Jewish tradition of the period for both figures—Moses by way of Deut 18:15-19 and Elijah by way of Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6. If so, then the narrative may present a visual, dramatic identification of Jesus as the Prophet (according to both types, Moses and Elijah). Here again, the Synoptic tradition proceeds to identify John with Elijah (in Mark 9:11-13 and Matt 17:10-12), though Luke does not include this subsequent passage. It should be pointed out that, at the historical level, Mk 9:11-13 par need not have taken place right after the transfiguration—the shared reference to Elijah would have been enough (by way of catch-word bonding) to join the two pieces in the tradition.

6. Mark 8:28 par

In the earlier scene of Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27-30 par), in response to Jesus’ question (“who do the men count me to be?”, i.e. “who do people say that I am?”), the disciples answer to the effect that Jesus is said to be one of the famous Prophets come back (from the dead), specifically mentioning two—John the Baptist and Elijah. At the very least, this would indicate that some people at the time thought that Jesus might be Elijah.

7. Mark 15:35-36 par

Following Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross (Mk 15:34 / Matt 27:46), preserved in Hebrew/Aramaic transliteration (with Greek translation), some of the bystanders, upon hearing it, exclaim “see, he calls (to) Elijah!” While the narrative suggests that this is simply a mishearing or misunderstanding of Jesus’ words, the reference to Elijah may have additional significance as well, especially if it was believed by some that Jesus was the eschatological Prophet (i.e. Elijah returned). There might then be additional bite to the taunt in verse 36, as if to say, “this one who was supposed to be the Prophet (Elijah), let’s see if Elijah will save him!”

This study will be concluded in the next day’s note.

(For more on the relationship between John and Jesus, and the Messianic idea of an Anointed Prophet, cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the supplemental note on Mal 3:1ff, and the first division of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” [The Baptism].)

* * * * * * *

Many critical scholars hold that Jesus began as a disciple of John the Baptist. Even though this is not stated as such in the Gospels, it is often thought to be implicit in the way that the Baptism of Jesus is preserved as a part of Gospel tradition. Early orthodox believers, having inherited the (strong) historical tradition that Jesus had been baptized by John, had some difficulty in explaining how and why this should have been. It is possible that there is already an apologetic thread in the Gospel narratives themselves; consider for example: (1) the added dialogue in Matt 3:14-15, (2) the way Luke has removed reference to John’s presence and role in Lk 3:21-22, (3) the narrative in Jn 1:29-34 where the Baptist testifies regarding Jesus but does not specifically baptize him. Even today, some might take offense at the idea that Jesus could have been John’s disciple, yet it is really not any more problematic than the baptism itself—following the explanation in Matt 3:14-15, Jesus could have been a follower of John as part of his “fulfilling justice/righteousness”. At the very least, tradition preserves:

    1. That Jesus himself was baptized by John
    2. That some of Jesus’ first disciples had previously been followers of John (Jn 1:35-37f)
    3. That there was some rivalry between the followers of John and Jesus (Jn 3:22-30, and implied, perhaps, in other passages as well).