June 5: Luke 1:15-17

This is the first in a series of daily notes in celebration of Pentecost. I will be examining the references to the Spirit in Luke-Acts. These passages have been studied in prior series, but here the focus will specifically be on the place of the Spirit in the message and theology of Luke-Acts. Particular attention will be paid to the thematic structure of the 2-volume work (Luke-Acts), centered as it is upon the Pentecost narrative of the coming of the Spirit (in Acts 2).

Of the Synoptic Gospels, the Spirit features most prominently in the Gospel of Luke. It is significant that most of the references occur in distinctively Lukan portions. More than half of the references, for example, occur in the Infancy narratives (chaps. 1-2), which are thoroughly Lukan compositions in language and style. Also we may note the Lukan version of the Gospel tradition surrounding the Baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in chaps. 3-4), as well as key references in chaps. 10-12 (passages near the beginning of the travel account [journey to Jerusalem], cf. Fitzmyer, p. 227). There is a surprising lack of any mention of the Spirit in the main narrative, though this generally reflects the relatively few references in the Synoptic Tradition as a whole (just six in the Gospel of Mark, and only three [Mk 3:29; 12:36; 13:11] outside of the Baptism scene). The Lukan references in chaps. 3-4 generally correspond to the Synoptic tradition in Mk 1:8-12 par. Curiously, in the Lukan parallel to the three Markan verses cited above (Lk 11:23; 20:42; 21:14), the Spirit is not mentioned.

Our study begins with the Infancy narratives, which contain 7 (or 8) references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma). It is generally recognized that the Infancy narratives represent a later stage of the overall Gospel narrative. There is a strong likelihood that Luke’s Gospel originally began with 3:1, and that it was then expanded to include chaps. 1-2. Both the internal evidence and the evidence from the Gospel of Mark and John tend to confirm that the core Gospel narrative began with the Baptism. However, there is no indication that Luke’s Gospel ever circulated without the Infancy narratives.

In any case, the Infancy narratives are integral to both the Gospel and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Many of the principal themes are established in these narratives, with an eye on how they will be developed throughout the remainder of the work. This can complicate an historical-critical analysis of the material; one must always keep in mind that the author is intentionally shaping the traditional material to bring out themes that find their full development in the missionary narratives of Acts.

Luke 1:15-17

“For he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord, and wine and liquor he shall (surely) not drink,
and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother.” (v. 15)

This contains the first two declarations made by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Zechariah, announcing the conception (and coming birth) of John. The statements are made with verbs in the future tense: (i) “he will be…” (e&stai), (ii) “he will be filled…” (plhsqh/setai). They announce both John’s birth and his future destiny. He will be a chosen servant of God, a role that has genuine Messianic significance, within the context of the Gospel Tradition. This is the primary meaning of the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”. It is also said of Jesus that he will be “great” (me/ga$, v. 32), but in a way that surpasses the greatness of John the Baptist, an absolute attribution that would normally be predicated of God (YHWH).

The second declaration involves the Holy Spirit:

“and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother”

Before examining the significance of John being “filled” by the Spirit, let us consider the final two declarations (in vv. 16-17):

“and he will turn many of the sons of Yisrael (back) upon the Lord their God,
and he will go before in the sight of Him, in (the) spirit and power of ‘Eliyyahu, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded (one)s in the mind-set of (the) righteous, to make ready for (the) Lord a people having been fully prepared.”

These statements describe (and define) the Messianic role of John the Baptist—certainly as it was understood in the early Gospel Tradition. It can be summarized by the expression “in the spirit and power of Elijah”. In order to gain a proper understanding of the place of the Spirit in this passage, we must join together these two aspects of the annunciation, where the noun pneu=ma is used:

    • “(filled) by the holy Spirit”
    • “in the spirit…of Elijah”

The principal association is between the Spirit and prophecy. John will be among the greatest of prophets (7:26-28 par), fulfilling the role of the end-time (Messianic) Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah (for more on this, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). More than this, he may be regarded as the last of the prophets of the old covenant (16:16 par), standing on the threshold of the new covenant. This sense of continuity between the old and new covenants is especially important in terms of how this passage fits in with the Lukan view of the Spirit.

This is the first occurrence of two distinct modes, in the Lukan narratives, whereby the Spirit is present and active. The first mode involves the idea of filling—i.e., being filled by the Spirit. Here the verb plh/qw is used. The idiom occurs numerous times in the book of Acts, but in the Gospel only within the Infancy narratives (1:41, 67) and the Lukan description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:1).

The second mode involves being (and walking) in the Spirit. Here it is said that John will go about in the spirit of Elijah, which is a very specific way of referring to the spirit of prophecy—which, in turn, is brought about by the presence of God’s own Spirit. The expression “the spirit of Elijah” can be understood two ways, as it relates to the person of John the Baptist: (1) the same Spirit (of God) that inspired Elijah also is present in John; or (2) that John is essentially a new manifestation of Elijah himself, inspired by the distinctive prophetic spirit that Elijah possessed (and which he gave to Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9-12).

Either way, the “spirit of Elijah” involves the presence of the Spirit, so we may fairly claim that the wording here in v. 17 is an example of the Lukan motif of persons going about “in (or by) the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1, 14; 10:21).

If we are to isolate the main Lukan themes that are introduced here, they would be as follows:

    • The association of the Spirit with prophecy—John is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant; with Jesus and his disciples (believers), the time of the New Covenant begins, and, with it, a new understanding of the nature of prophecy.
    • The Messianic role of John as “Elijah”, who will appear prior to the end-time Judgment (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6)—this reflects the fundamental eschatological understanding of early Christians, which Luke develops powerfully in his 2-volume work, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the early Christian mission.
    • The person of John as a transitional figure, emphasizing the continuity between the Old and New Covenant—he embodies the prophetic Spirit of the Old and, at the same time, points toward the manifestation of the Spirit in the New.

Another minor theme could also be mentioned, which is as much traditional as anything distinctly Lukan. In v. 15 the Spirit is associated with John the Baptist’s ascetic behavior (cf. Mk 1:6 par; Lk 7:33 par), but reflecting specifically the religious vow of the Nazirite (cf. Num 6:3). This detail may have been influenced by the Samuel and Samson narratives (Judg 13:4; 1 Sam 1:11, 22 [v.l.]), but there is no reason that it could not also be an authentic historical detail in the case of John. The principal idea here is twofold: (a) purity/holiness, and (b) consecration to God. Both of these motifs are central to the idea of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit (the holy Spirit, Spirit of holiness), are emphasized, to varying degrees, in the Lukan narratives.

In the next note, we will turn to the announcement of Jesus‘ birth, and examine the reference to the Spirit in 1:35.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Moses and Elijah, Part 2

Moses and Elijah (Part 2)

The Transfiguration Episode (Lk 9:28-36 par)

As I argued at the conclusion of Part 1, the Transfiguration scene, within the context of the Synoptic narrative, is set at the conclusion of the Galilean period and marks the beginning of the Judean period (the second half of the narrative). The second half of the Gospel narrative, I would maintain, properly opens with the first Passion prediction by Jesus (Mk 8:31 par), but the Transfiguration is the first major episode. It holds roughly the same place as the Baptism scene does in the first half of the narrative. Clearly there is an intentional (literary) parallel intended between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes. In particular, the Voice from heaven makes a declaration that matches (or nearly matches) the heavenly declaration at the Baptism (Mk 1:11 par); indeed, in Matthew’s version, the two utterances are identical.

It is clear from the position of the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic narrative, that it marks the conclusion of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and the beginning of his Passion—the upcoming journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10; Lk 9:5118:34), and the events which would take place there. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration brings out this aspect more clearly (cf. below).

The presence of Moses and Elijah

Central to the Transfiguration scene is the presence of Moses and Elijah, who appear alongside of Jesus (Mk 9:4-5 par). It has been popular to interpret the presence of Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration scene as representing “the Law and the Prophets” which Jesus was fulfilling (Matt 5:17; Lk 16:16; 24:27, 44; Jn 1:45, etc). However, this does not seem to be correct. To begin with, Elijah is an odd choice to represent the Prophetic Scriptures (Isaiah would make more sense, cf. Jn 12:39-41). More importantly, Moses and Elijah each represent distinct Prophet-figures; and, in the original context of the Gospels, it is almost certain that Jesus, in the period of his Galilean ministry especially, was also seen as an Anointed Prophet.

That Jesus was seen as a Messiah of the Prophet figure-type seems clear enough from the Baptism scene, attested by different strands of tradition (Mk 1:7-8 par; Lk 3:15ff; 4:14-30; Jn 1:19-27), as well as the entirety of the period of his Galilean ministry, according to the Synoptic narrative. Principally, he fulfilled the role of Spirit-endowed, miracle working Prophet (like Elijah), identified more specifically with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. For more on this, see the previous articles in this series, along with Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I would suggest that in the Transfiguration scene the significance of Moses and Elijah is two-fold:

    1. It identifies Jesus as a Messianic Prophet (like Moses and Elijah), marking the conclusion of his Galilean ministry in which this role was primarily being fulfilled, but also pointing to his eschatological role inaugurating a new era for the people of God. It is no coincidence that, in Jewish tradition by the time of Jesus, Moses and Elijah were seen as prophetic figures who would appear at the end-time, as a fulfillment of specific prophecies (Deut 18:15-20; Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6).
    2. Moses and Elijah each experienced a theophany—manifestation of God’s presence—upon the holy mountain (Sinai/Horeb); similarly, Jesus (and his disciples) on this mountain experience the appearance of the cloud of God’s presence and the divine Voice from heaven. This theophany, in relation to Jesus, is of a different sort, reflecting his divine Sonship.
Jesus and Moses: Luke 9:28-36

Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene (9:28-36) contains a number of important details which emphasize the association of Jesus with Moses (and the Moses/Exodus traditions). These will be discussed here in turn.

“after…eight days” (v. 28)—Luke curiously dates the Transfiguration episode differently than in Mark-Matthew (“after six days”). One can only guess at the reasons for this, but it is possible that an allusion to the time-frame of the festival of Booths (Sukkot) is intended (Lev 23:35-36, and cf. below).

he stepped up into/onto the mountain” (v. 28)—The mountain location of the Transfiguration fills the type-pattern of mount Sinai as the setting of the Sinai Theophany—the mountain Moses ascended to meet YHWH. This association is part of the core tradition; however, Luke’s wording here (“he stepped up into/onto the mountain,” a)ne/bh ei)$ to\ o&ro$) precisely matches the LXX of Exod 19:3.

“the visible (form) of his face (became) different” (v. 29)—The change in Jesus’ appearance is central to the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:3); all three Gospels mention Jesus’ clothing becoming unusually bright/white, however Matthew and Luke specifically mention the shining of Jesus’ face. Luke emphasizes the transformation of Jesus’ face, stating that its visible appearance (ei@do$) became different (“other,” e%tero$). It is likely that this alludes to the tradition of the transformation of Moses’ face (Exod 34:29ff), even though the wording differs from the description(s) in Exodus.

“…who were being seen in splendor [do/ca]” (v. 31)—Luke adds the detail that Moses and Elijah appeared “in glory/splendor”. This can be taken as further emphasis on the tradition of the divine glory/splendor (do/ca) that was reflected on Moses’ face (Exod 34:30-35). Here it is extended to the figure of Elijah, so that all three figures—Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah—shine with heavenly/divine glory.

“…his way out [e&codo$]” (v. 31)—In the core tradition, Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah; however, only Luke provides information about the subject of their discussion. According to Luke’s version, the three spoke specifically about “his [i.e. Jesus’] way out, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem”. The expression “way out” is a literal translation of the noun e&codo$ (éxodus), which almost certainly stands as an allusion to the Exodus. If so, then Jesus effectively fulfills the role of Moses in leading the way for a “new Exodus”. It must be emphasized, however, that here the “exodus” refers specifically to Jesus’ “way out” of his life on earth—that is, his impending death (and resurrection) in Jerusalem.

“they saw his splendor/glory [do/ca]” (v. 32)—Only Luke includes the detail that the awakening disciples “saw the splendor/glory” of Jesus. In all likelihood, this again reflects the Moses tradition in Exod 34:29-35, where the people see the glory on Moses’ face. The wording here resembles the declaration in the Johannine Prologue (1:14ff), which also alludes the same Exodus traditions and contains a comparison between Jesus and Moses.

“we should make tents” (v. 33)—The declaration by Peter is part of the core tradition, which may contain an echo of the festival of Booths (Sukkot), as recorded in the Law of Moses (and which is part of the Moses/Exodus traditions, Lev 23:33-43; Neh 8:14-17; cf. also Exod 23:14-19; 34:22-24; Num 29:12-38; Deut 16:16-17; 31:9-13). As noted above, the specific dating of the Transfiguration in Luke (v. 28) may be intended to bring out this association.

“a cloud came to be and it cast shade upon them” (v. 34)—The overshadowing cloud is part of the core tradition, and almost certainly alludes to the Sinai Theophany (Exod 19:9ff; 24:15-18), though the theophanous Cloud, representing the manifest presence of YHWH, features throughout the Exodus narratives (Exod 16:10; 40:34, etc).

“…going into the cloud” (v. 34)—Only in Luke’s version do the disciples enter the cloud (with Jesus). This clearly echoes the scene at the Sinai theophany, where Moses enters the cloud of God’s glorious presence (Exod 24:18; cf. also 33:9). At the same time, this represents a shift in the significance of the two episodes, whereby access to the manifest presence of God is no long limited to the chosen representative (Moses/Jesus), but is opened up to (all) the faithful ones among God’s people.

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e. chosen]” (v. 35)—The declaration by the heavenly Voice closely parallels that of the Baptism scene (in Matthew the two are identical). In the previous article on Isa 42:1ff, I discussed how the Baptism declaration likely alludes to this passage, and the same applies here in the Transfiguration scene. The Lukan form of the declaration, including the descriptive (substantive) participle o( e)klelegme/no$ (“the [one] having been gathered out”), more closely matches Isa 42:1 than that in Mark-Matthew.

In the aforementioned article, I also discuss how the “servant” of Isa 42:1ff can be interpreted as an inspired prophetic leader who follows in the pattern of Moses. That is to say, he functions as a “new Moses” who will lead the people of God in a “new Exodus” out of their time in Exile. It seems likely that the Transfiguration scene follows the line of interpretation that identifies Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” who is to come—that is, the Messianic prophet according to the figure-type of Moses (cf. above and Part 3 of “Yeshua the Anointed”).

“you must hear [i.e. listen to] him” (v. 35)—This directive, part of the heavenly declaration in the core tradition, almost certainly alludes to Deuteronomy 18:15, and the need for God’s people to hear/obey the words of the “prophet like Moses” who is to come. The implication, again, is that Jesus is to be identified with this Messianic prophet figure, even as his (more directly) in Acts 3:22; 7:37. The Lukan word order here is closer to the LXX of Deut 18:15 than is that of Mark-Matthew.

The transitional character of the Transfiguration scene is indicated by the way that Moses and Elijah vanish, leaving Jesus alone on the mountain. Their departure clears the way for the identification of Jesus with other Messianic figure types—most notably, the Davidic royal Messiah, as well as the heavenly “Son of Man” figure. Even more significant, from the standpoint of early Christian theology, is the heavenly declaration that affirms Jesus’ status as God’s Son. There can be no doubt that this episode marks Jesus as being superior to the prophetic figures of Moses and Elijah; however, it is important to realize that this superiority is expressed in the context of the Old Testament tradition.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Moses and Elijah, Part 1

Moses and Elijah (Part 1)

The figures of Moses and Elijah are central to the Gospel narrative, and to the Messianic identity of Jesus, particularly in the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry which forms the first half of the Synoptic Narrative. Moses and Elijah were important prophetic figures in Israel’s history (and in Old Testament tradition), and, through the key Scriptures of Deut 18:15-19 and Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6, came to be regarded as figure-types for the Messianic Prophet who was expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the great Judgment). For more on this subject, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Jesus was identified with both the Moses and Elijah figure-types, as I discuss in the aforementioned article. This can be seen at various points throughout the early Gospel tradition, associated with the Galilean ministry of Jesus as recorded (especially) in the Synoptic narrative. However, there are two episodes from this Galilean period where the Old Testament associations particularly stand out:

    1. The Miraculous Feeding episode, and
    2. The Transfiguration scene

Part 1 of this article will deal with the Miraculous Feeding  episode, while Part 2 will examine the Transfiguration scene.

The Miraculous Feeding Episode (Mark 6:30-44 par)

This episode makes for a fascinating test case in New Testament criticism. Not only do we have the three Synoptic versions (Triple-Tradition), along with a parallel version in the Gospel of John, but there is the second Feeding miracle (of the 4,000), nearly identical in its basic outline (to that of the 5,000), preserved in Mark and Matthew (Mk 8:1-10) par. It is not the place here to go into the many critical questions regarding the relationship between these versions; in any case, I have discussed the matter at considerable length elsewhere (cf. especially the articles in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). In this particular study, I will be focusing on influence of the Old Testament on the Miraculous Feeding scene as it has been recorded in the Gospels.

As it happens, there are no direct citations or quotations of Scripture in the Feeding episode (in any of the versions); instead, we find a number of subtle, but significant, allusions to Old Testament traditions that have helped to shape the narrative. Three strands of tradition may be isolated, each of which relates, in certain ways, to the figures of Moses and Elijah:

    • The phrase “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34 par)
    • Allusions to the Elisha tradition of 2 Kings 4:42-44
    • The Moses/Exodus traditions of the Passover and Manna, esp. as developed by Jesus in the Johannine discourse that follows the miraculous feeding
“Sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mk 6:34 par)

In the Synoptic (Markan) version of the feeding of the 5,000, we find the following narrative description:

“And coming out (of the boat), he [i.e. Jesus] saw (the) throng (of) many (people), and he was moved in (his) inner parts upon them, (in) that [i.e. because] they were as sheep not having [i.e. without] any herder, and he began to teach them many (thing)s.” (6:34)

Neither Matthew nor Luke contain the specific allusion to the people “as sheep without a shepherd”, though they include the detail of Jesus’ compassion for them, as well as the mention of his teaching and the healing miracles he performed. Conceivably, Mark has added the sheep/shepherd reference to the core Synoptic tradition, which would explain why Matthew and Luke do not have it in their version; nor is it part of the second Feeding (of the 4,000) narrative.

However it came to be included in the Markan version of the episode, its significance relates to the apparent allusion to Numbers 27:17, as descriptive of Joshua, the Spirit-endowed leader who follows Moses as guide (i.e., ‘shepherd’) for the people (vv. 12-23). Joshua stands in relation to Moses, much as Elisha does to Elijah (cf. below), with both receiving an ‘anointing’ of the same divine, prophetic Spirit that their predecessor possessed. Here is how the matter is described in Num 27:16-17:

“May YHWH, Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] of (the) spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who will go out before them and who will come (in) before them, who will bring them out and who will bring them (in), and (then) the assembly of YHWH will not be like a flock (of sheep) which does not (have) for them (one) giving pasture [i.e. a shepherd/herdsman].”

The allusion in Mk 6:34 indicates that Jesus is to be regarded, like Joshua (the two names being essentially identical), as the Spirit-empowered successor to Moses. It is Jesus who will lead and guide the people of God. Indeed, like Moses himself, Jesus serves as God’s chosen (= anointed) representative who miraculously provides food for the multitude as they sojourn in the desolate land.

The motif from Numbers 27:17 is repeated in 1 Kings 22:17, part of the Micaiah scene in chapter 22. The sheep/shepherd idiom is used there in a negative sense: because of the wickedness of the king (Ahab) and the many ‘false prophets’, the people of Israel truly are like sheep without a proper shepherd. While the prophetic significance of this Old Testament episode cannot be disregarded, it is only loosely related to the Elijah/Elisha traditions. Almost certainly, it is Num 27:17 that is being referenced in the Markan version of the Miraculous Feeding scene.

The Elisha tradition in 2 Kings 4:42-44

As nearly every New Testament commentator recognizes, the basic action of the Miraculous Feeding episode reflects, to some extent, the scene in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The way that the two narratives relate can be traced rather simply by comparing the relevant detail:

    • A man brings loaves of bread to Elisha (v. 42)
      / The disciples bring loaves to Jesus (Mk 6:37f, 41 par)
    • Elisha tells him to give the bread to the people to eat (v. 42)
      / Jesus tells the disciples to give the people food to eat (Mk 6:37a par)
    • The servant asks how he can give the bread to so many men (v. 43a)
      / The disciples ask how they are able to obtain food for so many people (Mk 6:37b par)
    • A repeated directive to bring/obtain loaves of bread (v. 43b; Mk 6:38 par)
    • All of the people eat and there is still some left over (vv. 43b-44a; Mk 6:42-43 par)
    • This is done/accomplished “according to the word of YHWH”, as expressed by the prophet Elisha (v. 44)
      / The miracle takes place according to the command of Jesus, accompanied by his word of blessing/consecration (Mk 6:39, 41)

These parallels make abundantly clear that Jesus is acting as an inspired Prophet, in the pattern of Elijah (and his disciple Elisha). Elijah was the great miracle-working prophet in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the mighty deeds and wonders taking place, by the power of God, through special prophetic Spirit that was upon him. Elisha, his disciple and appointed successor, would receive this same Spirit (2 Kings 2:9-10ff), even as Joshua inherits the Spirit-endowed mantle of leadership from Moses (cf. above, and note the more specific prophetic parallel in Num 11:16-17ff).

As I discuss in the previous article, by the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Spirit-inspired Herald of Isa 61:1ff had come to be associated with the (Messianic) figure-type of Elijah. This can be seen both in the Gospel Tradition (Lk 4:17-19ff and 7:18-22 par) and in the Qumran text 4Q521. The specific points of emphasis in the Nazareth episode of Lk 4:16-30 are again worth noting:

    • Jesus specifically identifies himself with the prophet/herald who is “anointed by the Spirit”, a prophetic detail that was fulfilled at the Baptism, and with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (3:22; 4:1, 14-15ff)
    • He again identifies himself as a prophet in the proverbial saying of 4:24 par
    • The Scripture examples he cites (vv. 25-27) are from the Elijah and Elisha narratives
    • Elisha was the only Old Testament prophet specifically said to have been anointed (cf. 1 Kings 19:16), in a manner that seems to have been primarily figurative, referring to the divine/prophetic Spirit that comes upon him
The Moses/Exodus Traditions

The allusion to Num 27:17 in Mk 6:34 (cf. above) suggests that Jesus is fulfilling the role of Moses, as the Spirit-empowered leader of the people, who guides them on their journey in the desolate land. The setting of the Miraculous Feeding episode fits this traditional paradigm, with: (a) the large crowd of people, (b) the desolate locale (Mk 6:35 par), and (c) the difficulty in finding food to eat. All of this naturally brings to mind Moses’ role as intermediary between God (YHWH) and the people, especially with regard to the miraculous feeding episodes recorded in the Exodus narratives. The prime narrative is in Exodus 16, where, according to Moses’ prophetic announcement, God brings down meat (quail) and bread (‘manna’) from the sky to feed the people.

There is only the faintest allusion to the manna-tradition in the Gospel narrative. However, it takes on more prominence in the Johannine version of the Miraculous Feeding (6:1-14). In at least two small details, John’s version emphasizes the association with Moses, rather than Elijah. The first is the reference to the time of the Passover festival (v. 4), a detail found only in John’s version, though the mention of green grass (Mk 6:39 par) suggests that the episode may have taken place in the Springtime.

The second significant detail comes at the conclusion of the narrative (v. 14), where people respond to the miracle by declaring that “this is truly the Prophet, the (one) coming into the world!” This demonstrates the popular expectation of a Messianic Prophet, which, most commonly, was conceived according to one of two prophetic figure-types: Moses and Elijah, respectively (cf. again Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The title “the Prophet” is more likely to be a reference to the Moses figure-type (Deut 18:15-19), while the descriptive title “the (one who is) coming” (Grk o( e)rxo/meno$) better fits the Elijah type (cf. Mal 3:1ff, 4:5-6, and my earlier note on the subject). Given the Moses/Passover theme that runs through John 6, it seems probable that “the Prophet” is the “Prophet like Moses”.

In the great “Bread of Life” discourse that follows the Miraculous Feeding episode in the Gospel of John (6:22-59ff), the miraculous division of the bread-loaves is expounded in terms of the Moses/Exodus tradition of the manna—as “bread coming down from heaven”. This line of interpretation by Jesus is introduced in the discourse at verse 31:

“Our fathers ate the manna in the desolate (land), even as it has been written: ‘Bread out of heaven He gave them to eat’.”

The Scripture citation corresponds most directly to Psalm 78:24, but certainly refers to the main historical tradition in Exodus 16:4, 15 (cf. also Wisdom 16:20). As Jesus continues with this line of exposition, he brings up the (comparative) parallel with the figure of Moses:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: (it was) not Moses (who) has given you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.” (v. 32)

Two different points of contrast are at work in this statement:

    • It was not Moses who gave the bread, but God (YHWH) Himself
    • The manna was not the true “bread out of heaven”

Then Jesus goes a step further, identifying this “true bread” as a person who comes down from heaven:

“For the bread of God is the (one) stepping down out of heaven and giving life to the world.” (v. 33)

The remainder of the discourse (vv. 35ff) builds upon this idea, as Jesus, in response to the request by the people in v. 34 (reflecting their misunderstanding), declares:

“I am the Bread of Life…” (v. 35)

Jesus is himself the true “bread from heaven”, which God gives to His people (believers) in the world. The Moses/Manna theme is reiterated at several points throughout the discourse (cf. especially vv. 46, 49ff), but is very much central to the overall “Bread of Life” image. The allusions to Jesus’ death (vv. 33, 38, 50-51, and the eucharistic language in vv. 52-58) tie the imagery back to the Passover setting of the miracle (v. 4), since the death of Jesus took place at Passover, fulfilling the figure-type of the Passover sacrifice (cf. 1:29, 36; 2:18-23; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14, [29], 31-33, 36).

Conclusion: The Context of the Synoptic Narrative

To gain a full appreciation of the significance of the Miraculous Feeding episode as an expression of the Messianic identity of Jesus, we must consider carefully the place of this episode within the Synoptic narrative framework. In particular, the two Feeding miracles (in Mark and Matthew) are key to the shaping of this framework. I have outlined the Markan structure in earlier notes and articles, but it is worth presenting again here:

    • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16 [inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
    • Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44 Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52 (they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
    • Healing Miracles6:53-56
    • Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23 including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
    • Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
    • Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10 Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21 (they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
    • Healing miracle—8:22-26
    • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30

In my view there is a definite (chiastic) symmetry to this section in Mark. Consider first—the framing episodes (6:14-16; 8:27-30) involving the question of Jesus’ identity, in which the general reaction by people to Jesus is noted (i.e. identifying him as “Elijah” or one of the Prophets). At the same time, Herod and Peter each make a declaration regarding Jesus’ identity:

    • Herod—he is John the Baptist raised from the dead (6:16)
    • Peter—”You are the Anointed One” (8:29)

The second pair of (parallel) episodes are the two Feeding Miracles:

    • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
      Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:30-44)
      Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10)
    • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

The parallelism is reinforced by the inclusion, after the miracle, of an episode where Jesus and his disciples are together on the water (6:44-52; 8:11-21), and reference is made to the bread-loaves of the miraculous feeding (6:52; 8:19ff). The first episode involves a miracle (Jesus’ walking on the water), the second, teaching. A third parallel can be found in the healing miracles of 6:53-56 and 7:24-37:

    • Reaction to Jesus (declaration by Herod)
      • Feeding of the Five Thousand
        —Healing miracles narrated (6:53-56)
        —Healing miracles: 2 episodes (7:24-37)
      • Feeding of the Four Thousand
    • Reaction to Jesus (confession by Peter)

Finally, at the center of the section, we find the debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) regarding religious tradition and the interpretation of the Law (7:1-23). This theme carries through the remainder of the section, especially the instruction of Jesus to his disciples in 8:11-21, in which he warns them of “the leaven of the Pharisees [7:1ff] and Herod [6:14-16ff]” (v. 15). It is part of the reaction to Jesus’ ministry that is illustrated in this section. While the people may react to Jesus at one level—viewing him as a miracle working prophet like Elijah (cf. above), or otherwise—his true disciples ultimately will recognize him as “the Anointed One” (and Son of God).

Thus we can see that the two Feeding Miracle episodes play a pivotal role in the Markan narrative, and are important in demonstrating Jesus’ identity—the primary theme of 6:14-8:30.

Luke’s Gospel has a somewhat different structure, due to the fact that the author omits (or otherwise does not include) all of the Synoptic material in Mk 6:45-8:26 par. The single Miraculous Feeding (of the 5,000) thus is more clearly rooted in the concluding portion of the Galilean narrative:

    • The Mission of the Twelve (9:1-6)
    • The Reaction of Herod (9:7-9)
    • The Miraculous Feeding (9:10-17)
    • The Reaction (Confession) of Peter (9:18-20)

Peter’s confession essentially brings the first half of the Synoptic narrative (the Galilean ministry period) to a close. The Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:2-8 par) may be viewed as transitional, or as the beginning episode in the second half of the Gospel (the Judean period), preceding as it does Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (chap. 10). The journey section is framed by the three Passion predictions by Jesus, and so it is perhaps best to view the second half of the Synoptic narrative as starting with the first Passion prediction (Mk 8:31 par).

In any event, the Transfiguration scene is transitional in the sense that it completes the identification of Jesus as the prophetic Messiah, and prepares the way for his identification as the royal Messiah (from the line of David), which is the Messianic figure-type that comes to dominate the second half of the Gospel. In order to see how the associations with Moses and Elijah truly function within the Synoptic narrative, it is necessary for us to turn to this key episode of the Transfiguration, in Part 2.

 

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 61:1-3

Isaiah 61:1-3

Having discussed Isaiah 42:1ff in the previous article, we now turn to Isa 61:1-3. These two passages have a good deal in common, both in terms of the Messianic interpretation that was given to them, and how they were applied to Jesus in the earliest strands of the Gospel Tradition. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that they are rooted in the actual historical tradition much more than in the early Christian interpretation of that tradition. This is especially so in the case of Isa 61:1ff, as we consider how this passage may have been applied by Jesus to himself, in ways that scarcely continued at all in subsequent Christian thought.

While Isa 40:3 and 42:1ff are part of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 4055), 61:1-3 is part of the following chapters (5666) that many scholars regard as a separate (and later) work, customarily referred to as Trito-Isaiah (“Third Isaiah”). Because the message of these poems tends to assume a post-exilic setting, focusing on the future destiny of Judah/Jerusalem following the restoration/return of the people to the Land, Trito-Isaiah is usually dated to the (early) post-exilic period (i.e., the 5th [or late 6th] century B.C.). Even if this critical assessment is correct, the poems in chaps. 56-66 clearly draw upon (and develop) many Isaian (and Deutero-Isaian) themes. In particular, there are many points in common between chapters 40-55 and 56-66.

If we treat chapters 56-66 as a distinct work (or division within the larger Isaian corpus), then chaps. 60-62 are at the heart of that work. Indeed, it would seem that 61:1-3 lies at the very center of the Trito-Isaian poems (cf. Blenkinsopp, pp. ). Chapters 60 and 62 each present a prophetic vision of the glorious destiny for Judah and Jerusalem in the coming New Age. As the people continue to return from exile (60:4ff, 9), so also the surrounding nations will bring tribute and pay homage to the new kingdom. God’s people, centered in Jerusalem, will experience a blessing and prosperity greater than anything before.

However, as chapter 61 makes clear, this glorious New Age had not yet been fully realized in the post-exilic period. Much of the territory (of Judah and Jerusalem) still lay in ruins and needs to be rebuilt (v. 4), a scenario which accords well with a mid-5th century setting, prior to the work inaugurated by Nehemiah (after 445 B.C.). Moreover, the context of vv. 1-3 and 8-9 suggests that there was considerable poverty, as well as widespread injustice and oppression in the land at the time. Again, this fits the vivid portrait in Nehemiah 5:1-5 (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 224). In the glorious New Age of Israel’s restoration, there is no place for such poverty and injustice.

If we are to consider the structure of chapter 61, it may be treated as a poem with two strophes; each strophe has two parts: (1) announcement of the prophet’s role in establishing the ‘new covenant’ (vv. 1-3, 8-9), and (2) a prophetic hymn-like declaration of the glorious destiny of Judah/Jerusalem (vv. 4-7, 10-11). Each strophe presents a different aspect of these themes. In vv. 1-3, the focus is on the Spirit-empowered prophet, while the ‘new covenant’ itself is only mentioned directly in vv. 8-9. It is specifically referred to as an “eternal covenant” —literally, a “binding agreement (into the) distant (future)” (<l*ou tyr!B=). Technically, this means that the agreement is perpetual and does not require any future ratification or renewal.

The connection between the Spirit-inspired prophet and the covenant is made explicit in 59:21, the verse immediately preceding chaps. 60-62:

“And (for) me [i.e. for my part], this (is) my binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with them, says YHWH: my Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have set in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, and from (the) mouth of your seed, and from (the) mouth of (the) seed of your seed, (so) says YHWH, from now until (the) distant (future).”

The promise is that there will be a continuous line of inspired prophets, lasting into the far distant future (<l*ou), and this promise is an essential part of the new covenant (“binding [agreement]”) between YHWH and His people. The scope of this prophetic dynasty, taken together with the passages promising the ‘pouring out’ of the Spirit upon the entire people (cf. 32:15; 44:3, etc), strongly suggests what may be referred to as a ‘democratization’ of the ancient prophetic principle. If Moses is the primary prophetic figure-type in view (cf. below), then is it too much to imagine that Moses’ expressed wish in Numbers 11:29 (that all of God’s people would be prophets) finds its fulfillment in the New Age?

In our previous discussion on Isa 42:1ff (see the article and supplemental note), I mentioned that there are two plausible ways of understanding the “servant”, based on the Deutero-Isaian context and the traditions involved:

    • The collective interpretation: the “servant” is the people of Israel/Judah in the New Age of restoration; the Spirit is poured out upon the entire people (cf. above), who function as the inspired messenger(s) of YHWH to the other nations.
    • The figure-type of Moses: the “servant” is a specially-appointed prophet patterned after Moses (Deut 18:15-19), who leads God’s people out of exile and serves as mediator of the (new) covenant.

Sound arguments can be made for both lines of interpretation, at least in regard to the “servant” of 42:1ff. In the case of the anointed prophet-figure in 61:1ff, however, it does seem that a specific individual is in view. Certain evidence suggests that here, too, it is a prophet following in the pattern of Moses. The wording of 59:21 (cf. above), which is unquestionably related to 61:1, resembles that of Deut 18:18, in which YHWH declares that “I will give [i.e. put] my words in his mouth”. We find the same Deuteronomic phrasing applied to the prophet Jeremiah (in 1:9), and the idea that God’s word will not “depart” (vb vWm) from the prophet’s mouth may be an echo of Joshua 1:8, with the declaration that the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH will not “depart” (same verb) from Joshua’s mouth.

Moses was the supreme Prophet in Israel’s history, due to his role in receiving the Torah from YHWH, and then communicating it to the people. In so doing, he functioned as the mediator of the covenant, especially in the period following the Golden Calf incident (cf. the complex narrative in Exodus 19-34). For more on the original context and setting of Isaiah 61:1-3, consult the supplemental daily notes on the passage.

Jewish Interpretation of Isaiah 61:1-3

By all accounts, the prophecies in chapters 60-62, regarding the glorious destiny of Judah/Jerusalem, were never fulfilled in the early post-exilic period (nor in the centuries to follow). It was thus natural that these prophetic poems would be given a Messianic interpretation by Israelites and Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. According to this line of interpretation, the promises would finally be realized in the time of the Messiah. The primary Messianic figure-type was the royal Davidic ruler—that is, a future ruler from the line of David, who will serve as God’s representative in establishing a restored Israelite Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem) and in judging/subduing the surrounding nations. On this figure-type, cp. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

However, the “anointed” figure in Isa 61:1ff is not a king, but a prophet—one who brings a message (from YHWH) to the people. The “servant” in 42:1ff exercises a judicial and law-giving function that would be more fitting of a ruler, and yet there too the emphasis is prophetic, rather than royal. The personage of Moses embraces both aspects—judge/lawgiver and prophet—and, as I have discussed, the prophetic figure-type in view may be the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deut 18:15-19.

If we turn to the Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., specific references or allusions to Isa 61:1ff are actually quite rare. However, there are at least two Qumran texts which give us some indication of how the passage may have been understood by Jews at the time. The first text is 4Q521, sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Apocalypse”. It is the reasonably well-preserved fragment 2 (cols. 2 & 3) which has most intrigued scholars. The surviving portion of column 2 begins (lines 1-2):

“[for the heav]ens and the earth will hear {i.e. listen} to his anointed (one), [and all wh]ich (is) in them will not turn (away) from the commands of his holy (one)s.”

The ancient idea of the universe (heavens and earth) obeying God’s word has joined the religious-ethical concept of faithfulness to the Torah (and to the Community)—both are aspects of a single dynamic which is about to come more clearly into view at the end-time. Indeed, the context suggests an eschatological orientation, and that the “anointed (one)” is a Messianic figure who is (about) to appear. This is confirmed by a careful reading of the remainder of the fragment.

Following the exhortation in lines 3-4, the remaining lines (5-14) record a promise of what God will do for his people, inspired by Isaiah 61:1ff, blended with a citation of Psalm 146:7-8, and allusions to eschatological/Messianic passages such as Daniel 7. In applying this chain of Scripture passages, it is clear that the “poor” and suffering ones are synonymous with the pious and devout ones (<yd!ys!j&)—the faithful Community in the midst of the wicked and corrupt world. It is they who receive the “good news” proclaimed by the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. These associations are worked out in the wording of lines 5-7:

“For my Lord will consider the devout (one)s and will call the righteous/faithful (one)s by name, and his Spirit will hover upon the poor/afflicted (one)s, and he will renew with his strength the (one)s firm (in trust). For he will give weight to {i.e. honor} the devout (one)s (by putting them) upon the seat of a kingdom unto (the Ages)…”

What follows in lines 8-9 echoes Psalm 146:7-8, referring to the freeing of prisoners, opening eyes, straightening the twisted, etc. Unfortunately there is a gap in line 10, but it indicates an imminent eschatological expectation: God is about to “do weighty (thing)s which have not (yet) been” (line 11). These deeds of deliverance will, it seems, be performed by an Anointed representative, such as is mentioned in line 1, identified with the herald of Isa 61:

“…according to that which he spoke, [for] he will heal the wounded (one)s, and will make (one)s dead to live (again), and will bring (good) news for the poor/afflicted (one)s…” (lines 11-12)

To this, in the badly preserved third column of same fragment, is added an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] and the end-time role of “Elijah” as the Messenger who prepares things for God’s appearance on earth to bring the Judgment (3:1ff). This suggests that the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff is being interpreted according to the figure-type of Elijah, rather than Moses (cf. above). The miracle-working power accords better with the Elijah-traditions, especially the association with raising the dead (col. 2, line 12)—a connection that continues throughout Jewish tradition (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24; Sirach 48:5, [11]; m. Sota 9; j. Sheqalim 3:3; Pesikta de R. Kahana 76a). By the end of the 1st century A.D., resurrection came to be connected with the appearance of the Messiah generally (2 Baruch 30:2; 2/4 Esdras 7).

The second text is 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], another fragmentary work with eschatological and Messianic significance. There appear to be two Messianic figures who feature in this text. The first is Melchizedek, understood as a heavenly deliverer, perhaps to be identified with the angel Michael, who will defeat the forces of evil, and thus free God’s people from the power of Belial (col. 2, lines 1-14, 25; col. 3 + frags. 5 & 7). The second figure is an anointed herald who announces the good news of this salvation (col. 2, lines 15-20ff).

The chief Scripture reference is Isa 52:7, but filtered through the framework of Isa 61:1ff (along with a citation of Dan 9:25). The herald is a Messiah, and specifically one who is “anointed of the Spirit”. The Hebrew term for this prophetic herald is the verbal noun rC@b^m=, from the root rc^B* (cf. above), literally “(one) bringing (good) news”. This word occurs in 11QMelchizedek col. 2, line 18—

“and the (one) bringing (good) news i[s] (the) Anointed of the Spir[it]”

where, as noted above, the herald may be understood as an end-time prophet according to the figure-type of Elijah. However, in 4Q377 (frag. 2, col. 2, line 11), the prophetic herald (rcbm) is specifically identified with Moses.

Isaiah 61:1-3 in the Gospel Tradition

Luke 4:16-30

Isaiah 61:1ff features prominently in the Lukan version (4:16-30) of the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a; Matt 13:53-58). Because Luke’s version contains details not found in Mark-Matthew, and because it is located at a different point in the Synoptic narrative (at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry), some commentators have posited that there were two such (historical) episodes at Nazareth. However, this is extremely unlikely. The Gospels know of only one such episode, the basic outline of which is consistent. Moreover, Luke’s version (v. 23) essentially confirms that the location of the episode in Mark-Matthew is correct; Jesus has been working in Galilee (centered at Capernaum) long enough for his deeds to have become well known in Nazareth.

This suggests that Luke has changed the location of the episode, setting it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, for a distinct literary (and theological) purpose. Several factors may explain the change. First, moving the episode to this earlier point facilitates a natural connection with the Nazareth setting of the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2). Second, the episode vividly illustrates Jesus’ practice of visiting the synagogues and teaching the people there (v. 15); the main Synoptic narrative uses a different episode for this purpose (Mk 1:21-28 par), which Luke includes as well, immediately following the Nazareth scene (vv. 31-37). Third, if the citation of Isa 61:1-2 is an authentic part of the historical tradition received by Luke, then it would have been natural for him to include it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following the baptism and temptation scenes.

On this point, Luke clearly connects the Spirit-anointing of the Herald in Isa 61:1 with the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Luke’s Gospel gives special emphasis to the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry, part of a thematic focus that relates to the central place of the Spirit in the narratives of Acts. In Jesus’ public ministry, he provides the type-pattern and example for the apostles, walking about under the guidance of the Spirit, and ministering under its power. There are key references to this in 4:1 (cp. Mk 1:12), and again following the Temptation scene (and immediately prior to the Nazareth episode), in 4:14. The Isaian “anointing” by the Spirit thus applies most fittingly to the ministry of Jesus.

If we accept the historical authenticity of the Lukan version of the episode (with its citation of Isa 61:1-2), then it must be admitted that Jesus specifically identified himself as the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff. The Scripture as Luke presents it does not match the Hebrew text that Jesus would have read out loud (at the historical level, vv. 17ff). It follows the LXX, but in an adapted form, omitting two phrases, and interpolating part of 58:6 between verses 1 and 2. This is best understood as an interpretive literary adaptation on the part of the Gospel writer. Even so, it may be seen as accurately representing the manner in which Jesus fulfills the prophecy. Indeed, the adapted LXX version found in vv. 18-19 of the Lukan episode provides a much better fit to the reality of Jesus’ Galilean ministry than does the Hebrew text. The distinctive features of this version may be summarized as follows:

    • the phrase “to bind (the wounds) of (the one)s broken of heart” (bl@-yr@B=v=n]l= vb)j&l^, LXX i)a/sqai tou\$ tou\$ suntetrimme/nou$ th=| kardi/a|) has been omitted
    • the Greek reads tufloi=$ a)na/bleyin (“seeing again [i.e. new sight] for [the] blind”) instead of the Hebrew “opening up for (the one)s bound (in prison)” (j^oq-jq^P* <yr!Wsa&l)
    • the phrase a)postei=lai teqrausme/nou$ e)n a)fe/sei (“to send forth in release (the one)s having been broken” comes from Isa 58:6d (LXX), though it generally matches the thought in 61:1 as well
    • the citation has left out the phrase “and a day of vengeance for our God” (LXX kai\ h(me/ran a)ntapodo/sew$), which provides the (negative) judgment-parallel to the (positive) “year of favor for YHWH” (LXX “year of the Lord [favorably] received”, e)niauto\n kuri/ou dekto\n).

These changes emphasize certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry:

    • Jesus’ proclamation stresses the coming of salvation (“year of the Lord’s favor”), giving this aspect of the end-time message priority over that of judgment (“day of God’s vengeance”)
    • The double-use of the term a&fesi$ (“release”) brings out the idea of release (same word, a&fesi$) from the bondage of sin (i.e., forgiveness from sin), which was so important in Jesus’ teaching
    • The LXX reference to giving sight to the blind (cf. also Isa 35:5 and Psalm 146:7-8) allows the passage to be applied to the healing miracles performed by Jesus (cf. below).

The Lukan context clearly understands the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff as a Messianic prophet, and one, it seems, that is generally patterned after the figure of Elijah (cf. the discussion above, esp. as related to the Qumran text 4Q521). Jesus certainly identifies himself as a prophet in verse 24 (cp. Mk 6:4 par), and the Scripture examples he cites in vv. 25-27 come from the Elijah and Elisha narratives (1 Kings 17:9-10; 18:1; 2 Kings 7:3-10). As it happens, Elisha is the only Old Testament prophet who is anointed—a ritual action which represents his inheritance of the prophetic spirit of Elijah (1 Kings 19:16; 2 Kings 2:9-10ff), much as happened in the case of Moses’ prophetic spirit in Numbers 11:16-17ff.

Luke 7:18-23 par

Jesus identifies himself with the Herald of Isa 61:1ff in a second passage—the “Q” tradition of Matt 11:2-6 / Lk 7:18-23. Again the Scripture is cited in relation to the Galilean ministry of Jesus, demonstrating that his work was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. However, here, instead of a more or less direct quotation of Isa 61:1ff, Jesus provides a loose application of different Isaian texts: along with Isa 61:1, there are allusions to Isa 26:19 and 35:5.

The historical and narrative context of this episode also relates more directly to the Messianic identity of Jesus. John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus, to ask him if he is “the (one who is) coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$). That participial expression is tied to the earlier saying by the Baptist regarding the “(one who) comes” (3:16 par). The Lukan wording of this saying generally follows Mark (1:7); however, in Matthew the substantive participle (o( e)rxo/meno$, “the [one] coming”) is used, as also in John 1:15, 27. It must be regarded essentially as a Messianic title, most likely referring to the coming Messenger of Malachi 3:1ff, understood in an eschatological (and Messianic) sense. For more on this, cf. my earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

While in prison, John the Baptist apparently had developed some doubt as to whether Jesus truly was the fulfillment of this coming eschatological/Messianic figure. Jesus does not answer the Baptist’s question directly; in a manner that seems to have been typical of his approach, Jesus neither affirms nor denies the identification per se, but rather redirects the questioner to a deeper understanding of the situation (compare his response to the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6-7). It is as if he is saying: observe and judge for yourselves, based on what you see taking place in my ministry (vv. 21-22a). And Jesus summarizes his ministry work (verse 22) by alluding to Isa 61:1ff (along with other Isaian texts):

    • “blind (person)s see again” [Isa 61:1 LXX; 35:5; cf. also Psalm 146:7-8]
    • “(those) limping walk about (again)”
    • lepers are cleansed”
    • “deaf (person)s hear (again)” [Isa 35:5]
    • “(the) dead are raised” [Isa 26:19 LXX]
    • “(the) poor are given the good message” [Isa 61:1]

The primary focus is on the healing miracles performed by Jesus (verse 21), including raising the dead (the episode immediately preceding, in vv. 10-17). No such miracles are mentioned in the original Hebrew of Isa 61:1-3, but (as noted above) the LXX of verse 1 includes the idea of the blind receiving sight again. Interestingly, in the Qumran text 4Q521 (see above), Isa 61:1-2 is similarly connected with the blind receiving sight (cf. Psalm 146:7-8), and also with the raising of the dead. This text, along with the Gospel tradition here, strongly suggests that, by the first century A.D., the anointed Herald of Isa 61:1ff was being interpreted as a Messianic prophet according to the figure type of the “Elijah who is to come” (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6; cf. Mk 9:11-13 par; Lk 9:8; Jn 1:21ff). This pattern of the Spirit-empowered, miracle-working Prophet certainly fits the Galilean ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Indeed, there are many signs that, during this period, Jesus was identified (and identified himself) as a Messianic Prophet according to the Elijah figure-type.

At the same time, there are other passages in the Gospel tradition where this Elijah-role is explicitly given to John the Baptist (including by Jesus in the Matthean version of this “Q” material, 11:14). The historical and traditional aspects of this Messianic question are complex, and I discuss them at length in other notes and articles; cf. especially Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The identity of Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, according to the types of Moses and Elijah both, will be discussed further on in this series, when we come to the Transfiguration episode.

Notes on Prayer: James 5:13-18

The recent notes and studies on Hezekiah’s prayer (see the previous study in this series) dealt with the subject of praying for healing/deliverance from illness or disease. This is a longstanding aspect of human religious experience. There is a natural tendency to turn to God (or a particular deity) when one is faced with illness, and especially so if the condition is life-threatening (as in the case of Hezekiah). Even persons whose religious commitment or devotion is minimal are likely to petition God for healing in such circumstances. This continues to be true today, even with our much increased understanding of the scientific physiological causes of disease (and resultant treatment). The current pandemic, however, afflicting people in different parts of the world, has highlighted the limitations of even the finest examples of modern medicine, and brings to the fore a renewed interest in the religious phenomenon of prayer for healing.

Like the psalm that follows the prayer of Hezekiah (in the Isaian version, 38:9-20), and attributed to the king, there are a number of Psalms which are framed as petitionary prayers to YHWH for healing (from life-threatening illness, and/or related dangers). You may wish to consult, for example, my earlier studies on Psalms 6 and 30. In such Psalms, a lament for the suffering one faces alternates with thanksgiving for the deliverance God brings (or will bring). Mixed in with the petition is an appeal to God, based on the fact that the sufferer (the protagonist of the Psalm) has remained faithful and devoted to YHWH, repenting of any sin and disavowing association with any wickedness. The protection God provides the righteous, according to the principle of the covenant-bond, would include rescue/deliverance from any life-threatening danger.

When we turn to the New Testament writings, it is interesting to note how little is said regarding healing from illness—and of prayer for healing, in particular.

To be sure, there are many incidents of healing recorded in the Gospels and Acts. A number of healing miracles performed by Jesus are recorded, some of the episodes being told in a most memorable fashion, often tied to important sayings and teachings of Jesus. Healing miracles were especially characteristic of the Galilean ministry period, according to the narrative structure of the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. Luke 7:21-22 par, cp. 4:18-19ff). In addition to the specific miracles recorded in the Synoptic tradition, we have the key summary statements in Mark 1:34; 3:10 par, etc. Given the close association, in the thought-world of people at the time, between evil spirits and illness/disease, it was natural that miracles of healing were related to exorcism miracles, being performed equally (and at the same time) by Jesus (cf. especially the tradition in Mark 3:22ff par). His disciples were given authority over the evil spirits, so that they could perform the same sorts of healing miracles (Mk 3:15; 6:7, 13 par). This continues among the apostles and early Christian missionaries in the book of Acts (cf. 3:1-16ff; 4:30; 5:15-16; 8:7; 9:32-42; 14:8-10ff; 20:7-12; 28:8), where miracles were performed ‘in the name of Jesus’. Healing miracles were also part of the manifestation and work of the Spirit among believers, at least in the Pauline congregations (according to 1 Cor 12:9, 28ff).

In spite of all this, the recorded miracles of healing are not specifically tied to prayer by the person afflicted. Prayer is mentioned in the exorcism miracle tradition of Mark 9:14-29 par (v. 29), but as a requirement for the person performing the healing (i.e. Jesus’ disciples). The context of the Synoptic narrative tradition in Mk 1:35ff par would suggest that Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles was connected in some way to his time spent alone in prayer. But nowhere do we see prayer enjoined on the person who is afflicted—i.e., that they should pray for healing, and thus be delivered from affliction. The closest we come to this, perhaps, is in the exchange between Jesus and the blind beggar in Mark 11:47-52 par (cf. also the exchange with the crippled man in John 5:6ff). However, the point is that trust in God (and in Jesus) results in healing, not prayer per se (cf. Acts 14:8-10).

More to the point, nowhere in the New Testament does the author direct or encourage believers to pray for healing when they are afflicted by illness. The inclination to pray to God in such instances was so commonplace (and natural) that perhaps there was no need to mention it; however, given the tendency toward superstition and quasi-magical ritual in such matters, one might expect some direct teaching on the subject. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, there is no petition for healing and physical health as such, unless it is to be subsumed under the request for ‘deliverance from evil’ (Matt 6:13); given the close connection between evil spirits and disease, this is certainly possible. The best support for the idea of praying for healing is found in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in the “Last Discourse”, if we view requests to the Father “in my name” as a more generalized extension of the apostolic healings peformed ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff; cp. Acts 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10ff, 30; 16:18; 19:13ff); requests for healing would thus be rightly included among believers’ prayers to God.

There is, however, little evidence on this point in the remainder of the New Testament writings. Paul refers repeatedly to prayer for deliverance, but typically in the context of rescuing he (and other ministers) from dangers and obstacles in proclaiming the Gospel (Rom 1:10; 15:30; Phil 1:19; Col 4:3; 2 Thess 3:1, etc), and not for healing from illness or disease as such. There is really only one passage in the New Testament that ties together prayer and healing from disease, giving specific direction for believers in the matter: James 5:13-18.

James 5:13-18

The teaching in this passage is relatively straightforward, even if we do not have complete information on the details of the prayer/anointing ritual that are being referenced.

“Does any(one) among you suffer bad(ly)? He must speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]. Does any(one) have a good impulse? He must make music (to God).” (v. 13)

Two general conditions are described here: (1) suffering some kind of trouble or affliction (not necessarily illness or disease), as indicated by the verb kakopaqe/w (“suffer bad[ly]”); and (2) the opposite, where things are going well for a person, so that one “has a good impulse” (eu)qume/w, in English idiom we might say “is in good spirits”). One is to “speak out toward” God, making a request in prayer, when suffering affliction.

“Is any(one) among you without strength [i.e. sick/weak]? He must call alongside the elders of (the ones) called out (to assemble) [i.e. the congregation], and they must speak out toward (God) over him, rubbing [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (v. 14)

Quite often, sickness is defined by the term a)sqenh/$ (lit. “without strength”); here the denominative verb as)qene/w (occurring 33 times in the NT) is used, meaning “be without strength” (i.e. “be sick, weak”). This refers specifically to someone who is sick or weakened by illness, disease, or a debilitating condition. Such a person ought to call on leading ministers (“elders”) of the congregation, and it is they who will pray to God, anointing (lit. rubbing) him with oil reserved (and consecrated) for just such a ritual purpose. All of this is done “in the name of the Lord”, that is, in Jesus’ name, in accordance with early Christian tradition (cf. above).

“And the (word) of trust, spoken out (to God), shall save the (one) being wearied (by sickness), and the Lord shall raise him (up); and, if he would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s, they shall be released [i.e. forgiven] for him.” (v. 15)

Interestingly, here it is not the trust/faith of the sick person, but of those ministering to him, that leads to healing. The trust of the sick person certainly is implicit in the process, at least insofar as he/she has trusted enough to call on the elders for help. Some allowance would doubtless be made for the person’s weakened condition; in such instances, it is necessary for the rest of the community (esp. the leaders of the congregation) to give their strength (of faith) to the person in his/her weakness. The trust of the ministers is expressed through their prayer, spoken out (loud) to God. This verse would seem to promise that such a prayer will be answered, when performed in the proper context of the community, where it is done “in Jesus’ name”.

On the latter point, there may certainly be a tendency to treat prayer “in Jesus’ name” as a quasi-magical formula, which, in turn, would lead to a superstitious sort of Christian practice. It may be debated the extent to which a magical healing-formula is in view here in the letter of James, any more so than in the early apostolic miracle-traditions in the book of Acts (cf. above). In the best sense, we are dealing not with a specific formula, but of trust in the divine power of Jesus Christ that is at work, in and among believers, through his Spirit (which also the Spirit of God). This seems to be specified here by the expression eu)xh\ th=$ pi/stew$ (“[word] of trust spoken out”). Ultimately, it is the power of Christ himself (“the Lord”) that raises the person back to health.

The verse here also makes a rather clear association between sickness/illness and sin, though recognizing (as elsewhere in the New Testament), that such illness is not necessarily the direct result of sin. Thus, there is the conditional statement here, using the subjunctive (and introduced by the conditional particle e)a/n): “if any one would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s”, i.e., if the person has been committing any sins that may have led to his/her illness. The promise is that, through the prayer of trust, such sins will be forgiven (lit. “released”). In all likelihood, there is a similar connection between sin and illness in 1 John 5:14-17, a passage for which a precise interpretation has been notoriously difficult (and controversial). I discuss it at length in prior notes and studies. Whatever else one may say about the 1 John passage, it deals with the issue of the prayer by the community for a person who has sinned, and who may be suffering (illness?) as a result.

“So (also) you must give out an account as one to (each) other of the sins (you commit), and you must speak out (to God) over (one an)other, so that you may be healed. The request (to God) of a just (person) has much strength, being at work in (him).” (v. 16)

The connection between sin and illness is further extended here, with an instruction intended to prevent such sickness from occurring, and to bring about regular and timely healing of illness, before it reaches the point where it is necessary to call on the elders. This involves the public acknowledgement (i.e. confession) of sin, done on a regular basis. Admittedly, this is an aspect of early Christian practice that has largely disappeared from congregation life over the centuries, and is practically non-existent in most modern day churches. One expects that it would be most difficult to restore the practice, even if one believed that it should be restored (a point that can be debated). It does, however, reflect a sense of cohesive congregational unity that can be judged as quite healthy, on the whole. Like most aspects of communal Christian life, it requires that the practice be rooted in genuine trust, love, and the guidance of the Spirit. This latter point seems to emphasized here in the closing statement, regarding the strength of a just/righteous person’s prayer, based as it is upon the power of God/Christ that is “working in” (vb e)nerge/w) the believer—which we must identify with the Spirit, though it is not stated so in the letter. We might fill in the translation as “(God’s power) being at work (in him)”. On the role of the Spirit, as superseding any specific congregational ritual or practice, this point will be discussed in detail in an upcoming study.

From a Christian standpoint, the just/righteous (di/kaio$) person means, primarily, one who trusts in Jesus; yet the author concludes the discussion with an example of an earlier kind of “righteous one”, from the Old Testament (vv. 17-18)—the prophet Elijah, whose miracle-working power is attributed to his faith and earnest prayer to God. The illustration is taken specifically from the tradition in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was not especially associated with prayer in the Old Testament narratives, but this aspect became more prominent in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 7:109; m. Taan. 2:4; b. Sanh. 113a; j. Sanh. 10, 28b, etc; cf. Davids, p. 197).

Apart from this passage in James (and the possible context of 1 John 5:14-17, cf. above), there is only one other instance in the New Testament where health and healing are connected with prayer—in 3 John 2. There the sentiment is expressed in the most general manner: it is a wish for health and wholeness (in the body), even as things go well for the person in their soul.

To the relative paucity of references to prayer for healing, we must also add one famous passage where God does not answer a faithful believer’s fervent prayer for healing from a troublesome ailment. This, as you may guess, is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” illustration in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

 

June 2: Mark 1:9-11 par

Mark 1:9-11 par

Along with the saying of the Baptist (cf. the previous note), there is a related early Gospel tradition involving the Spirit of God (and/or the “holy Spirit”)—the famous narrative of the Baptism of Jesus. I have discussed the entire episode of Jesus’ Baptism at great length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”; here, in this note, the discussion will be limited to how this narrative tradition reflects a development of the earlier lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition, regarding the Spirit of God.

The core Synoptic narrative is best represented by the Markan version (1:9-11), with the descent of the Spirit described in verse 10:

“And straightaway, stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down unto him”

The Matthean version (3:16) is expanded, offering more precise (if blander) detail:

“And (hav)ing been dunked, Yeshua straightaway stepped up from the water, and see!—the heavens were opened (up), and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down, as if a dove, [and] coming upon him”

The Lukan version (3:21-22), by contrast, is briefer, but embedded within a complex syntactical structure that is difficult to translate; the relevant portion reads:

“…(an) opening (up) of the heaven and (the) stepping down of the holy Spirit, in bodily appearance as a dove, upon him”

The main details are consistent across the Synoptic tradition, and are also shared by the Johannine version (1:32ff), presented as an indirect narration by the Baptist:

“I have looked at the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him”

The three key details, found in all versions, are: (1) the Spirit “stepping down” out of heaven, (2) the form/appearance as a dove, and (3) its coming “upon” Jesus. Let us briefly consider each of these.

1. “stepping down” (vb katabai/nw) out of heaven

This signifies the heavenly origin of the Spirit, implying that it comes from God in heaven. The Markan and Johannine versions specifically state that it came “out of” (e)k) heaven, while Matthew has “from” (a)po/) heaven. The dramatic opening up of the heavens (i.e. the skies) in Mark/Matthew makes clear the idea that the Spirit comes down onto the earth. The use of the verb katabai/nw (lit. “step down”, i.e. come down) has special significance in the Gospel of John, which uses both katabai/nw and the related a)nabai/nw (“step up”) in a uniquely theological (and Christological) sense. The “descent” of the Spirit marks the beginning of this descent/ascent motif—that is, the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus, respectively—in the Gospel (cf. 1:51, etc).

2. The Dove

Commentators continue to debate the significance of the dove appearance of the Spirit in this episode. Many ideas and associations have been suggested, but three seem particularly relevant:

    • The Creation account, which depicts the spirit (or breath) of God “hovering/fluttering” like a bird (Gen 1:2, cf. the earlier note); other Old Testament passages similarly describe God’s presence in creation (that is, among His people) using bird-imagery (e.g., Deut 32:11-13).
    • The fundamental meaning of both pneu=ma in Greek and j^Wr in Hebrew is that of wind, i.e. something blowing; this makes for a natural association with the image of a bird in flight. Similarly, the image of a bird in the expanse of the skies (or heavens) connotes freedom, exaltation, purity, and so forth. Many religious traditions worldwide depict the life-breath (i.e. soul, spirit) of a person as a bird.
    • The whiteness that characterizes many doves, and is traditional of the dove, serves as a natural symbol for the holiness (i.e. purity) of God’s Spirit.

Only the last of these relates specifically to a dove, and is particularly important to the baptism setting, with its emphasis on cleansing. It is worth remembering that the literal expression in Hebrew is, most commonly, “spirit of [God’s] holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), rather than “holy spirit”; that is, the emphasis is squarely on holiness and purity as a divine characteristic.

3. Coming “upon” Jesus

The Markan version uses the preposition ei)$, which is somewhat ambiguous; literally, it could mean “into”, but most commentators would render it here as “unto”. In Old Testament tradition, this could be comparable to the idea of God’s Spirit coming (or “rushing”) to a person, using the preposition la#. By contrast, Matthew and Luke (along with the Johannine version) use the preposition e)pi/ (“upon”), corresponding to the Hebrew lu*. There are even more Old Testament passages which express the idea of God’s Spirit being (or coming) upon a person—cf. Num 11:17ff; Judg 3:10; 14:6; 1 Sam 10:6, 10; 11:6, etc (discussed in recent notes). Moreover, this was the basic idiom that was developed in later Prophetic tradition, involving the image of the Spirit being “poured out” upon a person (cf. the discussion below).

The Significance of the Baptism Scene

This needs to be considered from several vantage points:

    • The Baptism scene in the context of the early Gospel narrative
    • The language and imagery in the scene itself, especially the detail of the “voice” from heaven
    • How the scene was understood, in context, by the Gospel writers
The Context of the early Gospel narrative

This involves: (a) the baptism rite in the setting of John’s ministry, and (b) the saying of the Baptist regarding “the one coming”. Both of these aspects were discussed in the previous note, where I pointed out the significant parallels with the water-ritual performed for entrants into the Qumran Community. The ritual symbolized the person’s “spirit” being cleansed (and made holy) by God’s own Spirit; moreover, this cleansing was preparatory for the purification that would take place at the end-time. The Gospel narrative clearly indicates that the baptism rite, as performed by John, was for the cleansing of sin, and that it similarly anticipated the end-time Judgment of God—when the righteous/faithful ones would be purified, while the wicked would be consumed.

What is distinctive about the Baptist’s message in this regard, is the localization of this end-time cleansing with the Messianic figure of “the one coming”. On the derivation of this expression from the tradition in Malachi 3:1, as interpreted in a Messianic sense, cf. the previous note, along with my supplemental note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Implicit in the early Gospel narrative is that Jesus, with his initial appearance at his baptism, is being identified with this Messianic figure. The point is not made explicit at all in the simpler Synoptic narrative of Mark, but the connection is evinced, in different ways, by the other Gospel writers. For example, the inclusion of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke establishes the Messianic identity of Jesus even prior to the Baptism, a point reinforced by Matthew’s citation of Isa 9:1-2 in 4:12-16. Luke sets the Baptism episode in the context of questions regarding whether John the Baptist might be the Anointed One (3:15ff); this is presented even more prominently in the Johannine Gospel (1:19-27).

The pouring of water in the baptism-rite also suggests the idea of anointing—indeed, both motifs were associated with the Spirit of God in Old Testament Tradition, as discussed in prior notes. In the ancient kingship traditions—going back to the earlier leadership of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges—the Spirit of God came upon the ruler, in a manner similar to prophetic inspiration (cf. 1 Sam 10:6, 11; 11:6, etc). In the case of Saul and David, there is a close connection between the coming of God’s Spirit and the anointing ritual (1 Sam 16:13f); even after the principle of Spirit-inspired charismatic leadership waned, the presence of the Spirit was still tied to the king’s anointing in the (Judean) royal theology. There is less evidence for the anointing of prophets; however, the expression “anointed one” (j^yv!m*, i.e. messiah) could be applied to prophets, as well as kings and priests. As mentioned in the prior note, the early Gospel tradition, during the period of his ministry, seems to have identified Jesus as a Messianic prophet rather than the Davidic ruler figure-type. Cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The Voice from Heaven

The heavenly voice in the Baptism narrative primarily represents a theophany—that is, the manifestation of God among human beings (His people, or their chosen representative[s]). The main Old Testament example, of course, is the Sinai theophany, when the people heard the voice of God speaking (Exod 19:19ff; 20:18-21; Deut 4:10-12). In the Gospels, this theophanic voice relates specifically to key moments during Jesus’ ministry, demonstrating God’s relationship to him specifically. In addition to the Baptism and Transfiguration episodes (Mk 9:7 par; Lk 9:35 [v.l.]), there is a comparable occurrence in the Gospel of John (12:27-32). The heavenly voice at the Transfiguration essentially repeats the voice at the Baptism (in Matthew’s version they are virtually identical), and the parallel episodes serve to divide the structure of the Synoptic narrative:

    • The Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry
    • The Transfiguration marks the end of that ministry, and the beginning of the events leading up to his Passion

The declaration made by the heavenly voice, and its precise significance, continue to be debated. There does seem to be an allusion to Psalm 2:7, which would strongly indicate an identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) of the Davidic ruler type—i.e., future/end-time king from the line of David. In some manuscripts of Luke 3:22, the voice actually quotes Psalm 2:7, an indication, at the very least, that early Christians had made the connection. However, it seems more likely that the primary allusion is to Isaiah 42:1, which clearly references the Spirit coming upon God’s chosen one (cf. my earlier note on the passage). The Greek word translating db#u# (“servant”) is pai=$, which literally means “child”, and so could easily be interpreted in the specific sense of “son” (ui(o/$). The Servant of the deutero-Isaian poems is best understood as an Anointed leader patterned after Moses, who will lead Israel in their return from exile (a ‘new Exodus’). He thus serves as a Messianic prophet-figure, parallel to the end-time Prophet patterned after Elijah (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. the previous note). In the Transfiguration scene, Jesus is associated with both Moses and Elijah.

The Meaning of the Scene in the Gospels

Given the explicit notice that the purpose of John’s baptizing was for repentance and forgiveness of sin, it is interesting that the Gospel writers do not give any evidence of the theological implications of this in relation to Jesus. At the level of the historical tradition, the idea of Jesus’ sinlessness was not yet an issue, and, by the time the Gospels were written, the Baptism-tradition was so well-fixed that the writers were no longer free to comment on the matter. Only at Matt 3:14-15 is there any indication of an apologetic concern, expressed more in terms of Jesus’ apparent submission to John, than on his need for repentance.

Whatever the specific reasons or circumstances for Jesus being baptized, at the historical level, the Gospels quite clearly demonstrate that the scene is not about cleansing and purification, but of consecration and empowerment. The best parallel from Old Testament tradition is that of prophetic inspiration—that is, the Spirit of God coming upon the chosen/gifted spokesperson (ayb!n`) who will serve as God’s representative. The idea of Jesus as a Davidic (royal) Messiah is largely foreign to the first half of the Synoptic narrative (the Galilean ministry period); only with the journey to Jerusalem, and the events leading to his Passion, does the Davidic association come more clearly into view. Two aspects of Jesus’ ministry are most directly relevant to the ayb!n` (prophet) role:

    • Preaching and teaching—i.e. Spirit-inspired utterance, and
    • Healing miracles, demonstrating his power and authority over spirits of disease, etc.

Of the Old Testament Prophets, the working of miracles is associated most commonly with Elijah (and his successor Elisha), and also, to a lesser extent, with Moses. Inspired preaching is common to many of the prophets, though the specific idea of teaching, with its connection to the Torah, would be most closely related to Moses. Thus Jesus could well be viewed as an Anointed (Messianic) prophet patterned after both Moses and Elijah (cf. the Transfiguration scene). However, direct allusions in the Gospels are slight, and it is only in the Gospel of Luke that we find a clearer portrait of the kind of Anointed figure Jesus understood himself to be. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

June 27: On John the Baptist (conclusion)

In the previous three daily notes (note 1, 2, 3), in commemoration of the traditional birthday of John the Baptist (June 24), I examined the relationship between John and Jesus in terms of the figure of Elijah, looking specifically at evidence for both John and Jesus being identified with Elijah (as the end-time Prophet-to-Come). In today’s note I offer a concluding discussion of the topic, according to the following:

    1. Jesus as the Anointed/Eschatological Prophet in Gospel and early Christian tradition
    2. John in early Christian tradition and the disappearance of the Elijah motif

1. Jesus as the Anointed/Eschatological Prophet in Gospel and early Christian tradition

For specific references in the Gospels related to Jesus as Elijah and/or the eschatological Prophet, see the previous day’s note. Here, in summary, it is worth discussing a bit further: (a) Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as applied to Jesus, and (b) Jesus as the Prophet and Jesus as the Messiah.

(a) Deuteronomy 18:15-19—in its original context, this passage predicts (or promises) that YHWH will raise up another authoritative prophet to follow in Moses’ footsteps. The Hebrew word ayb!n` (n¹»î°). usually translated “prophet”, has the basic meaning of “spokesman”, i.e. someone who stands and represents (God) before the people, proclaiming the word/message of God; its meaning therefore overlaps with the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), “one who speaks before” (usually understood as one who speaks beforehand, a “foreteller”). Since the people were unable (and/or unwilling) to hear God’s words directly (vv. 16-17), the presence of a spokesperson (such as Moses) was necessary. As God’s representative, his word is authoritative and must be obeyed (vv. 18-19). The passage goes on to warn against “false” prophets, with a test and instructions for dealing with them (vv. 20-22).

By the time of the New Testament, Deut 18:15-19 had come to be understood somewhat differently, as a prediction for a future “Prophet like Moses” who will arise at the end-time. Passages such as Num 24:17 (from Balaam’s oracle) were interpreted in much the same way, as referring to future, eschatological “Messianic” figures. The texts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) evince a belief in an (anointed) eschatological Prophet (cf. 1QS 9:11 etc); it is possible that this figure is related to the one who will “teach righteousness” at the end of days (CD 6:11, cf. Hos 10:12). The Florilegium/Testimonia of 4Q175 cites Deut 5:28-29 and Deut 18:18-19 (Exod 20:21 according to the Samaritan text) as one of a string of “Messianic”/eschatological passages. A similar expectation of an end-time Prophet can be found in passages such as 1 Maccabees 14:41. It should be remembered that the Qumran Community, like many Jews and most early Christian of the period, believed that they were living in the end times (or “last days”), so that the eschatological prophecies were specifically relevant to their situation, and so were being (or were about to be) fulfilled.

In Acts 3:22-23, Peter (in his sermon-speech), combines Deut 18:15, 18-19 and Lev 23:29, applying them to Jesus and identifying him as the Prophet to Come. Interestingly, the context of vv. 20-21 suggests that a future (though imminent) appearance of Jesus is in mind; and yet Peter uses the “Prophet” theme for a somewhat different purpose—to draw a connection between (i) the Prophets who spoke of and foresaw these things, and (ii) the Jews currently hearing him (“sons of the Prophets”), exhorting them to accept the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ (vv. 24-26). Deut 18:15 is cited again in Acts 7:37 as part of Stephen’s great speech, tracing Israel’s history.

(b) Jesus as the Prophet and the Messiah.—The evidence is, I should say, rather strong that there was an early historical (and Gospel) tradition which viewed Jesus as the Anointed One (i.e. Messiah) in terms of the Prophet, rather than the (Davidic) King. The latter association, however, proved to be much stronger, to the extent that the idea of Jesus as the end-time Prophet of God largely disappeared from Christian tradition. As I judge the evidence, Jesus as Anointed Prophet is more or less limited to the early ministry in Galilee; with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the figure of Anointed (Davidic) King (i.e. the “Son of David”) takes over. Is this distinction and division (according to the Synoptic narrative outline) historical or literary?—I would argue that it is both. Indeed, I would go a step further and suggest that it is possible to trace a doctrinal development as well, perhaps best understood according to the idea of progressive revelation. This might be outlined as followed:

    • Jesus as (Anointed) Prophet—this is largely a result of the early miracles and preaching, centered in Galilee. The miracles, in particular, suggested an identification with Elijah. At the same time, there was an expectation of a “Prophet to Come” (like Moses, according to Deut 18:15-19); and Jesus was thought to fulfill this role as well. Counter to this, we have the association of John with Elijah (according to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6) also preserved in Gospel tradition, including sayings of Jesus specifically identifying John with Elijah—these sayings remain problematic and somewhat difficult to interpret (note also John’s denial that he is Elijah in the Gospel of John). For more, cf. Parts 2-3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
    • Jesus as Anointed (Davidic) King—this becomes the main association in the Jerusalem portion of the Synoptic narrative, beginning with Mark 10:47-48 par, through the triumphal entry (Mk 11:10 par), and on through the Passion narrative. In this regard, note especially, Mark 12:35-37 par; Matt 21:15; Mark 14:61; Matt 24:5, 23; 26:63, 68; 27:17, 22; Lk 23:2; Mark 15:32 par; cf. also Jn 10:24; 11:27; 12:34 and Matt 16:16, 20. It is through the identification of Jesus as Anointed (Davidic) King that the title Xristo$ (“Anointed”), particularly following the Resurrection (cf. Lk 24:26, 46; Acts 2:36), came to be applied to Jesus (becoming virtually a proper name). Cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
    • Jesus as Lord [ku/rio$]—this is fundamentally a product of the resurrection and the early Christian belief in Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God in Heaven. In early tradition, it went hand in hand with the title “Anointed” (cf. Acts 2:36); however, as “Anointed”/Christ came to be used increasingly as a proper name, “Lord” took over as the main title applied to Jesus in Christian tradition. References to “Lord”, like the title “Son of God”, can be found at earlier positions in the Gospel narrative, but it is doubtful whether (or to what extent) they would have been applied to Jesus earlier historically, in the sense (and with the meaning) that they came to be used by Christians later on; though key exceptions could be cited, such as Matt 16:16.
    • Jesus as (Anointed) Priest—this appears to reflect a late strand of Christian belief; apart from the epistle to the Hebrews, and several allusions in the Johannine writings, there is little evidence for this association in early Gospel tradition. Cf. Part 9 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.

2. John in early Christian tradition and the disappearance of the Elijah motif

Just as the belief in Jesus as the end-time Prophet was superseded by his identification as Anointed (King) and glorified Lord, so, too, did John’s role as Elijah disappear from Christian tradition. The reason for this is, I think, straightforward, the explanation being two-fold:

    • Belief in John as Elijah was based on early historical tradition; as belief in Jesus and Christological tradition developed and progressed, John’s role and position naturally was diminished (as represented by John’s own words in Jn 3:30).
    • The idea of Elijah and the eschatological Prophet-to-Come was based largely on the belief, shared by many Jews of the period and most early Christians, that the Kingdom of God was at hand—God’s end-time Judgment, preceded by Elijah (and/or “the Prophet”), was imminent (therefore the urgency of repentance and conversion). As the years passed, without a realization of the end, the importance of this eschatological view gradually lost strength. Already in the early Church, it had been replaced partially by the concept of Christ’s return—he would still bring about God’s (imminent/end-time) Judgment, but not in the role of “Elijah”. However, note the persistence of the eschatological Elijah motif in Revelation 11.

With the disappearance of the eschatological Elijah theme, and, correspondingly, John as Elijah (however that might be interpreted), the Baptist also disappeared largely from early Christian tradition. Apart from the Gospels and several historical/kerygmatic references in Acts, he is not mentioned at all the New Testament (nor is the Baptism of Jesus). Subsequently, in Christian thought, he is associated almost exclusively with the Gospel Narratives of Jesus’ baptism. This itself makes it difficult for Christians today to appreciate fully—and to interpret accurately—Jesus’ sayings regarding the Baptist, such as those in Matt 11:11-14; Mark 9:11-13; 11:30 pars; Lk 16:16; Jn 5:32-36.

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).

June 25: Mark 1:3, 6 par, etc

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

Anyone familiar with the canonical Gospels knows that a citation from Isa 40:3 effectively begins the Synoptic narrative, as in Mark 1:3; Matt 3:3; Luke 3:4ff:

“A voice crying out in the desert,
‘Make ready [e(toima/sate] the way of the Lord,
make straight his trodden (path)s!”

However, Mark (Mk 1:2) prefaces his version with a citation from Malachi 3:1:

“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
      • Shifts the focus to the Scriptural/prophetic role of the Son of Man, especially the (unusual) idea that he is to suffer
      • Though unspoken here, the passage is centered between the first two predictions by Jesus of his own (impending) Passion (Mark 8:31; 9:31 par)
    • 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”.

* * * * * * *

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”.