Mahlon H Smith,
And they ask him: "What then are
Are you Elijah?"
And he say:
"I am not!"
-- John 1:21
Baptist's reputation as Elijah is an idea. Where it originated
is a question for the intellectual historian. Since a reputation
identifies the impression that one life makes on others its
historical importance may be greater in the long run than one's
actual deeds. It creates an image that is projected as a role
model beyond the setting of one's direct activity. History is
the stage on which one has to decide how to relate to the
reputations created by others.
gospels Jesus' reputation is linked to that of John the Baptist and
John's to that of Elijah. But reputations are easily distorted
or invented in the fluid world of public rumor. The source of
John's reputed role has a direct bearing on the question of his
actual impact upon Jesus as well as others.
the designation "messiah" or "prophet," Elijah was a name that
identified a particular person in Israel's history. From the
historical point of view, the proper question is not whether John
really was Elijah--that is, whether their persons were
identical--but why someone said he was. Did John really act as
paper concludes that he did. The reasons for this conclusion
involve an unraveling of not only John's reputation but those of
Elijah and Jesus as well. As with all rumors the original
source of a reputation is not easy to demonstrate. In the case
of John's it is complicated by back-stage politics involving
controversy over who cast John as Elijah and whether he was really
qualified for the part.
paper employs two disciplines that an intellectual historian relies
on: debate and role-playing. Ideas develop in public
controversy. Understanding who said what and why involves restaging
possible scenarios. This is the work of a drama critic (as opposed
to a theater critic). Arguments need to be dissected, identifying
the function of information, to test their strength.
Techniques of dialectical criticism are used in debate and law.
Both drama criticism and dialectical criticism are used here because
the question of John's reputation focuses on a debate about a role
person is not being-by-oneself but being-in-relation-to-another.
It is how one is seen to act. To be an actor is to be projected out
of oneself into a world where one encounters other actors. The
pattern of such encounters establishes identity. Persons are public
masks, characters, roles. And the differences between roles
enables persona to be distinguished and named. John and Elijah are
distinct persona. But they could be identified by the way they
were seen to act.
Initially a person is named by others. It is how, not what, a
person is called. A name is a calling, reflecting how others
see--or want to see--one act.
"YHWH [Moses' name for God] is gracious"--is the type of name
a Jewish parent gave a newborn child, one who had yet no chance to
choose the image projected. Before the 2nd century CE all
Johns were Judean or descended from related Israelite tribes (Levi,
etc.). There were many Johns in early Judaism, from all strata
of society, performing different roles in public: priest-kings, John Hyrcanus I & II; rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai; and John bar Zebedee, a
Galilean fisherman associated with Jesus of Nazareth, to name only
the most prominent characters from different scripts.
was distinguished from others of the same name by how he acted: he
washed people, immersing or dunking them in water. Hence, he
was called "the Baptist." This name, like his given name, was
assigned rather than chosen. But it was based on how he chose
to act. People saw John baptizing. And because this
activity was distinct enough from that chosen by others it could be
used to characterize him. Whether John as actually called "the
Baptist" or not, this activity reflects his personal calling than
the name given by his parents. It reveals what he actually
did. As "the Baptist" John acted as a distinct role model.
But the gospels indicate that John was cast in a different role,
that of Elijah. Why?
gospel--also called John; but here, for clarity, 4G--opens by
characterizing John as a person [ἄνθρωπος] "sent from God's side" [ἀπεσταλμένος
παρὰ θεοῦ] (4G 1:6) and proceeds to offer him a selection of
appropriate roles. As expected, he declines the role of
Messiah (ὁ Χρίστος) which in Christian stories is reserved for
Jesus (4G 1:20). But John's refusal to identify with Elijah or "the
Prophet" is surprising, if one is familiar with Matthew, Mark
prophet sent from God" is a part created in Deuteronomy, where YHWH
promises to fill Moses' role in some future scene:
raise up a prophet like you from among your kin;
and I will put my words in his mouth,
and he will tell them all that I command him" (Deut 18:18).
of 4G casts Jesus in this role. Jesus is not just like
Moses, he is "the Word" of God, who can only act and
speak as his "Father" directs him (4G 5:19, 12:49). So it is
obvious why 4G would open by having John disqualify himself as
divine spokesman. He is not "the Prophet" in this story
even though others may have cast him in this role./1/
Yet, why John would be considered
for the role role of Elijah or why he would publicly decline is not
self-evident from 4G. According to the script(ures), Elijah is
called "a man of God" (1 Kings 17:18 ,24) whom YHWH promises to send
[again] (Mal 3:23). But his role did not involve washing
people. So why did 4G bother to deny that "the Baptist"
qualified for this part (4G 1:25)? 4G does not give
this role to Jesus, although there are subtle echoes of the
Elijah-Elisha narrative embedded in 4G stories of Jesus' "signs."/2/
The source of these stories may have identified Jesus
with Elijah./3/ But if so, the Jesus-Elijah equation
has been deliberately suppressed by the author of the canonical
gospel, leaving the role of Elijah unfilled./4/
So it is not
immediately clear why 4G has John's public disclaimer up front.
Neither the author nor the intended reader is likely to have thought
that the idea of identifying John with Elijah was fabricated by the
hierarchy of the temple in Jerusalem (4G 1:19). So, someone
must have cast John in Elijah's role before 4G (or its source) was
composed. Many hypotheses of who or why are possible, A
historically accurate assessment requires consideration of what
Elijah was supposed to do.
is a paradigmatic hero. But the Semitic heroic ideal is a
reviver of tradition rather than an innovator. A new actor may
develop a role but few are given the chance to create one.
Like other oral cultures, early Judaism relished repetition.
Favorite scenes tended to be rehearsed in new settings; and new
developments were interpreted in terms of previous dramatic events.
Reality was not seen to be an endless progression of novel
experiences. The past was both replayed and relived, so it is
often hard to separate patterns imposed by storytellers from those
deliberately imitated by actors. Elijah's part involves both.
Elijah of Tishbe played a pivotal
role in the social and political saga of Israel ca. 850
BCE. But his defense
of the God of Moses gave him a reputation that both restricts and
exaggerates his part in the story. As restorer of Mosaic
tradition he was expected to act somewhat like Moses. Like Moses, he
appears as sole champion of YHWH. He challenges a king who
allowed Mosaic standards of worship and social justice to be
compromised (1 Kings 17:2, 21:17-19). And he calls for the
slaughter of the partisans of the foreign god (18:40). A
jealous queen threatens his life (19:2), but he retreats into the
wilderness (19:4), to the mountain where Moses was commissioned
(19:8). He returns to prepare a new political order, anointing
leaders for those who have resisted the policies of the current
regime (19:15-18). Like Moses, he prepares his own
successor (19:19-21). The restoration of YHWH's rule takes
time, but forces that ignore Elijah's word perish by fire (2 Kings
1:9-16). Ultimately the theophanies that can destroy those who
challenge YHWH, whirlwind and a chariot of fire, carry Elijah alive
into heaven./5/ For those who rehearsed this story the mythic
elements identify Elijah's function. They shape his character.
Just as Elijah's role was shaped
by the story of Moses, so his reputation set precedents for his
protégé and successor, Elisha ben Shaphat. To the Semitic mind
predecessors are always greater. They create the patterns that
others follow. Yet Elisha completes Elijah's political agenda,
bringing the Omrid dynasty to an end (2 Kings 9). So his
achievement is recognized in subtle ways. He inherits Elijah's
garment and an extra measure of his inspiration (2 Kings 2:9-13)
including echoes from the story of Moses (2:8, 14), but Elisha has
more. Like Moses, both Elijah and Elisha are regarded as wonder-workers. But
only Elisha like Moses produces water from dry ground (3:16-20) or
feeds a multitude (4:42-44) or heals a leper (5:14)./6/
restores a child who has died (1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4); but even
physical contact with Elisha's bones can revive a corpse (2 Kings
13:20-21). Yet Elisha does die, like other champions of YHWH.
Only Elijah was seen to ascend to heaven.
mind of some Jews Elijah was so closely associated with YHWH that he
was part of the ultimate theophany. Malachi, the last book of
the Hebrew prophets, ends with YHWH's assurance: "on the day that I
act...I will spare...you who fear my name from the fire that will
burn arrogant evildoers (Mal 3:17-20). The law of Moses must be kept
(Mal 3:21). But the last chance to escape being consumed by fire
when YHWH appears would come from Elijah (Eli-Yahu). His
reappearance would renew the covenant by restoring the family bond
Jews came to
long for Elijah's reappearance. Prayers that he come soon were
formulated and a cup was set out for him at Passover celebrations.
Such liturgical practices are hard to date with precision; but they
probably come from times when Jews under Greeks and Romans felt
observance of the Mosaic covenant was particularly threatened.
These hopes for a climactic public appearance differ radically from
the later Jewish view of Elijah as a divine spokesman who
encountered eminent rabbis in private./7/
In Jewish tradition Elijah was not an anonymous eschatological
prophet, a historical cipher who served only as herald of the last
judgment. He was himself a central character of great
importance. He was a prime mover and a reorganizer. He
was the model defender and restorer of the old order. He was
the main understudy for Moses; and he prepared for another to
fulfill this role. He was critic of Israel's own kings who
abandoned the laws of Moses and followed foreign practices. He
was the ultimate reviver, whose spirit was so dynamic that it kept
him and those whom he inspired in close contact with the living God
who delivered Israel from death and destruction. His very name
reminded Jews who was really God (El=YHWH). He was the
type of guest that an observant Jewish family would welcome.
But his presence was a threat to those who did not obey YHWH's laws.
Not himself a Judean, he became one of Judaism's favorite heroes.
His story was well known.
All that was needed was someone willing to play his part. In
4G John declines; and though Jesus may have been given the part in
an earlier production (the so-called "Signs Gospel" that is) the
director of the surviving text seems to think that the role of
Elijah did not fit him either. In the synoptic gospels we are
faced with the opposite problem. The role of Elijah is claimed
to fit both John and Jesus./8/
Why? And in which order?
The gospels, like all scripts, are
products of repeated revisions and refinement. The rewriting
of John's role is particularly clear in passages associating him
In Matthew Jesus himself
publicly gives him the part by telling "the crowds" (11:7):
"If you can take it, he is Elijah, the one who was going to come"
Mark's Jesus is more discrete,
telling only three disciples in private:
"Elijah in fact has come, and they had their way with him, just as
the scriptures indicate" (Mark 9:13//Matt 17:12). Since Mark's
previous references to John are peppered with parallels to Old
Testament passages about Elijah, Mark's Jesus does not have to
identify "Elijah" for his audience to get the point. But for
those who might not make the connection, Matthew has the narrator
announce that Jesus' disciples drew this conclusion (17:13).
Luke does not credit either Jesus or
his disciples with casting John as Elijah, but has an angel
reveal this to John's own father (and the reader) before either
Jesus or John was conceived (Luke 1:17). From birth John
was trained to act like Elijah (Luke 1:76). Luke may not
stress the John-Elijah equation as much as Matthew or Mark.
But his portrait of Jesus as (a) John's prophetic successor (b) who
people expect to act like Elijah is probably based on the
4G 1:20 indirectly suggests a
different explanation. 4G (or its source) gave prominence to John's
refusal to act as Elijah probably to prevent its readers its readers
from thinking that he did. But this tactic would work only if
the intended reader did not accept the synoptic gospels.
Christians could hardly be expected to think John's denial was
sufficient refutation of either Jesus or Gabriel (witness the
persistence of the John-Elijah equation in churches that accept the
4G as Holy Writ.). So, it is unlikely that John 1:21 was
penned for a community familiar with Matthew, Mark or Luke. 4G
presupposes that the identification of John as Elijah comes from an
outside source for whom John's testimony carries weight, obviously a
source friendly to John. Thus, 4G suggests that John's supporters
cast him as Elijah even though he did not claim the part.
To be circumspect, however, John is
explicitly linked to Elijah only in these Christian texts. So
the idea may be a literary fiction. The idea of a canonical
gospel developed only in the 2nd c. CE. The canonical gospels
themselves provide ample evidence that during the period of
composition Christian writers felt free to correct even sayings
ascribed to Jesus in written sources. So, in theory, it is
possible that Mark invented the idea that John was Elijah. A
Markan motif would be developed by writers who based their work on
his (Matthew and Luke), but be rejected as a fabrication by an
author who did not adopt Mark's script (4G).
These scenarios can be
reduced to five theses:
- John cast himself in the role
- John's supporters cast him as
- Jesus cast John as Elijah.
- Jesus' disciples cast John as
- Mark was first to cast John
All are possible. Which is more
The gospels are evidence that the
identification of John with Elijah was not self-evident to early
Christians. Moreover, the different theses about the source of
this idea are indication that it was controversial. To assess
the historical accuracy of any of these theses it is necessary to
unravel the controversy that produced them all. But how?
Textual evidence is essential to
historical investigation; and accurate reconstruction requires
stratification of sources of information. Literary criticism can
clarify the function of information within a given text and probable
relation of one written text to another. But by itself it
cannot explain why one author corrected or contradicted information
from another work, for reasons are not always on the surface.
Judging a debate involves
dialectical criticism: analyzing the logic of theses, antitheses and
syntheses. A few fundamental points about the rhetorical
development of arguments are relevant here:
(1) Thesis: a
speaker of author tries to promote his/her viewpoint. Cogent support
is sought from logic and graphic illustration. The proponent
assumes that this evidence will be accepted by the audience, even if
it is a total fabrication. Thus, arguments and exhibits are
evidence that information to the contrary is not generally known.
Advocates call their strongest witnesses.
(2) Antithesis: An
author does not deliberately invent a difficulty or contradiction.
But once it becomes public, damaging information or a contrary view
must be acknowledged. Three types of rebuttal are basic: flat
denial, falsification by stronger evidence, or correction by a
qualifying explanation. The type of rebuttal indicates the
strength of the opponent's argument. Difficulties that cannot be
disposed of by denial must be either falsified or at least explained
for the thesis to stand.
(3) Synthesis: In
correcting a thesis an author attempts to prevent further criticism.
Earlier errors are retracted, evidence edited and reorganized, weak
points reinforced. Damaging evidence that cannot be ignored is
admitted as fact. But problems are anticipated and minimized
by presenting mitigating evidence first. Final arguments try
to prevent falsification, leaving the opponent without a case.
4G presents a debate at the simplest
level. John is introduced; the suggestion that he might
be Elijah (thesis) is presented by the opposition; John
himself denies it (antithesis: rebuttal); case is closed.
There is not need to present other testimony or exhibits to
demonstrate that he is not Elijah because no evidence has been
introduced to support the claim that he is. The author's
assumption is: John should know who he is, so let us ask him. His
testimony about himself is accepted at face value and used to
demonstrate his credibility as a witness to Jesus, which is why 4G
calls him to the stand in the first place (1:7).
Dialectical analysis shows that the
question of John acting as Elijah is not a major issue for
4G. It belongs to the preliminaries that the author expects
the audience to accept as fact without further questions. There is
no need for a synthesis that accounts for the allegation, since the
gospel writer does not think the reader has reason to cast John in
the role of Elijah any more than that of Messiah or "the Prophet."
The real audience may, in fact, think otherwise. But if so,
the evidence has not been presented in a way that 4G has to take
From a dialectical perspective,
the synoptic handling of the issue is far more complex. Mark
and his revisers not only endorse the thesis that John was
Elijah but acknowledge an antithesis: namely, that Jesus was
Elijah. The latter suggestion is rejected, even by Luke./10/
It is what "others" say. 4G does not mention that this was Jesus'
public reputation and so has no need to take it into account.
The synoptics accept the rumor as historical fact, even if
they judge it to be nothing more than that. Thus, they have to
deal with it in their accounts of John's relation to Jesus (synthesis).
As a rumor to be contradicted, the
report that characterizes Jesus as Elijah was not invented by
Mark. Yet Mark treats it as a thesis that his audience might
accept unless it were falsified. Hence, he characterizes John as Elijah
before Jesus can be cast in this role.
The evidence that Mark cites to
identify John as Elijah is entered as an exhibit rather than as
testimony. In Mark, no one claims John is Elijah; John
himself appears in an appropriate costume, wearing a
camel-hair robe and a leather belt (Mark 1:6). Such dress was
not uncommon, nor identical with the costume by which Elijah was
recognized (2 Kings 1:8). But if one were seeking to
cast someone as Elijah, one would be more likely to chose an actor
who appeared in rustic garb, eating sparsely in the wilderness, than
a person like Jesus who frequented wedding banquets and refused to
fast (Mark 2:18-19).
Mark's outline follows the logic
of a rebuttal:
- Jesus is the Christ
- John appears as Elijah
- Jesus did not act like
- People say Jesus is John or
Elijah (6:14-16, 8:28);
- But Peter and fellow
disciples say he is the Christ (8:29).
The organization of this argument
seems designed to falsify the popular identification of Jesus with John
or Elijah more than to support any claim that he is the Messiah.
That is to say, the structural logic of the first half of Mark is not
development of the "messianic secret" so much as refutation of the
Mark thinks Jesus should not be
characterized as Elijah. But he is even more insistent that
Jesus is not John the Baptist, even though this is who
"people" (ἄνθρώποι) first said he was (Mark 6:14; 8:27-28).
Mark's presentation of alternated
rumors that Jesus is John or Elijah has been cited as evidence that
John was not popularly identified as Elijah./11/
interpretation takes Mark's lines out of their dramatic and
dialectical context. Mark was not asked what people generally
thought of John. For him, the issue is Jesus' public
reputation. John is no longer active, so Mark is not concerned how
people saw him when he was. Like Elijah John established a
pattern for a successor (1:8). But John's role called for
baptizing and preaching repentance./12/
This differs from the
role created by Elijah. When John was on stage he was himself,
although he could act somewhat like a predecessor. Thus, while
alive, John could be seen to act as Elijah (championing the Mosaic
Torah and criticizing a ruler who violated its commands).
After he was gone, however, his persona--his unique part in
history--is open along with any role he filled. So, Jesus could be
seen to act as either.
Mark accounts for Jesus'
reputation as John at the beginning of his narrative. John
disappears just before Jesus makes his first public appearance
(1:14), and Jesus begins by acting like John, calling for repentance
(1:15). Mark has to admit that Jesus appeared to play
the same role as John because that is what "people" said. But
as far as he is concerned, that is just what it was: a momentary
appearance. He goes on to present Jesus as acting with authority to
establish a new role that differs markedly from any previous script
(1:22). Unlike John, "he commands even unclean spirits and
they obey him" (1:27) without requiring baptism./13/
And unlike John, Jesus forgives sinners (2:5) and proclaims that all
sins will be forgiven (3:28) without requiring repentance./14/
Thus, Mark calls attention to Jesus' deeds that show he did
act like John.
After stressing that (a) Jesus did
not act like John, Mark has to admit that (b) "people" thought he
did. The second thesis (b) contains the dialectical reason for
demonstrating the first (a). But a popular opinion is not
easily destroyed by a few demonstrations. So Mark tries
another tact: discrediting the thesis by impugning the character of
the witness (a practice members of the Jesus Seminar should
recognize from their critics).
Who says Jesus is John the
Baptist? Mark calls Herod Antipas to the stand and asks him to
identify Jesus. Faced with the range of Jesus' public
reputations, Antipas insists: "John whom I beheaded has been raised"
(6:16). This is not friendly testimony and it certainly does
not support Mark's thesis. But Mark can use it because it
comes from John's known executioner. Thus, to think that Jesus
is John is to side with the prosecution.
Mark appears to use Antipas to
distinguish the roles of John, Elijah or a prophet. But this
is not the case. For after Antipas' testimony, Mark
introduces an exhibit: a flashback account of John's arrest and
execution (6:17-29). Josephus records these incidents (Ant.
18:117-119), so Mark did not invent them. But unlike Josephus,
Mark presents John's arrest as the direct consequence of his
criticism of Antipas for marrying his brother's wife./15/
Thus, Herodias is identified as the one really responsible for
John's death (Mark 6:24). This is not just another instance of
male chauvinism (or cowardice) which blames a woman for a man's
dirty deeds. For Mark the dramatic relation between "king
Herod," his wife and John repeats the pattern established in the
story of king Ahab, queen Jezebel, and Elijah. Elijah opposed
Ahab for following his wife's bidding rather than God's; John acts like Elijah. Jezebel vowed to eliminate Elijah (1
Kings 19:2), so in Mark's staging Herodias must do the same
to John (Mark 6:19).
The source of Mark's information
about John's execution is indeterminable. It is not
historically probable that he had access to accurate inside accounts
of the intentions of the Herodian family itself./16/
But Josephus is
witness that Antipas' marriage to Herodias was scandalous. And
John's execution undermined public support for Antipas' regime./17/
Thus, Mark could rely on Antipas' bad reputation on both counts to
falsify (a) his opinion that Jesus acted as John and (b) other
claims that Jesus acted as Elijah. Mark's logic runs:
- Some people say Jesus
was John or Elijah (6:14-15);
- Who does? "King Herod" says
Jesus is John (6:16);
- John called him a law-breaker
[//Elijah & Ahab] (6:18);
- Herod feared John [//Ahab &
- but he obeyed his wife
[//Ahab & Jezebel] (6:26);
- and in the end he ordered
John killed (6:27).
characterizing Antipas as "king Herod" Mark both strengthens the
parallel to Ahab and invokes popular anti-Herodian sentiment.
Herod, after all had a reputation for being a ruthless butcher./18/
And Antipas did claim his father's role by
pledging allegiance to a foreign power./19/
and thematically, Mark has this account out of order, but for a very
good dialectical reason. Had he rehearsed the story of John's
arrest in proper narrative sequence (1:14), it would have solidified
the impression that John was Elijah. But then when Jesus
appeared he would have inherited two vacant roles at once.
Both rumors would appear to be valid. From the beginning Jesus
would implicitly be cast as both a champion of Mosaic law and an
opponent of the political establishment. But Mark writes to
falsify both impressions. He stresses that Jesus brings a new
teaching (1:27) that tolerates "unlawful" behavior (3:26)--i.e.,
infractions of the Mosaic Torah./20/
Although he admits early on that "the Herodians"
sought to eliminate Jesus (3:6), he does not portray Jesus doing
anything to justify their intrigue. Even in the end they are
unsuccessful in getting him to adopt a radical stance on the issue
that inflamed Jews who were zealous for the Torah: "whether it is
lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not" (12:13-14).
Had they read Mark's script the Herodians would
have known that from the beginning. Jesus was himself
criticized for associating with tax-collectors and sinners
(2:15-16). Mark is adamant: Jesus was no religious zealot.
He did not act like either John or Elijah.
Mark has one last difficulty in
casting John in Elijah's role: John was executed, Elijah was not.
In fact, if Josephus is any indication, the story of John's
execution was almost as well-known among first-century Jews as the
story of Elijah's ascension. John may have acted like Elijah,
but he certainly did not exit like him. For most Jews, John's
execution would automatically disqualify him from being cast as
Elijah just as Jesus' execution disqualified him from being cast as
their Messiah. Neither death was expected. Both roles required
a triumphant hero, not a tragic victim. Mark knows this and uses it
in staging his second act.
Mark concedes that the image of
Jesus as John or Elijah or a prophet was popular ("people say"). The
linking of these rumors indicates that all of these parts are open
and awaiting an actor to play them. In fact, all could be
played by the same actor. Mark's portrayal of John presupposes
this. The matter of the name of the person was a matter of
detail rather than basic pattern. After all, Elijah was
described as "the prophet" (1 Kings 18:16), but all prophets were
not Elijah. Mark has John play Elijah's role; and later he
tells the audience that "all" the common people still "held" that he
was a prophet, long after he had died (11:32). Any
prophet could die and still be a prophet (witness Moses or Elisha).
But Elijah's role calls for a live actor. The rumor
that "Jesus is Elijah" (the tense is essential!) presupposes
that he is alive and no one else is acting the part.
This is the antithesis that Mark
is trying to falsify. It is not a thesis that any Jew would be
prepared to defend after Jesus' death. Some of Jesus'
supporters might continue to believe that Jesus was still Elijah by
insisting that he had ascended into heaven. But no Christian
would be able to fabricate a claim that Jesus was Elijah because
he had ascended, since it was well-known that he had died first.
After the crucifixion the thesis that Jesus is Elijah could be
easily falsified: as one who had been executed he does not fit that
role any more than did John.
This accounts for the logical
structure of Mark 6-8. Mark first ties the rumors about Jesus
to the account of John's execution (6:14-29); but his second
citation is followed by a capsule description of Jesus' own
execution (8:27-31). The rhetorical arrangement is parallel,
but the content has one significant difference. Mark stresses
that John dies as champion of the Mosaic order, while Jesus dies
because he is rejected by those uphold it (elders, chief priests,
scribes). The patterns seem to be parallel, but for Mark they
It is this emphasis upon the
difference between appearance and reality that accounts for the
material that Mark introduces between these two episodes. This
section contains the largest block of parallels to Hebrew scripture
in Mark, and the only passages in which Jesus appears to act
as Moses or Elijah or Elijah's successor (Elisha). This
enables Mark to explain why, after John died, "some people"
could say Jesus is John or Elijah or a prophet. But the parallels
are partial and inexact, allowing Mark to insist that these claims
A catalogue of exhibits entered by
Mark after explaining John's execution runs:
||Jesus withdraws with the
Twelve (6:7) into the wilderness
(where Moses and Elijah fled and John appeared)./22/
||Jesus feeds a hungry
crowd (like Moses and Elisha)
with bread left over (like Elisha but not Moses)./23/
||Jesus challenged by
disciples not washing (unlike John).
||Jesus defends Mosaic law
against those who void it (like Elijah and John).
||Jesus goes to region of
Tyre and Sidon (like Elijah).
||A woman asks him to cure
her child (like Elijah)
but at first Jesus refuses (unlike Elijah)./24/
||Again Jesus feeds a crowd
in the wilderness (like Moses and Elisha)
with bread left over (like Elisha but not Moses).
||Jesus refuses to produce
a sign (unlike Moses)./25/
This list is not
complete. There are other minor parallels and contrasts; and
there are passages in this section that have no relation to the
John-Elijah-prophet rumors. But that is just Mark's point:
Jesus had another agenda. Yet there was just enough similarity
in Jesus' activity to prophetic predecessors that "some people"
could confuse him with such role models. Could and did;
Mark concedes that. He cannot adopt 4G's tactic and have Jesus
simply deny the rumors, not only because the impression of Jesus as
Elijah was popular, but evidence could be cited to support
this thesis and probably already had been./26/
His dialectical options are limited by evidence
that he does not attempt to deny, even though it contradicts the
image of Jesus he advocates. He can only try to falsify or explain
it; and he does both at once.
Mark repeatedly focuses attention on
the disciples' misunderstanding of Jesus. The function of this
motif as a critique of triumphalistic visions of God's own rule and
Jesus' role as Messiah is generally granted. Yet Mark's
strongest emphasis on it is in this section in relation to a very
different issue: the disciples' failure to grasp the real
significance of the feedings (6:52, 8:17-21). This is often
interpreted as criticism of those who take Jesus' miracles at
face value and fail to grasp the hidden meaning of signs he
performed./27/ But that
is to take these lines out of Mark's narrative context.
4G's version of the feeding of the 5000 concludes: "When the people
saw the sign that he had performed, they'd say: "This is
indeed the prophet who is to come into the world" (6:14).
But after rehearsing both the feeding of the 5000 and the
4000, Mark has Jesus asked to perform a sign. And Jesus
insists. "No sign will be given to this generation!"
Dialectically, Mark invokes testimony from Jesus himself to refute
the interpretation of feedings as his signs. Mark's
Jesus does not deny either that these events occurred or that
they were significant. He just denies that he performed
them. As Mark tells these incidents, Jesus told the disciples
that they should feed people and they did (6:37-41, 8:4-7),
but they never thought that they had enough (6:36, 8:4,16).
Their hearts are hardened (6:52, 8:17) and Jesus scolds them
for not understanding the significance of the remnants that they
had gathered (6:43, 8:8,19-20).
The point of rehearsing this here is
not to establish the origin of the feeding stories but to identify
their function in the development of Mark's argument.
Inevitably these accounts echo deeds by Israel's prophetic
liberators (Moses, Elisha). Mark admits this by setting these
scenes in the wilderness (4G does not). Thus Mark concedes
that "some people" could take these stories as a sign that Jesus was
a prophet like Moses or the successor of Elijah. And 4G is
concrete evidence that, in fact, "some people" did. But Mark
falsifies this interpretation by introducing two pieces of
testimony, allegedly from Jesus himself, as evidence that (a) Jesus
did not perform any sign to show that he was such a prophet and (b)
Jesus' own disciples originally did not understand the significance
of such events. This is tacit admission that Jesus' disciples
originally thought he was was a prophet like John or Elijah or--by
extension--Moses. But he claims Jesus corrected them (8:17-21)
so they eventually came to see that he was not.
Mark documents the separation of the
disciples' view of Jesus from those who still saw him as John or
Elijah or a prophet by entering three exhibits:
||Jesus' cure of the blind
man of Bethsaida.
||Peter's recognition of
Jesus as the Christ.
||Jesus' transformation on
This sequence creates the cumulative
impression of a gradual discovery. Whatever the origin of the
chreia about the blind man who came to "see everything
clearly," Mark's rhetorical setting--immediately after Jesus
lambastes the disciples for not seeing (8:17-18) and
immediately before Peter expresses a view of Jesus that
differs from the masses--turns it into an allegory of a student
slowly learning the truth./28/
This impression is
reinforced by the scene of the so-called "transfiguration." On a
high mountain Jesus appears in a new guise. His pattern, his
persona, his role has been changed (μετεμορφώθη); he wears
such a radiant costume that he might be confused with either
Moses or Elijah./29/ But
as the scene is blocked out three disciples see him talking
to both, which should make it clear that he is neither. One
role can be played by many actors in succession, and most are.
But--in classic drama at least--one actor cannot fill three roles at
the same time. Mark's point in recounting the mountain
vision is not that Jesus appeared in a new role but that he did not
appear in two old ones. The bath qol tells the
disciples to concentrate on Jesus' lines (9:7). And
when they look again they see no one else (9:8). The
disappearance of Moses and Elijah separates Jesus from these
traditional roles. So Mark enters this exhibit as graphic
evidence that Jesus did not fit the parts in which he was popularly
Mark admits, however, that this was
the vision of a few. So, he concedes, Jesus continued to be
confused with Elijah or a prophet like Moses. Disciples could
claim that he was not such, but this could be demonstrated
only by his death. Then those who thought Jesus assumed the roles
that John had ceased to perform would finally see that he was not
qualified for the part. This is the rhetorical reason for
Mark's placement of the first account of Jesus' execution (8:31):
between Peter's claim that Jesus has a different role
than those with which he was identified in popular rumor and the
vision that Jesus did not act as either Elijah or Moses.
Prophets could be executed; but not Elijah or the prophet like
Moses. These figures were revivers of the old order.
Mark is intent on showing that this was not Jesus' actual
role. But, he insists, John really did fit the part.
The popular characterization of
Elijah as a reviver of the dead who himself ascended into heaven is
the crux of Mark's problem in portraying John as Elijah. John
did neither. But Jesus was reputed to have done both.
Mark knows Jewish Christians could enter such exhibits to support
the antithesis he is trying to refute. He does not deny claims that
Jesus revived the dead or ascended into heaven. But he
precludes them from being cited as evidence that Jesus is Elijah by
falsifying the parallels.
Elijah and Elisha were portrayed as
reviving a woman's son (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4); according to Mark,
however, Jesus revived a man's daughter who had just reached puberty
(5:21-43). In this complex exhibit Mark focuses attention on
Jesus' physical contact with two women who were menstrually
"unclean" to prevent anyone from thinking that Jesus was a prophet
who restored the Mosaic law.
Moreover, Mark does not mention an
ascension of Jesus, much less describe it. In Mark's staging Jesus
does not exit like Elijah, with a (male) disciple seeing his master
taken to heaven or men verifying his absence (2 Kings 2).
On the contrary, Mark insists that Jesus' male disciples all
deserted him--even Peter (14:26-72). So their knowledge of
Jesus' fate was hearsay traceable to women who were too frightened
to report what happened immediately (16:8).
Mark hardly intends to falsify claims
of Jesus' resurrection. In fact, he stresses it. Rather,
he falsifies the thesis that Jesus' exit was seen by Peter or
any other disciple./30/
Mark repeatedly calls upon "Jesus" to describe his own fate.
And the details he mentions contrast dramatically with Elijah's,
particularly his reference to "rising from the dead" (9:9). He
has "Jesus" identify Peter as an adversary (Σατανᾶ)--an agent
of the prosecution in Hebrew law--who is on the side of "the people"
(τῶν ἀνθρώπων) rather than God, by denying that Jesus could die
In Mark's rhetorical context this
charge links Peter's denial of Jesus' death to the popular image of
Jesus as John or Elijah (8:28). But John did die and was no
longer regarded as Elijah. Mark describes the disciples
subsequent "vision" on the mountain as a scene which should have
made them distinguish Jesus' role from those of Moses and
Elijah. But his portrayal of Peter's reaction (9:5) concedes
that they did not. Mark's primary reason for entering
these exhibits at this point in his argument cannot be to discredit
Peter or falsify his testimony, since so far he is the only witness
to support Mark's own thesis that Jesus is the Messiah.
Rather, it functions as concession that early Christians did not
distinguish Jesus' persona from Elijah's. The distinction
would be clear only to those who knew that he had risen from the
As Mark tells it, Peter, James and
John did not grasp this. So they offer the ultimate Jewish rebuttal:
"The scribes say that Elijah must come first" (9:11)./31/ To
counter this objection, Mark calls upon Jesus to distance himself
from the image of Elijah. Mark's whole case rests on this
testimony. So it is essential to follow its logic.
||"Of course Elijah
comes first!" --
the opponents' objection granted. It is based on scripture.
Elijah is "the forerunner" not only to Elisha but to YHWH
everything!" -- clarification of Elijah's role:
he is supposed to restore not only the Mosaic Torah but
Mark has demonstrated that this role belonged to John and
Yet some, including Jesus' disciples, originally failed to
see the distinction.
||"So how come it's
written about the son of Man
||that he is to suffer
much and be scorned?" --
The logic of this question has escaped most interpreters
ancient or modern
by taking it out of context as a prediction of Jesus'
own fate (Matt 17:12)./32/ But such editing is not needed since "son
of Man" was not a Messianic title
nor exclusively Jesus' term of self-reference./33/ Here, where the issue is death, a generic
interpretation is required.
That the human lot was subject to scorn, suffering and death
was common Jewish wisdom. This had been written./34/
||"But I tell you:
Elijah did come,
||and they did to him
whatever they wanted, just as it is written of him."
Scripture did show that Elijah had been exposed to the type
that befall any human./35/
But his reputation as reviver and restorer
caused such indications of his humanity to be generally
This argument does not cast John as
Elijah. That is, it does not tailor the appearance of John to
fit Elijah's part; but quite the opposite. It rewrites the
role of Elijah so that it can be seen to be tailor-made for John
even after he died. Mark grants that John was executed;
but he counters this by stressing the Jesus was too. The
function of this saying is to focus attention on the human
dimension of Elijah's appearance in the past to keep the
socio-political aspects of the role from being applied to Jesus in
the future. John will always be Elijah because: "Elijah comes
first." Mark has Jesus disqualify himself for the role of
Elijah because, as everyone knew, Elijah was by definition a
This argument was constructed for
Jewish Christians who had to admit that John did come before Jesus.
It was not created because Jews believed Elijah must come
before the Messiah. There is no good Jewish evidence of such a
tradition./36/ And the Jewish practice of
regarding forerunners as role models practically precludes it.
In Mark's dialogue, the issue of Elijah's role as "coming first"
(9:11) is raised in relation to the disciples inability to see how a
"son of God" (9:7) could rise "from the dead" (9:9-10). Sons
of God were generally viewed as immortals (Job 38:7). And
Elijah was the scriptural model of an immortal who raised the dead.
As role model he must "come first." This passage has nothing
to do with scribal speculation about conditions for the appearance
of the Messiah (that word is not even mentioned after Mark 8:27)!
Mark uses the chronological relation
of John to Jesus to confirm his identification of John as Elijah.
But this creates an image problem, since predecessors were generally
regarded as superior. Sirach expressed the Jewish view of
Elijah when he asked: "Whose glory is equal to yours?" (Sir
48:4b). And he concludes: "Happy are those who saw you...for
we too shall surely live" (48:11).
The author of 4G knew that Jews
glorified Elijah and so could not let John accept a role that would
eclipse Jesus' glory. Instead he underscores John's
paradoxical insistence that his successor "was first" (πρῶτος; 4G
1:15,30). 4G claims Jesus is proto-type, not John.
It is he who was προς τον θεον ("beside God") as God's antitype "in
the beginning" (1:1). "In him there was life (1:5a)...(for)
we have seen his glory" (1:14). The key to the
enigmatic logic of 4G's prologue might be the debate over who
qualifies for the role of Elijah--Jesus or John--after all.
Without expressly saying so, 4G qualifies Jesus for the part.
Mark does not want Jesus to be
type-cast as the one who comes to "restore the tribes of Jacob" (Sir
48:10d). So he has Jesus insist that Elijah
comes first. As the one who was first in line, John gets the
part. Mark also has Jesus in "the beginning" (1:1), but he
points out that "the way"--the part, the role--"of the Lord"
requires a forerunner (1:3b). Yet, he cannot let this be interpreted
as a sign that John or Elijah acted as a prototype or role model for
This may be the key to the enigmatic
pastiche of biblical quotes which Mark uses to open "the good news
of Jesus." If he really wanted to stress that John is Elijah,
he should have used Mal 3:23-24, but he does not. Nor does he
begin by quoting Malachi's prediction (3:1) of an anonymous
fire-brand who will purify the temple, although it is often thought
that he does./37/ Mark may
confuse his sources, but not his opening line. He deliberately
chose not to cast John in the role of Malachi's eschatological
prophet(s). Instead Mark starts with Exod 23:20, where God
promises a messenger to guide the people through the
wilderness. Israel is told that the messenger who appears
"before your face...will prepare your way" (1:2).
Mark, like 4G, begins by admitting that John was sent by God and
that he preceded Jesus. But he insists that his appearance in
the wilderness prepared the peoples' way to "the Lord," not
the latter's way to the people. From the beginning Mark insists that
Jesus did not follow in John's footsteps.
Mark concedes that even Jesus
initially came to John (1:9). But lest one take this as
admission that John was greater and acted as Jesus' role model, Mark
cites John's own testimony that the one who comes after him
is stronger (1:7). In fact, this is the only element in John's
message that Mark finds useful for his argument. Far from
casting John in the central role of Elijah, Mark--like 4G--gives him
the bit part of an announcer, proclaiming: "Here's Jesus!"/38/
It is not usually noted that Mark lets John
deliver only two short lines (1:7d-8b), both about a greater
successor. His even briefer rebuke of Antipas (6:18b) is reported
long after John's exit, in a narrator's account of a scene in which
John was already off-stage in prison. John's actual appearance
in Mark consists of only five verses in the opening scene
(1:4-8)--hardly fit stage-time or setting if Mark were
casting the climactic part of Elijah at the end of history!
Mark does not invent the role of
herald for John. It is paralleled, not only in 4G, but in Q.
But, unlike Mark and 4G, Q does have John act the role of Malachi's
eschatological messenger. There is no indication that Q
explicitly identified John as Elijah; but John's opening line in Q,
calling for sons to act like their alleged father
Abraham (Matt 3:7-9//Luke 3:7-8) is precisely the part that Jews
thought that God had written for Elijah when he would reappear on
stage./39/ This impression is
sharpened by the fact that the role Q has John describe for his
successor--chopping off branches and burning chaff with fire--echoes
YHWH's description of his own activity "on the day when I
According to Malachi, Elijah must appear "before the
great and terrible day of the LORD (=YHWH) comes" (Mal 3:5). Q
gives Elijah's lines to John, Mark does not. If Mark knew them
he deliberately cut them from his script, so there would be no basis
for confusing Jesus with Elijah's eschatological successor. As
Mark describes it, Jesus' day was not "great and terrible." Death
and suffering were inevitable, to be sure. But there would be
no chopping or burning of the wicked. According to Mark, John
predicted his successor would baptize with spirit but not
with fire (1:8).
Mark concedes that John appeared to
be Elijah. But he deliberately disassociates John from
Elijah's expected role as eschatological forerunner. For Mark,
John is permanently entitled to act as Elijah only because his
championing of Mosaic regulations ended in his persecution.
Through association with John, Mark restricts the significance of
Elijah's social role to political events of the past.
Dialectical analysis of Mark's
argument reveals the difference between points that he stresses and
those that he concedes.
||Jesus is the Christ.
||John came first
||but John said his
successor is greater.
||John appeared to be
||and at first Jesus
appeared to act like John.
||But he really didn't.
||Some say: Jesus is John
or Elijah or a prophet.
||Herod (Antipas) confused
Jesus with John;
||and John acted like
Elijah with Herod.
||After John died Jesus appeared to act
||somewhat like John or
Elijah or Moses.
||But he really didn't give
any sign that he was any of these.
||At first his disciples
did not understand this;
||but it gradually became
||People said that
Jesus was John or Elijah or a prophet
||but not Peter and the
||At first they did not
think Jesus would die.
||But a few saw that he was
not Elijah or Moses.
||They thought Elijah still
had to come.
||But Jesus pointed out
that scripture said
||Elijah came first as a
restorer and was persecuted for it.
||Jesus was executed for
not acting as John or Elijah or Moses.
||And no one saw him
A surface reading of Mark
gives the impression of an unfolding drama in which John and Jesus
alternately try out for the part of Elijah. But a summary of
the testimony and exhibits submitted by Mark shows that he intends
to demonstrate the opposite. Mark's narrative sequence is
dialectical rather than chronological. He is not just a
story-teller, he is a master debater who knows how to construct an
argument. His gospel is a complex synthesis, balancing
conflicting evidence. He enters information where it is useful
to support his thesis. Arguments against are evaluated for
potential damage and arranged accordingly. Material that is
favorable or can be easily explained is put up front, while
problematic information is delayed until it can be minimized.
Thus in judging the source of Mark's information it is important to
be clear about where his real focus is and how other details relate
to his basic point.
Dialectical analysis shows that Mark
did not say that John is Elijah any more than 4G did.
Nor did he create the impression that he was. Rather,
he writes to correct false impressions of Jesus, arising from a
popular view that he was John's successor in playing the role of
Elijah. Mark says: "John could be seen to act as Elijah [concession]
and he still can [correction]. Like Elijah, John came
to return Israel to the Mosaic covenant and was persecuted because
of this. But it is wrong to assume that Jesus inherited this
role. He did not. For when John left center stage, his
role was written out of the script. Jesus played a new
and quite different role [thesis]. Mark not only
says this, he gives a graphic demonstation.
5.1. Rehearsal (Luke).
Unlike Mark or 4G, Q lets John try
out for Elijah's return appearance, or at least practice his lines./41/
John tells Abraham's offspring to shape up or be
treated as bastards (Matt 3:7-9//Luke 3:7-8); and he sets the
stage for the clean-up after the final harvest (Matt 3:10, 12// Luke
this performance impressed Matthew and Luke. For not only did
both edit Mark's script by making these John's opening lines, both
expanded John's speaking part and allowed him to share the spotlight
with Jesus. Matthew and Luke explicitly identify John as
Elijah. Yet each has a different idea of who nominated him for
the part. Matthew (11:4) traces it to a public announcement by
Jesus; Luke (1:17) to a private revelation in John's own family.
In Luke's eyes it was God who
actually cast John as Elijah: John was destined for the
eschatological role of restoring family ties. But Gabriel's
description of his role--"to turn the hearts of the fathers to the
children"--is diametrically opposed to Q's script. Malachi
(3:24) has God give Elijah two roles: that of the psychologist
helping parents understand their children and that of the pedagogue
disciplining wayward youth. As Luke tells it, Gabriel offered
both to John, but John read only half the part. He preached
repentance and justice (Luke 3:7-17) but not acceptance and
forgiveness. For Luke the things that John omitted were the
focus of Jesus' message (4:18-19). In a way, Luke is saying
John got the play backwards, because he started with
preaching repentance and judgment, when this should come at the end.
Luke has Jesus get things straight by beginning at the part
script(ures) about the appearance of the prophet who preaches
acceptance and forgiveness (Luke 4:18-19=Isa 61:1-2). For
Jews this is what Elijah was really supposed to do (Sir
At the appointed time, it is
you are destined to calm the wrath of God
before it breaks out in fury;
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
Luke recognized that Jews
generally thought that those who kept the law should be happy to
encounter Elijah, because that was a sign that "we too will
certainly live" (Sir 48:11). Hellfire and damnation is what
Elijah was supposed to prevent: God would send him "so that I will
not come and strike the land with a curse" (Mal 3:24c).
This helps explain why Luke can
have both John and Jesus in scenes designed for Elijah and yet have
no direct contact or parallel between the two. John did only
half of what Elijah was supposed to do, Jesus appeared to do the
rest. In fact, Luke shows that John got it wrong, while
Jesus gets it right. Luke does not have Jesus read about "the
day of vengeance of our God" (Isa 61:2b) at the beginning of his
time on the stage; rather he gets the part about destruction where
it belongs: at the end (Luke 21). In Luke, as in Mark and 4G,
Jesus is John's successor, but not his understudy. John
was supposed to play the role of Elijah, but he did not
fill the bill.
This may explain why Mark's
account of Jesus' testimony relegating Elijah to the past (Mark
9:11-13//Matt 17:12) is not found in Luke, even though Luke keeps
the Markan scenes before and after. Luke does not identify
John with Elijah after his execution. Nor does he keep
Mark's staging of that event even though he repeats Mark's
presentation of Antipas' confession that he beheaded John (9:9).
Luke accepts the common Jewish opinion that a dead man cannot be
Elijah. John's fate left him unfit for the role. God
offered him the part, he tried out, but in the end did not qualify
for the job. By deleting those scenes where Mark identifies
John with Elijah from his script, Luke corrects impressions that
some might get from either Mark or Q. In effect he is saying,
despite initial impressions John was not really Elijah.
This may account for Luke's
allowance for closer parallels between Jesus and Elijah than Mark
could: the raising of the widow of Nain's son (7:11-16) and Jesus'
ascension in full view of his disciples (Luke 24:50-51, Acts
1:9-11). Luke admits Jesus appeared to fit the role of
Elijah and even his disciples saw him as such.
Yet this is not Luke's own thesis;
and he makes this clear by inserting dialogue from Q that lets Jesus
testify that he acts different from both John and Elijah. The
catalogue of items runs:
- John did not dance, Jesus
does (Luke 7:32//Matt 11:15-16);
- John watched his diet, Jesus
does not (Luke 7:33//Matt 11:19);
- People think Jesus
brings peace [Elijah's role] but he doesn't (Luke 12:51//Matt
- Jesus pits parent against
child and child against parent (Luke 12:53//Matt 10:35), just
the opposite of Elijah's eschatological role./43/
These lines distinguish Jesus' persona from
those of John and Elijah. Q did not report the rumor that cast
Jesus in both roles. But it provides the ultimate rebuttal:
testimony from Jesus himself that he was not qualified for either
Luke not only chose to add Q's
dialogue to Mark's script, he stresses the contrast between the role
actually played by Jesus and both (a) Elijah's written part and (b)
John's own previous performance. Elijah was expected to
correct those who broke the laws of Moses. Luke has John read Q's
lines about repentance very effectively, but not Jesus.
Luke's staging of Jesus' testimony
about John from Q reveals his view of the origin of the Elijah
||Jesus raises a widow's
||"A great prophet
has risen among us!
||God has visited and
redeemed his people!"
||Jesus' reputation spreads
||John's disciples tell
||John in prison sends
disciples to ask
||"Are you the one
coming or do we wait?"
||John's disciples come to
||"Tell John what you
||John's disciples exit
||Jesus addresses the
||"What did you go out to
||A prophet? Yes, I
||More than a prophet!...
||Of humans, none is
greater than John!
||The least is better in
||Dinner in house of Simon
||Jesus is not invited to
wash up before
||Woman washed Jesus' feet
||"If this guy were a
||he would have known this
woman was a sinner!"
Luke does not introduce the last
line to blame Pharisees for not seeing who Jesus really is.
On the contrary, Luke uses Simon to alert the audience to the fact
that Jesus does not perform the expect role of a prophet.
Simon is right. Prophets do not tolerate sinners, especially not
Elijah! Luke shows how people could get the impression that
Jesus was Elijah (scene 1). And Luke claims that the disciples
of John did. After the Baptist is off-stage and no longer
capable of performing Elijah's role, John's disciples go
around spreading rumors about Jesus' role as a healer. They
tell what they have seen Jesus do. What they did not
see, however, is that Jesus did not act like Elijah or even a
Luke introduces Q's lines to tell
his audience: "If you are looking for a prophet, go to John, not to
Jesus." If Jesus were a prophet he would have acted like John
but he did not. Luke uses Jesus' testimony from Q to
contradict a general impression that he appeared as a "great
prophet," like Elijah and John (a rumor that he portrays as
particularly popular among the followers of the Baptist). But
he stops short of having Jesus cast John as Elijah. For that
would be to make John the ultimate role model. For Jews, no
human is equal to Elijah (Sir 48:4b) and the only one greater is,
not the Messiah, but God himself (Mal 3:24). Luke 7:31
//Matt 11:11 is an ironic line. Luke apparently takes it to
mean: John's performance was not bad; in fact it was the best a
human could do; but God does not call for such perfection!
Luke 16:16 endorses Q's separation of God's βασιλεία--i.e.,
God's rule, his way of doing things--from the Law (Torah) and the
Prophets. Up till John appeared, this was the script that
provided effective role models. Since then the good news is
that anyone can grab a part./45/
Luke is such a good story-teller
that it is easy to forget his avowed purpose is to act as a lawyer
correcting false impressions created by testimony and
exhibits that others have submitted (1:1-4). A surface reading
of the scenes he focuses on could leave the impression that he is
promoting the identification of both John and Jesus with
Elijah. But dialectical analysis of the development of his
argument reveals that he intends the opposite. Like Mark he
has to concede that both John and Jesus have been seen to act
like Elijah. But he seeks to demonstrate that both are
imperfect impressions of what really happened. His argument can be
summarized as follows:
destined to act like Elijah
||and he sure
sounded like him.
were things he did not do.
like a prophet
||and he was
seen to act like Elijah.
||Some even saw
him as John's successor
people he was.
||But Jesus distinguished himself from John.
||Jesus did not
really act like a prophet.
people he did not act like Elijah.
||He said: John
fulfilled the script(ures).
||Now there was
a different role to play.
Luke says era of "the Law and the
Prophets" [i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures] ends with John.
Therefore, John is the last prophet. He has to be cast as
Elijah, even if his performance was incomplete. For Elijah's appearance
is where the script(ure) ends. Luke stresses that Jesus did not
act according to that script. Those who followed the script like
the Pharisees thought he was acting up; and that is why he was executed.
Luke has a lot of evidence he has
to explain. He claims "many" have already written on the
matter (1:1). Jesus' reputation as Elijah is one of the main
issues he has to deal with, since as an apologist preparing a brief
on Christians to His Excellency, Theophilos, he cannot let Jesus be
cast as the ultimate restorer who saves Israel from being cast into
the bonfire with everybody else (Mal 3:19-24). It is not
eschatology and social chaos per se that Luke is trying to
disassociate Jesus from. If it were, he failed in this task
since he lets Jesus have plenty to say on both. For Luke Jesus
cannot be cast as Elijah simply because he did not try to enforce
the Torah. John at least tried.
Matthew interprets the testimony
of Mark and Q in a completely different direction from Luke. Matthew
saw several things in the texts before him that convinced him that
John really was Elijah and that Jesus really was like John.
He thought those who claimed neither was the case must be wrong and
needed to be corrected. Dialectical analysis of Mark and Luke
shows that Matthew probably could appeal to a broad base of popular
opinion that Mark and Luke both tried to discredit. But what
written evidence could he cite? Matthew saw that:
||said Jesus said Elijah
||said Jesus said Elijah
||said Jesus said Elijah
||showed John dressed like
||showed John defending
Torah like Elijah.
||showed John being
||said Jesus said he would
||said some followers did
||showed Jesus acting
somewhat like Moses.
||said some followers did
||said John preached
||showed John predicting a
||showed Jesus succeeding
||showed Jesus preaching
preaching about a successor.
preaching on repentance.
||presented John's warning
||presented Jesus' teaching
||presented Jesus quoting
Torah against Satan.
Faced with such written
evidence, anyone might conclude that John was Elijah
and that Jesus followed in the footsteps of both. Matthew
could not see how anyone would not see this.
Matthew was a scribe. Matthew
trusted scripture. Matthew had two written sources. Matthew believed
in multiple attestation. Matthew saw that Satan sought
to misuse scripture (4:6). Matthew saw that some people
did not understand what Jesus said. Matthew knew that
he understood the Law and the Prophets. Matthew
thought he understood Mark and Q. Matthew tried to prevent
such old and new scriptures from being misinterpreted, so he decided
he could write scripture too. In fact, he decided he would
write a Book of Genesis (1:1 βίβλος γενέσεως) which showed Jesus
acting like Moses and Elijah and John and, above all, defending
scripture. So Matthew presented Jesus' opening address in a
setting like that of Moses, telling his followers: "Don't you
think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets! I didn't come to
abolish but to fulfill" (Matt 5:17). And Matthew did.
This scenario is not meant to mock
Matthew. On the contrary, it is a modern scribe's admiration
for an ancient scribe's method and a tribute to his dialectical
accomplishment. Matt 5:17 is really a rebuttal. Matthew
calls Jesus to the stand to deny alleged discontinuity between
himself and prophetic role models, because both Mark and Q had
already submitted written evidence about Jesus' relation to John and
John's relation to Elijah and the Torah that appeared to show
the opposite. In presenting this information, Matthew's
primary goal is to correct what he thinks is an inaccurate
characterization of Jesus. Like Luke, Matthew acts as a
lawyer defending his client who, in this case, he considers falsely
accused of being a law-breaker. And Matthew convinced the jury
and won his case, notwithstanding the evidence submitted by Mark and
Q and Luke and even 4G.
Matthew did not invent or alter
John's reputation as Elijah. His whole argument rests on this
being generally known and accepted. In terms of tradition
history, Matthew's claim that Jesus publicly testified that
John is "Elijah who is to come" (11:4) is entered late in the
debate. There is good reason to doubt that Jesus really said
this, since Matthew's testimony is our only written evidence that he
did. But it is important to note where and how Matthew inserts
this saying before jumping to the conclusion that this attorney for
the defense is fabricating a claim that any juror could see is false
testimony. Matthew's whole case rests on this small bit of
evidence not being able to be falsified despite others' arguments to
Matthew rehearses all of Jesus'
testimony about John in Q, but in a different context than Luke.
Instead of a scene in which Jesus appears to act like Elijah
(Luke 7:11-17), Matthew develops the following scenario:
||Jesus gives his
disciples complete instructions about
what they should preach and teach.
||John sends his disciples
to Jesus to ask:
||"Are you the one to come?
||Jesus describes his
deeds and preaching.
||John's disciples leave.
||Jesus reminds the crowd
of their view of John:
||a. "What did you go out to
||b. Yes, I tell you, even
more than a prophet!
||c. He is the one predicted
to prepare your way!
||d. Of humans, no one is
greater than John!...
||e. From John till now God's
rule is violated
||f. The Law and Prophets were
the models until John.
||g. Take it if you want
(εἰ θέλετε) : he is Elijah who is coming."
||[Jesus warns people who
contrast him with John].
||h. Wisdom is justified by
||[Jesus warns unrepentant
towns that saw his deeds]
||"Sodom will be judged
better than you."
Matthew's changes in Q's account
of Jesus' testimony about John are relatively minor. He
transforms what could be used as the opposition's most damaging
evidence into support for his thesis just by rearranging public
testimony. Items d and e are simply a
transposed paraphrase of a Q saying that Luke (and probably the
author of Q) took to mean that John and Jesus follow different
scripts. Matthew interprets it as showing the opposite.
Likewise, Jesus' lines in scene 4 come from Q (Matt
11:20-24//Luke 10:13-15), except perhaps the reference to Sodom
(Matt 11:23b-34). Matthew's point is clear: those who do
not see Jesus' deeds as a call to repentance will be consumed by
fire. But for Jews, that is just what Elijah was supposed
to prevent when he comes (Mal 3:19-24). Matthew could
quote Q as evidence that Jesus had said something like this.
And by introducing that testimony at this point he could use it
to mute Q's witness to obvious differences between the behavior
of John and Jesus (Matt 11:16-19//Luke 7:33-35). Matthew's
editing does not change his source's content so much as its
The whole issue for Matthew is
whether current preachers are following what Jesus told
his disciples what they should teach (11:1).
Matthew infers that it is their failure to do so that led John
to question whether Jesus was really his successor (after all
Matt 3:14 showed John casting Jesus in that role). Matthew
cites Q's report of Jesus' response to John as evidence that
Jesus admitted to being the successor predicted by John.
But to recall Q's own account of John's characterization of what
the one who followed him (Matt 3:11-12), it is clear that Q
intended not parallel with what Jesus claims he is doing here
(Matt 11:4-6// Like 7:22-23). John's successor burns;
But Q had Jesus recite Exod 23:20
to cast John in the role of the character whom the LORD
described as "my messenger" (ὁ ἄγγελός μου) to prepare your
way. And as a good Jewish scribe Matthew correctly
recognized whom Q said Jesus said God said John was. For
Jews, angels were not just messengers, they were a refracted
reflection of God's own glory. And for Jews, no one
reflected the glory of YHWH more than Eli-yahu (Sir 48:4).
He had no human equal. And Matthew could also see that
this is precisely how Jesus described John.
Matthew was a Christian scribe
who had been trained to interpret scripture (both old and new)
to bring out the real meaning that others might not see (Matt
13:52). And Matthew was correct in this interpretation. Q did
cast John as Elijah and Q did present Jesus inferring
that he was. Matthew also knew that Mark testified Jesus
indirectly identified Elijah with John (Mark
9:11-13//Matt 10:12). Matthew's problem was that everyone
did not see what he saw, because no Christian text had ever
explicitly identified John as Elijah. Why not? Because
had died and people still did not think Elijah could, despite
Mark's testimony that Jesus said that he did. All that
Matthew had to do was recall Jesus to the witness stand to say
in public what he had inferred in private: that John came as
Elijah and was still Elijah, even though he was no longer in
center stage. So he did.
Note the setting; note Jesus'
opening words to the crowd; note the grammatical construction of
the conclusion. John is in prison. John's disciples
think Jesus is John's successor. Jesus reminds the people
that they had thought John was a prophet or greater. Jesus
confirms the crowds' initial impression: there is still no human
greater than John. John's days are gone. God's law and
order have broken down. Now there is social chaos. But
Jesus concludes by assuring the crowd that they were correct
about John. They can still believe he is Elijah, if that
is what they want! The new piece of testimony that Matthew
enters here is not information de novo. It is an
exegeticum of the old. Matthew does not present Jesus
as revealing something to the people that they would never have
thought of had he not told them. Schweitzer was wrong:
this is not a mysterium./46/
Matthew knew what Mark and Q and Luke knew:
that while John was alive Jews saw him as performing the
role of Elijah. 4G probably knew this too. But he
could use John to testify that he was not, since few of John's
followers--including those who were now in Jesus'
entourage--were able to see John as still fit to fill the role
of Elijah after his execution. The same holds for Jesus.
But that is another issue.
Josephus was a Jew who cast
John in an important historical scenario. Josephus does not call John
"Elijah." But as a Jew he would not after John had been executed.
He does not report that the Jewish people called John "Elijah" either.
But, if the gospels are any evidence, few Jews or Christians called John
"Elijah" after his death. Josephus was born long after John died
and probably did not have good sources about dead rumors. So
Josephus' silence cannot be cited as evidence that Jews did not regard
John as Elijah while he was still active. On the contrary, it is
precisely Josephus' failure to indicate any connection between John and
Elijah that makes his testimony about John significant in deciding this
issue. Josephus says (Antiquities 18):
||"He recommended training in
||with justice towards others
and piety towards God"
||This is a good Hellenistic
translation of a common Jewish summary of the Law./47/
||"Herod feared [John's]
||People "seemed to do
anything John advised."
||Herod decided "that before
some revolt come of this,
||it would be better to seize
||John had a broad Jewish
political power base.
||Antipas fears a revolution
and acts to preempt it.
||"It was believed by the Jews
that God willed to punish Herod
||[for John's execution] by the
destruction that befell the army."
||Jews generally saw the
annihilation of Antipas' forces
||primarily as God's
vengeance for his execution of John.
Josephus' characterization of John, brief
as it is, is not that of an ordinary holy man or religious leader. He
was such a champion of Mosaic Torah that many Jews regarded his own
words as The Law. His popular reputation was so great that Antipas was
able to see a real political threat to his secular regime. John's reputation
was still so strong that even after his death the only explanation of
Antipas' crushing military defeat that gained popular acceptance among Jews
was divine retribution for the execution of this one man. Josephus'
characterization of John is that of the role of a restorer, a champion of
Torah, whom Jews thought God cared enough about to intervene directly to
punish his executioner. For most Jews the ultimate restorer of Torah
was Elijah. Scripture said that YHWH himself would come to punish
those who did not welcome him (Mal 3:23-24). This coheres with
Josephus' description of the popular Jewish explanation of a political
catastrophe suffered by John's known killer. The historical role in
which Josephus casts John is a person who tried to play the role of Elijah,
The sources all indicate that John the
Baptist's reputation as Elijah was widespread among the Jewish populace
well before the public career of Jesus. His unexpected death left
an unfulfilled role that led to a popular rumor that Jesus was
now his stand-in--a rumor that dialectic analysis shows played a
persistent role in shaping the gospel portraits of Jesus.
E.g., Mark 11:32, Matt 11:9//Luke 7:26 [=Q].
Like Elijah (1 Kings 18:33), Jesus commands jars to be filled with water (4G
2:7). His words to the officer from Capernaum (4G 4:53) repeat Elijah's
assurance to the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:23). Like Elisha(2
Kings he feeds a crowd with a few barley loaves with some to spare (4G
R. Fortna accepts J. L. Martyns' reconstruction of 4G 1:43, tracing it to an
early Christian "signs gospel" [SG] composed ca. 40-60
CE (Fourth Gospel and its
Predecessor, 46, 216). On purely literary grounds Martyn's
reconstruction is indeed "compelling." But as there is no manuscript
evidence, the claim that Jesus was identified with Elijah in SG is only a
Fortna (Fourth Gospel and its Predecessor, 42, 230) relates the
suppression of an Elijah typology to 4G's conviction that no one ascended
into heaven except Jesus (4G 3:13).
Compare Job38:1, 40:6; Ps 104:1-4; Isa 29:6; Jer 4:13. Such
theophanies are challenged, however, by the story of Elijah at Horeb (1
Compare Exod 16-17, Num 12.
Such tales (gilluy Eliyahu) are associate with the names of rabbis
after the middle of the 2nd c. CE,
when eschatological fervor was officially discouraged.
Jesus: Mark 6:15//Luke 9:7; Mark
8:28//Matt 16:14//Luke 9:19;
John: Matt 11:14; Mark 9:13//Matt 17:12-13; Luke 1:17, 76.
See R. J. Miller,"Elijah, John and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke," 621-622.
Less convincingly W. Roth claims the Elijah-Elisha stories provided the
"master plot" for Mark (Hebrew Gospel, 2).
Luke (9:19) not only reproduces Mark 8:28 without correction, he introduces
passages where Jesus deliberately distances himself from Elijah (9:54-55,
61-62; 12:49-53) and nominates John instead (7:26-27). See Miller, "Elijah,
John and Jesus," 621.
A. Schweitzer: "How could he be Elias for the people? Did they not know John to
be Elias? Not in the least! Jesus was the first and only person who
attributed this office to him" (Quest of the Historical Jesus, 371).
Others are less emphatic: e.g., G. S. Duncan, Jesus the Son of Man, 82-105;
J. A. T. Robinson, "Elijah, John and Jesus," 34-38; C. S. Mann, 366.
Mark 1:4. Compare Josephus' description: "He was a good man and to the Jews
he recommended training in virtue, with both justice towards others and
piety toward God. Those who so desired were to unite in baptism...for
cleansing the body even as the soul had previously been purified by justice"
Mark has Jesus declare even a leper clean without washing (1:41). This
departs not only from the Mosaic Torah (Lev 14:8-9) but from the role model
established by Elisha's cleansing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:9-14).
Mark grants that the Twelve "preached that people should repent" (6:12), but
he does not say that Jesus commanded them to do this when "he gave them
authority over unclean spirits" (6:7). He evidently assumes that,
since they now had authority, they were acting on their own.
Josephus claims that the marriage which required Antipas to divorce the
daughter of the Arab king Aretas (Ant. 18:109-110) caused the
Nabatean attack that destroyed Antipas' army (18:113-114) in 34 CE, not
Hoehner (Herod Antipas, 120-121) holds Joanna, wife of Antipas'
steward Chuza, could be a source. But this requires confusing information in
different synoptic sources, since Joanna and her husband are mentioned only
in Luke (8:3, 24:10).
Josephus says "some Jews" blamed Antipas' defeat by Aretas on this act.
He does not claim John criticized Herod's marriage or was executed
for this. As far as Josephus knew, Antipas eliminated John because he
saw him as a demagogue who might persuade
people to revolt (Ant. 18:118).
Josephus details many public uproars caused by Herod's policy of executing
opponents in Galilee and Judea from beginning to end of his public career (Ant.
14:167-171, 414-433, 479-480 and 17:157-191). Compare Matt 2:16.
Antipas went to Rome to challenge last minute changes in Herod's will,
giving the "kingship" (βασιλεία) he had expected to his older brother,
Archelaus (Ant. 17.188, 224).
Mark 7:10 and 10:3 are only apparent exceptions. These appeals to
Moses' commands are only rhetorical. In both cases Mark claims Jesus
went on to contradict Moses, declaring "all foods clean' (7:19) and
prohibiting divorce (10:9).
Josephus' description of the tax revolt in 6 CE sparked by Judas the
Galilean and the Pharisee Zaddok (Ant. 18.4-7) has such striking
parallels to accounts of the revolt led by Mattathias of Modein (1 Macc
2:27-44) 173 years earlier that it is impossible to accept his contention
this independence-minded "fourth philosophy" was "an innovation...foreign to
us" (Ant. 18.9).
Exod 3:1-18; 1 Kings 19:4; Mark 1:4.
Exod16; 2 Kings 4:42-44.
1 Kings 17.
Not only are there Elijah-Elisha parallels buried in the "signs" cited by 4G
(see n2 above), but Luke has even more obvious ones, some of which come from
Q (n9 above). Mann (Mark, 328-329) lists other alleged
parallels in Mark and other references.
E.g., Mann, Mark, 306, 334.
If Bethsaida was the home of Peter (4G 1:44), this story is ironic.
Mark links Peter's house to a story set in Capernaum (1:21). But
Mark's transitions are rhetorical. So it is uncertain where he thought
When Moses descends from Mt. Sinai his face shone (Exod 34:30, 35);
Matt 17:2 claims the same for Jesus. Mark does not. Instead he
focuses attention on the brilliance of Jesus' garb in terms that echo the
description of the purging herald of YHWH [ =Elijah?] (Mal 3:2).
Paul is witness that among early Christians visions by Jesus' disciples and
others were regarded as basic proof of both Jesus' resurrection and
Scholars Version is correct in rendering this as an objection rather than a
question. Not only is that the natural reading of the Greek, but the
scene parallels Peter's previous denial of Jesus' death.
W. Wink is a notable exception (John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition,
See my summary of the scholarly debate about the meaning of the idiom "son
of Man" in "To Judge the Son of Man," 207-219.
E.g., Gen 3:17-19; Job 26:6; Eccl 3:18-19.
1 Kings 18:17, 19:2-4, 10, 14.
J. A. T. Robinson ("Elijah, John and Jesus," 25-37) challenged the
prevailing scholarly consensus. M.M. Faierstein ("Why do the Scribes
say that Elijah must come first?," 75-86) has provided detailed support.
This passage may have been
interpreted by some Jews as referring to Elijah. But I have
found no textual evidence that it was.
J. M. Robinson correctly saw that John's role in Mark's introduction is only
to act as the "prophesied preparer" (Problems of History in Mark,
This undermines J. A. T. Robinson's use of lines in Q as evidence that "John
could not have thought of himself as Elijah" ("Elijah, John and Jesus," 31).
Compare Matt 3:10-12//Luke 3:9,16-17.
See section 4.7 above.
Compare Mal 3:18-19, 24.
Also, as R. Miller notes ("Elijah, John and Jesus," 620), Jesus' refusal to
let a disciple bid his family farewell (Luke 9:62) contrasts with the
"historical" Elijah's call of Elisha (1 Kings 18:19-21) If this
passage was not in Q, then Luke has deliberately added this to
demonstrate that Jesus did not restore family ties like Elijah.
βασιλεία is a ruler's office, not a subject's.
Matthew had trouble with this line and so inverts it (11:12-13) to make it
read like a lament over current chaos. For him John's era is the good
old days of law and order.
A. Schweitzer, Quest, 371.
Josephus' description of the Essene oath begins: "he is to be pious towards
God, he is to keep justice towards men" (War 2.139). The Qumran
Community Rule opens with directions to an instructor to teach people "to
seek God (and) to do what is just before him" and goes on "to do what is
true and righteous and just on earth" (1QS 1:1-11). The gospels credit
similar summaries to other teachers including Jesus (Mark 12:28-34; Luke
Barrett, C. K., The Gospel
according to St. John. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,
Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel
According to John (I-XII). Anchor Bible 29. Garden City NY: Doubleday &
Bultmann, Rudolf, The Gospel of
John: A Commentary.
Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971.
R. Alan, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Duncan, George S., Jesus, Son of
Man: Studies Contributory to a Modern Portrait.
London: Nisbet & Co., 1947.
Faierstein, Morris M., "Why do the Scribes Say that Elijah Must Come
First?" Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981):75-86.
Fortna, Robert T., The Fourth Gospel and its Predecessor: From
Narrative Source to Present Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
Haenchen, Ernst, John 1.
Trans. Robert W. Funk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Hoehner, Harold W, Herod Antipas.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Kee, Howard Clark, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark's Gospel.
London: SCM Press Ltd., 1977.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean, The Christology of Mark's Gospel.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Kraeling, Carl H., John the Baptist.
New York/London: Charles Scribners' Son, 1951.
Kümmel, Werner G., The New Testament: the History of the
Investigation of Its Problems. Trans. S. MacL. Gilmour and H. C. Kee. Nashville/New York: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Mann, C. S., Mark.
Anchor Bible 27. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co., 1986.
Marxsen, Willi, Mark the Evangelist: Studies in the Redaction History
of the Gospel. Trans. J. Boyce et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press,
Miller, Robert J., "Elijah, John and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke," New
Testament Studies 34 (1988): 611-622.
Rhoads, David and Michie, Donald, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the
Narrative of a Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
Robinson, James M., The Problem
of History in Mark. Studies in Biblical Theology 21. London: SCM Press
Robinson, J. A. T., "Elijah, John
and Jesus: An Essay in Detection." Pp. 28-52 in Twelve New
Testament Studies, Studies in Biblical Theology 34. London: SCM Press
Ltd., 1962 [reprinted from New Testament Studies 4 (1958) 263-281].
Roth, Wolfgang. Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark.
Oak Park IL: Meyer Stone, 1988.
Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. 3rd ed. London:
Adam & Charles Black, 1954.
Scobie, C. H. H., John the Baptist. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
Smith, Mahlon H.,
"To Judge the Son of Man,"
Forum 7,3-4 (1991): 207-242.
Wink, Walter, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
by author 1988-2017
all rights reserved
This paper was first presented to
the first session of the Deeds Conference of the Jesus Seminar at
Edmonton, Alberta (Oct 1991). It is published here for the first
Hypertext links to this web page are
welcome. But the contents of this paper may not be reproduced or posted
elsewhere without the express written consent of the author.
- last revised
15 March 2018