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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

And they ask him: "What then are you?
                                 Are you Elijah?"
And he say:             "I am not!"
                                                    -- John 1:21

John the 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.

In the 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.

Unlike 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 Elijah?

This 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.

This 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 model.

1.1. Persona.

Being a 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.

1.2. Name.

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.

John (Ἰωάννης, Nnhwy [Yohanan])--meaning "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.

One John 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 more 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?

1.3. Casting.

The fourth 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 or Luke.

"The prophet sent from God" is a part created in Deuteronomy, where YHWH promises to fill Moses' role in some future scene:

"I will 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).

The author 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.

2.0. Pattern.

Elijah 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.

2.1. Script.

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.

2.2. Sequal.

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/  Each 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.

2.3. Revival.

To the 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 (Mal 3:22-24).

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/

2.4. Characteristics.

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?

3.1. Scenarios.

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 with Elijah.

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" (11:14).

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 Elijah-Elisha paradigm./9/

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:

  1. John cast himself in the role of Elijah.
  2. John's supporters cast him as Elijah.
  3. Jesus cast John as Elijah.
  4. Jesus' disciples cast John as Elijah.
  5. Mark was first to cast John as Elijah.

All are possible. Which is more historically probable?

3.2. Method.

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.

3.3. Demonstration.

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 no 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 into account.

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.

4.1. Appearance.

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:

  1. Jesus is the Christ (1:1);
  2. John appears as Elijah (1:4-7);
  3. Jesus did not act like John (2:18-19);
  4. People say Jesus is John or Elijah (6:14-16, 8:28);
  5. 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 Elijah rumor.

4.2. Rumors.

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 alternate rumors that Jesus is John or Elijah has been cited as evidence that John was not popularly identified as Elijah./11/  But that 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 not act like John.

4.3. The Opposition.

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:

  1. Some people say Jesus was John or Elijah (6:14-15);
  2. Who does? "King Herod" says Jesus is John (6:16);
  3. John called him a law-breaker [//Elijah & Ahab] (6:18);
  4. Herod feared John [//Ahab & Elijah] (6:20);
  5. but he obeyed his wife [//Ahab & Jezebel] (6:26);
  6. and in the end he ordered John killed (6:27).

By inaccurately 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/

Chronologically 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). /21/  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.

4.4. Replacement.

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 who uphold it (elders, chief priests, scribes).  The patterns seem to be parallel, but for Mark they really aren't.

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 were mistaken.

A catalogue of exhibits entered by Mark after explaining John's execution runs:

6:31 Jesus withdraws with the Twelve (6:7) into the wilderness
(where Moses and Elijah fled and John appeared)./22/
6:33-34 Jesus feeds a hungry crowd (like Moses and Elisha)
with bread left over (like Elisha but not Moses)./23/
7:2 Jesus challenged for disciples not washing (unlike John).
7:9-10 Jesus defends Mosaic law against those who void it (like Elijah and John).
7:24 Jesus goes to region of Tyre and Sidon (like Elijah).
7:25 A woman asks him to cure her child (like Elijah)
but at first Jesus refuses (unlike Elijah)./24/
8:4 Again Jesus feeds a crowd in the wilderness (like Moses and Elisha)
with bread left over (like Elisha but not Moses).
8:11-12 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.

4.5. Discovery.

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 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:

8:22-26 Jesus' cure of the blind man of Bethsaida.
8:27-30 Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Christ.
9:2-8 Jesus' transformation on the mountain.

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 cast.

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.

4.6. Expectation.

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 (14:50-72).  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 (8:32-33).

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 dead (9:9).

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.

9:12b "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 (Mal 3:23-24).
9:12c "to restore everything!" -- clarification of Elijah's role:
he is supposed to restore not only the Mosaic Torah but family ties.
Mark has demonstrated that this role belonged to John and not Jesus.
Yet some, including Jesus' disciples, originally failed to see the distinction.
9:12d "So how come it's written about the son of Man
9:12e 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 or 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/ 
9:13ab "But I tell you: Elijah did come,
9:13c 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 of indignities
that befall any human./35/  But his reputation as reviver and restorer caused such indications of his humanity to be generally ignored.

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 forerunner.

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)!

4.7. Forerunner.

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.  Ben 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 Jesus.

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 act" (Mal3:19-21)./40/  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.

4.8. Critique.

Dialectical analysis of Mark's argument reveals the difference between points that he stresses and those that he concedes.

  Evidence Function
1 Jesus is the Christ. thesis
2 John came first (=predecessor) concession
3 but John said his successor is greater. rebuttal
4 John appeared to be Elijah concession
5 and at first Jesus appeared to act like John. concession
6 But he really didn't. denial
7 Some say: Jesus is John or Elijah or a prophet. antithesis
8 Herod (Antipas) confused Jesus with John; concession
9 and John acted like Elijah with Herod. concession
10 After John died Jesus appeared to act  
  somewhat like John or Elijah or Moses. concession
11 But he really didn't give any sign that he was any of these. rebuttal
12 At first his disciples did not understand this; concession
13 but it gradually became clear. rebuttal
14 People said that Jesus was John or Elijah or a prophet correction
15 but not Peter and the other disciples. rebuttal
16 At first they did not think Jesus would die. concession
17 But a few saw that he was not Elijah or Moses. rebuttal
18 They thought Elijah still had to come. concession
19 But Jesus pointed out that scripture said  
  Elijah came first as a restorer and was persecuted for it. correction
20 Jesus was executed for not acting as John or Elijah or Moses. correction
21 And no one saw him ascend. correction

 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 3:9, 17)./42/  Apparently 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 (11:14) 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 3:7,10-17) 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 in the 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 48:10):

At the appointed time, it is written,
     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:

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 part.

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 rumor:

Scene 1: Jesus raises a widow's son 7:11-15 L
  Crowd: "A great prophet has risen among us!    
  God has visited and redeemed his people!" 7:16 L
  Change set: Jesus' reputation spreads 7:17 L
  John's disciples tell John 7:18 ?
Scene 2: John in prison sends disciples to ask    
  "Are you the one coming or do we wait?" 7:19 Q
Scene 3: John's disciples come to Jesus   Q
  Jesus: "Tell John what you have seen." 7:20 Q
  Change set: John's disciples exit 7:24 Q
Scene 4: Jesus addresses the crowd.    
  Jesus: "What did you go out to watch?... 7:25 Q
  A prophet? Yes, I tell you:    
  More than a prophet!... 7:26 Q
  Of humans, none is greater than John! 7:28 Q
  The least is better in God's role./44/    
Scene 5: Dinner in house of Simon the Pharisee 7:36 L
  Jesus is not invited to wash up before 7:44 L
  Woman washed Jesus' feet 7:38 L
  Simon: "If this guy were a prophet    
  he would have known this woman was a sinner!" 7:39 L

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 prophet.

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 7:28 //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/

5.2. Review.

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:

  Evidence Function
1 John was destined to act like Elijah thesis
2 and he sure sounded like him. concession
3 Yet there were things he did not do. correction
4 Jesus sounded like a prophet concession
5 and he was seen to act like Elijah. concession
6 Some even saw him as John's successor concession
7 They told people he was. correction
8 But Jesus distinguished himself from John. rebuttal
9 Jesus did not really act like a prophet. correction
10 He told people he did not act like Elijah. correction
11 He said: John fulfilled the script(ures). thesis
12 Now there was a different role to play. synthesis

Luke says the 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.

5.3. Rewrite.

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:

Mark said Jesus said Elijah had come. (9:13)
Mark said Jesus said Elijah restored everything. (9:12)
Mark said Jesus said Elijah was mistreated. (9:13)
Mark showed John dressed like Elijah. (1:6)
Mark showed John defending Torah like Elijah. (6:18)
Mark showed John being mistreated. (6:17)
Mark said Jesus said he would be mistreated. (8:31-33)
Mark said some followers did not understand. (9:32)
Mark showed Jesus acting somewhat like Moses. (6:30-44)
Mark said some followers did not understand. (8:14-21)
Mark said John preached repentance. (1:4)
Mark showed John predicting a successor. (1:7-8)
Mark showed Jesus succeeding John. (1:14)
Mark showed Jesus preaching repentance. (1:15)
Q presented John's preaching about a successor. (Matt 3:11)
Q presented John's preaching on repentance. (Matt 3:7-9)
Q presented John's warning about punishment. (Matt 3:10-12)
Q presented Jesus' teaching after John's.  
Q presented Jesus quoting Torah against Satan. (Matt 4:1-10)

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 the contrary.

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:

Scene 1: Jesus gives his disciples complete instructions about
what they should preach and teach.
Set change: [presumably Jesus' disciples depart]  
Scene 2: John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: (11:2)
  "Are you the one to come? (11:3)
  Jesus describes his deeds and preaching. (11:4-6)
Set change: John's disciples leave. (11:7)
Scene 3: Jesus reminds the crowd of their view of John:  
  Jesus: a. "What did you go out to see?...A prophet? (11:9)
  b. Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet!  
  c. He is the one predicted to prepare your way! (11:10)
  d. Of humans, no one is greater than John!... (11:11)
  e. From John till now God's rule is violated (11:12)
  f. The Law and Prophets were the models until John. (11:13)
  g. Take it if you want (εἰ θέλετε) : he is Elijah who is coming." (11:14)
  [Jesus warns people who contrast him with John]. (11:15-18)
  h. Wisdom is justified by deeds! (11:19)
Scene 4: [Jesus warns unrepentant towns that saw his deeds] (11:20-22)
  Jesus: "Sodom will be judged better than you." (11:23-24)

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 implications.

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 no parallel with what Jesus claims he is doing here (Matt 11:4-6// Like 7:22-23).  John's successor burns; Jesus heals.

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 John 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):
117. "He recommended training in virtue
  with justice towards others and piety towards God"
  This is a good Hellenistic translation of a common Jewish summary of the Law./47/
118. "Herod feared [John's] persuasiveness."
  People "seemed to do anything John advised."
  Herod decided "that before some revolt come of this,
  it would be better to seize him first."
  John had a broad Jewish political power base.
  Antipas fears a revolution and acts to preempt it.
119. "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, but failed.

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.

/1/ E.g., Mark 11:32, Matt 11:9//Luke 7:26 [=Q].

/2/ 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 4:42-44) he feeds a crowd with a few barley loaves with some to spare (4G 6:8-14). 

/3/ 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 plausible conjecture.

/4/ 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).

/5/ 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 Kings 19:9-12)

/6/ Compare Exod 16-17, Num 12.

/7/ Such tales (gilluy Eliyahu) are associated with the names of rabbis after the middle of the 2nd c. CE, when eschatological fervor was officially discouraged.

/8/ Jesus: Mark 6:15//Luke 9:8; Mark 8:28//Matt 16:14//Luke 9:19;
John: Matt 11:14; Mark 9:13//Matt 17:12-13; Luke 1:17, 76

/9/ 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).

/10/ 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.

/11/ 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.

/12/ 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" (Antiquities 18.117).

/13/ 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).

/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.

/15/ 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 John's arrest.

/16/ 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).

/17/ 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).

/18/ 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.

/19/ 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).

/20/ 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).

/21/ 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).

/22/ Exod 3:1-18; 1 Kings 19:4; Mark 1:4.

/23/ Exod16; 2 Kings 4:42-44.

/24/ 1 Kings 17.

/25/ Exod  4:8.

/26/ 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. 

/27/ E.g., Mann, Mark, 306, 334.

/28/ 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 Peter lived.

/29/ 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). 

/30/ Paul is witness that among early Christians visions by Jesus' disciples and others were regarded as basic proof of both Jesus' resurrection and apostolic authority.

/31/ 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.

/32/ W. Wink is a notable exception (John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, 12).

/33/ 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.

/34/ E.g., Gen 3:17-19; Job 26:6; Eccl 3:18-19.

/35/ 1 Kings 18:17, 19:2-4, 10, 14.

/36/ 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.

/37/ This passage may have been interpreted by some Jews as referring to Elijah.  But I have found no textual evidence that it was.

/38/ 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, 24-25).

/39/ 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).

/40/ Compare Matt 3:10-12//Luke 3:9,16-17.

/41/ See section 4.7 above.

/42/ Compare Mal 3:18-19, 24.

/43/ 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.

/44/ βασιλεία is a ruler's office, not a subject's.

/45/ 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.

/46/ A. Schweitzer, Quest, 371.

/47/ 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 10:25-28). 

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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.

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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].

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