The “New” Elijah: Jesus or John the Baptist?

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 29. Enjoy!

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For a biblical character so significant and beloved, Elijah first appears on the scene rather inconspicuously. The author does not provide any background information on the Tishbite; instead, it is enough to present him as the major prophet who will rebuke Ahab, Jezebel, and eventually, the Baals. Elijah’s minor meteorology prophecy to open 1 Kings 17 foreshadows both the miraculous events that occur later in his career and the monsoon of allusions to him that saturate the four canonical gospel accounts. To properly contextualize the 27 explicit gospel references to Elijah, however,[1] the Christian reader must be alerted to the ending of Malachi and the Old Testament, wherein the day of the Lord is prognosticated. Within a lengthy discourse, Yahweh explains, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5 NIV). Failure to accept this Elijah—who was initially expected to be the Tishbite prophet himself rather than a new incarnation[2]—would result in a curse upon the land (Mal 4:6). This begs several questions: Did Elijah return, and if so, in the person of whom?

If we accept the overwhelming volume of New Testament references to Elijah as an indication that he did return from heaven, it is prudent to first consider John the Baptist as the new Elijah. Both John and Elijah were said to have dressed in clothing made of animal hair, with leather belts around their waists (2 Kgs 1:8; Mk 1:6). While this does not seem all that unique given the lack of Ralph Lauren and Express for Men in biblical times, consider that the Greek terminology for “leather belt” in Mark—σώνην δερματίνην—is used in the Septuagint only to describe the clothing of Elijah.[3] But even more than attire, Mark’s introductory description of John the Baptist may be another clue. In opening his gospel by quoting Malachi, the Markan writer reiterates that an ἄγγελος will prepare the Messiah’s way. While both Mark and Matthew overwhelmingly use ἄγγελος to refer to a heavenly host rather than an earthly messenger,[4] John the Baptist is unanimously interpreted in the Markan prologue as a “messenger” (Mk 1:2 NIV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, ASV). It is necessary to at least picture the angelic version of ἄγγελος, for if Elijah himself was to return, would he not do so as an angel? This view of John the Baptist might align with Jesus’ own perspective on the matter: “And if you are willing to accept it, [John the Baptist] is the Elijah who was to come” (Mt 11:14).

As in most reflections upon topics related to the historical Jesus, the answer to the aforementioned questions may depend upon one’s preferred gospel. For example, the Lukan account “removed Elijah traits associated with John the Baptist so that [Luke] could attach them instead to Jesus.”[5] It is understandable that Luke would prefer to make the direct connection from Elijah to Jesus: both were game-changers for Israel, revolutionary prophets with supernatural abilities—especially the uncanny ability to heal. The Elijah story was especially powerful for Luke, given that in his account alone, Jesus cites the pericope of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath just before being rejected in the Nazarene synagogue (Lk 4:24-30). Jesus, however, is better understood as the Elisha to John the Baptist’s Elijah. Just as Elisha served for a period of time as Elijah’s disciple, modern scholars commonly accept Jesus as a disciple of John the Baptist, with the baptism event central to Jesus’ allegiance to John.[6] This is proposed not as a means to suggest the inferiority of Jesus, but rather to investigate the historical relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. In reality, Jesus supersedes Elijah, Elisha, John and all other prophets. That Jesus needed a preparatory ἄγγελος does not diminish his status.


[1] Christine E. Joynes, “The Returned Elijah? John the Baptist’s Angelic Identity in the Gospel of Mark,” Scottish Journal of Theology 58, vol. 4 (2005), 456.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 460.

[4] Ibid., 464.

[5] Ibid., 459.

[6] William B. Badke, “Was Jesus a Disciple of John?” The Evangelical Quarterly 62, vol. 3 (1990), 198.

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