Was John the Baptist Elijah?

Posted on Aug.28, 2009. Filed in Matthew, John. Average rating: 5.0 / 10 (Rate It).

In Jesus’ time, the Jews were not just waiting for the Messiah, but also for the return of Elijah before the Messiah. There is some confusion in the gospels as to whether Elijah returned in John the Baptist.

In Matthew, Jesus says that John the Baptist is Elijah come again:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!’ [Matthew 11:7-15, NRSV]

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. [Matthew 17:9-13, NRSV]

The idea that John the Baptist is Elijah is unique to Matthew: In the parallels to Matthew 11 in Luke 7, Elijah is not mentioned, and in the parallels to Matthew 17 in Mark 9, John the Baptist is not mentioned.

Against this idea is a passage in John where John the Baptist denies being Elijah:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”‘, as the prophet Isaiah said. [John 1:19-23]

So was John the Baptist Elijah or not?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    John was lying in his denial.

    When asked directly who he is, John says that he is the voice calling mentioned in Isaiah 40:3. This does two things:

    1. It identifies Jesus as the one God of Israel. (Isaiah says that it is the LORD whose way is to be prepared, but John was clearly preparing the way for Jesus.)

    2. It identifies John as the forerunner, prophesied in Malachi 3:1, who would go before the coming of the one God to prepare the way. Malachi calls this forerunner Elijah (Isaiah describes the voice calling as one who is preparing the way for the LORD).

    Item 2 gives the lie to John’s denial.

  2. 2

    Wouldn’t one expect him to be truthful?

  3. 3

    Scripture records a number of lies told by individuals. Abraham’s representation of his wife as his sister for example. Inerrantists are committed to the truthfulness of Scripture, not the truthfulness of John the Baptist or any other individual (except Jesus of course).

    John may have lied for a number of reasons. The most obvious being fear of the questioners. Scripture truthfully reports this lie. It also records that when he is pressed for a direct description of who he is, he ends up identifying himself as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy after all. But he does so in a roundabout way that avoids his directly saying of himself what Jesus says of him.

  4. 4

    The assumption that John was afraid of his questioners is not logical. This is the guy who calls the religious leaders a generation of vipers to their faces.

    John says he is the figure in Malachi 3:1, but at the same time denies that he is the figure in Malachi 4:5—Elijah. This sends a mixed signal to his questioners. They, relying on their scriptures, are expecting Elijah to precede the Messiah. So when John tells them he isn’t Elijah, he is at the same time telling them that the one coming after him isn’t the Messiah. Instead of gathering with Jesus, John is scattering. This clearly
    demonstrates that John is not a prophet sent by a god who is “not the author of confusion”.

  5. 5

    “The assumption that John was afraid of his questioners is not logical. This is the guy who calls the religious leaders a generation of vipers to their faces.”

    It’s not what John said about the priests that would land him in hot water, it’s what he said about himself. You’ll notice the same thing about the person John was preparing the way for. The priests didn’t start picking up stones when Jesus insulted them. It was when Jesus made claims about himself that He fulfilled prophecy.

    John could call the priests a generation of vipers or any number of other things to their faces without serious consequence. He probably wasn’t alone. It’s probably a bit like calling a politician sleazy. The priests were probably used to it.

    But if John says of himself that He is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the return of Elijah, that becomes much more serious. Now the priests are thinking “Is this man sane or is he a blasphemer?”

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