Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Am Not Elijah, Conclusion

The following is the conclusion of a paper I presented at the Evangelical Theological Society in Nov 2009. For all sections of the paper, see here.

1) John’s pattern of omitting references to Elijah found in the Synoptic Gospels, and adding allusions to Elijah/Elisha material in miracle accounts and miracle sayings, suggests that John wants to apply the role of Elijah to Jesus. John’s six allusions to Elijah/Elisha material are all designed to make Jesus look like Elijah. John omits other synoptic references to Elijah (Mark 9:4-5, 15:35-36) because they would distract from his identification of Jesus with Elijah.

2) John is correcting misconceptions about John the Baptist. This does not mean that John is correcting the synoptic accounts, but correcting beliefs about John the Baptist current in late first-century Ephesus. Discipleship to John the Baptist continued after his death (Acts 19:1-7) and possibly on into the second century. To counter beliefs like this, John may have wanted to focus on John the Baptist’s role in pointing to Jesus, and to de-emphasize any sort of exaltation of John the Baptist. This is why John not only downplays John the Baptist’s role as Elijah, but omits all of JTB’s teaching except his testimony to Jesus. The reason that JTB denies the titles “Christ,” “Elijah” and “the prophet” may be because all three belong to Jesus in John.

3) Popular beliefs about Elijah in the first century may have influenced John to connect Elijah more with Jesus than with John the Baptist. In Sirach 48, Elijah will “calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury” and “restore the tribes of Jacob” (48:10); Elisha was “filled with the spirit” of Elijah (48:12); Elisha “did wonders in his life, and in his death his deeds were marvelous” (48:14); and despite the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, the people did not repent (48:15; cp. John 12:37). Each of these ideas could more appropriately be transferred to Jesus than to John the Baptist.

4) John is able to identify Jesus with Elijah because “Elijah” is an eschatological symbol with some flexibility.[1] Malachi 4:5 does not specifically say that Elijah must come before the Messiah; it says that Elijah must come before the “great and terrible day of Yahweh.” The flexibility of the Elijah symbol is revealed in the use of Elijah imagery in the two witnesses of Revelation 11, another eschatological symbol. Other eschatological symbols have the same flexibility: for example, antichrist language is applied to Antiochus IV (Dan 9:27, 11:31), Titus (Mark 13:14), false teachers (1 John 2:18-22), and the beast (Revelation 12-13).

5) It is possible that John found several qualities about Elijah more appropriate to apply to Jesus than to John the Baptist. In John, only Jesus ascends to heaven (John 3:13, 1:18, 6:46); thus, John may have found it appropriate to compare Elijah to Jesus, not to John the Baptist. As Elijah gave a double portion of his spirit to Elisha (2 Kgs 2:9, 15), Jesus gives the Spirit “without measure” to his disciples (John 1:33, 3:34; 7:37-39, 20:22).

[1] A more common explanation is that John the Baptist was denying his literal equivalence with Elijah (Gospel of John), but agreeing that he had the role of Elijah (Synoptic Gospels). According to Brown (John, 1:48), this explanation can be found in the church fathers.


  1. Dr. Manning,
    Thank you so much for sharing this fine analysis. I am about to embark on a M. Div. project on the use of Elijah/Elisha in the two Cana sings in John’s Gospel and will benefit immensely from your work. Has this been published other than on this blog? How was it received when it was presented? Thanks again,

  2. Hi Tom,

    Glad it is helpful to you. I have not published it yet, but I hope to work on it more and submit it next year, maybe to JETS. If you want to cite it, list it as "unpublished paper presented at ETS, November, 2009." If you send me your email in a post, I'll email you the original paper (and will also not allow the post to show so you don't get spammed).