In the previous three daily notes (note 1, 2, 3), in commemoration of the traditional birthday of John the Baptist (June 24), I examined the relationship between John and Jesus in terms of the figure of Elijah, looking specifically at evidence for both John and Jesus being identified with Elijah (as the end-time Prophet-to-Come). In today’s note I offer a concluding discussion of the topic, according to the following:
- Jesus as the Anointed/Eschatological Prophet in Gospel and early Christian tradition
- John in early Christian tradition and the disappearance of the Elijah motif
1. Jesus as the Anointed/Eschatological Prophet in Gospel and early Christian tradition
For specific references in the Gospels related to Jesus as Elijah and/or the eschatological Prophet, see the previous day’s note. Here, in summary, it is worth discussing a bit further: (a) Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as applied to Jesus, and (b) Jesus as the Prophet and Jesus as the Messiah.
(a) Deuteronomy 18:15-19—in its original context, this passage predicts (or promises) that YHWH will raise up another authoritative prophet to follow in Moses’ footsteps. The Hebrew word ayb!n` (n¹»î°). usually translated “prophet”, has the basic meaning of “spokesman”, i.e. someone who stands and represents (God) before the people, proclaiming the word/message of God; its meaning therefore overlaps with the Greek profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s), “one who speaks before” (usually understood as one who speaks beforehand, a “foreteller”). Since the people were unable (and/or unwilling) to hear God’s words directly (vv. 16-17), the presence of a spokesperson (such as Moses) was necessary. As God’s representative, his word is authoritative and must be obeyed (vv. 18-19). The passage goes on to warn against “false” prophets, with a test and instructions for dealing with them (vv. 20-22).
By the time of the New Testament, Deut 18:15-19 had come to be understood somewhat differently, as a prediction for a future “Prophet like Moses” who will arise at the end-time. Passages such as Num 24:17 (from Balaam’s oracle) were interpreted in much the same way, as referring to future, eschatological “Messianic” figures. The texts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) evince a belief in an (anointed) eschatological Prophet (cf. 1QS 9:11 etc); it is possible that this figure is related to the one who will “teach righteousness” at the end of days (CD 6:11, cf. Hos 10:12). The Florilegium/Testimonia of 4Q175 cites Deut 5:28-29 and Deut 18:18-19 (Exod 20:21 according to the Samaritan text) as one of a string of “Messianic”/eschatological passages. A similar expectation of an end-time Prophet can be found in passages such as 1 Maccabees 14:41. It should be remembered that the Qumran Community, like many Jews and most early Christian of the period, believed that they were living in the end times (or “last days”), so that the eschatological prophecies were specifically relevant to their situation, and so were being (or were about to be) fulfilled.
In Acts 3:22-23, Peter (in his sermon-speech), combines Deut 18:15, 18-19 and Lev 23:29, applying them to Jesus and identifying him as the Prophet to Come. Interestingly, the context of vv. 20-21 suggests that a future (though imminent) appearance of Jesus is in mind; and yet Peter uses the “Prophet” theme for a somewhat different purpose—to draw a connection between (i) the Prophets who spoke of and foresaw these things, and (ii) the Jews currently hearing him (“sons of the Prophets”), exhorting them to accept the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ (vv. 24-26). Deut 18:15 is cited again in Acts 7:37 as part of Stephen’s great speech, tracing Israel’s history.
(b) Jesus as the Prophet and the Messiah.—The evidence is, I should say, rather strong that there was an early historical (and Gospel) tradition which viewed Jesus as the Anointed One (i.e. Messiah) in terms of the Prophet, rather than the (Davidic) King. The latter association, however, proved to be much stronger, to the extent that the idea of Jesus as the end-time Prophet of God largely disappeared from Christian tradition. As I judge the evidence, Jesus as Anointed Prophet is more or less limited to the early ministry in Galilee; with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the figure of Anointed (Davidic) King (i.e. the “Son of David”) takes over. Is this distinction and division (according to the Synoptic narrative outline) historical or literary?—I would argue that it is both. Indeed, I would go a step further and suggest that it is possible to trace a doctrinal development as well, perhaps best understood according to the idea of progressive revelation. This might be outlined as followed:
- Jesus as (Anointed) Prophet—this is largely a result of the early miracles and preaching, centered in Galilee. The miracles, in particular, suggested an identification with Elijah. At the same time, there was an expectation of a “Prophet to Come” (like Moses, according to Deut 18:15-19); and Jesus was thought to fulfill this role as well. Counter to this, we have the association of John with Elijah (according to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6) also preserved in Gospel tradition, including sayings of Jesus specifically identifying John with Elijah—these sayings remain problematic and somewhat difficult to interpret (note also John’s denial that he is Elijah in the Gospel of John).
- Jesus as Anointed (Davidic) King—this becomes the main association in the Jerusalem portion of the Synoptic narrative, beginning with Mark 10:47-48 par, through the triumphal entry (Mk 11:10 par), and on through the Passion narrative. In this regard, note especially, Mark 12:35-37 par; Matt 21:15; Mark 14:61; Matt 24:5, 23; 26:63, 68; 27:17, 22; Lk 23:2; Mark 15:32 par; cf. also Jn 10:24; 11:27; 12:34 and Matt 16:16, 20. It is through the identification of Jesus as Anointed (Davidic) King that the title Xristo$ (“Anointed”), particularly following the Resurrection (cf. Lk 24:26, 46; Acts 2:36), came to be applied to Jesus (becoming virtually a proper name).
- Jesus as Lord [ku/rio$]—this is fundamentally a product of the resurrection and the early Christian belief in Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God in Heaven. In early tradition, it went hand in hand with the title “Anointed” (cf. Acts 2:36); however, as “Anointed”/Christ came to be used increasingly as a proper name, “Lord” took over as the main title applied to Jesus in Christian tradition. References to “Lord”, like the title “Son of God”, can be found at earlier positions in the Gospel narrative, but it is doubtful whether (or to what extent) they would have been applied to Jesus earlier historically, in the sense (and with the meaning) that they came to be used by Christians later on; though key exceptions could be cited, such as Matt 16:16.
- Jesus as (Anointed) Priest—this appears to reflect a late strand of Christian belief; apart from the epistle to the Hebrews, and several allusions in the Johannine writings, there is little evidence for this association in early Gospel tradition.
2. John in early Christian tradition and the disappearance of the Elijah motif
Just as the belief in Jesus as the end-time Prophet was superseded by his identification as Anointed (King) and glorified Lord, so, too, did John’s role as Elijah disappear from Christian tradition. The reason for this is, I think, straightforward, the explanation being two-fold:
- Belief in John as Elijah was based on early historical tradition; as belief in Jesus and Christological tradition developed and progressed, John’s role and position naturally was diminished (as represented by John’s own words in Jn 3:30).
- The idea of Elijah and the eschatological Prophet-to-Come was based largely on the belief, shared by many Jews of the period and most early Christians, that the Kingdom of God was at hand—God’s end-time Judgment, preceded by Elijah (and/or “the Prophet”), was imminent (therefore the urgency of repentance and conversion). As the years passed, without a realization of the end, the importance of this eschatological view gradually lost strength. Already in the early Church, it had been replaced partially by the concept of Christ’s return—he would still bring about God’s (imminent/end-time) Judgment, but not in the role of “Elijah”. However, note the persistence of the eschatological Elijah motif in Revelation 11.
With the disappearance of the eschatological Elijah theme, and, correspondingly, John as Elijah (however that might be interpreted), the Baptist also disappeared largely from early Christian tradition. Apart from the Gospels and several historical/kerygmatic references in Acts, he is not mentioned at all the New Testament (nor is the Baptism of Jesus). Subsequently, in Christian thought, he is associated almost exclusively with the Gospel Narratives of Jesus’ baptism. This itself makes it difficult for Christians today to appreciate fully—and to interpret accurately—Jesus’ sayings regarding the Baptist, such as those in Matt 11:11-14; Mark 9:11-13; 11:30 pars; Lk 16:16; Jn 5:32-36.