In the previous article, I looked at the concept of an eschatological/Messianic Prophet in Jewish thought, and of evidence in the New Testament identifying Jesus as a Prophet. In this article I will examine the main (Messianic) Prophet figure-types that apply to Jesus; there are two main traditions involving: (1) Moses and (2) Elijah.
The Moses Tradition (Deut 18:15-20)
In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel. This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.
The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways:
- Parallels with the birth of Moses (and the Exodus) in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:1-21)
- Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4:2 par) just as Moses was on Sinai for 40 days (Exod 24:18); in the arrangement of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus likewise returns to deliver/expound the Law/Torah (Matt 5:17ff)
- The association with Moses in the Transfiguration scene (on this, cf. below)
- In various ways, Jesus words and actions followed the type/pattern of Moses:
—Cf. the detailed summary of Moses’ life in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:17-44) and its parallel to Jesus (7:45-53)—cp. “this Moses” (7:35, 37, 40) with the frequent use of “this Jesus” in Acts (1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:11; 6:14 etc)
—Moses and the ‘bronze serpent’ as a pattern of Jesus’ death (and exaltation), Jn 3:14
—Moses and the manna (Jesus as the “bread from heaven”), Jn 6:32ff
—Moses and the rock in the wilderness (Christ as the rock), 1 Cor 10:2-5
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also find a juxtaposition contrasting Jesus and Moses—e.g., John 1:17; 5:45-46 (cf. Lk 16:29-31); 9:28-29; 2 Cor 3:13ff; Heb 3:2-5. Interestingly, these points of contrast are still based on a similarity between Jesus and Moses, the emphasis being on Jesus’ superiority or on how he fulfills/completes the “Old Covenant” represented by Moses.
The Elijah Tradition (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6)
This Messianic tradition derives from Malachi 3:1, combined with the explanatory interpretation of Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] which many scholars consider to be a (later) editorial gloss (see my supplementary note on the original context of Mal 3:1). In any case, already by the time of the completion of Malachi (and, presumably, the collection of the Twelve Prophets [Hosea–Malachi] as a whole), the “Messenger” [Ea*l=m^] of Mal 3:1 was identified as Elijah, who will (re)appear just prior to the “Day of YHWH” to bring repentance to people before the Judgment. Over time, this belief was given greater eschatological emphasis—”Elijah” would appear at the end-time, prior to the last Judgment—expressed already in Sirach 48:10 (early-mid 2nd century B.C.). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, evidence for this belief at Qumran is rather slight, though it is attested in the fragmentary 4Q558 (fragment 1), but is perhaps reflected more prominently in a text such as 4Q521 (cf. below). Evidence for this tradition is found specifically in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12), the citations and allusions to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 in Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10-14, and may be inferred from other references listed below. Also worth noting is Sibylline Oracles 2:187ff (Christian expansion/adaptation of earlier Jewish material).
An important question within the earliest (historical) strands of Gospel tradition was whether John the Baptist or Jesus was Elijah (and/or the Anointed Prophet) to Come. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, and, even more so as Christianity spread into the Greco-Roman (Gentile) world, this issue ceased to have any meaning, and disappeared almost entirely from Christian thought. At the same time, early tradition had more or less fixed the relationship between John and Jesus, reflected in the Gospels (c. 60-90 A.D.) as we have them. However, the situation is somewhat different when we examine the earliest Gospel tradition.
First, John the Baptist as Elijah—
- John’s appearance seems to echo the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8
- During his lifetime (and after his death), he was believed to be a great Prophet (Mk 11:32 par; Matt 14:5; and cf. 11:11 par)
- The messengers (priests and Levites) who come to him in Jn 1:19ff ask him directly if he is Elijah (v. 21); however—
- John explicitly denies that he is Elijah (Jn 1:21, 25)
- By contrast, Jesus explicitly affirms John as the Elijah-to-Come in Matthew 11:10, 14 (cf. Luke 7:27) [citing Mal 3:1], with a similar identification recorded in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12)
- The identification, by way of Mal 3:1 and 4:5-6, is also found in Mark 1:2 and the Lukan Infancy narrative (Luke 1:17, 76ff); in Lk 1:17 it is specifically stated (by the Angel) that John would have “the spirit and power of Elijah” (cf. 2 Kings 2:9, 15)
According to the belief ultimately expressed in the Gospels, Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 was given a specific interpretation: John was the Messenger (“Elijah”) who would prepare the way (by his preaching and ministry of baptism) before the coming of the Lord (Jesus). However, elsewhere in the tradition, there is some evidence that Jesus himself might be identified as Elijah.
Jesus as Elijah—
- In Jn 1:21, 25, John the Baptist denies being Elijah—the implication, then, is that this is reserved for someone else (Jesus).
- John identifies himself primarily as the voice/herald of Isa 40:3-5 (Jn 1:23)—this is also the core tradition recorded at the start of the Synoptic Gospel narrative (Mark 1:3; Matt 3:3; Lk 3:4-6)—though a possible identification with the Messenger of Mal 3:1 may be found in Jn 3:28.
- John’s own testimony in Mark 1:7-8 (par Matt 3:11-12/Lk 3:15-17) seems to suggest that Jesus is the Messenger to Come of Mal 3:1, as does his question to Jesus in Matt 11:3/Lk 7:19.
- As with John, people apparently thought that Jesus might be Elijah—Mark 6:15 (Lk 9:8); Mark 8:28 (Matt 16:14; Lk 9:19).
- In the Lukan version of the scene at Nazareth, where Jesus identifies himself as a Prophet (Lk 4:24), in the illustrations which follow (vv. 25-26) he effectively compares himself with Elijah and Elisha. The “Anointed” Prophet of Isa 61:1ff, with whom Jesus identifies himself (vv. 18-21), could also be understood in connection with Elijah (on this, cf. below).
- Jesus is associated with Elijah in the Transfiguration scene (see below).
- The episode(s) of the feeding of the multitude (Mark 6:30-44 / 8:1-9 pars) seem to echo a similar miracle(?) performed by Elisha (who possessed the spirit of Elijah) in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
- The mocking response by observers while Jesus was on the cross (Mark 15:35-36 / Matt 27:47, 49) may reflect a belief that Jesus was (supposed to be) Elijah.
For more on this issue, see the accompanying supplementary note.
Moses and Elijah: The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:2-8; Matt 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36)
In one especially important passage—the Transfiguration episode in the Synoptic Gospels (also mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18)—Jesus is associated directly (and at the same time) with both Moses and Elijah. It is customary and popular for Christians to interpret Moses and Elijah here as representing “the Law and the Prophets”—that is, Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. However, this does not seem to be correct. For one thing, Elijah is not an especially appropriate figure to represent the written books of the Prophets, since he apparently wrote nothing, and did not utter any ‘Messianic’ prophecies that might be fulfilled by Jesus. At the same time, Moses, in addition to his connection with the Law (Torah), was viewed as perhaps the greatest of Prophets (cf. above)—indeed, Moses and Elijah together represent: (a) the two great Prophet figures of Israel’s history, and (b) each served as the type of a end-time Prophet-to-Come. Secondarily, perhaps, one might note that Moses and Elijah each experienced a special manifestation of God (theophany) on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, and that there are clear echoes and allusions to the Sinai theophany in the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration (esp. in Luke’s version, cf. my earlier note).
Therefore, I would suggest that, if there is any definite symbolism in the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus here, it is to confirm Jesus’ role as Anointed Prophet of God. We might say that Jesus is the true fulfillment of the two strands of tradition (cf. above), and, in turn, far exceeds and transcends them both. Ultimately, Jesus is a different kind of Prophet: not simply a herald of God’s message, a teacher/preacher and miracle-worker in the manner of Moses and Elijah, but the Elect/Chosen One of God (as well as God’s Son), Luke 9:35 par. Indeed, it is Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene which sets it most clearly in the context of Jesus’ impending death and exaltation—cf. especially verse 31, and the parallel between v. 35 and 23:35.
The Anointed Prophet of Isaiah 61
If we really wish to understand Jesus as the Anointed Prophet, we must turn to Isaiah 61:1-3, the passage which, according to Luke’s account, was read by Jesus on his visit to the Synagogue of Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30, vv. 17-20). The passage begins (rendering the Greek of Lk/LXX):
“(The) Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because of which he (has) anointed me to bring a good message…”
The presence of the Spirit precedes, and is the reason for, the person being anointed. In the case of Jesus, Luke narrates this very thing, stating that, upon his return to Galilee, Jesus was “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 4:14). This phrase is probably meant to indicate Jesus’ own Prophetic status (cf. Lk 1:17; Acts 10:38)—specifically as an Anointed Prophet. Even though the noun jyv!m* [m¹šîaµ] / xristo/$ [christós], is not used in Isa 61:1 (rather it is the verb jv^m* / e&xrisen), this verse does seem to have been extremely influential toward the idea of a Messianic Prophet. The figure in Isa 61:1ff certainly does not appear to be a king or ruler of the Davidic mold, nor a priest, but rather a prophet like Isaiah himself. It describes a herald who announces a message of good tidings (in Hebrew, literally “fresh” tidings) to the poor and oppressed. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there is evidence that Isa 61:1ff was already being understood in an eschatological sense, with the anointed figure of verse 1 identified as a Prophet-Messiah. This is seen most clearly in the Qumran text 4Q521, where in fragment 2 (column ii, line 1) we read: “…[the heav]ens and the earth will listen to [i.e. obey] his Anointed (One)”. What follows in lines 2-14 etc is a blending of Isa 61:1ff and Psalm 146; but the idea of heaven and earth obeying God’s Anointed is suggestive of a Prophet in the manner of Elijah who “shut up the heavens” so that it would not rain and brought down fire from heaven (1 Kings 17:1ff; Sirach 48:2-3; James 5:17); Jesus of course exhibited a similar authority over the elements (Mark 5:35-41; 8:45-52 pars). Moreover, in column iii of fragment there is an allusion to Mal 4:5-6 and the (end-time) role of Elijah in bringing people to repentance.
Thus, when Jesus identifies himself with the Anointed figure of Isa 61:1, it is almost certainly not to a Messianic King in the manner of David, but to a Prophet like Elijah. In Luke 4:24, Jesus specifically identifies himself as a Prophet, and the illustrations in vv. 25-26 further connect him with Elijah (and Elisha). Along the same lines, when we see references to “the Anointed” (o( xristo/$) in the early chapters of the Gospels (during the period of John and Jesus’ ministries), it is very probably an Anointed Prophet, and not a Davidic “Messiah”, that is in view. Similarly, when John (and others) speak of “the Coming One” [o( e)rxo/meno$] or “one who comes [e&rxetai]” (Mark 1:7; Matt 3:11; 11:3; Jn 1:15, 27 etc, cf. also Mark 11:9 par [citing Psalm 118:26]), this likely refers to a Prophetic Messiah. In this regard, it is important to note the Baptist’s question sent to Jesus (Matt 11:3 / Lk 7:20):
“Are you the Coming (One) [o( e)rxo/meno$], or should we look toward receiving [i.e. expect] another?”
Jesus, in his response (Matt 11:4-6 / Lk 7:21-23), again identifies himself with the Anointed (Prophet) of Isa 61:1-3, alluding to that passage, combined with elements of Isa 26:19; 29:20; 35:5. The blending of miracle-working with Isa 61:1ff, brings Jesus’ response more closely in line with 4Q521 frag. 2 col. ii (cited above); interestingly, both passages, right before the proclaiming of good news to the poor, specifically mention raising the dead (line 12, Matt 11:5b par), which, in Jewish tradition, came to be associated particularly with Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24; Sirach 48:5, ; m. Sota 9; j. Sheqalim 3:3; Pesikta de R. Kahana 76a). By the end of the 1st century A.D., resurrection came to be connected with the appearance of the Messiah generally (2 Baruch 30:2; 2/4 Esdras 7) [cf. Collins, pp. 119-20]. For more on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, cf. my supplementary note.
Based on Jesus’ own words and actions during the period of his ministry (in Galilee), he is to be identified primarily, if not exclusively, as an Anointed Prophet. There is little evidence, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, that he saw himself as a Davidic King-Messiah, nor did others who observed him seem to view him this way. The turning point, as recorded in Synoptic tradition, can be seen in two episodes:
- The Transfiguration, during which the Prophet-figures Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus, conversing with him, and, in so doing, confirm his role as the ultimate Anointed Prophet of God. The voice from the cloud, echoing the Divine voice at Jesus’ baptism, declares Jesus to be the Son of God (and, in the Lukan version, the Elect/Chosen One of God).
- Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Anointed (One)”, an identification here set implicitly in contrast to a Prophet such as Elijah; the special status of this Anointed figure is further indicated by the formulations in Luke (“the Anointed One of God”, similar to “the Chosen One of God”) and in Matthew (“the Anointed One, the Son of the living God”, i.e. “Son of God”)
Beginning with the (final) journey to Jerusalem a new understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) emerges in the Synoptic tradition, that of Anointed King and “Son of David”, which dominates the episodes in Jerusalem, through to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This particular Messianic role will be discussed in upcoming articles.
Citations marked “Collins” above are to J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]) 1995.