Problem: John the Baptist both is and isn't Elijah
Verses: Matthew 11:11-14, John 1:21; Status: Serious

The gospels of Matthew and John differ over whether John the Baptist is or is not Elijah. Here's Matthew 11:11-14:

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is 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, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. (ESV)

Matthew 17:11-13 is similar. However, John 1:21 is as follows:

And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." (ESV)

Now then. This is not a direct contradiction, as it's possible John the Baptist either doesn't know he is Elijah, or is simply lying about it. Since John is a profoundly holy figure, the former is more appealing than the latter. The ESV Study Bible says:

Jesus, understanding more about this than John, saw John as fulfilling the prophecy about Elijah

It would be remiss of me not to mention Luke 1:17:

And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. (ESV)

This gives a possible escape: rather than actually being Elijah, John merely "goes in the spirit of Elijah" (whatever that means). However, it's worth noting why the synoptics want John to be Elijah. The Old Testament records that Elijah never died, instead being taken up to heaven directly. It was expected that he would return some day. This is a prophecy in Malachi 4:5:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (ESV)

It seems clear enough that this prophecy is meant literally: the actual Elijah is supposed to return. If John the Baptist isn't really Elijah, then he doesn't really fulfill the prophecy after all.

Updated: 2009-08-31

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