The gospels of Matthew and John differ over whether John the Baptist is or is not Elijah. Here's Matthew 11:11-14:
Matthew 17:11-13 is similar. However, John 1:21 is as follows:
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:
It would be remiss of me not to mention Luke 1:17:
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:
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.
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