John the Baptist as Elijah in the Gospel of Mark

A quote misattributed to Isaiah is used to introduce the character of John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel:  “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord and make straight paths for him.’” (Mark 1:2-3).  This is in fact a combination of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.

  • Exodus 23:20 – “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”  The “you” here refers specifically to Israel, not to a Messianic figure.
  • Malachi 3:1 – “’I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.  Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come’, says the Lord almighty.”
  • Isaiah 40:3 – “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

This quotation suggests that Mark’s interpretation of John the Baptist may be best understood in reference to a belief in the return of Elijah, who would act specifically as the forerunner of the Messiah (as in Malachi 4:5 – “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”).   This idea is reinforced in Mark itself in 9:11 – “And they asked him, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’”

Mark’s intention to compare John the Baptist to Elijah is made clearer by the description of his clothing.  The mention of his leather belt refers to the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – “They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist’”.  John’s “clothing made of camels hair” may also be a reference to this, but can also be viewed as a more general indication of his being a prophet as in Zechariah 13:4 – “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision.  They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive.”

Given these allusions to Elijah, does Mark intend his audience to understand John the Baptist as literally Elijah reincarnate?  In my opinion this is unlikely given that Mark’s transfiguration narrative has Elijah and Moses appear on a high mountain to Jesus and some of his disciples (Mark 9:4), though such a literal comparison between narratives derived from possible independent sources ought only to be done cautiously.  John the Baptist’s significance is to be found in the fact that this transfiguration appearance of Elijah does not meet the prophetic expectation that frames the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  Though John the Baptist may not be Elijah incarnate, he may be regarded as a “Second Elijah” due to what Mark regarded as his divinely intended purpose: he was Elijah in a more allegorical sense.

It is perhaps unlikely that John the Baptist is a complete invention by Mark in order to fulfill prophesied expectations about Elijah.  If Mark had wished to meet such expectations through some fiction of his own, could he not have done it much better by devising a literal return of Elijah to the Judean countryside, or even through stories of mere visionary experiences of Elijah’s presence?   In my opinion it is plausible that a John the Baptist type figure did exist, but Mark’s interpretation of him is likely to have been considerably influenced from his post resurrection perspective.  That John the Baptist considered himself to be the returned Elijah, a deliberate precursor to the Messiah and the fulfillment biblical prophecy is highly doubtful, since it reads a post resurrection understanding back into a pre-resurrection setting.    Indeed, it’s plausible that the prophecy contained in Mark 1:2-3 is likely to be a post resurrection construction itself, given its jumbled composition and its separation from the original meaning of some of its source texts.

Despite Mark’s heavily subjective description of John the Baptist, elements of historical fact remain available to us.   One aspect of this is obvious in the very title of “John the Baptist”– Baptism is likely to have comprised a major aspect of his ministry.  John is briefly mentioned by Josephus (Book XVIII, Chapter 2, 5), who states that the baptisms of John were carried out in order to achieve the purification of the body after the soul had been purified through righteousness.  This understanding of baptism is consistent with contemporary ideas about Temple purity and with Mark’s description of the purpose of his baptisms.  Yet leaving the possibility that this mention of John the Baptist in Josephus is a later Christian interpolation aside, it is notable that there is no suggestion of an Elijah-influenced prophetic role or indeed any mention of his relationship with Jesus in Josephus’ account.

Arguably, it is possible to demonstrate the historicity of John the Baptist using the criterion of embarrassment in reference to his baptism of Jesus.  After all, that Jesus would need to be purified through a baptism conducted by a mere man is highly disconcerting for those convinced of the atoning nature of his death.   It is probable that the story of Jesus’ baptism by John inherited from Mark by the subsequent gospel writers did induce a degree of embarrassment, which is demonstrated in their treatment of the story.   For example, Matthew adds to Mark’s baptism narrative in order to further underline the superiority of Jesus to John, having John tacitly recognise the future embarrassment of Christians with his exclamation of incredulity in “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).   Luke neglects to explicitly mention that it was John who baptised Jesus and whether John’s role could be taken as rather delicately implied is made ambiguous by Luke’s reversal of Mark’s chronology of the baptism of Jesus and the imprisonment of John.   The Gospel of John fails to mention the baptism of Jesus at all.  Of course, while these examples of embarrassment are plain, a strict application of Markan priority suggests that a demonstration of embarrassment in the later gospels cannot simply be used to argue for the historicity of the event itself – the embarrassment expressed in these later works could feasibly be caused solely by the inclusion of the Jesus’ baptism by John in Mark.  Though it is intriguing that none of the Gospel writers went so far as to dispute Mark’s account outright, this does not necessarily imply that Mark’s narrative truthfully represented a widely accepted historical event.  Indeed, it may imply the exact opposite – namely that no historical tradition about the baptism was available to the gospel writers, that Mark invented the story to serve as a narrative device, and that later writers were disinclined to invent a story of their own to challenge Mark’s version of events that time had lent credibility.

Historicity can only really be implied using the criterion of embarrassment if it can be shown that Mark himself considered the story to be embarrassing but included it nevertheless.  At face value, a reading of Mark 1:9 might suggest that Mark does not express any specific embarrassment at the baptism.  Jesus’ baptism by John is described briefly but clearly, without the additions contained in Matthew or the ambiguity of Luke.  However, it is plausible that Mark’s account of John the Baptist as the Second Elijah and as the fulfillment of prophecy was in itself intended to diminish any suggestion of authority held by John over Jesus through the act of baptism.  In this context, the baptism of Jesus by John is a sign to the audience that John had completed his prophetic role of “preparing the way” for the Lord.  That Jesus is the one for whom John the Baptist has prepared the way is then confirmed by the revelation of the identity of Jesus from heaven in Mark 1:11.  Thus Mark’s depiction of John the Baptist as the Second Elijah seems to have served a dual purpose; it met the contemporary prophetic expectation of Elijah’s return prior to the coming of the Messiah and additionally acts as an apologetic device to explain the relationship between Jesus and John in such a way so as to make Jesus’ authority unambiguously clear.

It is therefore plain that an uncritical acceptance of the way in which John the Baptist is portrayed in the Gospel of Mark overlooks Mark’s Christological agenda and results in an unhistorical understanding of the figure, yet to dismiss the existence of John the Baptist as mere myth is unjustified given the evidence available.

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One response to “John the Baptist as Elijah in the Gospel of Mark

  1. Pingback: An explanation of the young man in Mark 14:51-52 | bibleLAD·

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