Bible Contradiction: Was John the Baptist Elijah?

Was John the Baptist Elijah, or not? Let’s take a look at this supposed Bible contradiction.

An eight-year-old video was brought to my attention recently regarding a supposed Bible contradiction on whether or not John the Baptist was the prophet, Elijah. As is per usual from youtube atheists the video offers a problem yet provides no explanation for why the verses in question say what they do. It does nothing more than implicitly assert a claim (that the Bible is unreliable) at face value. I’m not sure who, outside of the back-patting circles of militant atheism, would accept the legitimacy of a problem before any sort of evidence to support or deny it is given. The verses under suspicion are as follows,

“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” (Matt 11:12-14. See also Matthew 17:10-13 and Mark 9:13)

“And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.” (John 1:21)

Why does Jesus affirm to His audience that John the Baptist is Elijah whilst John in the Gospel of John (the Beloved Disciple, not the Baptist) denies this? Our key verses come from a Messianic prophecy in Malachi which says,

“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 3:1)

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Mal 4:5)

In light of this, there are two ways we can read the verses in Matthew and John, the first of which is that the Gospel of John paints the Jews as being blinded to Scripture. They thus believed that Malachi prophesized of a “real life” Elijah who would return as opposed to a Spiritual one, necessitating John’s denial. He could have been implying that “I am not Elijah in the way you believe I am” as opposed to a denial of the fulfilment all-together (Remember, Elijah never actually faced death, so this would have been an understandable interpretation). Jesus, on the other hand, was calling the people to recognize John as, not the literal reincarnation of Elijah, but as his spiritual successor. This is agreed upon by Luke,

“And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

A final note of importance is that the Synoptics never affirm that John was the literal “real life” Elijah. They all describe Elijah appearing at the transfiguration after all (see Matt 17:3, Mark 9:4 and Luke 9:30). Because of this, another answer we can give is that John simply didn’t understand the significance of his ministry. Jesus may have identified him as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy but nowhere do the Synoptics record John ever making the connection himself.

So we have two explanations for these verses. John was either aware of his significance and thus denied that he was the “real life” Elijah. He also could have been countering the expectation that the Elijah who was swept away in a fiery chariot would return in a similarly spectacular fashion. Or he could have been unaware of his significance and therefore gave an answer he believed was true without knowledge of how Jesus saw him. The only way in which these verses could present a problem is if the Synoptics record John as someone who believed he was the reincarnation of Elijah yet denied it when asked (and even then the Synoptics have to affirm that John’s denial was true as well, they can’t just record him lying). If skeptics cannot find support for that then we have no reason to believe they’ve found a credible error. Merely pointing out something that could be a problem is not the same as concluding that it is one.