‘The Elijah who was to come’: Matthew’s use of Malachi (Matt 11:2-15)
In the study of the
New Testament’s appropriation of
My thesis is that Matthew 11:2-15 intentionally plays off Malachi and Isaiah intertexts to express both the nearness and distance between Jesus and John. The result is that the messianic and even divine identity of Jesus is rendered. At a more general level, this thesis affirms that Matthew is capable of working with larger text blocks than is sometimes assumed.
In order to make my case, I will first discuss the place of Matthew’s Malachi quotation in the Synoptic tradition. My aim in this section will be to show that Matthew is not simply perpetuating a formulaic proof-text, but is arranging quotations for his own rhetorical purposes. Next I will delve deeper into the complex intertextual relationship between Matthew 11:2-15 and Malachi 3-4 to exhibit Matthew’s thoughtful appropriation of its themes. Then, following a brief foray into parallel Elijah traditions, I will conclude by suggesting the rhetorical function of Malachi intertexts in the discourse of Matthew 11:2-15.
All three Synoptic Gospels quote a version of Malachi 3:1a in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark famously conflates Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3 in his introduction: “As is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way [Malachi 3:1a]; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight’ [Isaiah 40:3]” (1:2-3). Clearly, Mark attributes the whole quote to Isaiah.
This conflation is not found in the double-tradition.[iii] Both Luke and Matthew separate the Isaiah and Malachi quotations, placing them in different narrative contexts.[iv] Both explicitly quote Isaiah 40:3 when we first encounter John in the wilderness (Luke 3:4; Matt 3:3). The quote is attributed to the prophet Isaiah.
The Malachi portion of Mark’s conflated quote appears later when an imprisoned John sends his disciples to inquire about Jesus’ identity. After Jesus answers them, he speaks to the crowds about John. In the midst of this discourse, Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 as a reference to John: “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’” (Luke = Matt ). Although the quote remains anonymous, Matthew and Luke are clearly capable of distinguishing it from Isaiah 40:3. It is reasonable to suggest that they knew the quote came from Malachi.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to note that although the double tradition has successfully isolated the Malachi quote from Mark’s conflation, it remains a conflation with Exodus 23:20a. Since the weight of my argument rests on Matthew’s use of Malachi as his intertext, pause for a more detailed analysis is required. My analysis follows through on observations made by Dale C. Allison in his book, The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q.[v]
The first half of the quote, “Behold I send my messenger before you,” could be from either LXX Ex 23:20a or LXX Mal 3:1a, which are nearly identical. The double tradition drops an emphatic egw that appears in both Ex and Mal. More importantly, the double tradition has two aspects that favor Exodus as its source. First, while Mal 3:1 uses the verb exapostellw, the double tradition follows Exodus in its use of apostellw. Second, the double tradition follows Exodus with its addition of pro proswpou sou, which is missing entirely from Malachi in the LXX and MT. At this point, it would seem far more likely that the double tradition is quoting Exodus 23:20.
However, the second half of the quote deviates from both LXX Mal 3:1 and LXX Ex 23:20. On the one hand, LXX Ex 23:20b reads ina fulaxh se th odw. On the other, LXX Mal 3:1 reads kai epibleyetai odon pro proswpou mou. In contrast to both, Matt 11:10b (= Luke 7:27b) reads os kataskeuasei thn odon sou emprosqen sou. However, Matthew 11:10b does bear a striking resemblance to MT Mal 3:1b: “and prepare the way before me.” Unless the double tradition was sloppily completing the quote free-style, it is likely to have had access to a manuscript similar to the MT reading. The significance of such a similarity to Mal 3:1 in the second half of the quote outweighs the minor differences in the first half of the quote. Furthermore, the two verses would fall easily into conflation, especially considering the likely dependence of Mal 3:1 on Ex .[vi] Therefore, it is fair to conclude that despite the conflation, the double tradition was intending to quote Mal 3:1.
Such a conclusion becomes more forceful when one contrasts the larger context of Matthew with that of Luke. Although one could argue that Luke’s quotation remains ambiguous, Matthew nails it down by making explicit allusion to the larger context of the Malachi quote. Malachi 3:1 begins a section that concludes with this announcement: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible Day of the LORD” (Mal 4:5).[vii] Alluding to this, Matthew’s Jesus declares that John is the Elijah who was to come (). Luke, on the other hand, makes no such claim. This observation foreshadows the content of my next section, but it is relevant here as a confirmation that Matthew is quoting Malachi 3:1 in v. 10. Additionally, by exhibiting Matthew’s awareness of his quotation in contrast to Mark (and possibly Luke), support is generated for my more general proposal that Matthew is fully capable of a knowledgeable appropriation of a larger block of Old Testament material.
The relationship between any text and its intertext(s) can exist at three levels: quotation, allusion and echo. Quotations are marked off by an assortment of citation formulae, such as “it is written.” Allusions are rather explicit verbal connections between a text and its intertext(s). Echoes are the subtlest, since they represent verbal and thematic reverberations between a text and its intertext(s) that could be easily missed at first glance. Dealing with them can be rather slippery. Yet when anchored by explicit quotations and allusions, echoes can provide crucial insights into the meaning and reference of a text.
All three levels of intertextuality are operative in Matthew 11:2-15. We have already determined that v. 10 quotes Malachi 3:1a (conflated with Ex ). This is the only explicit quotation in the passage. By itself it reveals very little about the subject of the passage: the identity of John and Jesus. It tells us that John was prophesied about in the Scriptures and that he plays a preparatory role. This is a rather vague identification. However, the quotation functions decisively as an anchor for the more rich allusions and echoes to follow.
As was already
hinted at in the previous section, the central allusion to Malachi in Matthew
11:2-15 is Jesus’ identification of John as Elijah. Malachi’s extended passage of warning and
judgment concludes with a description of “Elijah the prophet” being sent by God
before the coming Day of the LORD (Mal 4:5).
He is sent to give
Before pressing on to the level of echo, it is important to note an additional allusion that does not come from Malachi. When answering John’s disciples as to whether he was the coming one, Jesus answers “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (v. 4-5). This bears striking resemblance to the description of the restoration of Israel towards the end of First Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6a). So when discussing John’s identity, Matthew’s Jesus alludes to Malachi’s Elijah. But when answering a question about his own, he alludes to Isaiah. I will explore the rhetorical significance of this observation in the final section. For now, it is sufficient to note the coexistence of these two major allusions in this passage.
Echo – the third level of intertextuality – is also at work in Matthew 11:2-15. First of all, the thematic Day of the LORD in Malachi 3-4 reverberates with the judgment theme of the remainder of Matthew 11 (v. 16-30). Secondly, the idea of preparation, of coming before, is prominent in both Malachi 3-4 and Matthew 11:2-15. As Elijah is temporally penultimate to the Day of the LORD, so John is temporally penultimate to Jesus.
Finally, there is a striking verbal parallel between the two passages hinging on the catchword ercomai (“to come”). The verb appears five times in various conjugations in Malachi 3-4. Each time it is connected to the divine arrival on the Day of the LORD. Although a common Greek verb, it is central to the theme of the passage. When one turns to Matthew 11:2-15, the verb appears only twice. Yet both are found at crucial moments in the discourse. The first appears in John’s question asked via his disciples: “Are you the coming one (o` evrcomenoj), or shall we look for another?” (v. 3). The second modifies the identification of John as Elijah: “He himself is Elijah who was to come (o` mellwn ercesqai)” (v. 14). The expectation of a coming one fills the atmosphere of both texts.[viii] This serves as an important clue to understanding the rhetorical function of intertextuality in Matthew 11:2-15. But before turning to explore this function, let us divert our attention to a selection of Extra-canonical sources that parallel Matthew’s appropriation of Scripture.
When surveying the vast extant material labeled under the heading of Second Temple Judaism, Malachi does not emerge as a favorite topic of interpretation. However, Elijah did have a distinct role to play in the imagination of Second Temple Jews. Though not necessarily commenting on Malachi, numerous texts share Malachi’s interest in Elijah. Some even imagine Elijah as a eschatological figure, both extending Malachi’s oracles and laying groundwork for Matthew’s appropriation of Elijah as an identification for John. I have catalogued Elijah traditions into three categories: (1) texts that recount his works in the style of re-written Bible, (2) texts that focus on his ascension, and (3) texts that portray him as an eschatological figure. I will delineate each in turn, followed by a brief discussion of their relation to Matthew 11:2-15.
Two Second Temple Jewish texts retell Elijah’s life in the style of re-written Bible. The Lives of the Prophets (1st Century CE) recounts Elijah’s works (21:1-15), following closely the material found in 1-2 Kings.[ix] However, in an earlier section it adds that the son of the widow of Zaraphath was actually Jonah (10:4-7). Elijah raised him, “for he wanted to show him that it is not possible to run away from God” (10:7).[x] The Lives of the Prophets seems to characterize Elijah as a sort of folk hero.
Pseudo-Philo (1st Century CE) also recounts the story of Elijah, yet under the auspices of Phineas. The Lord promises Phineas long life, and takes him up in a chariot at 120 years of age.[xi] This number could be significant, as it harks back to Moses’ age before his disappearance (cf. Dt 34:7).[xii] Pseudo-Philo’s Elijah disguised as Phineas emerges as a folk hero in a manner similar to The Lives of the Prophets.
second category of
third and final type of Elijah tradition is comprised of those that portray
Elijah as an eschatological figure. The
key text is Sirach 48:1-11, which tells the story of Elijah in the middle of a
long recounting of the history of
picture is confirmed by two additional texts that have roots in the
How does all this material relate to Matthew’s use of Malachi? The first category of texts is not particularly significant, except to show that Elijah was a beloved and intriguing figure during Second Temple Judaism. The second category is a bit more telling, for it reveals a certain fascination with Elijah’s translation to heaven. This avoidance of death lays the speculative groundwork for the possibility of Elijah’s return. The last category is the most relevant, as it signals Elijah’s role as an eschatological figure who precedes the arrival of God. In light of a text like Sirach 48:10, a reference to Elijah does simply conjure up ideas of the prophetic tradition in general. Rather, Second Temple Jewish Elijah traditions are quite capable of bearing the weight of eschatological expectation.
The above foray into Second Temple Jewish texts has confirmed and extended the eschatological import of a reference to Elijah. When Matthew’s Jesus identifies John as Elijah, he is making more than a passing allusion to Malachi. Rather, he is using Malachi as an intertext for his own rhetorical purposes. What are these rhetorical purposes? How do the quotation, allusion and echo of Malachi function in Matthew’s discourse? I will address this question in two parts: first, by ascertaining how the Malachi intertext is used to identify John, and second, by discerning how this identification functions to render Jesus’ identity.
Who is John? This question pervades even a casual reading of Matthew11:2-15. The synoptic tradition identifies John by means of quotation from Isaiah and Malachi, as well as numerous allusions to Old Testament figures. Matthew alone offers the unique clue that John is the Elijah who was to come.[xx] What does this tell us about John?
When pondering this question, three basic options emerge. The first is that the reference to Elijah simply places John in the prophetic tradition.[xxi] He is a prophet like the great prophet Elijah. The second option is that by referring to John as Elijah, Matthew envisions him as the sum of the prophets. Elijah is used elsewhere in the Gospels as the representative figure of “the Prophets,” paralleling Moses as the representative of “the Law” (cf. Matt 17:3). The third possibility is that John’s status as Elijah renders his identity as the final prophet. He is the last-minute prophet before the eschaton.
The first option rings true in its own right, but is insufficient as an explanation for Matthew’s intertextual rhetoric. Certainly Matthew means to say that John is a prophet. Yet Matthew also makes it clear that he is “more than a prophet” (v. 9). The allusion to the Elijah of Malachi 4:5, anchored by the explicit quotation of Malachi 3:1, points to a returning eschatological figure rather than a mere continuation of the line of prophets.[xxii]
The second option has much in its favor, especially in light of its potential function elsewhere in Matthew. Elijah is certainly a representative prophet. If Matthew’s allusion to Elijah pointed more directly to the extended Elijah narratives in 1-2 Kings, this option might prove conclusive. Yet the explicit quotation of Malachi (3:1) in proximity to its own reference to Elijah (4:5) suggests that Malachi, not 1-2 Kings, is the primary ground for determining Matthew’s understanding of Elijah. Malachi certainly does not treat Elijah as the sum of the prophets, but rather as a returning eschatological prophet before the great and terrible Day of the LORD.
The third possibility bears the closest resemblance to the Elijah of both Malachi and Matthew. Elijah arrives immediately before the coming Day of the LORD. He brings both restoration and judgment. Such a view is confirmed by Sirach’s treatment of Elijah. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Malachi is the last book in the Nebi’im. Although the second option would like to note that Elijah appears in the middle of the age of the prophets, the third option might retort that Elijah gets the final word in the collected works of the prophets. Whether such canonical images were at work in Matthew’s mind would be difficult to defend. But it remains a point to ponder. Whatever his view of the arrangement of the canon, Matthew clearly sees John as the last prophet: “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (v. 13).[xxiii]
The Malachi intertext has provided crucial clues into Matthew’s identification of John as Elijah. Yet the identity of John is not the ultimate point of the passage.[xxiv] Even though Jesus provides an extended treatment on John, it follows on the heels of a question about his identity (v. 2-3). By identifying John, Jesus is indirectly identifying himself.[xxv] As Craig S. Keener puts it, “The greatness of John thus implies something about the greatness of Jesus.”[xxvi] Just as the quotation and allusion of Malachi served to aid the identification of John, there are parallel intertextual clues for identifying Jesus.
There are two
basic ways of construing the identity of Jesus in relationship to John in
Matthew 11:2-15. One is positive, the
other negative. The positive option sees
John in a preparatory role before the coming of Jesus. This is the standard view. It seems to fit well with the Malachi
intertext in question. The negative
option sees John’s ministry in contrast with that of Jesus. John A. T. Robinson defends this intriguing
option by appealing to the interplay between Malachi and Isaiah
intertexts. He notes that Jesus quotes
Malachi to identify John, but quotes from Isaiah to identify himself. From this Robinson argues that Jesus sets
himself apart from the John’s aggressive Malachi-style ministry and instead
chooses the way of the suffering servant of Isaiah. He then uses his analysis of this passage to
defend the Fourth Gospel’s placement of Jesus’ clearing of the
Although Robinson’s argument brings many intertextual matters into the light, he stretches it too far to be conclusive. The main hole in his argument is that Jesus here alludes to Isaiah 35, not to any portion of Second Isaiah, let alone the Servant Songs. Even if he did, it is questionable whether a passing reference to the suffering servant would serve as an automatic contrast to the Elijah of Malachi.[xxviii] However, one aspect of Robinson’s argument withstands criticism: the obvious play between Isaiah and Malachi intertexts in Matthew 11:2-15.
I would like to
argue for a modification of the positive option that takes this intertextual
interplay into account. Certainly John prepares
the way for Jesus, but the transition between the two figures is not a smooth
continuity. John’s very question (v.
2-3) reveals his own confusion on the matter.
Jesus’ cryptic words about the kingdom of heaven suffering violence (v.
12) explain why John must suffer in prison.
Matthew’s Jesus alludes to Isaiah to confirm that the kingdom is at hand
in his ministry. This serves as both a
“yes” and a “no” to John’s question.
John asks, echoing Malachi 3-4, whether Jesus is the “coming one.” Jesus retorts by listing his works, of which
John has already heard (v. 2). This list
alludes to Isaiah’s restoration of
Jesus’ own words hint at this dual relationship between himself and John. He says of John, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (v. 11). Being placed under the least in the kingdom can serve as a cryptic compliment according to rabbinic convention.[xxx] Yet it simultaneously reveals that John’s time comes before the arrival of the kingdom, and so he is the penultimate prophet preceding Jesus’ embodiment of the eschaton. Though these words hint at this complex relationship between Jesus and John, the crucial clue is Matthew’s allusion and echo of the Old Testament. The intertextual relationships in Matthew 11:2-15 are decisive for unlocking Matthew’s rhetoric as he identifies Jesus and John.
In the course of this paper, I have argued that Matthew’s strategic intertextual relationship to Malachi as well as Isaiah expresses both the nearness and distance of Jesus and John. I have traced this argument first by showing that Matthew differentiates between Malachi and Isaiah in Mark’s conflated quotation. Next, I showed how all three levels of intertextuality – quotation, allusion and echo – were operative in Matthew 11:2-15. I then turned to note the eschatological role Elijah played in Second Temple Jewish texts. Finally, I explored how Matthew uses these intertexts to makes claims about John and Jesus. This single case serves a larger purpose: to grasp Matthew’s ability to work with larger Old Testament text blocks. Matthew can do more than simply proof-text his way through the life of Jesus. Matthew is a creative exegete to be counted among the rich interpretive tradition that is the New Testament.
[i] For instance, Richard B. Hays contrasts the “predictive Christological interpretations” of Matthew with Paul’s more subtle treatments in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) ix-x, xiii. Hays is working on a project studying Old Testament echoes in the Gospels. It is yet to be seen whether he will therein rescind some of his more negative characterizations of Matthew.
[ii] It is important to clarify from the start that I do not wish to make the odd claim that Matthew interprets Malachi according to the standards of historical criticism. For an attempt to defend Matthew in such terms, see Walter C. Kaiser, “The Promise and the Arrival of Elijah in Malachi and the Gospels” Grace Theological Journal 3:2 (1982) 221-233.
[iii] I have deliberately opted for the term “double tradition” over Q so as to avoid resting my arguments on the existence of a hypothetical document. Though I am not averse to the Four Source Theory, my synoptic comparisons do not assume any one synoptic source theory. Noting Matthew’s differences from Mark and Luke are sufficient for drawing conclusions about his rhetorical intentions.
[iv] Such a rearrangement is typical of the double tradition. Hays puts it well by saying, “Even when Matthew and Luke incorporate large blocks of Mark’s gospel, they place the material into a very different narrative and theological framework, thus creating an intertextual chemistry that is more heuristic than reproductive” (Echoes 174-75).
[v] Dale C. Allison, The Intertextual Jesus:
Scripture in Q (
[vi] Allison argues that such a conflation would be normal and follows the already existing relationship between the two texts, The Intertextual Jesus 39.
[vii] For the sake of clarity, I will cite Malachi according to the versification of English translations that follow the MT, even when translating from the LXX. There is no chapter 4 in LXX Malachi. Rather, the verses fall at the end of chapter 3. Furthermore, the order of the verses is slightly altered, although this does not affect the meaning of the passage.
[viii] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison agree that the Coming One is a sort of title in Matthew and clearly alludes Malachi 3-4. See The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Vol. 2. (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) 258.
[ix] James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985) 2:396-97.
[x] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 2:392.
[xi] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 2:362.
[xii] Dale C. Allison points out this parallel between Pseudo-Philo’s Phineas and Moses in the midst of his discussion of the relationship between Moses and Elijah in The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 44.
[xiii] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:514.
[xiv] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:351.
[xv] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:599.
J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:67, 74.
I discovered these texts with the help of James C. VanderKam’s An Introduction to Early Judaism (
[xvii] It is important to note that I am not arguing for a pre-Christian concept of Elijah as a forerunner to the Messiah. Rather, I am intentionally linking Elijah’s preparatory role to eschatological judgment. For incisive critique of Elijah-as-forerunner traditions, see Morris M. Faierstein, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (Mar 1981) 75-86.
[xviii] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:747, 752.
[xix] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., TOTP 1:349.
Judith L. Wentling argues convincingly that Matthew’s identification of John as
Elijah can be contrasted with the rather loose allusions to Elijah in
Mark. See “A comparison of the Elijan
motifs in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark” Proceedings of
[xxi] Dale C. Allison expresses this view in a footnote saying, “When people were later compared to Elijah, it was usually to support their prophetic status,” The New Moses 45.
[xxii] Craig S. Keener offers a variation of this option by contending that such a continuation of the line of prophets is rather bold, since the line of prophets ended at Malachi. See A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990) 338. Although a suggestive treatment, it does not take into account the strong eschatological import of Malachi 3-4 or Sirach 48:10.
[xxiii] Stephen Lleyelyn makes the counterintuitive suggestion that Matthew’s version of this Jesus logion is more original than Luke’s in “The Traditions Geschichte of Matt. -13, Par. Luke 16:16” Novum Testamentum 36:4 (1994) 330-349.
[xxiv] Some commentators focus so exclusively on the identity of John that they forget the purpose of the passage: to identify Jesus. This misplaced focus is perpetuated by the view that the early Jesus movement encountered a competing cult of John. Whether or not this is a worthy historical hypothesis, the focus ought to remain on Jesus.
[xxv] Can Jesus be successfully identified by his relationship to John? Contemporary philosophy after Bernard Lotze argues that one’s being is known by one’s effect on others. Such philosophical insights have occasioned a large body of discussion in recent Trinitarian theology. Yet there is very little “relational Christology.” Without necessarily accepting Lotze’s neo-Kantian relational ontology wholesale, this philosophical tradition clears the conceptual space for one to pursue the question of Jesus’ identity by analyzing his relationship to John.
[xxvi] C. S. Keener, Matthew 338.
[xxvii] John A. T. Robinson, “Elijah, John and Jesus” New Testament Studies 4 (1958) 262-281. Reprint in Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM Press, 1962) 28-52.
[xxviii] Don Juel argues that there was no monolithic “Suffering Servant” that the early Christians could tap into. Rather, the texts were gathered into the mass of Messianic proof-texts by the catchword “servant.” See Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretations of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) ch. 5. Robinson’s argument depends on a clear Suffering Servant tradition that can be played off an equally clear Elijah tradition.
William W. Watty agrees that the Malachi material has more to do with John than
Jesus in “Jesus and the
[xxx] C. S. Keener, Matthew 339.
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Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.
Faierstein, Morris M. “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (Mar 1981) 75-86.
Kaiser, Walter C. “The Promise and the Arrival of Elijah in Malachi and the Gospels.” Grace Theological Journal 3:2 (1982) 221-233.
Lleyelyn, Stephen. “The Traditions Geschichte of Matt. 11:12-13, Par. Luke 16:16.” Novum Testamentum 36:4 (1994) 330-349.
Robinson, John A. T. “Elijah, John and Jesus.” New Testament Studies 4 (1958) 262-281. Reprint in Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM Press, 1962) 28-52.
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“Jesus and the
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