Prophets serve a literary function throughout the Old Testament. Their role is to demonstrate to readers/hearers of the word the stubborn rebellious hearts of Israel in history, and through that mechanism to show the greatness of the mercy of God who promises to love and restore such wretches in the end.
They are worked into the plot to suffer rejection by their own, persecution, mockery and sometimes martyrdom. Their loyal followers are always the few. And their authors always ensure they perform their assigned roles as foils for Israel to the letter.
One of these, Elijah, was prophesied to come again.
But there is the strangest of twists. When he does “come again”, the people are expected to actually listen to him this time. And the people do listen to him. Nothing like it had happened since the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah.
Historical reading destroys the story
Mark tells us that the whole of Judea and Jerusalem came out to be baptized (Mark 1:5), so we must presume they were all prepared as per the prophecy. To deny this by suggesting Mark is merely exaggerating is to miss the point of the story and the author’s portrayal of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Trying to historicize the tale merely destroys it. Mark is creating an ideal scene here, one as ideal as that of the survival in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. All the land of Judea and those of Jerusalem went out confessing their sins. Picture an ideal Israel following Moses into the wilderness, or all of Israel repenting at the preaching of Elijah.
Elijah is promised to prepare the way of Israel for God — lest God comes and strikes the earth with a curse (Malachi).
We must presume he succeeded through John the Baptist, because when God came in his Son, it was the Son of God who was cursed, thus sparing the earth (or land of Israel – at least for a generation).
Getting prepared — then waiting
But how did he, in John the Baptist, prepare the way for God? How do we see the preparedness of these people in action?
I used to think it was a narrative failing of Mark that he had the people prepared for Jesus in the opening verses of the Gospel but in the very next encounters with “the people” they fail to recognize him. Someone should have tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up and notice that the people who were prepared, as per the prophecy, were those connected with the Temple, the people of Judea and Jerusalem.
When Jesus came he did not go to those people of Judea and Jerusalem straight away, but went instead to people of Galilee.
Jesus does not come to these people of Judea and Jerusalem just yet. Mark constructs a kind of inclusio setting for his gospel. The scene opens with the people of Judea and Jerusalem, and will close with the same people. In the meantime, however, Jesus bypasses them and works with others in Galilee. His time is not yet. The people of Judea and Jerusalem have been prepared, but Jesus won’t come to them until his grand entrance in Mark 11. When his time does draw near, the reader is privileged with a vision of the transfigured Jesus, and three prophecies herald his personal doom and salvation.
Having been prepared (at least within the narrative’s frame of reference — it is not historical realism), the people of Jerusalem welcome Jesus into their city with hopes of the restoration of the Kingdom of David. When questioned over his authority to do the things he was doing there, Jesus reminds them he is acting on the authority of John the Baptist who prepared them for his entry and “sudden coming to the temple”. A leper opens his house for him and an anonymous woman prepares him for burial (Mark 11:3-8).
Saving the land from a curse
The crowds are a narrative device. The author is attempting to create a narrative that can be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy, and is consequently forced into a few inconsistencies. But the overall intended impact works, nonetheless. So the crowds are also there to call for Jesus’ crucifixion. In so doing, Jesus is the one who is cursed (Mal. 4:5-6), and Elijah is once again invoked by the narrator at that moment (Mark 15:35-36).
The land is saved from the curse, at least for the time being. Later it will be the remnant who are saved (Mark 13:20), as is always the case throughout the Old Testament writings of Israel’s failures and restorations.
Story, not history
There is nothing historical about John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel. (One is entitled to think of an historical JB elsewhere if one likes, but Mark’s character is entirely literary.) As Paula Fredriksen writes in another context:
Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly.
One criterion sometimes used against historicity is that of fulfilled prophecy (see Robert Funk’s criteria):
Anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction.
And John the Baptist and his role in Mark’s Gospel is a paradigmatic fulfillment of the prophecy of the Elijah to come. John, like Elijah, lives in the wilderness and by a river there. Like Elijah, he also wears a hairy prophet’s garment and a leather belt. And like Elijah, he calls for repentance.
He does fit the literary prophet paradigm by having his head chopped off. But he also, unlike the other prophets, has the unique role of being listened to by the people of Israel who repent at his message. This prophet had to fulfill Malachi for the most coherent way to introduce Jesus.
So both in his conformity to type and in his exceptionality of function, he is the literary tool of the Gospel author.