The Gospels often portray Jesus in stories that remind readers of Moses or Elijah or other Old Testament heroes.
Some scholars of the historical Jesus attribute these narratives to creative fiction. The authors have taken a story about Elijah and adapted it to convey a similar one about Jesus. The point of this pious fiction is said to be to lead readers to think of Jesus as being like the old prophets or even greater.
Other scholars (I suspect a majority) see the matter differently. They say Jesus really did consciously imitate the OT heroes or else his earliest followers interpreted the things Jesus did by comparison with these past figures.
Which one of these views has the strongest argument in its favour? In this post I attempt to compare and address the reasons used to support each view. In particular I will focus on a few places where the author of the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as Elijah and compare this with the way “typologies” are applied to other modern and ancient historical figures.
Postmodernist scholar Anthony Le Donne has addressed this way of depicting Jesus in several publications, including an easy to read book The Historical Jesus : What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?
As the memories of Jesus took shape in story-form . . . certain typologies acted as interpretive frameworks. The author of Luke-Acts seems especially interested in portraying Jesus as an Elijah-type. (p. 90)
Compare the author of the first gospel very often dressing up Jesus as Moses. Dale C. Allison examines this in The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Le Donne compares this portrayal of Jesus through typology in Luke with the way modern historians and politicians who use the same typology device. One example he uses is the way a writer for the general public (Lynn Sweet, journalist) wrote of Barack Obama as a type of Abraham Lincoln in 2007 before Obama formalized his candidacy:
A kickoff in the Illinois capital will serve to marry the Obama political narrative with that of Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, like Obama, was a member of the Illinois General Assembly, before his election to Congress and then the White House. Like Obama, Lincoln didn’t have much experience before becoming president and leading the nation through a turbulent era. Obama, the son of a Kenyan father, will kick off his quest at or near the home of the man who freed the African slaves. (p. 37)
Le Donne explains what he sees as the significance of this description:
(1) Sweet is claiming that in order to understand the significance of Obama’s story, we should begin with Abraham Lincoln. Obama is thus an extension of Lincoln’s legacy. (2) Sweet is claiming that the significance of Lincoln’s story is aptly remembered through the lens of Obama’s story. Lincoln, according to Sweet, is a precursor to Barack Obama. This is no small claim! This is a clear incidence of “typology.” Typology is the study of types. In this case, Sweet is saying that Obama is a type of Lincoln. (p. 38)
Now it is not only authors or propagandists who use typology. Individuals can and do consciously model themselves on historical or mythical heroes as a tactic to enhance their popular appeal.
The Kennedys were often called “Camelot.” It is traditional for a new pope to take the name of a previous (fondly remembered) pope. Saddam Hussein commissioned statues of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, both with his own likeness carved onto the face of the statue. In each of these cases, the historical (and/or legendary) stories of the past have been reframed to serve political agendas. And more importantly, these agendas are apparent in the lifetime of the historical figures in question. This must be kept in mind as we read how Jesus was remembered in conjunction with the narratives and characters of the Hebrew Bible. (p. 39, my emphasis)
Leaving Le Donne aside for a moment I quote similar or even more apt examples from an ancient historian writing about Alexander the Great. Near the opening of his biography of Alexander Arrian writes:
At Troy . . . one account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on the tomb of Patroclus ; another that Alexander laid one on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory. (p. 67, Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander)
Achilles suffered the loss of his friend Patroclus as Achilles was to suffer the loss of Hephastion. Arrian artfully returns to this scene near the close of his biography with this:
I do not, however, think it unlikely that Alexander cut his hair short in mourning for his friend [Hephaestion], for he might well have done so, if only in emulation of Achilles, whose rival he had always felt himself to be, ever since he was a boy. . . . Even in Alexander’s case, Hephaestion’s death had been no small calamity, and I believe he would have been the first to go than live to suffer that pain, like Achilles, who surely would rather have died before Patroclus than have lived to avenge his death. (pp. 372, 377)
I find this particular case of typology particularly interesting because it is clearly set up within a literary artifice that we also find in the gospels and that I have discussed most often in relation to the Gospel of Mark. This gospel is renowned for its penchant for inclusios, bookends, bracketing images and scenes and motifs. This example from Arrian shows that the literary device of bracketing a literary work with echoing motifs at its beginning and end was certainly not unique to the Gospel. It is also a reminder that literary artifice is not, in itself, an indication of fictional content. Of course it could well be that these particular episodes (the wreath laying and the hair-cut) are fabricated propaganda but then again they might just be true, too. I don’t recall off-hand an example but when I do recollect any I will add here illustrations from a modern historian who opens and closes his/her non-fiction work “poetically” with front to end mirroring of images and motifs.
And Alexander himself became a model for emulation. The historian Dio Cassius tells us that the Roman emperor Hadrian imitated Alexander when his own young companion died. Elizabeth Speller in Following Hadrian describes the various ways Hadrian expressed his grief over the death of Antinous and concludes:
What was just possibly a genuine tragedy in his life became an opportunity to make an ever closer identification with the most famous Greek of them all, Alexander. Alexander, too, had lost his closest intimate — Hephaestion ; Alexander, too, was inconsolable in his grief. Hephaestion had been a friend of nearly two decades, Antinous a companion of probably a very few years at most, but the model was well established. Raising a city to commemorate an event of only personal significance was hardly new . . . . Alexander built one on the spot where his favourite horse died ; while Hadrian had confined himself to writing a poem for the tomb of his own dead Borysthenes, elsewhere a successful day’s hunting had moved him to dedicate a new city. The presentation of the death and its aftermath were prescripted in the Greek past. (pp. 296-7)
Examples could be multiplied. Even Alexander and Hadrian are on record as having emulated or consciously sought to present themselves as imitating other gods and heroes in addition to the ones I have cited here. (I have deleted other passages that I originally intended to post because I decided they were redundant.) So we can see that it is indeed a fact, surely a well-known one, that both modern and ancient real-life historical persons (and I could add medieval examples, too) were sometimes viewed in their own day as revivals of earlier figures, and sometimes written up as such by later historians — and sometimes the historic person consciously acted out the association.
So conceptually there is nothing against the possibility that a Jesus in first century Palestine may likewise have deliberately imitated Elijah or that or his biographers may have recollected and interpreted his life through such a biblical hero. It is possible and it is plausible.
So let’s compare the above with argument that the author of the Gospel of Luke is crafting a literary fiction modelled on the stories of Elijah and that bear no relation to a historical life of Jesus.
Not a mythicist argument per se
Note that I have attempted to choose my words carefully. I am not arguing a case for mythicism here. But of course what I do argue is one small point that could potentially, in another context, be used to support an argument for mythicism. At the same time the argument can hold regardless of the question of the historicity of Jesus himself. I am only interested here in the simplest and most plausible rationale for the typologies we see in the Gospels. Mythicism is another question again. This should be obvious since scholars (such as Robert Gundry, John Crossan, Dennis MacDonald, Robert Miller, Dale & Patricia Miller, Jerome O’Connor, Dale Allison, John Spong — yes, he is recognized and respected as a scholar by the likes of Dale C. Allison so I have little patience with those snobs who scoff, and a good number of others) who hold to the “pious fiction” thesis for at least some of the stories about Jesus yet at the same time staunchly defend the historicity of Jesus.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we are introduced to a herald of Jesus, John the Baptist, who is clearly an Elijah figure, but we see nothing of the like in the other gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, moreover, it is widely recognized that Jesus himself and not John is described as an Elijah figure.
Now we know that historians of Alexander and Hadrian tell us that these men were compared with, or compared themselves with, multiple legendary or mythic figures. Alexander emulated both Achilles and Dionysus. Hadrian emulated Alexander and Hercules. There is no limiting one-to-one rule. In the Gospel of Mark we see John the Baptist likened to Elijah at the beginning of the gospel but later we see some scenes where Jesus is acting in a way that reminds us of Elijah.
But in the Gospel of Luke there appears to be a deliberate attempt by the author to present Jesus and only Jesus as an Elijah type. (Le Donne disputes this but I will address his objection later.)
Luke (though I do not believe Luke the companion of Paul was the real author) does not appear to be writing as a disinterested historian keen to pass on the information about Jesus and John that was available to him. He wants us to read only one point of view.
This is quite unlike the way ancient historians wrote about Alexander or Hadrian. Arrian, for example, focussed his attention on the historical figure of Alexander and explained how he personally sought to be like Achilles and how others also attempted to compare him with Dionysus. He describes Alexander’s response to the Dionysus parallel and how he found this to be politically advantageous. But all the stories of Jesus are presented to us as “just so” narratives. There is no sign of a human or historical Jesus who is, in a similar manner, deliberately choosing to present himself as an Elijah. We instead have an all-knowing narrator who wraps Jesus up in an Elijah-like narrative — or in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is more commonly presented as a new Moses.
So in the cases of Alexander and Hadrian we can see that the typologies applied to them were stratagems or guises, external comparisons used to compare one person with a particular image or other persona.
We see nothing like this in the case of Jesus. Luke, for example, uses Elijah templates to craft a literary Jesus. Jesus is not presented as a person who is distinct from the stories about Elijah. The stories about Elijah are used as the templates to create stories of Jesus.
The clearest proof of this is when Luke describes Jesus as ascending to heaven as Elijah did. No-one can say that this is something that a real human person did in order to create a public impression that he was at least as good as the Elijah of old, or better since he did not even need a hotted-up chariot to carry him to heaven.
Surely when Luke drops in this scene about Jesus common sense ought to tell us that very likely the other stories he tells us about Jesus that are also reminiscent of Elijah are likewise literary fabrications.
It would be quite a different matter if Luke wrote of such scenes in a way ancient historians did. Plutarch and Livy inform us of different views or reactions to the death of Romulus and the circumstances giving rise to the belief of his ascension to heaven. By contrast a reader can be forgiven for getting the impression that Luke wants his readers to accept uncritically his tale of one miracle after another as gospel-truth.
Luke is not drawing generalized comparisons between Jesus and Elijah in the way we find generalized associations between Obama and Lincoln, or Alexander and Achilles or Hadrian and Alexander.
No. Luke is using literature and copying from literature to create a story that is a point by point adaptation of the original. That is literary borrowing. It is not a historical record.
Take for comparison’s sake one episode for now — the raising of the daughter of Jairus. (Of course a thorough argument would require a more complete discussion. But this is a blog post that aspires to be readable in one not-too-long sitting.) It is not unusual to notice that the Gospel of Mark’s account of this miracle rests very closely on a similar miracle performed by Elijah. Luke appears to have copied Mark’s account that in turn is a direct borrowing from 2 Kings.
2 Kings 4:8-37
The woman grasps Elisha by the feet
Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus
Her daughter has just died
His daughter is at the point of death
The mother has faith all will be well
The father has faith all will be well
While Elisha and the mother are travelling to the child Elisha’s servant brings news that the child is dead.
While Jesus and the father are walking to the child Jairus’ servant brings news that the child is dead.
Elisha makes himself alone in the room with the child.
Jesus puts all the others out of the room so only he and his closest associates are with the child.
Elisha makes physical contacts with the child and he is restored to life
Jesus takes the child by the hand and she is restored to life
The woman responds with worship
The parents are amazed.
Now this story in Luke’s Gospel is as close as one can expect to the same in the Gospel of Mark 5:21-43. (See my original table that was comparing 2 Kings with Mark 5.) Here we have not just the general idea of the comparison (or “typology”) between Jesus and Elijah. We have a very specific, point by point, literary matching. The evidence strongly points to a literary borrowing.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel who also used the Gospel of Mark as a source, and who wanted to portray Jesus as a new Moses, obviously noticed that this passage in the Gospel of Mark (with its comparison of Jesus with Elijah) would not do. So this author changed Mark significantly. See Matthew 9:18-26.
- First up he excised the very name “Jairus” which means ‘awakened’ and thus removed the principle motif of the original story in “Mark”: that resurrection was an awakening from sleep and this story was thus a metaphor.
- Secondly, he removed the detail of the suppliant falling down at Jesus’ feet. Then he removed the “amazed” response of the parents.
What “Matthew” was doing, unlike “Luke”, was removing tell-tale details from the narrative so that it would not be recognized as a literary borrowing from 2 Kings 4.
Was “Luke” just being lazy and taking it for granted that the Gospel of Mark, his source, was historically correct and, only coincidentally and luckily, could be fitted detail by detail against the Elijah story of 2 Kings? Not according to “Matthew”.
But we need more than this if we are to be persuaded that the Gospel of Luke’s author was knowingly interpreting reality through literary myths or was rather passing along, or even creating, outright literary or mythical narratives. And we do have that. We have it in the ascension story I spoke of above. We also have it in the unqualified and But when Le Donne also points to it I have to think it is a point recognizable by a wide spectrum of the biblical studies guild: Luke 24: 50-51
And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
This is how Elijah ended his days on earth.
So the point here is that whoever composed the Gospel of Luke was actively looking for Elijah typology material to create stories about Jesus.
There is no evidence to indicate that he was portraying the life and deeds of a person that could be interpreted by comparison with Elijah. We have clear indicators that this is how people thought and wrote about Obama and Alexander and others, or even how they thought about themselves like this. The literary evidence associated with Jesus points in a quite different direction.
Luke clearly fabricated events about Jesus, such as his portrayal of the ascension to heaven, to conform with that Elijah literature.
But Le Donne anticipates this conclusion and so adds an escape clause for his own argument. It is more than just a clause, however. Le Donne, recall, argues that “Luke” is interpreting a historical Jesus through the Elijah-concept. The historical Jesus, for Le Donne, is viewed by others (maybe even by Jesus himself) as a second and greater Elijah. Le Donne believes that the author of the Gospel of Luke felt compelled to include details in his narrative that cut against the grain of his own wish to portray Jesus in a certain way. This author wanted to portray Jesus as a new Elijah but was compelled “by the facts of history” to acknowledge that Jesus himself said someone else was that Elijah. I stand to be corrected here, and if so, I will acknowledge that and leave that notice on this post as a reminder. But the only place I can see, at this moment at any rate, where Luke had John the Baptist (that is, NOT Jesus) possibly portrayed as the Elijah was in Luke 7:
 And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak unto the people concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?  But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ courts.  But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.  This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
But if this is the passage Le Donne had in mind then one must object. There is not a breath of a whisper in this passage that speaks of Elijah. Malachi 3:1 does indeed speak of a messenger and Malachi’s words are quoted in Luke’s Gospel. The name “Malachi” itself means “messenger”. But Malachi also speaks of an Elijah to come in the final chapter 4. The Messenger (Malachi) wrote about the Elijah to come. So it follows that there is no compelling reason to think that “Luke” was saying in his chapter 7 that John the Baptist was anything more than the Messenger. This is also the way the author of the Gospel of John depicts John the Baptist. In that last gospel John the Baptist is “nothing more” than a herald of the Light, the Living Water, to come. That the Messenger of Malachi was also the Elijah is Mark’s (and Matthew’s) interpretation. But it is not Luke’s (nor John’s).
There is another passage in the Synoptics that relates to any argument about typology:
18And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him: and he asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am?
19They answering said, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others say, that one of the old prophets is risen again.
20He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God.
21And he straitly charged them, and commanded them to tell no man that thing (Luke 9:18-21)
This is not a record by an author about popular rumours circulating in the days of Jesus. It is a statement by the author, expressed through the mouths of his literary characters, about theology or Christology and spiritual blindness as opposed to divine revelation. It is about the christological identity of Jesus and the spiritual insight required to recognize this.
So we are faced with a choice — although admittedly this is but an out-0f-the-way blogpost that has addressed a mere fraction of the material evidence that truly needs to be discussed — In the stories of Obama, Hadrian and Alexander, I can see the history of certain figures being written with special notes drawing my attention to “typologies” (more simply “comparisons”!) of these persons to historical or legendary or outright mythical persons. In the stories of Jesus I can see types alone and evidence of borrowing the stories from other literature. Which way does Occam’s razor make the cut?
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