John the Baptist is one of the most striking figures in the New Testament. Everyone familiar with the gospels has a pretty clear picture of him in their head: a gruff, no-nonsense prophet, a wild-looking open-air “street preacher” out in the desert. John the Baptist eats locusts and honey and he wears a peculiar outfit, clothing made from camel’s-hair. Why the hair? Well, John was imitating Elijah, a figure who many pious Jews expected to return before God’s Judgement, a figure who would come back to lead God’s people (Israel) to repentance.
This post will be discussing that belief and how it fits into the context of the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. Along the way we’ll also review some interesting details about Biblical prophecy. Prophecy is an important topic for many Christians who believe that the life of Jesus was divinely planned and that you can find clear predictions of his life and death in the Old Testament. Such prophecies would not only provide Jews with a compelling reason to believe (if Jesus does fulfill Messianic prophecies) but they should also be powerful evidence for causing even hardened skeptics to reconsider their views. Do these prophecies hold up? Are their better explanations? Well, obviously as someone who is still a skeptic I have an opinion on all of that. In this post we’ll focus on one particular prophetic reference, a portion of the book of Malachi which is directly referenced in the Synoptic Gospels.
Note: All quotes are from the NRSV, unless otherwise stated.
The New Testament Claims
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark goofs up the quotation here. The first part of the quote is actually from Malachi, not Isaiah. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” is a quotation of Malachi 3:1. The second part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. I noticed that the other Synoptic Gospels (“SGs” for brevity) kept the reference to Isaiah 40, but dropped the quotation from Malachi 3:1 in this area. This is a clear instance of the later gospel authors improving upon the earlier work of Mark. Luke provides a slightly longer chunk of the Isaiah quote. You can read the parallel passages in Matthew 3:1-3 and Luke 3:2-6.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,”
This is from a prophecy that Luke reports Zechariah speaking (Zechariah is John the Baptist’s father, notably only mentioned in this gospel where John the Baptist has an extensive backstory…for more on that see my post discussing whether or not John the Baptist knew Jesus). The second half of this verse appears to be another reference to Malachi 3:1.
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
In these parallel passages we see the words of the prophecy being spoken by Jesus.
I think it’s fair to say that the SGs see Jesus as “the Lord” in the Malachi prophecy and thus the figure that John, “the messenger,” was preparing for. This interpretation seems to be the default among Christians and was the understanding that I myself had for many years as a Christian. John was an important prophet, a messenger tasked with preparing for the arrival of Jesus by softening hearts with his message of repentance. He was pointing to something better and when Jesus arrived on the scene he knew that he had found it. As a Christian I also believed that John’s ministry was divinely foretold by the Old Testament and that this indicated that God was clearly behind the events in the New Testament, orchestrating them long before they were recorded in history. What I have described above is not a controversial viewpoint among Christians; it’s pretty standard fare and matches what almost any evangelical preacher or apologist will tell you. But as I am going to show below, an outsider examination of the texts (especially the book of Malachi) will call this supposed “fulfillment of prophecy” into question.
Why the camel hair?
So, why does John the Baptist dress up as the prophet Elijah (see 2 Kings 1:8) by wearing camel’s-hair? The reason is that many Jews expected Elijah to return. Elijah is a strange figure in the Hebrew Bible. Like Enoch he did not die but rather was carried up into heaven (on that famous flaming chariot). The end of the book of Malachi speaks of this hope for Elijah’s return.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
This is where the outfit comes in. John the Baptist is supposed to be “the messenger” spoken of earlier in Malachi (we’ll get into that in a bit), “the messenger” is supposed to be Elijah and therefore John dresses like Elijah in order to act out this prophecy.
What’s really going on in Malachi?
Christians are usually quick to complain when unflattering passages (such as Samson slaughtering Philistines, or concubines getting cut up into really tiny pieces) get taken out of context and used to claim that the Bible supports things which it really doesn’t. I think Christians are fair to point out when context is being flagrantly ignored. As a long-time student of the Bible, I’m also very interested in knowing the context of the events described in the Bible. I also want to know the original context of verses that are quoted and re-quoted throughout the text. It is far too easy to take the context of Old Testament passages for granted by reading them through the lens of our Sunday School lessons and later Christian dogma. With all of that said, here is my basic summary of Malachi, chapter by chapter. Malachi is a short-book and I encourage anyone who is skeptical of my criticism to do a bit of their own research and try to read the passages with an open mind. If you see any mistakes in my summary, I am open to correction. If you think I am fundamentally mis-reading this ancient text, please let me know.
- God is angry at Edom and says that he will tear them down if they rise again. (vv 2-5)
- God is angry–at the temple priests and at the general populace–for offering the cheaper animals (those already ruined by sickness, infirmity or violence). (vv 6-14)
- God says his name is currently “great among the nations” and recognizes that incense is offered to him throughout the world. (vv 11, 14)
- God is angry at the temple priests and adds in a complaint about their failure to instruct people in proper moral behavior. (vv 7-8)
- God threatens to punish the Levites (the priestly tribe) and he claims that a punishment (curse) is already on them. (vv 1-9)
- There is a general complaint about “faithlessness” by Judah.
- Complaint that Judah has “married the daughter of a foreign god” (the language of a “marriage covenant” between Yahweh and Israel/Judah is invoked frequently throughout the Old Testament, here as elsewhere it indicates that God expects singular devotion to him and will not tolerate religious pluralism or syncretism, in accordance with the strict rules for worship in the Law)
- Malachi 3:1 “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
- God will send his “messenger” whose primary goal appears to be reforming and cleansing the priesthood so that the temple offerings can be performed correctly again (vv 1-4)
- the goal here is to address the problems with offerings that were described in chapters 1 and 2
- God (with or using the messenger) will enact judgement against the general population for not being faithful (v 5)
- this mirrors the complaint in chapter 2 against Judah being unfaithful to Yahweh and the covenant
- New complaint: the populace is not bringing their proper share of “tithes and offerings” into the temple.
- promise of blessing if they repent and bring in tithes
- promise of a curse continuing on them for their covenant violation (vv 8-12)
- There is an argument between God and those who think following the covenant is not useful (as in other OT prophetic books, the prophet acts as an intermediary between the people’s and the deity and tries to relay both “sides” of the conversation). (vv 13-15)
- God writes a “book of remembrance” for those who are faithful to the covenant.
- God promises to spare those in the book from his coming judgement (presumably the same judgement spoken of in Malachi 3:5)
- There is a description of God’s judgement as a day of fiery destruction. (v 1)
- The prophet reiterates that God will distinguish between those who fear God and those who are unfaithful to the covenant (“arrogant,” “evildoers”). (v 1)
- There is a promise of renewal for the faithful. (v 2)
- The faithful will aid or participate some way in God’s judgement (the language here seems very poetic, so it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant). (v 3)
- There is a promise that God will send Elijah to restore relationships and thus prevent curse/judgement by causing the people to return to covenant faithfulness.
More thoughts on Malachi:
Most of the judgements listed in this book are specific to Judah. The only part judging those outside of Israel is the brief oracle against Edom. Chapter 4’s “apocalypse” does not seem to be an end of time event but rather (like the rest of the book) a foretelling of the covenant between Yahweh and his people being properly restored.
It’s not clear exactly how many acts of judgement will happen or may happen. The last chapter seems to add quite a bit of optimism to the book and makes it seem as though God’s judgement is not inevitable if the people and the priests can turn from their wicked ways in time.
Malachi 3:1 talks about the “messenger” preparing the way for “the Lord.” “Lord” is a broad term and could be a reference to an earthly or a heavenly ruler (Strong’s Concordance). In this passage I believe that the reference is to Yahweh who would arrive to cleanse the Levites and punish the nation of Judah. But, there is no indication here that Malachi meant anything unorthodox by this, no indication that “the Lord” spoken of here would be Yahweh incarnated in the form of a lowly human. Rather, he seems to be saying that God’s indwelling power/spirit would be apparent in events that were to unfold (and of course orthodox temple Judaism would have pictured God as “indwelling” in the temple which did imply a degree of anthropomorphism but not necessarily humanness). We must be careful not to read back a Trinitarian understanding of God into the Hebrew Bible.
No Deity Required
Wherever the traditions about John the Baptist originate (and I see no reason why they could not point to an actual, historical figure) there is nothing miraculous in his supposed “fulfilment” of Malachi 3:1. If John the Baptist read the prophecy in Malachi and then decided to dress himself like Elijah and call people to repentance then he was clearly acting out the prophecy. No god is necessary to explain that. People in many faith traditions are inspired by ancient texts and oracles and choose to self-consciously act them out. Great speakers like Martin Luther King Jr intentionally echoed the words of Amos and Isaiah, but that did not demonstrate that they were prophets.
But there’s a bigger problem here…
The prophecies in Malachi were not fulfilled by John the Baptist and Jesus
Even a cursory reading of Malachi will reveal that the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke greatly stretched the truth. Yes, John the Baptist did act as a “second Elijah” by calling for covenant faithfulness and repentance and by symbolically donning Elijah’s garb, but Jesus and John are poor fits for the events foretold in Malachi. They simply don’t fulfill what the prophecy originally referred to.
- Jesus did not reform the sacrificial system or cleanse the Levites/priests. (his little upset among the temple merchants does not match up with Malachi’s bold prediction of being like “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2b)
- Jesus did not rid the Holy Land of idolaters and those who were faithless to the covenant.
- Jesus did not usher in the fiery day of judgement spoken of in Malachi.
- Malachi and his original audience would not have envisioned “the Lord” as the 2nd person of the Trinity.
- Malachi does not use any Messianic titles to refer to “the Lord” and never implies that this figure is a superhuman being (or a being of any sort other than the manifest spirit of Yahweh in the same sense that all OT prophets spoke of God acting through events).
One more problem…
There’s one more little wrinkle in the issue of whether or not John the Baptist fulfilled the Old Testament prediction that Elijah would return. The Synoptics clearly contradict the Gospel of John (GoJ) on this point. But if we jettison GoJ as inspired scripture much of Christian dogma (especially verses supporting the Trinity) must also go with it. And if we do away with the SGs instead then we will lose any support for Jesus having a virgin birth, which is also seen as a core doctrine.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
So in GoJ, John does claim to fulfill prophecy, but definitely not that prophecy! For whatever reason, the author chooses to distance John from his association in the SGs with Elijah and the prophecy in Malachi. This John also doesn’t wear the signature camel’s-hair outfit.
The authors of the Synoptic Gospels creatively adjusted the traditions about Jesus and John the Baptist so that they would fit into the Jewish Scriptures and provide grounding and justification for Christian claims. I am not claiming that they did this with malicious intent and I am not claiming that the gospel writers would have viewed their “creative editing” as something deceptive. Their usage of Old Testament prophets such as Malachi served the purpose of making the life of Jesus appear divinely planned and it also would have functioned as an apologetic tool to convince Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah. In hindsight it’s obvious that this was not a very effective tool since most Jews rejected claims made by the early Christians and most Jews continue to do so.
I plan to investigate more claims of fulfilled prophecies concerning Jesus in the near future, so if this topic interests you, stay tuned!