As the first traditions about Jesus were disseminated through word of mouth and in written documents, they were refracted through a number of interpretive lenses.
One such lens was the spiritual experience of the faithful community. Among these first believers, the same Jesus who had been crucified was alive, teaching and working in and as spirit. Through this spirit the revenant Jesus “reminded,” “taught,” and undoubtedly interpreted, “everything [Jesus] had said” to those who shaped the gospel traditions (John 14:26, cf. 16:13, Col 2:2-3). Under these conditions, the boundary between what Jesus said and did in the flesh and what he said and did in the spirit was compromised (cf. 2 Cor 5:16). Like the meeting of two bodies of water, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of spiritual experience coalesced, forever bound together.
The belief that Jesus in some way fulfilled and was fulfilling the Jewish scriptures constituted another major interpretive lens. Those who constructed the gospel traditions did not merely rely on historical memory—they searched their scriptures for patterns and prophecies according to which they might frame and fashion their narratives (cf. John 5:39, Luke 24:27, Acts 17:11).
Markan imitation of the Elijah-Elisha cycle
Regarding this second lens, the widespread appropriation of the Elijah-Elisha cycle by the purveyors of the Jesus-tradition has remained somewhat underappreciated. Despite the attention given certain bite-sized Old Testament “proof-texts,” the stories pertaining to Elijah and Elisha in LXX Kings often quietly provided the evangelists with an overarching narrative structure.
As Adam Winn proposes in his book Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative, much of the Markan narrative fabric and many of Mark’s individual pericopes exhibit signs of Classical literary imitation. In conjunction with whatever historical traditions Mark may have employed then, Winn argues that the Elijah-Elisha folktales were at some point adopted as a source for information about Jesus.
Mark’s imitation of this material, while pervasive, is most readily apparent in his accounts of Jesus’ deeds of power. Winn offers four examples.
- Jesus’ healing of a leper (Mark 1:40-45) and Elisha’s healing of the leprous Syrian commander (2 Kings 5:1-19).
- Jesus’ healing of a bedridden paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) and Elisha’s cursing of a bedridden king (2 Kings 1:1-17).
- Jesus’ multiplication of loaves (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10) and Elisha’s multiplication of barley (2 Kings 4:42-44).
- Jesus’ exorcism of a Syrophoenician daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and Elijah’s provision for a widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16).
Markan memories of Jesus were thus in large part filtered through and determined by the legacy of Elijah and Elisha. For Mark’s tradition, Jesus was an Elijah-like prophet.
Elijah and Elisha in Lukan tradition
Early Christian appropriation of the Elijah-Elisha narrative was probably not limited to Mark. Various scholars also recognize Luke’s occasional dependence on episodes from the Elijah-Elisha cycle. The two legends alluded to by Jesus in Luke 4:25 (the widow of Zarephath & Naaman) are viewed by these scholars as particularly important for Lukan storytelling.
Elijah’s raising of a widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24), along with elements from Elisha’s raising of a Shunammite son (2 Kings 4:18-37), leaves its mark on both Jesus’ raising of a widow’s son in Nain and Peter’s raising of Dorcas in Joppa (Luke 7:11-17, Acts 9:36-43). The similarities among the stories can be outlined like so.
- Jesus and Elijah encounter desperate widows at the “city gates” (τῇ πύλῃ τῆς πόλεως) (1 Kings 17:10, Luke 7:12).
- Jesus and Elijah “gave [the resuscitated son] to his mother” (καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὸν τῇ μητρὶ αὐτοῦ) (1 Kings 17:23, Luke 7:15).
- Jesus and Elijah inspire awe in the people by raising the dead. They are hailed as prophets of Israel’s God (Luke 7:16-17, 1 Kings 17:24).
- Peter and Elisha are summoned with haste to help the dead (Acts 9:38, 2 Kings 4:22-24).
- Peter and Elijah resurrect the deceased in the “upper room” (ὑπερῷον) (Acts 9:39, 1 Kings 17:19; 23).
- Peter and Elisha shut out the mourners (Acts 9:40, 2 Kings 4:33, cf. Mark 5:40).
- Peter, Elijah, and Elisha “prayed” (προσηύξατο) to God beforehand on behalf of the dead (Acts 9:40, 1 Kings 17:20, 2 Kings 4:33).
- Dorcas and the Shunammite son “opened [their] eyes” as a first sign of life (ἤνοιξεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ) (Acts 9:40, 2 Kings 4:35).
Luke’s redaction of Elisha’s cleansing of Naaman’s leprosy is likewise apparent in Jesus’ healing of a centurion’s slave (Luke 7:1-10). In accordance with Greco-Roman imitation, Luke has altered some of the elements for his own ends.
- A foreign commander is made pious through healing (2 Kings 5:15-19)/A pious foreign commander becomes the beneficiary of healing power (Luke 7:9-10).
- Devout slaves save their master (2 Kings 5:2-3; 10-14)/A devout master saves his slave (Luke 7:2; 10).
- Naaman sends messengers to acquire the prophet’s aid (2 Kings 5:4-6)/The centurion sends Jewish elders to summon Jesus (Luke 7:4-5).
- Naaman halts before Elisha’s house and is healed without meeting the prophet (2 Kings 5:9-10)/Jesus halts before the centurion’s house and the centurion’s slave is healed from a distance (Luke 7:6-10).
Other potential parallels abound in Luke-Acts: The tale of Gehazi’s greed (2 Kings 5:19-27) may serve as a precursor for Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24); Naaman’s cleansing and subsequent devotion to God may frame Peter’s realization that God has already made a God-fearing centurion clean (Acts 10).
But regardless of the specifics, it is clear that, like the Markan material, the traditions unique to Luke present Jesus and his followers as prophetic successors of Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah and Elisha in Johannine tradition
A weaker case could be made that the Johannine tradition has also cast Jesus in the mold of Israel’s prophets.
John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, for instance, follows the pattern set by Elisha’s multiplication of barley in 2 Kings 4:42-44.
- Jesus and Elisha advise their servants to feed a large crowd with a small amount of bread (John 6:5-6, 2 Kings 4:42).
- The servants respond with disbelief but comply with their masters’ wishes (John 6:6-9, 2 Kings 4:43).
- Food remains after all have eaten (John 6:12-13, 2 Kings 2:44).
I would argue as well that Jesus’ conversion of water into wine at Cana resembles Elisha’s cleansing of Jericho’s noxious waters (2 Kings 2:19-22) and his purification of a pot of poisonous stew (2 Kings 4:38-41), if only in a marginal way. In all three stories, a food-related complication is brought to the prophet (“they have no more wine,” “the water is bad and the land is unfruitful,” “there is death in the pot”), the prophet responds by proposing some strange procedure (fill purification jars with water, fetch a new bowl and fill it with salt, bring some flour), and as a result the people are unexpectedly nourished (the wine that was water supplies the feast, the spring gives life instead of death, the stew becomes edible). The wedding at Cana would in this way serve as a Johannine version of the purification miracle story (cf. Exodus 15:22-25).
Elijah, Elisha, and the Jesus of history
If John’s appropriation of Kings is accepted among the others, three independent Christian traditions appear to have viewed the prophetic activity of Jesus and his first followers through the lens provided by the Elijah-Elisha cycle. From early on then, various Christian communities shaped, reshaped, and created traditions about Jesus according to this prophetic mold.
When we add to this the popular perception that John and/or Jesus were, in fact, Elijah/Elisha redivivus (Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 9:7-8, John 1:21, cf. Matthew 17:12, Luke 1:17), there is little doubt that some of Jesus’ followers identified their master with Elijah and Elisha from the start. The connection drawn between Jesus and these prophets was neither a later theological invention nor merely a convention of literary convenience. In all likelihood, Jesus provided this particular interpretive lens and issued this particular hermeneutical license by presenting himself in word and deed as a prophet like Elijah, a prophet like Elisha.
While, in the end, Christian orthodoxy rejected the “prophet like Elijah” construct as insufficient and, in fact, misleading—favoring instead the high Christological claims of Nicaea—Jesus entered the public eye as neither God the Son nor the messianic son of God. Rather, based on the depth of the evidence, he arose as an Israelite prophet of old, as a prophet like Elijah. Before he was God—even before he was Messiah—Jesus was Elijah the prophet, or at least a prophet possessed by Elijah’s spirit.
Next time we will investigate what this meant for Jesus’ mission.