Sunday, April 11, 2010

What's Elijah doing in Mark's Gospel?

HIS LAST WORDS ARE MISUNDERSTOOD. Mark tells us that the crowds who hear Jesus famous cry of desolation (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani) mistake him to be invoking of Elijah to save him. Mark knows this wont happen and advances to immediately report Jesus' final cry and his death. In account that's so condensed as Mark is, it's always seemed a bit strange to me that this detail included - why not cut it out? We've had plenty of misunderstandings before and this could just be another one of those...

I'm pondering this because I'm re-preparing Mark 15:33-40 to preach in May. I can't see myself giving much time to the cry or Elijah - I'll probably just focus on the cloud (darkness) and the curtain... but for now Elijah is standing in the middle and he's got my attention.

The cry is important because it shows again the relationship of the Father and Son (having twice seen how the Father is pleased with his beloved son - in Mark 1 & 9). The cry is also curious because it's another Aramaic phrase translated - like Talitha cumi in 5:41. But instead of being understood, the cry is misheard...

And so to Elijah... this is the fourth time we've heard about him in Mark.
  • In Mark 6:14-15, with Herod, when some think Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected others think he is Elijah.
  • In Mark 8:28 when Peter is asked who Jesus is he again reports, some say he is Elijah, though Peter considers him the Christ. Still today Jesus is mistaken for being a prophet (a generic prophet given our Biblical illiteracy).though he is evidently The Son and The Christ.
  • Then in Mark 9 at the transfiguration we get definitive proof that Jesus isn't Elijah because we see him talking with Moses and Elijah. The disciples ask why people say Elijah must come first and Jesus says that it's because he restores all things. And that he has come (i.e. John the Baptist was a type of Elijah). And that the Son of Man must suffer - and "Elijah" came and they did to him whatever was pleased 'as it is written' - i.e. they killed him. Elijah couldn't save himself, Elijah can't save Jesus from death, Jesus can't save himself - he must die.
In a short book like Mark that's quite a bit of screen time for the prophet Elijah. Why is that?
I'm still pondering, your comments are welcome.


  1. Don't forget the very start of Mark, quoting Malachi 3:1, referring to John the Baptist as the prophecied Elijah figure preparing the way for the messiah.

    The whole of Mark hinges on the identity of Jesus, and Mark was writing to a Jewish audience backing himself up with the scriptures regularly.

    Perhaps the emphasis on Elijah is because Mark was trying to specifically address a Jewish population who missed the point. Mark is saying look, "Jesus wasn't just some prophet, you had the new Elijah in John, and Jesus was the Christ who he prepared the way for. The real messiah, not just another prophet!"

    It's fascinated how Mark draws focus onto Jesus identity, with the declaration that he is the son of God in 1:11, 8:29 and 15:39. Those three Elijah references sit very neatly alongside that, in 1:2, 8:28 and 15:35.

  2. Peter I'm wondering why you think Mk 1:2 refers to Elijah when Mark is quoting Isaiah 40? I'm not being obtuse - I think I know what you are saying but you're seeing background as foreground and taking implication as explanation where Mark does not draw that parallel.

    I'm as puzzled as Dave - the recording of the details of misunderstanding at the foot of the cross in such detail must be important. Mark spares no explanation of the darkness which covers the land nor expounds the tearing of the temple veil yet he pauses to underline the misunderstanding of those watching.

    Dave you have me pondering too.

    Is it that they having misunderstood Jesus' Aramaic they are pondering what he means and are mocking him further (will Elijah appear on his fiery chariot and carry Jesus away?)? It seems unlikely that they are actually wanting to wait and see if Elijah will come.

    But the puzzle is not so much in their misunderstanding or their mockery but rather in the recording of it. What is Mark drawing our attention to? What does this interjection of Elijah's absence add to the narrative? Maybe it is to remind us that the prophecies are not failing, that nothing is going wrong, that here is the Christ in His fullness achieving the departure/exodus that Elijah had spoken with Jesus about on transfiguration hill back in Chapter 9?

    The law is fulfilled, the prophecies fulfilled, The Passover is completed, the Temple is abrogated and here is God's Son, The Son of Man - lifted up, in His Glory, achieving and completing the work of God.

  3. AB Caneday, The Anointing & Enthronement of God's Son makes a good case. Might be just about the best thing I've read on Mark. I've just seen he develops it in another article, Mark's provocative use of scripture". See you next week?


  4. Andy: Mark quotes Malachi 3:1, and then Isaiah 40:3. I think he is referring the prophecy about Elijah returning and preparing the way of the Lord because that is my understanding of what Malachi 3 is about.
    Granted Isaiah 40 doesn't explicitly bring Elijah into the picture, but it is a similar prophecy about the preparation before the Messiah.

    If I have misunderstood Malachi 3, or am mistaken about Mark quoting from Malachi then fair enough, but that's where I'm coming from.

  5. Chris - I really should have known the Caneday one was there on Beginning With Moses. Oops. I'll have a read.

    No NWA for us.