Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Elias, Elijah, and the LDS scriptures (a question regarding SS lesson #13)

Posted by joespencer on April 9, 2007

Yesterday’s Sunday School lesson (in our ward, at least) covered Matthew 16-17 (with a nice foray into D&C 128). I was interested to hear our very traditional, middle-of-the-road Sunday School teacher say, as if it were simply the only the way the Church has ever interpreted the Mount of Transfiguration scene to suggest that Moses and Elijah were there along with Christ and Peter, James, and John (and no one else… except for the voice of the Father, of course). I suppose I had anticipated some discussion of the difference between Elias and Elijah, and at least some reference to the Bible Dictionary’s mention of John the Baptist (as Elias) being present along with Elijah and Moses. As he discussed the point, I noticed that the footnotes in the LDS KJV for Matthew 17 explicitly suggest that “Elias” here means “Elijah,” and no other interpretation seems to be suggested there.

To be honest, I was glad for it, because I think the pairing of Elijah and Moses makes a great deal of sense, and I must confess I am still at a loss as to how to make any sense of the separation between Elijah and Elias. Because of D&C 110, it seems quite clear that there must be two different people here, but the common locution of making “Elias” a title doesn’t really make any sense to me.

So, two questions I would like to pose: first, what other resources are there for looking at this question of Elias and Elijah more closely (though I’m already quite aware of what has been said at least by Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc., please feel free to bring these up, since they are all worth taking up again in some detail)? and second, how might this (as I see it, gigantic) difficulty be intepreted satisfactorily?

Any help?

22 Responses to “Elias, Elijah, and the LDS scriptures (a question regarding SS lesson #13)”

  1. I should note also that I’d like to transfer any discussion/links here to the wiki. So do keep that in mind.

  2. Ben McGuire said

    I think that one response is simply to suggest that D&C 110 is simply in error. That is, that Elias there is either not the name of the angelic being referred to. This could be because it was used there as a title to refer to someone else (Noah or John the Baptist or Abraham himself are the leading candidates in speculative literature), or because Joseph simply misidentified the person or the title as the name of the person.

    I think though that there comes implicit with the idea of trying to reconcile the texts the notion that they can or ought to be reconciled. And I don’t think this is the case. We don’t need to harmonize every account. We need to be aware of these kinds of discrepancies perhaps, but we don’t need to seem them as demanding a reconicilation or creating a challenge tha must be resolved in some form.

    Elder Widstoe addressed this topic in: John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 243ā€“244.

    And Elder McConkie in: Bruce R. McConkie, Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 102ā€“104.

    Finally, the JST for Matthew 17 reads:

    10. And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things, as the prophets have written.
    11. And again I say unto you that Elias has come already, concerning whom it is written, Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and they knew him not, and have done unto him, whatsoever they listed.
    12. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them.
    13. But I say unto you, Who is Elias? Behold, this is Elias, whom I send to prepare the way before me.
    14. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist, and also of another who should come and restore all things, as it is written by the prophets.

    Here Elias is explicitly connected with John the Baptist – which likely cannot be the same Elias appearing with Moses, but … it does further confuse the issue.

  3. J. Stapley said

    Kevin had a post at BCC a while back on a related topic and the discussion was, I thought, very good.

  4. Ben, thanks for these comments. I’m also quite convinced that there is little or no necessity of harmonizing different texts in the scriptures. But I don’t think that the concern for harmony is what is behind the confusion of the Elias/Elijah difficulty: how on earth to make sense of any and all references to Elias is what is in question. That is, it is easy enough outside of LDS scripture to recognize in the Greek name Elias a reference to Elijah of the OT. But the LDS sources make such interpretation rather problematic. I’m interested here in how to interpret texts that mention Elias, not in harmonizing several texts.

  5. Robert C. said

    Interesting issue. J. Stapley, thanks for the link (though, Joe, if you would’ve looked at the wiki for D&C 110, you would notice I already linked to Kevin’s post there, though I’d forgotten myself that I added that link…). If anyone actually goes through and reads the 50+ comments at Kevin’s post, I’d appreciate a summary of the highlights.

    Also, Joe, I’m a little surprised that you don’t like the Elias-as-title approach, since I think this is an interesting case where it seems the typological and literal can be viewed as converging. Also, when I was looking at this Mark 9 bit the other day, somehow I was inclined to think John the Baptist, Moses, and Elijah were all there, though I can’t remember why. Anyway, I’ll be curious to where this discussion goes.

  6. Kevin Barney said

    If you read through that thread, you’ll see that Sam Brown recently published an article in Dialogue entitled “The Prophet Elias Puzzle,” in Vol. 39, Issue 3:


    So that’s another resource. (Since it is so new, it is not at the University of Utah Dialogue archive; anyone wanting to read it will have to actually purchase the issue.)

  7. mistaben said

    Maybe this was also in other suggested resources, but D&C 27:6-7 make it pretty clear that two of the people who sometimes use the title Elias are John the Baptist and the angel who appeared to Zacharias, namely Gabriel. Joseph Smith taught that Gabriel was none other than Noah, though I don’t have that reference handy.

    Boy, JST Mark 9:3 isn’t very helpful in this matter!

    I believe that it was Noah who appeared in the Kirtland Temple between the visions of Moses and the OT prophet Elijah. If that’s true, when did he “commit[] the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham” to Christ and/or Peter, James, and John?

    It occurs to me that JST Mark 9:3 may use “Elias” to refer to both Elijah and John the Baptist. If that’s correct, then maybe we can just lump another person (Noah) into the set of Eliases and thus complete the parallel between the Mount and the events of D&C 110.

  8. I’ve read through about half of Kevin’s post-and-discussion on BCC. Very helpful discussion… more soon.

    Thanks for the reference to the Dialogue article, Kevin.

  9. Robert C. said

    Kevin #6, yeah, thanks for pointing out that article, shame on me for not having read it, and esp. for not even remembering its title. Is this Samuel Brown the Sam MB who blogs at BCC, or someone else?

    As an enticement for those of you contemplating a Dialogue subscription, I thought this was an excellent article. It’s a carefully researched historical account of the usages of the terms Elias and Elijah, but doesn’t make a dogmatic claim about who exactly Elias is, or was, or even might’ve been; rather, the article takes the view that making a distinction between Elias and Elijah was, among other things, a way for Joseph Smith to make a distinction between Elijah as Prostestants of the time understood him and the new eternal-family view that Joseph was presenting. Or at least that’s what I got from my quick read-through of the article….

    (By the way, I realized that the thought I expressed in #5, that Elijah, Moses and John the Baptist were all present at the Mount of Transfiguration, comes from the Bible Dictionary.)

  10. Okay, I’ve just finished reading Sam Brown’s article in Dialogue as well as the rest of the BCC post. All very helpful.

    Sam suggests at once that Joseph was familiar with the equivalence of Elias and Elijah and that he made a sharp distinction between them. I really like this point because it derails the simplistic “Joseph goofed” idea (Joseph was far too careful a reader of the Bible for that).

    But what is fascinating me the most is the connection between the JST for John 1:22 and D&C 77. I’d like to do some more thinking there. Hmm….

  11. nhilton said

    Question, was a body required for the confering of keys at the Mt. of Trans.? Moses & Elijah were both translated & I’ve always thought it was so they could do this “laying on of hands” for this priesthood ordinance or the giving of keys. However, NOT John the Baptist or Noah? W/o the identity of Elias given in D&C 110, how can you presume it is Noah and/or John as Elias? I think it must be Elijah and why else would there need to be any more?

  12. nhilton said

    Additionally, Peter suggesting that 3 tabernacles be built implies there were not more than the three individuals present at this event. But I’ve always wondered why Peter wanted to build tablernacles in the first place. What do these tabernacles represent?

    And, BTW, where is Jim F.’s SS Lesson #13 post?!#$#@ Jim, MISSING YOU!

  13. brianj said

    nhilton, #11: On the question of physical bodies on Mt. of Trans and in D&C 110: Moses and Elijah were translated, so they had physical bodies and could touch Jesus on the Mt. But by the time Joseph was in Kirtland, Jesus had been resurrected, and along with him many saints—including (probably) Noah, John the Baptist, Peter, James, and others.

    #12: I think Peter’s “tabernacle impulse” is similar to what we see in the OT with the prophets building altars wherever an important event takes place. His desire to build tabernacles I think is also in reference to the Feast of Tabernacles. That’s how I read it, but I’m happy to learn more/be corrected.

    As for the whereabouts of JimF’s lesson—didn’t you hear the news? JimF was translated.

  14. I think we are way too ignorant about the resurrection even to begin asking questions about whether or not one needed to be “physical” to transfer keys, etc. Personal opinion.

    The building of tabernacles is, I think, a quite obvious reference to the feast of tabernacles. The chapter opens with mention of “six days after,” suggesting the whole “Thou art Peter” experience occured on the day of atonement (six days earlier). That’s really important for the setting of the former event. And the ritual settings of both experiences thus heighten the significance for those experiencing them (this kind of a ritual context would have been far more impacting than anything visual could have been for Hebrews!).

  15. brianj said

    Joe—I’m intrigued by the placing of these events on the day of atonement and the feast of tabernacles, but I’m not sure where you find “calendar clues” in the text? In other words, how do you know the Mt. of Trans took place in the Fall (at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles) and not at some other date?

  16. nhilton said

    Brianj, I understand the difference in the “bodies” between NT & D&C times, but I was reading as tho ya’ll were thinking there was somebody else there (NT) besides the 2 mentioned in the text. I think I misunderstood you whereas everyone was speaking re: D&C times. Sorry.

    For what it’s worth, the Bible Dict. says “The transfiguration occurred in about Oct., some six months before the death of Jesus.” pg. 786.

    Joe, I appreciate your emphasis on the Hebrew ritual experience. I think we “moderns” underrate the value of ritual & loose a lot of powerful teaching opts by keeping everything so low-key, ritualistically speaking. The rituals we do have are sometimes overlooked because they are so de-emphasized as being rituals. In today’s thinking, rituals relate ONLY to paganism whereas it really isn’t so. The power of ritual is under used, I believe. A non-LDS friend of mine writes about rituals & family traditions, recognizing their value, Meg Cox: Book.

  17. Amen, Nanette.

    Brian, I am simply assuming that the reference to building the tabernacles sets the affair during Succoth. If you take a look at the calendar as it was being practiced in Jesus’ day, you will find that tabernacles and Yom Kippur were five days apart (if I’m remembering right). If the former experience happened on Yom Kippur, then the latter experience would have happened on the second day of Succoth. This is important I think, for the royal associations the Jews had with these two ritual events. I’d have to look at some commentaries to confirm that my assumption is not naive here.

  18. brianj said

    Nanette: you weren’t misreading me, because I hadn’t commented here yet. {smile} And just so you know, I was pretty sure you already knew everything I wrote in my answer to #11, but I decided to answer anyway.

    Joe: I’m familiar with the Jewish calendar (I make a point of telling my class about Jewish holidays we pass during the year), which is why I looked for clues in the text that would implicate either the Day of Atonement or Tabernacles. But I only find such references in the Gospel of John, which unfortunately does not relate the story of the Mt of Trans. Still, if it is only a guess on your part, I think it’s a good guess.

  19. cherylem said

    Commentaries I have read are cautious about being definitive in terms of the Feast of the Tabernacles: could be/could not be.

  20. Jill said

    I am doing a lesson for relief society and just got some clarification on this matter. Not sure you’ll even get this, but thought I’d pass it along. :o) In Answers to Gospel Doctrine questions by Joseph Fielding Smith he tells how Elias means “Fore Runner”, Noah, John the Baptist, John the Revelator and Elijah were all an Elias. They were doing the Lord’s work. Noah, who is Gabrielle was referred to as Elias, he came to Zacharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist, this is also the same Elias that appeared in the Kirtland Temple and committed Joseph and Oliver to them “the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham.” (see D&C 110:11-12) Hopefully that all makes sense….

  21. Idalia Kuzio said

    amazing stuff thanx :)

  22. Schedule said

    You you should edit the webpage subject Elias, Elijah, and the LDS scriptures (a question regarding SS lesson #13) Feast upon the Word Blog to something more specific for your content you create. I enjoyed the post however.

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