Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

There are a variety of approaches one can take in studying the gospels from an historical or academic perspective. Among them is an approach that looks at the gospels as ancient biographies, with each sketching out a particular portrait of the main protagonist, Jesus. This is a particularly fitting method in studying documents that are explicitly advocating a particular understanding of Jesus (namely the gospels are more interested in what scholars sometimes call the “Christ of faith” rather than the “historical Jesus”, that peasant). One can ask literary questions like what is the main plot of this story, who are the main characters, and how is the main protagonist, Jesus, portrayed?

Previously I have discussed the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, particularly the centrality of the secrecy of Jesus’ identity and the way in which this identity unfolds at key points in the narrative, when characters in the story, including Jesus himself, identify who he is (suffering Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ): Who is this guy? The Gospel of Mark and the Identity of Jesus. While Mark’s gospel can’t help but have a Jewish Jesus (because Jesus was a Jew in a Judean context), Mark is usually considered a Gentile author writing to a Gentile audience (the author has to explain basic Judean culture).

On the other hand, I have discussed the very Jewish portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: A very Jewish Jesus: Matthew’s portrait. There Jesus is cast as the new messianic David (anointed king) and the new Moses (prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15), and Jesus repeatedly fulfills scripture and advocates following the Torah (law) to the “t”.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is likewise heavily indebted to Jewish models, but Luke is also concerned to present Jesus in a way that would make some sense to Greeks and Romans, at least to some degree.

On the Jewish side, Jesus is most emphatically a prophet, and at times the author seems to have in mind the promised prophet like Elijah specifically (see Malachi 4:5-6). The author of Luke chooses to begin Jesus’ adult teaching and healing activity with Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah (61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus then goes on to explicitly identify himself with the prophet mentioned in Isaiah, an anointed prophet who will preach good news to the poor, bring freedom to captives, and give sight to the blind. This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet to the socially downtrodden or marginalized continues throughout the gospel, beginning with Jesus healing the blind, casting out demons and hanging out with social outcasts, “sinners” and tax-collectors. Luke preserves or presents many teachings of Jesus focussed on supporting the poor and condemning the rich, and this reversal theme is explicitly linked to his role as the prophet.

Almost immediately after identifying himself as the prophet (of Isaiah), Jesus then goes on to compare his rejection in his hometown as a sign of his affinity with Elijah and Elisha (4:24-30). Not only that, but there are further signs that Luke wants his readers to think of Jesus as the promised Elijah prophet (of Malachi). Jesus, like Elijah (in 1 Kings 17:17-24) raises from the dead the widow’s son, and those who witness this call him a “great prophet” (Luke 7:11-17). Almost immediately after this, as if to underline-and-bold-with-all-caps his point, Luke presents John the Baptist asking Jesus who Jesus is. Jesus’ answer once again echoes the Isaiah passage: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Alongside this emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate Jewish prophet like Elijah who has come to help the poor is the portrayal of Jesus as “Saviour” (John’s gospel does momentarily apply this title to Jesus). No other gospel identifies Jesus in quite this way. In Luke’s gospel to be a saviour is to quite literally save people here and now by giving sight to the blind and healing the lepers. The identification as Saviour comes early, in the birth story, and continues to bubble up at various points in Jesus’ down-to-earth salvation for the sick and the outcasts. The title “Saviour” (soter in Greek) was a very common one to use in the Greco-Roman world for benefactors, especially gods but also emperors and others, who brought safety and security–salvation in down-to-earth terms–on an ongoing basis. Emperors from Augustus on, for instance, could be praised for their good works in the form of the title “saviour and benefactor”.

Here, then, in Luke is a portrait of Jesus that might ring bells for both Jewish and Greek or Roman hearers.

6 thoughts on “Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

  1. David M. Miller

    Hello Phil,

    My recently published NTS article (http://tinyurl.com/2o3cy6) deals with the relationship between Malachi’s Elijah and the Jesus of Luke-Acts, taking a somewhat different approach to what you have argued here. I would be curious to hear what you think.

    David M. Miller

  2. Phil H.

    Hello David Miller,

    That article definitely is right up this alley! Talk about good timing (for me, that is). I will get a hold of it and read it soon. Thanks.

    Phil

  3. Darrell James

    Dr Harland: I agree with your contention that Luke wants to appeal to Hellenistic readers while at the same time using the Jewish image/motif of the Elijah-Elisha figure, but I think there is a bit more evidence to support an OT background to Luke’s portrayal. Have you explored the use of E/E figure in Hellenistic-Jewish literature? Josephus seems to emphasize Elisha over Elijah(perhaps more readily identified with Jewish nationalistic sentiments that would offend Hellenistic readers/authorities?)in his summaries of their careers (Antiquities 9:28=Elijah and 9:179,182=Elisha). In the Dura-Europus synagogue frescoes Elijah is portrayed in Hellenistic clothing. Does this say something about the significantce of the Elijah/Elisha figure in Hellenistic thought? Philo (Q&A on Genesis I,86) does not emphasize Elijah as messianic forerunner or messiah figure but writes about the “translation” of Elijah, an idea that might resonate with Hellenistic ideas of the divine. There seems to be correspondence in Luke’s use of LXX quotations/terms in his description of Jesus activities in contexts which could be connected with Elijah/Elisha. If an Elijah/Elisha motif exists in Luke and shapes his portrayal of Jesus for his audience, has it affected his eschatology (restoration of kingdom, bestowal of Spirit, ascension, delay of parousia) in a way more appealing to Hellenistic audiences? I explored these ideas briefly in my 1984 dissertation, “The Elijah/Elisha Motif in Luke,” at Southern Baptist Seminary.

  4. William

    There always are similarities between Christ and other prophets, but do not Christ, his disciples and the text ascribe the reference in Malachi’s prophecy to John, the baptizer, Matt. 11:13-14; 17:10-13; Lk. 1:17?

  5. Darrell James

    Yes, William, but the question that rises up is why does Luke omit Matthew’s explicit word’s of Jesus indentifying JB with Elijah (Matt 11:14 has no parallel in Luke 7. Matt 17: 9-13//Mark 9:9-13 have no parallel in Luke 9? Mark may have an “Elijianic secret” about the identification of JB and Elijah which Matthew makes precise but Luke de-emphasizes this identification and also any reference which casts Jesus as inferior to JB. What is being asked here is why Luke differs in his “portrait” of Jesus? What is Luke uniquely trying to communicate about the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth now crucified, raised, and declared to be “Messiah/Christ” to his audience (church?)in his own setting?

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