The Influence of Malachi Upon the New Testament

James A. Brooks  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 30 - Fall 1987

There is no explicit reference to Malachi – either the prophet or the book – in the New Testament. The influence of Malachi upon the New Testament must therefore be determined by a consideration of the quotations from and allusions to the book.


John the Baptist as Elijah

By far the greatest impact of Malachi upon the New Testament is in the development of the idea that John the Baptist was the messenger of Mal. 3:1 and the Elijah of Mal. 4:5-6. The quotations and allusions are as follows.[1]All translations of biblical passages are by the writer of this article. An attempt has been made to translate literally and to translate corresponding words by the same English word and differing words by different English words so that the reader can judge for herself or himself the degree of correspondence. MT= Masoretic Text, i.e., the traditional Hebrew text; LXX = the Septuagint, i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which was widely used by the writers of the New Testament; NT= New Testament; and VR =variant reading.

MT Behold I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. (Mal. 3:1)

LXX Behold I am going to send out my messenger, and he will look after the way before my face. (Mal. 3:1)

NT This is the one [John the Baptist] about whom it is written, “Behold I am going to send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” . . . If you want to accept it, he is Elijah who is going to come. (Matt. 11:10, 14)

NT Just as it stands written in Isaiah the prophet [VR: in the prophets], “Behold I am going to send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way [VR: your way before you].” (Mark 1:2, There follows a quotation from Isa. 40:3 LXX)

NT   [John the Baptist] is the one about whom it is written, ”Behold I am going to send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you [VR, omit: before you].” (Luke 7:27)

NT   You, child [John the Baptist] shall be called a prophet of the Most High, and you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. (Luke 1:76)

MT Behold I am going to send you to Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fearful day of the Lord, and he will turn the heart of the fathers to the sons and the heart of the sons to their fathers. (Mal. 4:5-6 in English versions, 3:24 in MT)

LXX Behold I am going to send to you Elijah the Tishbite before the coming of the great and marvelous day of the Lord, who will restore the heart of a father to his son and the heart of a man to his neighbor. (Mal. 4:5-6 Eng., 3:22-23 LXX)

MT His disciples asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He answered, “Elijah is indeed going to come [VR: come first], and he will restore [VR: come to restore; VR: announce] all things. But I say to you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they wished.” (Matt. 17:10-12)

NT If you want to accept it, he [John] is Elijah who is going to come. (Matt. 11:14)

NT   They asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah will indeed [VR, omit: indeed] come first and restore [VR: will restore] all things. . . But I say to you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:11-13)

NT He himself [John the Baptist] will go before him [God? Jesus?] in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the mind of the righteous to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:17)

The first question is whether the messenger of Mal. 3:1 is the same as the Elijah of Mal. 4:5-6. There is general agreement that in the final form of Malachi they are the same. Many commentators, however, claim that Mal. 4:5-6 was added by a later scribe to make such an identification and that the original author had in mind the angel of the Lord, the prophets generally an unnamed ideal figure, or even himself.[2]E.g. G. C. Dentan, “Book of Malachi,” in Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 6:1137, 1143-4; J.M.P. Smith, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Malachi, in International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), pp. 62, 81-83; R. L. Smith, Micah-Malachi, vol. 32 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1984), pp. 340-2. The word “malachi” means “my mes­senger,” and many think that it was not the name of the writer but a title affixed by a later scribe who may have thought that the original prophet was the mes­senger of Mal. 3:1.[3]Dentan, p. 1137. Matt. 11:10, 14 clearly makes the identification. Mark and Luke probably assume it but do not explicitly state it.

Matt. 17:10 and Mark 9:11 refer to the teaching of the scribes about the return of Elijah. That there was a scribal tradition about the return of Elijah is beyond dispute. If indeed Mal. 4:5-6 is a later addition, it probably represents the scribal view. Even if original it constitutes the source of scribal speculation. After Mal. 4:5-6 the earliest reference is Sirach 48:10 in the Apocrypha (ca. 180 B.C.): “You [Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written, to calm the wrath of God . . . to restore the tribes of Jacob” (RSV). The Mishnah, which was completed about A.D. 220, has the following allusions to a return of Elijah.[4]Herbert Danby, The Mishnab (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).

The surplus of [money collected to pay for the burial of] one dead person must be left until Elijah comes. (Shekalim 2.5)
The resurrection of the dead shall come through Elijah of blessed memory.,(Sotah 9.15) If a man found a document . . . and he does not know what is its nature, it must be left until Elijah comes. (Baba Metzia 1.8)
If [he found] vessels of gold or glass he may not touch them until Elijah comes. (B. M. 2.8) The rest of the money must remain until Elijah comes. (B. M. 3.4)
The whole is . . . to remain until Elijah comes. (B. M. 3.4-5)

R. Joshua said: I have received as a tradition from Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, who heard from his teacher, and his teacher from his teacher, as a Halakah given to Moses from Sinai, that Elijah will not come to declare unclean or clean, to remove afar or to bring nigh, but to remove afar those [families] that were brought nigh by violence and to bring nigh those [families] that were removed afar by violence. (Eduyoth 8.7. Ben Zakkai flourished ca. A.D. 60-80 and Joshua in the following generation.)

Other passages such as 1 Enoch 89:52; 90:31; 93:8; I Maccabees 2:58; Philo, Deus Imm. 136-9; Josephus, Antiquities 8.324; 4 Ezra 6:26; 7:109; 2 Baruch 77:24; Sibylline Oracles 2.187-9; and Martyrdom of Isa. 2:14-16 have been cited as part of the Jewish Elijah tradition,[5]J. Jeremias, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 2:929. but the allusions are not clear to the present writer and the above quotations are sufficient. It has been pointed out, however, that none of these identify Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah.[6]M. M. Faierstein, “Why Do the Scribes Say That Elijah Must Come First?” ]BL 100 (1981):75-86. An attempt to answer Faierstein was made by D. C. Allison, Jr., ‘”Elijah Must Come First’,” JBL 103 (1984):256-8; while J. A. Fitzmyer, “More about Elijah Coming First,” JBL 104 (1985):295-6, attempted to counter Allison and further support Faierstein. In fact there are only two passages in rabbinic literature that could be cited, and neither can be dated with confidence.

If your dispersed ones will be unto the end of heaven, from there the Memra (Logion) of the Lord your God shall gather you by the hand of Elijah, the high priest, and from there He shall bring you near by the hand of King Messiah.[7]Targum Ps. Jonathan to Deut. 30:4, cited in Faierstein, p. 81.

Assuming that as Elijah would not come the Messiah also would not come, why should not [the drinking of wine] be permitted on a Sabbath eve? – Elijah would not, but the Messiah might come because the moment the Messiah comes all will be anxious to serve Israel.[8]Babylonian Tulmud Erubin 43b, cited in Faierstein, p. 83.

Granted that explicit, pre-Christian evidence is lacking for the association of Elijah and the Messiah, why would Matthew and Mark attribute such associa­tion to the scribes unless the scribes promoted the idea? The statement is quite incidental and has no polemical value. The idea is in harmony with other scribal elaboration of Scripture. Of course Jewish ideas about a Messiah were quite diverse, and no claim is made that all the scribes associated Elijah with the Messiah – only that some did and that the early church did not invent the idea. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 49.1 (ca. A.D. 150) quotes his Jewish opponent as saying, ”All of us expect that the Christ will be a man born of men and that when Elijah comes he will anoint him . . . but because Elijah has not yet come I infer that [Jesus] is not [the Christ].” Justin may well be reflecting the Jewish view of his day, but the po­lemical nature of his book makes its certainty or even probability impossible.

Not even the identification of John the Baptist as the returning Elijah is certainly the invention of Jesus and/or the early church. Although Josephus, the only Jewish source about John, says nothing to the effect, there is no reason why contemporary Jews indepen­dently of Jesus could not have seen in John reincarna­tion of Elijah. Josephus as well as the New Testament indicates that John created a sensation.[9]Antiquities 18.5.2: “When everybody turned to John because they were deeply moved by what he said, Herod feared that his great influence over the people might lead to a revolt.” If some identified Jesus with Elijah (Matt. 16:13-14; Mark 6:15; 8:27-28; and Luke 9:8, 18-19), why should not the same thing have been done previously in the case of John? If there ever was such a Jewish identification, it did not persist because in the view of most Jews Jesus was not the Messiah and therefore the Messiah did not follow John.

Leaving aside the question of a previous or contem­poraneous Jewish identification, the question must be asked whether Jesus himself associated John with Elijah or whether the early church did and attributed the idea to Jesus. It is difficult to see what might have motivated the early church to make such an associa­tion. The early church had to compete with those who still claimed to be followers of the Baptist (Acts 18:24-19:12). A minor purpose of Luke-Acts and the Fourth Gospel is to subordinate John. The identifi­cation of John as the coming Elijah gives the former a status above that which the early church, apart from dominical direction, would likely ascribe to him. It is highly probable therefore that the identification goes back to Jesus as Matthew and Mark and perhaps also Luke (see below) agree.

One can only speculate about the reasons why Jesus recognized John as the promised Elijah. If Jesus had a messianic consciousness, if he interpreted Mal. 3:1 and 4:5-6 to mean that Elijah the messenger must precede the Messiah, and if John reminded him of Elijah, the association would be inevitable. John’s appearance may well have reminded him of Elijah. His uncompromising condemnation of sin almost certainly did. The identification would increase the value of John’s testimony about Jesus.

Something needs to be said about the different per­spectives of the Gospel writers.[10]This is a major concern of Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, vol. 7 of Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (Cambridge: University Press, 1968). Matthew explicitly identifies John with Elijah. If Mark is not explicit, he is certainly implicit. The same is true of Luke 7:27, but not of Luke 1:17. It is therefore difficult to agree with Wink that Mark does not make an explicit identification because he has integrated Elijah into his concept of the messianic secret and that “Luke has retained nothing of John’s role as Elijah.”[11]Ibid., pp. 16, 42. Luke 7:27, although it does not mention Elijah, certainly refers to John, who is mentioned immediately preceding and afterward. Luke 1:17 associates John with the spirit and power of Elijah. This description means only that John is not literally Elijah having been raised from the dead but a successor, a “spiritual Elijah,” a person who played a similar role. Not even Matthew thought that John was literally Elijah!

A much greater divergence of viewpoint and a greater problem is that John 1:21 quotes John as deny­ing he is Elijah. The usual explanation is that inasmuch as the Logos existed from the beginning he can have no forerunner.[12]Ibid., p. 89. John functions only as a witness. Nevertheless there is no contradiction. As intimated above, there is a sense in which John is Elijah, and there is a sense in which he is not. Furthermore Jesus’ identification of John as Elijah in no way presupposes that John himself would do the same. The Synoptics never claim he did.


The Concept of Election

In Rom. 9:13 Paul quotes Mal. 1:2-3 in order to support his doctrine of election. More specifically Paul argues for an election within an election.

MT I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.

LXX I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau. NT   Just as it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”

In both the OT and the NT the emphasis is not on God’s attitude toward two individuals but nations they represent. Furthermore one could better translate “accepted Jacob . . . rejected Esau” because the word ‘hate’ should not be given its full force but should be understood relatively to mean ‘loved less.’


The Fatherhood of God

MT Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? (Mal. 2:10)

LXX Has not one God created us? Is there not one father of all of us? (Mal. 2:10)

NT  For one is your Father in heaven. (Matt. 23:9) NT   We have one Father, God. (John 8:41)

NT  For us there is one God, the Father. (I Cor. 8:6)

At best the New Testament passages are allusions to Mal. 2:10. This is the only place in the Old Testa­ment which speaks of one father, but the idea of one God is so basic to the Hebrew-Jewish religion that one need not look for “proof texts.”


The One Who Is Coming

MT Suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking shall come into his temple, even the messen­ger of the covenant in whom you delight. “Behold he is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand at his appearing? (Mal. 3:lb-2a)

LXX Suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple, and “behold the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? (Mal. 3:lb-2a)

NT Are you the one who is coming or should we wait for another? (Matt. 11:3 and Luke 7:19. The Greek texts differ only in the use of synonyms meaning ‘another.’)

It is not possible to deal here with the difficult problem of whether in Mal. 3:1 the messenger, the Lord, and the messenger of the covenant are one, two, or three persons. It is sufficient to say that Malachi sets forth the idea of a great person who is to come, that the One Who Is Coming became a messianic title, and that the concept and title are reflected in Matt. 11:3 and Luke 7:19. But the idea is also found in Ps. 118:26, which is reflected in Matt. 21:9; Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; and John 12:13.


Other Passages?

Various indexes of Old Testament quotations and allusions in the New Testament list other passages, which, however, in the opinion of the present writer are most improbable. The following list represents a combination of the passages which are in the indexes of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (3rd corr. ed. 1983) and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (26th ed. 1979) but are not treated above.

Malachi                            New Testament

1:6                                          Matt. 6:9 (but cf. Isa. 63:16; 64:7-8)
Luke 6:46
John 8:49

1:7                                          1 Cor. 10:21

1:11                                         Luke 13:29 (but cf. Isa. 43:5; 49:12; 59:19; Ps. 107:3)
John 4:21
2 Thess. 1:12
Rev. 15:4 (but cf. Ps. 86:9)

1:12                                         1 Cor. 10:21 (but cf. Isa. 65:11)

2:7-8                                       Matt. 23:3

3:1                                           Luke 1:17
John 3:28
Rev. 22:16

3:2                                          Rev. 6:17 (but cf. Nah. 1:6; Zeph. 1:14-15; Joel 2:11, 31)

3:3                                          1 Pet. 1:7

3:5                                         James 5:4 (but cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15)

3:7                                         James 4:8 (but cf. Hos. 12:7; Zech. 1:3)

3:12                                       Luke 1:48 (but cf. Gen. 30:13; Ps. 72:17)

3:13                                       Jude 15

3:16                                       Rev. 3:5 (but cf. Exod. 32:32-33; Dan. 12:1)

3:17                                       Eph. 1:14 (but cf. Exod. 19:6; 23:22)
1 Pet. 2:9 (but cf. Isa. 43:20-21)

4:1                                        1 Cor. 3:13

4:2                                        Luke 1:78 (but cf. Isa. 60:1-2; Zech. 3:8; 6:12; Jer. 23:5)

4:5                                        Matt. 17:3
Luke 9:8
John 1:21
Acts 1:6



Except for the belief in the return of Elijah, the influence of Malachi upon the New Testament is slight. Considering the length of the book and its relative unimportance in the Old Testament, this is not surprising. It ought to be noted that although Malachi stands last in the English Bible, it did not do so in either the Hebrew or Greek Bibles. Therefore the writers of the New Testament could attach no importance to its position in the canon.


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