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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol IX:
Epistle to Gregory and Origen's Commentary on the Gospel of John.: Chapter VII

Early Church Fathers  Index     

7.  Of the Birth of John, and of His Alleged Identity with Elijah.  Of the Doctrine of Transcorporation.

“And 4840 they asked him, What then?  Art thou Elijah? and he said, I am not.”  No one can fail to remember in this connection what Jesus says of John, 4841 “If ye will receive it, this is Elijah which is to come.”  How, then, does John come to say to those who ask him, “Art thou Elijah?”—“I am not.”  And how can it be true at the same time that John is Elijah who is to come, according to the words of Malachi, 4842 “And behold I send unto you Elijah the Tishbite, before the great and notable day of the Lord come, who shall restore the heart of the father to the son, and the heart of a man to his neighbour, lest I come, and utterly smite the earth.”  The words of the angel of the Lord, too, who appeared to Zacharias, as he stood at the right hand of the altar of incense, are somewhat to the same effect as the prophecy of Malachi:  “And 4843 thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.”  And a little further on: 4844   “And he shall go before His face in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for Him.”  As for the first point, one might say that John did not know that he was Elijah.  This will be the explanation of those who find in our passage a support for their doctrine of transcorporation, as if the soul clothed itself in a fresh body and did not quite remember its former lives.  These thinkers will also point out that some of the Jews assented to this doctrine when they spoke about the Saviour as if He was one of the old prophets, and had risen not from the tomb but from His birth.  His mother Mary was well known, and Joseph the carpenter was supposed to be His father, and it could readily be supposed that He was one of the old prophets risen from the dead.  p. 356 The same person will adduce the text in Genesis, 4845 “I will destroy the whole resurrection,” and will thereby reduce those who give themselves to finding in Scripture solutions of false probabilities to a great difficulty in respect of this doctrine.  Another, however, a churchman, who repudiates the doctrine of transcorporation as a false one, and does not admit that the soul of John ever was Elijah, may appeal to the above-quoted words of the angel, and point out that it is not the soul of Elijah that is spoken of at John’s birth, but the spirit and power of Elijah.  “He shall go before him,” it is said, “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.”  Now it can be shown from thousands of texts that the spirit is a different thing from the soul, and that what is called the power is a different thing from both the soul and the spirit.  On these points I cannot now enlarge; this work must not be unduly expanded.  To establish the fact that power is different from spirit, it will be enough to cite the text, 4846 “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.”  As for the spirits of the prophets, these are given to them by God, and are spoken of as being in a manner their property (slaves), as “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,” 4847 and “The spirit of Elijah rested upon Elisha.” 4848   Thus, it is said, there is nothing absurd in supposing that John, “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” turned the hearts of the fathers to the children, and that it was on account of this spirit that he was called “Elijah who was to come.”  And to reinforce this view it may be argued that if the God of the universe identified Himself with His saints to such an extent as to be called the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, much more might the Holy Spirit so identify Himself with the prophets as to be called their spirit, so that when the spirit is spoken of it might be the spirit of Elijah or the spirit of Isaiah.  Our churchman, to go on with his views, may further say that those who supposed Jesus to be one of the prophets risen from the dead were probably misled, partly by the doctrine above mentioned, and partly by supposing Him to be one of the prophets, and that as for this misconception that He was one of the prophets, these persons probably fell into their error from not knowing about Jesus’ supposed father and actual mother, and considering that He had risen from the tombs.  As for the text in Genesis about the resurrection, the churchman will rejoin with a text to an opposite effect, “God hath raised up for me another seed in place of Abel whom Cain slew;” 4849 showing that the resurrection occurs in Genesis.  As for the first difficulty which was raised, our churchman will meet the view of the believers in transcorporation by saying that John is no doubt, in a certain sense, as he has already shown, Elijah who is to come; and that the reason why he met the enquiry of the priests and levites with “I am not,” was that he divined the object they had in view in making it.  For the enquiry laid before John by the priests and levites was not intended to bring out whether the same spirit was in both, but whether John was that very Elijah who was taken up, and who now appeared according to the expectation of the Jews without being born (for the emissaries, perhaps, did not know about John’s birth); and to such all enquiry he naturally answered, “I am not;” for he who was called John was not Elijah who was taken up, and had not changed his body for his present appearance.  Our first scholar, whose view of transcorporation we have seen based upon our passage, may go on with a close examination of the text, and urge against his antagonist, that if John was the son of such a man as the priest Zacharias, and if he was born when his parents were both aged, contrary to all human expectation, then it is not likely that so many Jews at Jerusalem would be so ignorant about him, or that the priests and levites whom they sent would not be acquainted with the facts of his birth.  Does not Luke declare 4850 that “fear came upon all those who lived round about,”—clearly round about Zacharias and Elisabeth—and that “all these things were noised abroad throughout the whole hill country of Judæa”?  And if John’s birth from Zacharias was a matter of common knowledge, and the Jews of Jerusalem yet sent priests and levites to ask, “Art thou Elijah?” then it is clear that in saying this they assumed the doctrine of transcorporation to be true, and that it was a current doctrine of their country, and not foreign to their secret teaching.  John therefore says, I am not Elijah, because he does not know about his own former life.  These thinkers, accordingly, entertain an opinion which is by no means to be despised.  Our churchman, however, may return to the charge, and ask if it is worthy of a prophet, p. 357 who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, who is predicted by Isaiah, and whose birth was foretold before it took place by so great an angel, one who has received of the fulness of Christ, who shares in such a grace, who knows truth to have come through Jesus Christ, and has taught such deep things about God and about the only-begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, is it worthy of such a one to lie, or even to hesitate, out of ignorance of what he was.  For with respect to what was obscure, he ought to have refrained from confessing, and to have neither affirmed nor denied the proposition put before him.  If the doctrine in question really was widely current, ought not John to have hesitated to pronounce upon it, lest his soul had actually been in Elijah?  And here our churchman will appeal to history, and will bid his antagonists ask experts of the secret doctrines of the Hebrews, if they do really entertain such a belief.  For if it should appear that they do not, then the argument based on that supposition is shown to be quite baseless.  Our churchman, however, is still free to have recourse to the solution given before, and to insist that attention be paid to the meaning with which the question was put.  For if, as I showed, the senders knew John to be the child of Zacharias and Elisabeth, and if the messengers still more, being men of priestly race, could not possibly be ignorant of the remarkable manner in which their kinsman Zacharias had received his son, then what could be the meaning of their question, “Art thou Elijah?”  Had they not read that Elijah had been taken up into heaven, and did they not expect him to appear?  Then, as they expect Elijah to come at the consummation before Christ, and Christ to follow him, perhaps their question was meant less in a literal than in a tropical sense:  Are you he who announces beforehand the word which is to come before Christ, at the consummation?  To this he very properly answers, “I am not.”  The adversary, however, tries to show that the priests could not be ignorant that the birth of John had taken place in so remarkable a manner, because “all these things had been much spoken of in the hill country of Judæa;” and the churchman has to meet this.  He does so by showing that a similar mistake was widely current about the Saviour Himself; for “some said that He was John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 4851   So the disciples told the Lord when He was in the parts of Cæsarea Philippi, and questioned them on that subject.  And Herod, too, said, 4852 “John whom I beheaded, he is risen from the dead;” so that he appears not to have known what was said about Christ, as reported in the Gospel, 4853 “Is not this the son of the carpenter, is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas?  And His sisters, are they not all with us?”  Thus in the case of the Saviour, while many knew of His birth from Mary, others were under a mistake about Him; and so in the case of John, there is no wonder if, while some knew of his birth from Zacharias, others were in doubt whether the expected Elijah had appeared in him or not.  There was not more room for doubt about John, whether he was Elijah, than about the Saviour, whether He was John.  Of the two, the question of the outward form of Elijah could be disposed of from the words of Scripture, though not from actual observation, for we read, 4854 “He was a hairy man, and girt with a leather girdle about his loins.”  John’s outward appearance, on the contrary, was well known, and was not like that of Jesus; and yet there were those who surmised that John had risen from the dead, and taken the name of Jesus.  As for the change of name, a thing which reminds us of mysteries, I do not know how the Hebrews came to tell about Phinehas, son of Eleazar, who admittedly prolonged his life to the time of many of the judges, as we read in the Book of Judges, 4855 to tell about him what I now mention.  They say that he was Elijah, because he had been promised immortality (in Numbers 4856 ), on account of the covenant of peace granted to him because he was jealous with a divine jealousy, and in a passion of anger pierced the Midianitish woman and the Israelite, and stayed the wrath of God as it is called, as it is written, “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them.”  No wonder, then, if those who conceived Phinehas and Elijah to be the same person, whether they judged soundly in this or not, for that is not now the question, considered John and Jesus also to be the same.  This, then, they doubted, and desired to know if John and Elijah were the same.  At another time than this, the point would certainly p. 358 call for a careful enquiry, and the argument would have to be well weighed as to the essence of the soul, as to the principle of her composition, and as to her entering into this body of earth.  We should also have to enquire into the distributions of the life of each soul, and as to her departure from this life, and whether it is possible for her to enter into a second life in a body or not, and whether that takes place at the same period, and after the same arrangement in each case, or not; and whether she enters the same body, or a different one, and if the same, whether the subject remains the same while the qualities are changed, or if both subject and qualities remain the same, and if the soul will always make use of the same body or will change it.  Along with these questions, it would also be necessary to ask what transcorporation is, and how it differs from incorporation, and if he who holds transcorporation must necessarily hold the world to be eternal.  The views of these scholars must also be taken into account, who consider that, according to the Scriptures, the soul is sown along with the body, and the consequences of such a view must also be looked at.  In fact the subject of the soul is a wide one, and hard to be unravelled, and it has to be picked out of scattered expressions of Scripture.  It requires, therefore, separate treatment.  The brief consideration we have been led to give to the problem in connection with Elijah and John may now suffice; we go on to what follows in the Gospel.



John i. 21.


Matt. xi. 14.


Mal. 4:5, 6.


Luke i. 13.


Luke i. 17.


Gen. 7.4.


Luke i. 35.


1 Cor. xiv. 32.


2 Kings ii. 15.


Gen. iv. 25.


Luke i. 65.


Matt. 16:13, 14.


Mark vi. 16.


Matt. xiii. 55.


2 Kings i. 8.


Judg. xx. 28.


Numb. xxv. 12.

Next: Chapter VIII