Question: Did Joseph Smith make an error by claiming that Elias and Elijah are two different people, when they are in fact one and the same?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith make an error by claiming that Elias and Elijah are two different people, when they are in fact one and the same?

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery reported a vision in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836 during which they saw Moses, Elijah and Elias

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery reported a vision in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836 (see D&C 110:1-16). They reported that they received priesthood keys from three angelic messengers:

  • Moses (verse 11)
  • Elijah (verse 12)
  • Elias (verses 13-16)

"Elias" is merely the Greek name of the Hebrew prophet "Elijah"

Some note that "Elias" is merely the Greek name of the Hebrew prophet "Elijah." Thus, they charge, Joseph Smith made a fatal error by having Elias and Elijah be two different people, when they are in fact one and the same.[1]

Elder McConkie provides a good summary:

There is no valid reason for confusion as to the identity and mission of Elias. There was a man named Elias who came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on April 3, 1836, in the Kirtland Temple to restore "the gospel of Abraham." (D&C 110:12.) Whether he was Abraham himself or someone else from his dispensation, we do not know. Elias is one of the names of Gabriel who is Noah, and it was in this capacity that Gabriel visited Zacharias the father of John the Baptist. (D&C 27:6-7.) Elias is the Greek form of the Hebrew Elijah, and in this sense has reference to the prophet from Tishbe. Elias is also the title or name of a forerunner who goes before to prepare the way for someone who is greater; this is the doctrine of Elias, and in this sense John the Baptist was both Elias and an Elias. John came in the way that Gabriel (who is Elias) promised, that is, "in the spirit and power of Elias, . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:17.)… But, as we have seen, there is also an Elias of the Restoration, meaning that there is also a doctrine of Elias that pertains not to preparation alone, but to restoration. Christ was Elias in his day because he restored the gospel for those then living. In our revelations the Lord says that Gabriel (Noah) is the "Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days." (D&C 27:6.) The one who holds the keys is the one who directs the work; keys are the right of presidency. Thus Gabriel, who stands next to Michael (Adam) in the heavenly hierarchy, has a great directing and supervising work in connection with the restoration of all things.[2]

It is certainly true that "Elias" is the Greek form of the Hebrew "Elijah," however, there are also cases when the name "Elias" is applied to someone besides Elijah

There are times within scripture where "Elias" is clearly meant to refer to the Elijah of 1 Kings. (See, for example, Matthew 27:47-49, Romans 11:2, James 5:17). However, there are also cases when the name "Elias" is applied to someone besides Elijah. For example, Jesus himself applied it to John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:13-15.)

The Hebrew name, often transliterated "Isaiah," Yesha'yah[u] appears in the Hebrew bible on many occasions, but used to denote different "Isaiahs" than the prophet who authored the Book of Isaiah. These names are rendered Esaias in the Septuagint (LXX), and are rendered Jesiah and Jesaiah in the KJV and many other translations of the Old Testament. In D&C 84, Joseph Smith may have used a different transliteration of the Semitic name to differentiate one Isaiah from another. Indeed, we have many New Testament parallels in translation literature, such as the Jude/Judas variant for the same name in the New Testament.

Jesus' use of "Elias" to refer to another forerunner prophet (John the Baptist) illustrates the LDS concept of "Elias" as a calling or name-title for someone in a preparatory role

Jesus' use of "Elias" to refer to another forerunner prophet (John the Baptist) illustrates the LDS concept of "Elias" as a calling or name-title for someone in a preparatory role.[3] And, the angel Gabriel applied the "spirit of Elias" to John even prior to his birth. (See Luke 1:15-17.)

The Mount of Transfiguration account (Matthew 17:, Mark 9:, Luke :9) has Jesus speaking to Moses and "Elias." Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible expands upon the concept of "Elias" as name-title:

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. (JST] | Matthew 17:10 - 14, italics represent differences from KJV and JST text)

The JST of Mark makes John the Baptist's appearance explicit:

3. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. (JST | Mark 9:3)

Interestingly, the LDS Bible Dictionary (prepared under the direction of Elder Bruce R. McConkie) says that "[t]he curious wording of JST Mark 9:3 does not imply that the Elias at the Transfiguration was John the Baptist, but that in addition to Elijah, the prophet, John the Baptist was present."[3]

And, elsewhere, the JST associates the "Elias" role with Jesus himself:

27. John answered them, saying; I baptize with water, but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;

28. He it is of whom I bear record. He is that prophet, even Elias, who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose, or whose place I am not able to fill; for he shall baptize, not only with water, but with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. (JST | John 1:27 - 28)

Joseph Smith was not the only one to understand Elias in this sense

Some critics have seen Joseph's ideas above as completely ad hoc: but, he was not the only one to understand Elias in this sense. Alexander Campbell, a noted American clergyman, wrote an attack on the Book of Mormon in which he expressed a similar idea:

The Jews gave up their business and attended to him. He obtained one Nathan in Jerusalem to pass for his Elias, or forerunner.[4]

Identity of Elias at Kirtland

Having shown that "Elias" may refer to someone other than the Hebrew "Elijah," both biblically and in Joseph Smith's thought (see D&C 77:9,14 for other uses as forerunner), we can now ask: Who, then, appeared with Elijah and Moses at Kirtland? There are several possible options:

John the Baptist?

Elias as John the Baptist: this is analogous to the JST usage of the term. However, this seems unlikely given that a previous appearance of John the Baptist identified him as such.(See D&C 13:1

Unknown prophet from era of Abraham?

Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggested that this Elias was a prophet who lived at the time of Abraham.[5]

Abraham?

Elder McConkie was apparently not wedded to interpretation #2, since he later suggested that this "Elias" might be Abraham himself.[6]

Noah?

The association of Noah with Elias is based in part upon D&C 27:

6 And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days;

7 And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias;(D&C 27:6-7.)

Elias is here said to be the person who came to Zacharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel is well known to have been the messenger of John's birth (see Luke 1:19.) Who is Gabriel in LDS thought? Joseph Smith taught that Gabriel was the mortal Noah.[7]

Person and Keys Mission of the Church?
Moses had the keys to the gathering of Israel; leading the 10 tribes Proclaiming the gospel
Elijah had the keys to turn hearts of the children to the fathers Redeem the dead via sealing power; vicarious work for the dead
Elias had the keys to the Dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham "Through you [the Church members] all generations after us should be blessed”—Perfecting the Saints, by the restoration of all things in the gospel. This might work well with Noah, who serves as a "second Adam" figure, restoring the human race and its covenant relationship with God after the world was engulfed in wickedness.

Some other individual?

Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote of these theories:

From this reference to "the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham," it has been concluded that Elias was a prophet who lived near the time of the patriarch, Abraham. Really, nothing more definite is known about the person Elias and his activity on earth… It should be said that some students believe that Elias who appeared in the Kirtland Temple was Noah, the patriarch. Modern revelation informs us that Elias visited Zacharias to inform him that he should have a son known later as John the Baptist. (D&C 27:7) The Bible says that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zacharias. (Luke 1:19) Joseph Smith said that Gabriel is Noah. These students conclude therefore, that Elias is another name or title for Noah. This inference may or may not be correct. The name Gabriel may be borne by more than one personage or it may be a title as in the case of Elias. When Elias, the man, lived, and what he did in his life, must for the present remain in the field of conjecture.[8]

Notes

  1. Contender Ministries, Questions All Mormons Should Ask Themselves. Answers; "Kirtland Temple Dedication," MormonThink.com
  2. Bruce R. McConkie, Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 102–104. ISBN 0877478961. GL direct link
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bible Dictionary (LDS English edition of the Holy Scriptures), s.v. "Elias," 663.
  4. Alexander Campbell, Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon, with an Examination of Its Internal and External Evidences, and a Refutation of Its Pretences to Divine Authority with Prefatory Remarks by Joshua V. Himes (Boston: Benjamine H. Greene, 1832), ; originally published in Millennial Harbinger 2 (7 February 1831): 85–96. off-site O. Cowdery reply #1 #2
  5. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 219. GL direct link
  6. Bruce R. McConkie, Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 102–104. ISBN 0877478961. GL direct link
  7. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 157. off-site
  8. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 243–244. GL direct link