Why did the Jews in John 1:20-21 ask John the Baptist if he was the Christ and then if he was the Prophet?

Since the coming Prophet mentioned in Deut. 18:18 is the Messiah, it seems that their question was redundant. Or did they just not know that the Prophet and the Messiah were one in the same? I think I may just have answered my own question, but please elaborate.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. For what's on topic here, see: What topics can I ask about here? Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers on this site. May 16, 2018 at 2:34
  • Hello, Kareem! I'm not an expert on Jewish history, but I believe the ancient Jews were not only looking toward the advent of the Messiah, but also the return or visitation of one or more prophets (e.g., Elias), in which case it makes sense that they would ask (paraphrasing) "are you the Messiah? No? Would you then be that prophet?" (in reference to a prophesied appearance commonly known to Jews at the time). However, I could be wrong and so do not not trust myself to offer this as an actual answer.
    – JBH
    May 17, 2018 at 2:41

2 Answers 2


It’s worth noting that the Jewish religious leaders did not ask John the Baptist outright if he was the Messiah. They simply asked “Who are you?” It was John the Baptist who immediately came to the point and said “I am not the Messiah.” Messiah comes from the Hebrew word ‘mashiach’ and means “anointed one” or “chosen one.” The Greek equivalent is the word ‘Christos’ or, in English, Christ. The name “Jesus Christ” is the same as “Jesus the Messiah.”

Scripture foretells of TWO prophets to come. The first would be like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18). The Jews expected the Messiah (Christ) to bring spiritual leadership and political redemption to Israel – a prophet like Moses. But there was another prophecy to do with the coming Messiah, the prophecy about Elijah. Elijah did not die but was taken up into heaven:

“And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).

Why did the delegation from the Sanhedrin ask if John the Baptist was Elijah?

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).

“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5).

The Jews believed that Elijah would return and come back to earth to announce the end time. They also expected that the prophet like Moses would be associated with the coming of the Messiah. That is why John was asked if he was Elijah or if he was the Prophet like Moses. Both prophets would precede the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.

John the Baptist identified himself as the messenger of Isaiah 40:3: “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John the Baptist specifically denied that he was Elijah or that he was the Prophet like Moses or that he was the Messiah (John 1:19-21). To this day, Jewish Seders include an empty chair at the table in anticipation that Elijah will return to herald the Messiah in fulfillment of Malachi’s word.

The Pharisees who had been sent to question John the Baptist were then forced to acknowledge that John was not the Messiah, he was not Elijah and he was not the Prophet (John 1:25). The Messiah was identified in Scripture as “the anointed one” – not just a priest, or a prophet, or a king.

A Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25-26). She also acknowledged that Jesus was a prophet (John 4:19).

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (Mark 8:27-30). As we know, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah is, in English, Christ.

In conclusion, the Jews understood that the prophet like Moses and the prophet Elijah were to be the forerunners of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One.

Sources: New Living Translation and New International Version Study Bible notes. Additional material: https://www.gotquestions.org/promised-messenger-Malachi.html


John 1:19-25

“19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

Obviously, the above incident is one of those incidents that demonstrate to us that the Jews of Jesus’ time had many false assumptions about the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Which is why, they didn’t recognise Him when He came and therefore failed to believe in Him.

As per the Old Testament the coming Messiah [the anointed One or the Christ] will be fulfilling three roles I.e. Prophet, King, and Priest. By the way, all these three roles need anointing. The Messiah will be the ‘Prophet like Moses’ [Deuteronomy.18:16-19=Acts.3:22-26], ‘Son of David to rule Israel,’ [2Samuel.7:12; Micah.5:2=Matthew.1:1&2:2] and ‘Priest in the order of Melchizedek’ [Psalm.110:4=Hebrews.5:5-6 & 6:20]

The Jews who came up to John the Baptist in order to find out his identity had a wrong assumption, like many other wrong assumptions, that the coming prophet and the coming Messiah [Christ] are two distinct persons.

But if we assume that those Jews were right in assuming the above then we cannot ignore the fact that they had a clear conviction that all the ‘three’ persons [the Christ, Elijah, and the Prophet] should come from among Jews, not from among non-Jews. Which is why, they came to John the Baptist, who was a Jews. Therefore, even if the Jews turn out to be right in assuming the Christ and the Prophet are distinct persons, then the Christ, the prophet, and even Elijah must be Jews NOT non-Jews.

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