I’m sure this topic has been written about many times before, but I wasn’t aware of the details, so bear with me.
Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants (28 in the 1833 Book of Commandments) is stated to be a revelation received by Joseph Smith in August 1830; the Book of Commandments says it is a “commandment given to the Church of Christ in Harmony, Pennsylvania, September 4, 1830.” I’m assuming the change was made because Joseph said he received the revelation before the September date, when it was given to the church. But I digress.
We read in verses 6-9 a list of prophets to whom God has “committed the keys” of various dispensations and powers:
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;
8 Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron;
9 And also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse;
Here we are told of three different prophets: Elias, John the Baptist, and Elijah. Elias is said to bring “to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days,” and John the Baptist is said to have been “filled with the spirit of Elias.” Elijah is said to restore the “power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse.”
This is all fine and good, except for a small problem. Elias and Elijah are not two distinct people in the Bible; “Elias” is the Greek form of “Elijah,” consequently, the Old Testament refers to him as Elijah, whereas the New Testament, translated from the Greek, refers to him as “Elias.”
At first I thought, since Joseph received this revelation in 1830, he clearly did not realize the Biblical distinction and assumed the Bible was speaking of two distinct prophets. But I discovered that the original Book of Commandments did not contain this passage. In fact, Section 28 of the Book of Commandments contains only seven verses. The list of restoring prophets (and the rather flowery language accompanying it), comprising eleven verses, was added when the Doctrine and Covenants was published in 1835.
Surely, however, Joseph would not have made such a mistake in 1835, as he had been involved in serious study of languages by this time. But not so. The Doctrine and Covenants were compiled and approved by committee on February 17, 1835, and accepted at a church conference on August 17, 1835. Oliver Cowdery brought a Hebrew and Greek lexicon on November 20, 1835, and Joseph began studying Greek no later than December 23 of that year.
What I find interesting isn’t so much that Joseph made an obvious error, but how he (and later apologists) dealt with the problem. Once the Doctrine and Covenants was published, it was more or less set in stone, and unlike the never-published Book of Commandments, not available for serious revision. So the error stood.
Joseph at some point must have realized the mistake, and his solution came in the form of his “translation” of the Bible. For example, we read in JST Matt. 17:10-14:
10And 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.
Italics in the original specify Joseph’s changes to the King James text. Here he is associating Elias with John the Baptist; however, in Joseph’s version of John chapter 1, he distinguishes John the Baptist from another Elias, which the text appears to associate with Jesus:
19 And no man hath seen God at any time, except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved.
20 And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem, to ask him; Who art thou?
21 And he confessed, and denied not that he was Elias; but confessed, saying; I am not the Christ.
22And they asked him, saying; How then art thou Elias? And he said, I am not that Elias who was to restore all things. And they asked him, saying, Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
23Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?
24He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as saith the prophet Esaias.
25And they who were sent were of the Pharisees.
26And they asked him, and said unto him; Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elias who was to restore all things, neither that prophet?
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.
If you’ve been paying attention, we have gone from the original KJV, which has one Elias (Elijah), to four Eliases, according to the LDS Bible Dictionary:
(1) It is the N.T. (Greek) form of Elijah (Hebrew). …
(2) Elias is also a title for one who is a forerunner, for example, John the Baptist. …
(3) The title Elias has also been applied to many others for specific missions or restorative functions. …
(4) A man called Elias apparently lived in mortality in the days of Abraham.
Clear enough? The first Elias referred to, is Elijah, who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, “the 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” (BD, “Elias”). Let’s look at the “curious wording”:
“And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.”
No, it doesn’t imply that John the Baptist was Elias; it explicitly says he was. The only reason the wording is “curious” is that this passage conflicts with doctrine.
The important point, apparently, is that Elias has now become a name-title, like “messiah.” Some Eliases are “preparers,” while other Eliases are “restorers.” Here’s the Bible Dictionary again:
“John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus, Jesus himself being the Restorer who brought back the gospel and the Melchizedek Priesthood to the Jews in his day.”
In the Doctrine and Covenants, three Eliases are mentioned: John the Revelator (D&C 77:14), Noah or Gabriel (D&C 27:6-7), and a mystery Elias who appeared in 1836 and “committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland (Ohio) Temple on April 3, 1836 (D&C 110:12). We have no specific information as to the details of his mortal life or ministry.”
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the convoluted and multitudinous explanations for the name “Elias” suddenly appear after Joseph Smith began studying Greek (and most likely recognized his mistake). It sort of reminds me of when a child is caught in a lie; rather than own up and move on, kids will come up with the most implausible explanations to justify themselves (think Eddie Haskell). Joseph seems to have aimed for muddying the waters just a bit. Note that the only references to the 3 “other Eliases” is from scripture revealed through Joseph Smith.
What I find fascinating is that the Bible Dictionary (read: Bruce McConkie) goes to such lengths to separate the uses of Elias and suggest that this prophetic calling is just one of those “plain and precious things” taken out of the Bible by apostate translators. Here’s the concluding paragraph of the “Elias” entry:
Thus the word Elias has many applications and has been placed upon many persons as a title pertaining to both preparatory and restorative functions. It is evident from the questions they asked that both the Jewish leaders and the disciples of Jesus knew something about the doctrine of Elias, but the fragmentary information in our current Bibles is not sufficient to give an adequate understanding of what was involved in use of the term. Only by divine revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith is this topic brought into focus for us who live in the last days.
Did you catch that? Although the Bible never mentions the three other Eliases, we can be assured that the Jews and Jesus Himself knew about them. Biblical teaching of this doctrine is absent, which makes for “fragmentary information in our current Bibles.” Thus, instead of being an obvious attempt to clean up after a silly mistake, we have this doctrine presented as being “brought into focus” by “divine revelation” in the last days.