What Christ’s Words on the Cross Tell Us About Elijah and the Saints
It is perfectly understandable that the “bystanders” at the crucifixion misunderstood Jesus as calling out to Elijah, because they believed in Elijah’s return and the intercession of the saints.
Matthew 27:46-49 (RSV) And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “This man is calling Eli’jah.”  And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink.  But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Eli’jah will come to save him.” (cf. Mk 15:34-36)
In my previous Register article, “4 Biblical Proofs for Prayers to Saints and for the Dead,” I presented a brief version of this argument:
The “bystanders” at Jesus’ crucifixion provide another similar instance. They assumed that He could ask (pray to) the prophet Elijah to save Him from the agony of the cross (Mt 27:46-50). They’re presented as allies of Jesus (not enemies), since one of them gave Him a drink (Mt 27:48). Matthew 27:49 shows that this type of petition was commonly believed at the time.
There is a lot more to this argument, I think, than first meets the eye. It was a well-known Old Testament tradition that the prophet Elijah would come back in some sense (Mal 4:5-6; Sir 48:10; 1 Macc 4:46; 14:41).
Evidence of this existing tradition of Elijah’s return is found in the New Testament:
Matthew 16:13-14 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare’a Philip’pi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli’jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Luke 9:7-8 . . . it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead,  by some that Eli’jah had appeared, . . . (cf. Mk 6:13-15; Mk 8:27-28; Lk 9: 18-19)
Jesus taught that the Old Testament prediction of Elijah’s return was fulfilled in John the Baptist, of whom Elijah was a prototype (these being common in Scripture):
Matthew 11:7-12, 14 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: . . .  “Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.  Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is he of whom it is written, `Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. . . .  and if you are willing to accept it, he is Eli’jah who is to come. (cf. 17:10-12; Mk 9:11-13; the angel Gabriel in Lk 1:13, 16-17)
Moreover, the idea of a pre-messianic appearance by Elijah on the earth is also reinforced by his actual appearance, along with Moses, at the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:2-3; Mk 9:4; Lk 9:30-31).
And some (perhaps many?) biblical commentators think that Elijah was one of the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3, who came back to earth.
Therefore, we observe an established tradition of Elijah returning to earth to prepare the world for the Messiah. It was plain to see in the Old Testament, in the canon and deuterocanon, was mentioned also in inter-testamental apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch), and made it into the Jewish Talmud, showing that it was a part of oral tradition as well.
It’s mentioned several times in the New Testament, and is interpreted by both the angel Gabriel and Jesus as referring to John the Baptist, of whom Elijah was a prototype.
The bottom line for our argument regarding invocation of saints, then, is that it is perfectly understandable that the “bystanders” at the crucifixion misunderstood Jesus on the cross as calling out to Elijah, for this purpose. It would have been very difficult for him to talk, and they may have been a ways away.
Tradition holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John, whom we know were at the cross, were some distance away (30-40 feet). I stood on the spot when I visited Jerusalem in 2014. These other people heard Jesus say (in actuality) “Eli” or “Eloi” and mistook it for “Elijah” (“Eliyahu” or “Eliya” in Hebrew).
We know that Jesus was in fact referring to God, not Elijah. But it doesn’t affect the present argument. What is relevant to note is the fact that they casually assumed that he could call on (in effect, “pray to”) a human being rather than God. That is the argument. The known tradition held:
- that Elijah would return, and also
- that there was such a thing as evoking dead saints.
These people probably hadn’t heard Jesus’ interpretation of John the Baptist as Messiah, so they thought that he (of whom it was known by then that he claimed to be the Messiah) was invoking / calling upon Elijah, as a fulfillment of the prophecy tying Elijah to the Messiah.
They were simply applying the Old Testament tradition of Elijah returning, reiterated several times in the New Testament. And in so doing they assumed the ability of human beings to invoke dead saints (as a tenet of existing Judaism).
And this is an argument for the Catholic and Orthodox notions of invocation of the saints. It’s not the best one, or anywhere near compelling in and of itself (I want to make it clear how much I claim for it), but it is a valid and interesting argument and one (in my humble opinion) more than worthy of serious consideration.