On 3 April 1836, at the Kirtland Temple as recounted in D&C 110, the heavens were opened and Moses appeared in vision, committing the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth and the leading of the ten tribes from the lands of the north.
Then, in v. 12 we read:
After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.
Then in v. 13 comes Elijah the Prophet, who quotes the famous Malachi passage about the hearts of the fathers turning to the children and vice versa. So who was this Elias?
Normally, Elias in the NT is simply the Greek form of the Hebrew name Elijah. Greek lacked an exact equivalent to the “y” or yod of the Hebrew name Eliyah (or Eliyahu, “Yahweh is my God”); such sounds were represented in Greek with a iota (or “i”), and -as was a common ending for male names in Greek. So Elias was simply the Greek way of writing Eliyah (Elijah).
But in D&C 110, that option appears to be foreclosed, since Elijah himself makes a separate appearance immediately following Elias.
The usual LDS answer to this question, as reflected in both the LDS 1979 Bible Dictionary and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (s.v. “Elias”), is to state that Elias was the name of an otherwise unknown man who presumably lived in the days of Abraham.
Personally, I just can’t buy this explanation. First, it would be odd for a Middle Bronze Age Semite to have a Greek-formed name like Elias. The more linguistically acceptable form of this argument is that this was another Eliyahu, and to avoid confusion with the Eliyahu (Elijah) of the next verse, he was called by his Hellenic name Elias here. But even if that were the case, why would God send a man no one had ever heard of and who is nowhere mentioned in the Bible to commit this gospel to Joseph Smith? I just can’t buy that.
The name “Elias” has also been used as a kind of title to refer to a forerunner or a restorer. But that runs into the same problem of why an otherwise unknown individual would be chosen to do this task. The whole point of bringing famous personalities from biblical antiquity to restore these keys is the fact that they were well known and thus their authority was assured.
So for a long time I just kind of took the view that Joseph got confused about the fact that Elias is simply the Greek form of the name Elijah. I’m still kind of partial to that point of view. But of course, faithful LDS don’t like it, because then how do we account for the vision in D&C 110? Am I saying that he didn’t really see anyone in between Moses and Elijah?
Well, this has been a puzzle for a long time. It is a favorite complaint of critics. I certainly would be interested in what others think.
I do have a bit of an insight, however, into how to understand the Elias of D&C 110.
Mark 9:3 reads:
And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
The JST adds the following words immediately after “Moses”: “…or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses.”
The LDS BD s.v. “Elias” opines: “The curious wording of JST Mark 9:3 does not imply that the Elias of the Transfiguration was John the Baptist, but that in addition to Elijah the prophet, John the Baptist was present.” Well, I hate to be disagreeable, but the LDS BD is just plain wrong: the curious wording of JST Mark 9:3 implies exactly that the Elias of that passage should be understood as John the Baptist. LDS scholars understandably don’t like that reading and would like to sweep it under the rug, but that is clearly what the JST means to convey. The source of this equation would seem to be Jesus himself, who equated John the Baptist with the Elias who was to come.
Note, too, that in D&C 110 Elias is paired with and immediately follows Moses.
I suggest that this pairing is not accidental, but harks back to the Mount of Transfiguration. Elijah is then presented at the scene, but tied to the ending quotation of the OT.
So, my tentative suggestion to the question is that Joseph understood the Elias of the Mount of Transfiguration, which was the model for who appeared to him at the Kirtland Temple in these verses, to be John the Baptist, a separate individual from Elijah the Tishbite.
Why would John the Baptist commit the gospel of Abraham to Joseph? Not because he lived in the time of Abraham, obviously, but because he was the last great prophet of the old covenant preceding the time of Christ.