Matthew 16:13-14 is often cited by New Agers and others as proof the New Testament supports reincarnation. The passage reads: "When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' "
New Agers and other proponents of reincarnation argue this proves the people of Jesus' day believed in reincarnation since they thought he was John the Baptist or one of the other prophets. They also claim that the disciples endorsed this view and that Jesus' failure to challenge them on it reveals that he too believed in reincarnation.
Careful examination of Scripture reveals the New Age interpretation of this text is untenable. For one thing, popular misconceptions about Jesus' identity evidenced in the Gospels don't indicate widespread belief in reincarnation.
People thought Jesus was John or one of the other prophets raised from the dead--resurrected, that is, not reincarnated. This is what Herod the Tetrarch, John's executioner, thought (Matt. 14:2). That it is also what was meant by Jesus' disciples at Caesarea Philippi is clear from a passage parallel to Matthew 16:13-14:
"Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say that I am?' They said in reply, 'John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, "One of the ancient prophets has arisen"" (Luke 9:18-19).
Although Matthew's account of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi is generally more elaborate, Luke's account is clearer on one point: The crowds believed Jesus was one of the ancient prophets raised from the dead. The verb "has arisen" indicates the people thought Jesus to have been a resurrected prophet, not a reincarnated one.
Remember, the Jews of Jesus' day who believed in an afterlife (some, such as the Sadducees, didn't) looked forward to the resurrection of the dead, not to their reincarnation. Jews who affirmed the soul's survival after death regarded such a solitary survival as an unnatural existence to be remedied by a later resurrection.
A further difficulty with the reincarnationist reading presents itself. How could the people have thought Jesus was a reincarnated John the Baptist if John had recently been executed (Matt.14:3-12) and John and Jesus had been contemporaries? John had been just six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:26); how could Jesus be the reincarnation of someone living?
What about the claim the disciples and Jesus himself endorsed reincarnation? Even if it's granted that the crowds thought Jesus was one of the prophets reincarnated, nothing in the passage indicates the disciples or Jesus himself approved of what the crowds thought.
In fact, the opposite is the case. Peter's confession of faith meant he didn't believe what others were saying about Jesus (Matt. 16:16), and it is this confession, not what the crowds thought about him, which Jesus approved (Matt. 16:17).
Reincarnation is incompatible with what Jesus taught about death and the afterlife. Luke 16:19-31 records Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable, both the rich man and Lazarus die, but neither is reincarnated. Instead, both go on to their eternal reward: the rich man to torment, Lazarus to paradise (Luke 16:23).
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes it clear that Jesus didn't believe in reincarnation after death, but in judgment. This is also the teaching of the New Testament writers and was summed up by the author of Hebrews when he wrote, "It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27).