How did the apostles recognize Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration of Jesus?


In Matthew 17:3, I’ll quote from Douay Rheims,
“And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him.”

Surely Peter, James, and John had never seen Moses or Elijah as they had lived long ago, I don’t think they had a portrait of them. How did they know these two men they saw Jesus with weren’t angels, or any of the other prophets? Daniel? Isaiah? If the answer is “They were told by the Holy Spirit” that seems like kind of a cop out answer since the scripture doesn’t say that. Thanks for any insight.


Since Jesus was talking with them, perhaps they overheard the conversation and the things said clearly indicated they were who they were.

I don’t have a problem with the idea that it was divine apprehension, either. When you meet Jesus, you will instantly know he is Jesus without having to be told. The same is likely true of Moses and Isaiah.


Or maybe it’s just as simple that they saw them…

They were in the cloud of God’s glory. Visions have been communicated to people by God, such as at Fatima.

BTW, just how awesome is it that, at a town named after the daughter of Mohammed, you have a confirmed appearance of the true Daughter of Israel, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and Mother of our Most Holy Redeemer?!


It’s not a cop out. Think, they were having a vision of Jesus the 2nd person of the Trinity glorified, Moses and Elijah, in glory! To understand who they were is the smaller detail, isn’t it? lol It was all part of the one huge awesome experience. Or, Jesus just told them when it was over when he picked them up off the ground.

Love the question. :thumbsup:


Well Moses and Elijah probably didn’t look like angelic beings and they were the only two people in the Old Testament to be taken to heaven, so the apostles may have just assumed it was them.


The most important thing is that they did see them. That is the blessing. How they knew is really not the issue. They saw, and they did belive, that is the point.


A cop out because, “the scripture doesn’t say that”?

Please take a moment to look into how the Church interprets scripture in the CCC.

church teaching is that when reading scripture we don’t just take it literally. If we take scripture only from a literal perspective, then you would be on to something…unfortunately, what you would be leaning towards would be sola scriptura, and the misinterpretation of scripture stating nothing should me removed or (in the case of your contention) added, which is not how Catholics view theological knowledge.

Peace and all good!


Since the Scriptures don’t tell us specifically how they knew, I would say it doesn’t matter. However, if you really want a list of possibilities, try this -

  1. They were mentioned by name during the conversation.
  2. The Holy Spirit gave them divine knowledge (a “cop out”, or similar to how Peter knew Jesus was the Son of God? You decide).
  3. Moses and Elias represented the Law and the Prophets.
  4. They were wearing “Hello, my name is” ID stickers.

I would suggest that 1 Cor 13:12 (“We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know I part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” DRA) gives additional support to possibility #2.

I would make a correction to what mikeeh said. Moses died and was buried by God in a secret place (not assumed into Heaven). However, Enoch was taken alive into Heaven before the flood.



The Transfiguration story creates some interesting alternatives.

  1. It may be allegorical or fictional.

  2. It may have been a vision.

  3. But if it were a physical event, it would require that Moses be resurrected. (Elijah is supposed to still be alive).


In the account of the transfiguration in Luke, we see this description of the event:

“And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”

So, not only do the apostles see the transfiguration, they hear the conversation, sufficiently enough to understand the context of the discussion. Scripture doesn’t record what was said, so we can’t know if Jesus addressed Moses and Elijah by name. But, given the context, is it too difficult to suggest that they would know the two most important human figures in Judaism, based on their discussion with Jesus?

Moreover, “Moses and Elijah” are, quite literally, “the Law and the Prophets”. The allusion wouldn’t have been lost on the apostles – this, in a very real way, is Jesus interacting with the Jews’ whole belief system in the Old Testament!

So no – without any ‘cop-outs’, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the apostles were fully aware of the identity of the two men conversing with Jesus!

  1. It is not fictional. If it would be, I don’t think it would be mentioned in The Bible.
  2. It was a kind of a vision. They did see them, but maybe as souls, with takes us to number three, Moses is not, and has never been, ressurected. Only Christ is. We will all “come alive” when Christ return, but as not as what we are now, In Heaven we are “only” souls. Remember what Jesus did say about who in the end will be the wife of all seven men.

The transfiguration story is very important. That is why it is in The Bible. So what is this importance? The fact that Christ, even in the shape of a human, was all the way also The Son.


Thank you everyone for the thoughtful answers. I asked my priest the same question and his response was what Cachonga mentioned, that they represent the Law and the Prophets, which I never picked up on. Then I felt a little silly for focusing on this technical detail while missing the whole point of the event.

They did see them, but maybe as souls, with takes us to number three, Moses is not, and has never been, ressurected. Only Christ is.

Christ and Lazarus* :stuck_out_tongue:


We have no Biblical account of Moses being taken physically to heaven the way Elijah was. All we know is he died on Mount Nebo and was buried by the LORD and nobody knows where the grave is.

However, we also read in the letter of Jude that Michael the Archangel was having an argument with Satan over the body of Moses. Man, I’d like to know what that was all about! Maybe Michael was charged with the task of fetching Moses’ body to bring it to heaven so he could have a physical presence at the transfiguration along with Elijah?

There’s so much we don’t know!

I personally go with the “Hello my name is” name tag theory…


They may have recognized them by their appearance and accessories. For instance, Moses was said to have Horns like rays coming from his face, since he saw God. Elias, may have had his chariot with him which took him to heaven. There were probably other indications as well.


Regarding Moses being in heaven, Jesus quoted Scripture, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and said that God is the God of the living, not the dead.

Also, Jesus said that He gives life just as the Father gives life, that He does what He sees the Father doing.

So, it’s not hard to believe that Moses was in Heaven at the time of the Transfiguration, or that
at least some people were in Heaven already, before Jesus’ Resurrection.

I remembered the earlier quote, that in Heaven “we will know even as we are known.” I don’t think we will have to ask anybody their name in Heaven, but will recognize everyone.


Of course, you won’t find many people denying that Moses is in heaven. But is Moses physically in heaven, or is he awaiting the resurrection from the dead like the rest of us?


I should clarify what I mean so there won’t be another misunderstanding.

We infer from the Bible that Enoch and Elijah went to heaven and bypassed death, and have physical bodies in heaven. Of course, Jesus ascended to heaven in a physical body and Church Tradition tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary also has a physical body in heaven from her Assumption into heaven.

That gives us four people who are in heaven with physical bodies. And apparently everyone else in heaven exists in a non-physical way until the resurrection. And that would include Moses unless something happened with his body that went unrecorded in the Bible. Maybe something big enough to cause Michael to have that dispute with Satan.

I’m speculating, obviously…

I wonder if the apostles could tell the difference between a physical Elijah and a non-physical Moses if that was the case, or maybe human eyes can’t tell the difference? There’s a lot we don’t know yet!


Actually, it’s a bit of a mistranslation to think Moses came down from the mountain sporting a brand new pair of horns on his forehead. Rather, he had rays of light. The word for both is the same, but the implication is waaaay different!

(And anyway, since in the transfiguration episode, they’re already shining brightly, there’d be no way to distinguish Moses from Elijah from Jesus on the basis of their glow… :wink: )


I was searching for this same question and was led here. In reading the commentary on Luke 9:33, the verse says “Peter said to Jesus Master it is good that we are here, let us make three tents one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah. But he did not know what he was saying.” I thought this might possibly mean that Peter was speaking in the Spirit, not from his own recognition of Moses and Elijah. Also, when the voice of God from the cloud says “Listen to Him” (Jesus), could it be clear to the apostles that God means "listen to my Son *from now on *, no longer to the old law (Moses) or the old prophets (Elijah)?


Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking with each other. They were conversing.

***And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Eli’jah, talking with him. *(Matthew 17:3)

Peter, James and John heard the conversation and knew who they were.


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