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Matthew 17:3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

I am wondering how Peter recognized that the men were Elijah and Moses?

Photographs and portraits didn't exist back in those days. If they did, Peter being a fisherman wouldn't have been to school to see them.

And I doubt Moses and Elijah began their conversation by saying - "Hello Jesus, I am Elijah and this is my buddy Moses."

So how would Peter know it was Elijah standing there?

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Short Answer: We don't know.

Some possibilities:

  • There was some sort of heavenly announcement, similar to the voice of the Father at Jesus' baptism (reference)

  • Jesus explained it to them, as He was accustomed to having to do for them. (Keep in mind that there is a lot of stuff that wasn't recorded in Scripture!) (reference)

  • They recognized it by divine illumination, similar to Peter's recognition of who Jesus really was (reference)

  • Prior to Peter referencing them by name, it says (in verse 3) that Jesus was talking with them. Perhaps Jesus called them by name and Peter overheard.

My money is on the last one, since that's the only one that draws clues from the passage itself, but as I said, we really don't know for sure.

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I was almost finished saying almost exactly the same thing. – Narnian Jul 23 '12 at 18:53
+1 for concise answer with multiple references to source documents. – Philip Schaff Jul 24 '12 at 18:31
I like the the third possibility. that Peter recognized them by divine illumination, similar to Peter's recognition of who Jesus really was. If it was not too much for God to personally reveal to Peter who Jesus was (a much bigger deal), then why would we doubt that He would give Peter the same kind of discernment regarding Elijah and Moses? The harder question (that we cannot yet answer) is the nature of Elijah and Moses. Were they ghosts or just 'appearances'? Were they already resurrected? We know that Elijah was "translated" or raptured into the heavenly state, but Moses died on earth. – user5189 Jul 23 '13 at 12:56
Not 100% relevant, but interestingly, some Jewish traditions say that Moses didn't actually die but was taken away. C.f.… – Samuel Feb 29 at 6:55

Maybe not in so many words, but that's probably exactly what happened: they introduced themselves, or someone else (an angel not mentioned in the text, the voice of God, etc) introduced them.

Seeing as how Peter & co lived centuries before the development of photography, and Elijah and Moses centuries before them, and given the strong cultural prohibitions on creating likenesses of people, such as statues, that's the only reasonable way they would have had to recognize a historical figure.

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I love how you put the words probably and exactly together. :P – Monika Michael Jul 23 '12 at 18:12
@MonikaMichael: As in "probably that is exactly what happened." – Mason Wheeler Jul 23 '12 at 18:14
@MonikaMichael: "Probably" refers to the likelihood or "probability" that the description references the correct interpretation; "exactly" references how closely the description conforms to the actual event it purports to describe. More poetic constructions exist, but there are no linguistic or logical problems with the statement. – Philip Schaff Jul 24 '12 at 18:39

For sure Peter did not have the pictures or photographs of Moses and Elijah to recognize them! So Peter recognizing them on his own was an impossible task. Which he didn't do it by himself

Let us see how, on another occasion, Peter recognized a greater Person than Moses and Elijah. This is found in the very preceding Chapter. Here Jesus asked His disciples to confess as to who He was:

He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew16: 15-17)

Peter got it right while others didn't. He easily identified who Jesus was--"the Son of the Living God". But Peter got Heavenly help. It was the Heavenly Father who revealed it to him! Yes, Peter got it right again in identifying Moses and Elijah. Obviously the Father revealed it to him through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

The same Peter said that it is the Holy Spirit who reveals things to God's people.

He wrote: Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21).

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Yeah but everyone would recognize Moses from the Ten Commandments movie! – Kris Feb 29 at 12:13

In addition to the possibility that they were introduced, my understanding is that ancient Jews would have had images not dissimilar from icons (though not as venerated). So I would think it possible that Elijah and Moses could have had some items associated with them — sort of like how you can tell that it is a picture of St. Peter by the fact that the picture has a man with keys in his hand.

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Mostly I agree with Jas 3.1. Let me add that Elijah did have a rather distinctive appearance -- see 2 King 1:8. That wouldn't be enough for a positive identification, but it would be a clue. Life if you saw someone wearing a red cape and blue tights with a big "S" on his chest, you might well say, "Are you supposed to be Superman?"

It's possible that they had other physical descriptions that gave them a clue.

Peter wasn't an educated man but he would have been taught from scripture in the synagogues.

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Maybe Moses was standing with a Stone tablet since he is the original governor of the law and commandments... That depiction helped Peter recognise Moses. Elijah maybe wearing a shining cloak or robe that he got from Elisha..

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