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?

9 Answers 9


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.

  • 3
    I was almost finished saying almost exactly the same thing.
    – Narnian
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:53
  • 1
    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, 2013 at 12:56
  • Not 100% relevant, but interestingly, some Jewish traditions say that Moses didn't actually die but was taken away. C.f. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Feb 29, 2016 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.

  • 2
    I love how you put the words probably and exactly together. :P Jul 23, 2012 at 18:12
  • 3
    @MonikaMichael: As in "probably that is exactly what happened."
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:14
  • 2
    @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. Jul 24, 2012 at 18:39

To be sure, Peter did not have the pictures or photographs of Moses and Elijah to compare them to. Since Peter recognizing them on his own was an impossible task, he could not have done so without divine help.

On another occasion, Peter recognized a greater Person than Moses and Elijah. In Matthew Chapter 16, Jesus asked His disciples who they thought him to be:

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. (vv. 15-17).

Peter got it right while others didn't. He easily identified who Jesus was--"the Son of the Living God" because he had heavenly help. The heavenly Father revealed it to him!

Similarly, Peter got it right again in identifying Moses and Elijah because 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).

  • 1
    Yeah but everyone would recognize Moses from the Ten Commandments movie!
    – Kris
    Feb 29, 2016 at 12:13
  • 2 Kings 1:8 (NIV) They replied, "He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist." The king said, "That was Elijah the Tishbite." Feb 23, 2019 at 9:17
  • Likewise, Moses could have had a long staff in his hand, long hair/beard, and been dressed in bedouin clothes. If so, I don't think you have to have a special revelation from God to figure out who these men were. Yes, if they both were both dressed in plain clothes you probably would need one. Feb 23, 2019 at 9:29

I think the answer is in Luke 9:33. Peter says, "Lord, it is good for us to be here if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee one for Moses, and one for Elijah” NOT KNOWING WHAT HE SAID." Peter reveals it but his words are inspired and he is unaware of what he is saying. Much as he spoke in other languages by inspiration on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4).

  • Welcome to the site. Check out our tour and our help center to learn more about our site. I hope you will check out some other Qs and As and become a regular contributor of good supported answers. Feb 23, 2019 at 16:47
  • verse 33 of which book? my bible only has 27 verses for matthew 17. can you improve your citation please? Feb 23, 2019 at 20:42

Interesting question with an interesting answer.

How did Peter know Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration?

Among other places Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would appear before the coming of the Lord. Jesus picks up this same prophecy and points to John the Baptist as the fulfillment.

And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. Mal 4:6

In another place, Jesus speaks of

And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. Mat 11:13-14

So, what about the transfiguration?

And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Mat 17:3

Moses represented the Law and Elijah (Elias) the prophets. Peter knew this. They were to continue until Christ. They weren't to be abolished, but fulfilled. Christ was the end of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophecies.

The point of the transfiguration is Peter correctly understood the two figures as the Law and Prophets, but along with Christ mistakenly wanted to maintain that order; he wanted to build three tabernacles as if they would be permanent fixtures. God instead opens the heavens and speaks to them and corrects them.

While he [Peter] yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

Listen to Jesus Christ. He alone remains, having fulfilled all that Moses (law) and Elijah (prophets) had required.


Notice how the transfiguration is described a few verses later:

And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

This was not an actual appearance by Elijah and Moses, who were dead, buried, and unconscious. It was a "vision". The same Greek word "ὅραμα" (horama) was used elsewhere (e.g. Peter's vision of the unclean animals) to describe similar dream-like situations, not actual events.

When one dreams or experiences a vision, one doesn't need to be explicitly told who people are, one simply knows.


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.

  • Sorry, but unless there you have evidence that "ancient Jews would have had images not dissimilar from icons" I'm going to have to downvote this as quite unlikely.
    – Bit Chaser
    Oct 18, 2018 at 22:04

I stumbled across this in my readings.

I've recently discovered that there is mounting evidence for Moses having not existed at all as a historical figure, but solely as a legendary figure (like King Arthur, etc). All in a hypothetical, if Moses didn't exist, then was this meeting factual or an illustration? Very curious to know.

  • 1
    This does not answer the question that was asked. Please ask this as a separate question. Erik, Welcome to Christianity.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center to see how an SE Q&A site is different from a forum. And please, post that as a separate question. Oct 17, 2018 at 21:10
  • Safe to say, Erik, millions of faithful Jews around the world believe Moses existed as a flesh-and-blood human being. Moreover, Jesus himself seemed to think the same way about Moses. See, for example, Matthew 8:4; 17:3-4; 19:8; and 23:2 for starters. I sincerely hope you are not suggesting Jesus bought into the myth of Moses. Something to think about. Don Oct 19, 2018 at 11:29

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.

  • Or they may have had photos posted on Facebook profiles even today a lot of folks who have passed away still have Facebook pages yiu can look at
    – Kris
    Oct 19, 2018 at 17:28

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