Moses, Elijah and Jesus (Plus Four) Meet on a Mountain: The Feast of the Transfiguration

by Bob Schwartz

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated today in many Christian communities. It marks one of the most fascinating stories reported in the Gospels. From the Gospel of Matthew:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (Matthew 17:1-8, NRSV)

Among those Christian communities, the transfiguration has been subject to different interpretations:

The Transfiguration refers to the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in glorified form. The three synoptic Gospels record the episode: Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him onto a mountain. (Tradition locates it on Mount Tabor, but many scholars prefer Mount Hermon.) He appeared there before them in a luminous form with Moses and Elijah at his side. Peter proposed that they build three tabernacles, or tents. A heavenly voice declared Jesus to be the “beloved son” and enjoined the disciples to heed him. Jesus then appeared in his usual form and commanded his disciples to keep silence.

There are various interpretations of the episode. Some view it as a misplaced account of a resurrection appearance. Others view it as a mystical experience that Jesus’ disciples had in his presence. Others as a symbolic account devised by Matthew or the tradition on which his Gospel relied. Whatever its origin, the episode of the Transfiguration serves at the very least as a literary device to place Jesus on the same level as the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah) and as a foreshadowing of his future glory. He is the authentic source of divine truth for those who would listen to him.

The feast of the Transfiguration originated in the East and became widely celebrated there before the end of the first Christian millennium. The feast was not celebrated in the West until a much later date. Pope Callistus III ordered its celebration in 1457 in thanksgiving for the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on July 22, 1456, news of which reached Rome on August 6. The feast is on the General Roman Calendar and is also celebrated by the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church in the USA. (Lives of The Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa by Richard P. McBrien)

However you view this story as a matter of fact, faith or theology, it is a big meeting of some heavy hitters. It begins with Jesus plus three apostles, which is not by itself particularly unusual. Then Moses and Elijah arrive. This meeting now qualifies as a big deal, one of the highest-level conclaves in the Bible. But of course there’s more. God shows up—and speaks. (Note that Moses and Elijah both had experience with this: we aren’t sure what kind of voice Moses heard, but Elijah reportedly heard something still and small.)

Maybe the most fascinating detail of the story is the offer by the apostles to build three separate tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Some think this is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish pilgrimage festival at which tents/booths are built. But it seems more a gesture of welcome: You guys have traveled a long way to get here for this meeting; the least we can do is give you someplace to rest and refresh. Would they have gone ahead and built those tents for Moses and Elijah if God had not interrupted? It’s a thought.

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