Column: Scholars puzzled over guests at the Transfiguration

by Father Mike Stubbs

I sometimes feel embarrassed when a person walks up to me and asks if I recognize them. Often I am stumped. It may have been years since I last saw the person. The face does not even look familiar, much less does any name come to mind.

If I have such trouble recognizing people, how is it that Peter is able to correctly identify the two mysterious visitors in Sunday’s Gospel reading as Moses and Elijah?

After all, both men have supposedly been dead for centuries. Peter would never have seen them before, nor would he have seen any image of them, since the Israelite religion forbade the making of images of any living creature out of fear that such images might be used in idolatry. It is amazing that Peter is able to identify them.

But the whole scene is one of amazement. Jesus is transfigured in glory, his clothes shining brilliant white, his face changed. The appearance of these illustrious figures from the past fits in well with the general tenor of the vision. It is inexplicable.

Yet that does not prevent scholars and homilists from attempting to explain why Moses and Elijah are present, even if they do not dare to explain how they got there. The most popular theory claims that Moses represents the law, while Elijah represents the prophets. The two then stand for the Old Testament, summed up in the phrase, the law and the prophets. Accordingly, their presence means the endorsement of Jesus by the Old Testament.

But that is not the only explanation. Another theory reflects the belief that Moses and Elijah did not leave this life in the usual way — that they did not die but were assumed, body and soul, into heaven.

This belief in regard to Elijah is clearly enunciated in 2 Kg 2:11: “A flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

This belief in regard to Moses is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. At the same time, the seeds for that belief were planted in the words of Dt 34:6: “but to this day no one knows the place of his burial.” From that statement, people jumped to the conclusion that Moses had not died, but had been taken up into heaven, like Elijah. There was even an apocryphal work written to that effect, entitled “The Assumption of Moses.”

If these two figures had departed from this world in such an unusual manner, then they are appearing with Jesus in this vision because he, too, will leave it in a mysterious way. He will rise from the dead and then ascend into heaven. In fact, according to Luke’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus’ impending death and resurrection form the topic of conversation among Moses, Elijah and Jesus: “They spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The same glory that shines from Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain will surround his resurrection and ascension.

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