In the transfiguration narrative in Matthew and Luke, the narrators mention Moses first and then Elijah second:

Matthew 17:3 (NIV empahsis mine)
Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Luke 9:30-31a
Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus.

But in Mark 9:4, the narrator mentions Elijah first and then Moses:

And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Curiously, on Peter's lips in 9:5, the order is Moses and Elijah again. Is there any significance to Mark switching the order? It does seem unusual that Elijah would be listed first since Moses was chronologically before him. But what does it mean?

  • 7
    Quite interesting. I checked for textual variants concerning the placement of the names and there don't appear to be any.
    – user862
    Nov 15, 2012 at 8:29
  • @soldarnal I am curious about your hermeneutic. I am generally mocked for suggesting that every jot and tittle has meaning as well as word placement and usage. I am encouraged that you suggest that word order might have meaning.
    – Bob Jones
    Nov 17, 2012 at 17:12
  • @BobJones I think even the most conservative interpreters recognize that word order is sometimes used to convey a certain emphasis. I don't know that Mark is doing that here, but the fact that he deviates from every other pair of "Moses and Elijah" suggests so to me.
    – Soldarnal
    Nov 18, 2012 at 23:42

4 Answers 4


What an interesting find! It has some implications for the Synoptic Problem. And of course, the solution you pick influences the significance of switching the names.

Markan priority

If we assume that Mark wrote his gospel first, Matthew and Luke must have decided to swap the order of names for some reason. One possible reason could be that chronologically, Moses comes before Elijah. When we talk about famous historical figures, we tend to put them in historical order.1 Alternatively, Moses was probably a more impressive figure for Matthew's Jewish audience. At any rate, under this scenario, Mark had no particular purpose in mind when he listed the names, but Matthew would have edited this section to fit his purpose or preference. This was not unusual in the way Matthew handled Markan material.

More difficult is why Luke also swapped the order. As I've argued elsewhere, it's unusual for Luke to side with Matthew against Mark. In this case, Luke might not be following either, but be incorporating one of his unique sources:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.—Mark 9:2a (ESV)

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.—Matthew 17:1 (ESV)

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.—Luke 9:28 (ESV)

To summarize, Mark wrote the first version, Matthew edited it lightly2, and Luke edited in new material. There's no particular significance to the order in Mark, but Matthew did want to put Moses first for some reason. Luke either followed the order of his own source, independently edited the order for reasons similar to Matthew, or was following Matthew for once.

Matthean priority

If Matthew wrote first, then Mark's purpose in changing the order becomes a puzzle. One possibility is that Mark disagreed with Matthew's assertion that Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5 were fulfilled by John the Baptist. (See Matthew 11:1-19 and Matthew 17:13.) Mark takes up the question, but leaves the identification of Elijah unclear:

And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”—Mark 9:11-13 (ESV)

While many commentators take Jesus to be referencing the events surrounding John the Baptist's death in Mark 6, it seems equally possible that Jesus is looking back to the events surrounding Elijah in the Book of Kings. In this case, Mark might have been clarifying that the prophesy was not fulfilled by John the Baptist, but during the Transfiguration. Putting Elijah first might emphasize that Elijah came as himself and not metaphorically as John the Baptist.


  1. Naturally, this does not always hold. The first example I hit upon failed to be supported by the evidence:

    A similar test of "Elijah and Moses" (About 1,990,000 results) vs. "Moses and Elijah" (About 3,460,000 results) is undoubtedly influenced by the very question at hand.

  2. In addition to the name order, Matthew removed the reference to a launderer (gnapheus), substituted "Rabbi" for "Lord", indicated that the disciples were frightened by the voice from the cloud, not the Transfiguration, and indicated that Jesus comforted them.

  • Thanks for giving a reasoned response. Even though it doesn't quite get me to a conclusion yet, I wish I could vote it up more than once. One quick note: if you compare Mark 1:6 and 2 Kings 1:8, it seems hard to argue that Mark did not associate John with Elijah.
    – Soldarnal
    Dec 4, 2012 at 1:37
  • @Soldarnal: "Associate" is probably the right word. There is certainly a relationship between Elijah and John, but it isn't reincarnation or a strict one-to-one identification. I would say that Elijah is a type or ideal of a pre-Christian prophet that John conforms to. Matthew, I think, is less concerned with Greek and Roman ideas of the afterlife being confused with the Jewish idea of resurrection. Mark and Luke are more careful in that sense. Dec 4, 2012 at 17:16

The order switch indicates that Matthew and Luke were more adept at handling the symbolism of the historical event than Peter and Mark were. There are two reasons for this: Peter was the least educated of the three (Matthew, Luke, Peter) and he also wrote earlier than the other two, so they had more time to develop a more detailed understanding of the events in the context of prophecy.

In a purely literal interpretation, the order of naming the people at an event has little significance. But when considering the prophetic nature of the event, the order is significant.

This should not be unfamiliar to us, since even in secular events, when consideration is given to custom, deference is given in listings to those of higher stature.

In this case stature is not the deciding factor, but a preference for the prophetic order of 'Word, Works, Life' as a motif.

This order can be observed many places in the scriptures. One such example, is that of the three women at the well. Rachel was chosen (Word), Rebeckah was wooed and worked for (Works), and the people of Sychar were gathered (Life). The motif is used to highlight the primary participation in obtaining a bride for 'the man' Christ Jesus. The Father chooses, the Son works for, and the Holy Spirit gathers the bride.

The example of the order being changed by Matthew and Luke indicates that they saw the motif where Peter didn't. This gives us insight into the mechanism of the inspiration of the scriptures. The authors didn't just have instantaneous knowledge. But as they studied, and as the Holy Spirit brought things to remembrance, they were able to correlate the scriptures (OT) with what they knew about Jesus. They wrote down things that indicated that Jesus fulfilled scripture.

John, who wrote last and had the greatest insight into prophecy, demonstrates the most developed use of the OT motifs and prophecies as he tells us that Jesus fulfilled scripture. His adept handling of prophecy begins with John 1:1-4 where he exposes the most sublime teachings contained in Gen 1:1 from the Hebrew text itself. Those who are unable to reproduce John's hermeneutic are relegated to supposing that John obtained his ideas of the Logos from Greek philosophers.

Back to the OP: Moses represents the Word since it was he who was the mediator of the Word. Elijah represents the mighty Works of God, having stopped the rain for three years and called fire from heaven. Christ represents the Life for obvious reasons.

Peter understood the parallel between Jesus's baptism and the transfiguration sufficiently to relate the event, but insufficiently to relate the more subtle particulars.

John wrote to a Greek audience to answer the question "Why should we accept Jesus as a God-Man when we have been burned so many times by Man-gods?

Since the transfiguration was only witnessed by three people, it would carry relatively little weight in his argument. Instead, he relies upon the Greek familiarization of what Clement called plagiarization of Hebrew wisdom by Greek philosophers. They were familiar with the Hebrew 'origin myths' as many even today call them. But he used Gen 1 as a fact of general revelation; something that all men were familiar with, and built a picture of a God who was humble (even accepting rejection by his own), rather than a man who claimed divinity.

John boldly declares that the son (bar) is the word which created (bara) which was in the beginning (bara-shit) and that he was with God (bara Elohim) and also being the Life (l'heim) the Light (a lo khoom) and later even the bread (lechem), by using methods of interpretation which are still used by rabbis today, and which unpack the mysteries made known in Christ.

With the testimony of the mystery of the ages at his fingertips, it was unnecessary for him to even mention the fairly private event of the transfiguration.

  • 1
    So you're arguing then that in Mark the word order is insignificant, while in Matthew and Luke it was imbued with meaning?
    – Soldarnal
    Nov 18, 2012 at 23:49
  • yes. When you look at the books in order Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, each one adds insights into the typology of the previous authors. The question isn't why is Mark different, but why did Matthew and Luke change it. They did so as they had a deeper understanding of the sublime.
    – Bob Jones
    Nov 19, 2012 at 1:57
  • 1
    @Soldarnal I had to review this. The word order in Mark does have meaning. It is placing the emphasis on Elijah rather than upon Jesus's birth. Mark starts with the preaching of John fulfilling the prophecy that Elijah would come first. His order points back to that.
    – Bob Jones
    Jan 9, 2013 at 12:15

The order in which Moses and Elijah are addressed can be symbolically supported either way. John the Baptist represented the modern day Elijah who was to come, marking the arrival of the Messiah, where the modern day Moses will mark the return of the Messiah at the end of the age, as foretold in the gospel accounts. Chronologically, Moses came before Elijah in the Old Testament, but Moses will follow the modern day Elijah, or, John the Baptist, when he is revealed as one of the last prophets in the end of the age in which we are now living as outlined in the New Testament. In this context, Mark's order of mention would apply. Like Jesus pointed out that they didn't recognize John the Baptist as the Elijah that was to first come, so it can also be expected that the Moses who is to follow, will also go unrecognized.


I don't think there is any significance in the order. However ... however, if I were to prescribe order to the level of intimacy the forefathers had with their Creator, it would be in the following order (among others).

  • Jacob
  • Samuel
  • Elijah
  • Moses
  • David
  • Abraham
  • Solomon

Solomon was a near good for nothing. Possessing great wisdom and yet the fall of Israel was due to his lack of understanding of the whole framework of Creation, the reason for the existence of Israel. He failed to establish a framework of governmentation that would perpetuate the framework for the endurance of Israel.

Perhaps, Solomon had realised that his existence was in vain, but merely being a place-holder. He had absolute faith in his science and near zero faith in his relationship with the LORD. He prayed the typical prayer of preaching to the choir. I doubt his sincerity in that prayer.

Abraham was a schizophrenic fanatic. His faith was tainted by the idolistic legacy of his dad. The LORD tells him one message and he concocts extra messages out of that message. He was told to bring his son to the sacrifice, not bring his son to be sacrificed. Typical fanatics of "going the extra mile". He was supposed to elevate his son and bind him closer. He did not understand the meaning of Qurvan. The language of the LORD was deliberately ambiguous and it was up to him to interpret and he failed the test. Instead of elevating his son, he depressed Isaac, instead of binding him closer he alienated Isaac from him and the LORD.

However, Abraham exhibited as a natural leader. He devoted himself to total faith in his Creator. He was compassionate but his gung-ho fanaticism irresponsibly destroyed the whole of Isaac's character. Isaac became motivationally and emotionally unstable who did not achieve much or at all in his life time.

David was chosen as the administrator to wind down an unnecessary kingship. A kingship with which both Samuel and the LORD were disappointed. Disappointed that the people had chosen to have a king, an anointed phalic messiah, "just like the other nations". That disappointment is reflected in 1Samuel 8.

He tried somewhat to protect his dynasty but without much motivation. His disillusionment led him into various immoral excursions. His intimacy with the LORD led him to understand the anti-climactic role he needed to play. That Israel was not meant to be a kingdom nor be led by a king or messianic hero.

The model of the Divine and Eternal kingdom governmentation was demonstrated thro Moses and Israel traveling thro the desert. It was not a perfect implementation of the model. Moses seems like a nationalist and a people's person and like getting his hands wet with the issues of the people. However his lack of intimacy with the LORD was demonstrated that Jethro had to give him a few pointers on how to set up a representative democracy. Moses was the right person at the right place at the right time for the right job of delivering Israel out of Egypt.

Also, Moses refused to see his almighty Creator because he was afraid to die. He preferred to see just a shadow of the Almighty. Due to his lack of faith, he could not enter into the Promised Land. Not to mention striking a rock twice.

I would like to skip Elijah and Samuel and go straight to Jacob.

Jacob longed for intimacy with the LORD, as a deer longs for the streams of water. Imagine being in the shoes of the LORD, and Jacob lies and cheats his brother just to be intimate with the LORD, to claim a birth right he did not legally have. Choosing a birthright that would exile him from his material inheritance. He understood the implications and responsibility of that birthright, which Esav disdained.

Imagine the IRS bringing someone to court for fraud in his tax returns and when asked why he/she presented fraudulent information, it was revealed that the reason was he/she wanted to pay more taxes.

Unlike the cowardly Moses, Jacob demanded to see the LORD. Not only see but even wrestled with the LORD. And negotiated with Him just like Abraham did.

Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and die, no fruit would result. Jacob understood what Moses did not - see the LORD to die and be born again in a new enlightenment. Some people go for pot or coke but Jacob went for the LORD.

The enlightenment represents the precision of faith - do not walk that extra mile but walk just precisely enough. The way to life is a narrow and winding path but a broadway leads to destruction. In quality engineering, we ensure a nut and its bolt fit just precisely - we cannot make one an extra bit bigger, where the tolerance of the allowance should be as narrow as possible. In the gaussian curve, do not veer to the left nor to the right.

That precision is the model of how modern Israel needs to behave to achieve peace. Not giving in an extra inch to Esav any claim to the birthright, he schemed against his brother in humility. If he had to crawl, or beg Esav or Lavan, he did it to protect his birthright. It was like he had read Sun Tze's Art of War.

And the LORD saw it fit and precise that the nation of Israel should spawn with Jacob.

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