Transfiguration: Why Peter, James, and John?

At the transfiguration, why did Christ bring Peter, James, and John, but not the other nine apostles? This question gives us the opportunity to reflect on how Old Testament Judaism is the origin of New Testament Catholicism.

fra-angelico-transfiguration (1)

In the Old Covenant, Moses had seventy (two) elders. Each of the twelve tribes had a chief. Finally, Moses had three close men who went up on the mountain with him: Aaron, Nadab, and Abiu:

AND he said to Moses: Come up to the Lord, thou, and Aaron, Nadab and Abiu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall adore afar off.” (Exodus 24:1, D-R)

In the New Covenant, Christ is re-establishing Israel. The Catholic Church is the new Israel. Christ appoint seventy(two) elders in Luke 10:1-24. He also appoints twelve Apostles. Then, like Moses, he has three “inside men” who form His inner circle. Just as Aaron was the High Priest for Moses, so Peter serves as the High Priest or Pope.

James and John are special for three reasons:

1. First, James is the first Apostle to die and John is the last Apostle to die. They are the temporal bookends of the Apostolic ministry.

2. Second, James is the first martyr of the Apostles. John, is the only non-martyr of the Apostles.

3. Third, James was the first to receive an apparition of the Blessed Virgin and John was given the Virgin at the crucifixion and served as her guardian till her holy Dormition.

Essentially, these three apostles were more intimately associated with the suffering of Christ: first Pope (Peter), first Martyr (James), only Apostle at the crucifixion and guardian of Mary (John).

Their intense suffering required them to be present at the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden.

Question: There are other traditions as to why these three apostles were at the Transfiguration. Please feel free to share your own perspective. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • pedroerik

    Thanks, Dr. Marshall, as always, you explained it beautifully.

  • Patrick

    When did James the Apostle receive an aparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary? I should know that, but I don’t remember!

    • Our Lady of Pillar in Spain. First Marian apparition – while Our Lady was still alive. Bilocation.

  • Anita Moore

    Isn’t John still counted as a martyr for being thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil? He miraculously survived, but he still made the offer of his life.

    • Yes, the feast day of St John at the Lateran Gate is marked red to signify his symbolic martyrdom.

  • Daniel Bui

    In the Bible miniseries, it claimed that St. John was poisoned. Any truth to that?

  • Pingback: Alleged Eucharistic Miracle Under Investigation -


    Can you do a piece on World Youth Day? I came back from my forth trip and it is always such an amazing experience. We had a calling for youth who felt called for the priesthood, there were 3000 that stood up and 2000 women for the convent. Have you been to a WYD what was your experience?

  • Fantastic. I made the same association in my book on Judaism and Catholicism:

    The Crucified Rabbi

  • Traci Stephens Bocock

    Christ: Prophet, Priest and King also come into mind when I think of the Transfiguration. That the three were there in is presence at that moment is seemingly a reflection of Himself. In what the three would do and have already done for the sake of the Christ: of Peter (priest), James(prophet), and John (king) All three would live sacrificial lives for the sake of Christ.

  • Ringo

    Thank you Dr Marshall for that very informative explanation. But wasn’t St Stephen the first martyr?

    • James was the first apostle martyr.

      • Ringo

        Ah, OK. Thank you for the clarification.

  • desiree madden

    I was just thinking.Isn’t Stephen the first Martyr? I do not know time sequence of that event and James’ martyrdom.Thanks for the share about this as I was wondering about these three close companions earlier today.PEACE

  • William Schierer

    Could our Lord have invited them all, ala ‘today I’m going up this mtn. to pray and you’re welcome to join me.’ P,J,&J take Him up on the offer the others take a pass on the excursion. Thus when Our Lord tells them that some miracles can only be accomplished by greater prayer and fasting, He is alluding to the truth that if He (and we) must not fail to climb Mt. Golgotha.

  • angela bernhard

    Hello Dr Tailor,i appreciated your pages I am so greatful to have it and I learned a lot :
    my humble question: How the Transfiguration of our Lord affects or can give more personal binding or closer to God?
    As a catholic is it right to know all about Catholic Faith and how?
    is our prayers different from of those priest and Nune ? way of prayers what is the right prayers to be fallow…
    Respectfully yours,

  • Mary

    I always thought thiose three were his main men. Peter was his Rock on which he would build his church,and john was entrusted to care for his mother. Wasn’t sure where James fit in . But they were probably the three that could handle seeing the Transfiguration at that time.

  • Sandra Lipari

    Dr. Taylor, like so much rich linking history to our treasures in the Faith, the story of St. James also reminds of St. Luke who carved the Madonna and Child housed in first Guadalupe shrine in Extremadura, Spain. Pope St. Gregory the Great gave the statue to St. Leander, Bishop of Seville. Invasion of muslims took possession of most of the Spanish peninsula in 711 … Christian forces retreated, took with them the small statue…[story found in: A Handbook on Guadalupe, by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate ] …seems with St. James presence there, the pilgrimage ”

    “camino de santiago or the way of st. james”

    …somehow all connects! “When Our Lady used an Aztec name to Juan Bernardino, it sounded much like this famous shrine in Spain…”

  • charlie Martin

    where in the bible do you find the part where you say “Third, James was the first to receive an apparition of the Blessed Virgin ” ???? where do you get this from?

    • jparagone

      Tradition tells of the apparition and the shrine and church built in zaragosa spain. St james was having trouble evangelizing the area and was about ro give up when he had an apparition of the virgin Mary. Look it up it is fascinating. The church is sstill there to this day and is one of the most visited shrines in all of Christendom. This is why tradition is so important it telles the story of the lived kingsom of God. We are a religion of the word incarbate a peraon Jesus Christ. This is why the apostles wrote in the gospels that not all of what they experiwnced is written doqn but given to thwm to preach and teach.

  • Clinton Lowell Ufford

    Awesome post!!!!! Note to reader: Where in the Bible does the Bible say that the Bible is the only source needed to understand the Bible, biblically?

  • Orthodox Christian

    As an Orthodox Christian, I celebrate Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church. To distinguish the two, it is important to define the origins, use and relevance of the word Catholic, and in particular, with reference to its identification as being ‘Roman’, The Churches of the East, that are referred to others and by themselves as Orthodox, have historically referred to today’s Roman Catholic Church as the ‘Latin’ Church or the Church of the West. The word ‘Catholic’ originally had a much broader significance and did not come to be used by the Church of the West, till it faced Protestant heresies. The word Catholic itself isn’t even Latin, but proclaims the universality and consistency of the faith of the apostolic Church founded by our Lord. The use of this word didn’t originate at Rome either, but comes from the East, and the ancient heartlands of Christianity. It was first used by Ignatius, Peter’s successor at Antioch, the first Church that Peter founded. Ignatius used the word to characterize the universal message of our Lord and the one faith of the Church established on this earth after his resurrection, through his Apostles across all its location. He did not use it to define the Catholic Church as Latin or, as the Roman Catholic Church.

    Besides, the jurisdiction and size of the Latin speaking western portion of the early Church, was originally much smaller in the first days of Christianity. The Church in the Roman Empire was itself largely Greek speaking and centered in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, especially after the ‘Roman’ emperors moved their seat from Rome to Constantinople and the Empire was split in two halves. Moreover, for hundreds of years, the majority of early Christians were Greek speakers or spoke Semitic languages, tracing their origins to the first Jewish and Gentile communities converted by the Apostles. In fact, till the Crusades and suppression of Christianity in its old homelands by Islamic rulers, the majority of Christians lived in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

    What is now the Roman Catholic Church, originates from the Church of the West, which spanned the Western Roman Empire, and was centered at Rome, the historic capital of the undivided Roman Empire. It was headed by the Bishop of Rome, who also known as the Patriarch of the West. This ancient title was recently done away with by Pope Benedict, in an attempt to nullify historical definitions and precedents, but for no real good reason.

    It bears to be emphasized here that while the usage of the word Catholic to define the Latin Church of the West originated only with the Protestant Reformation, an exclusive definition of the Latin Church as Catholic, is not what gives the Pope his authority or standing in Christianity. The Latin Church is but one of 26 churches that are not just ‘Catholic, but ‘Apostolic’, the others being the 19 Eastern Orthodox Churches and the 6 Oriental Orthodox Churches. The differences among them are theologically minor ( I qualify minor in relation to major differences with Christians who identify as ‘Protestant’) and largely cultural and historical. All Churches that call themselves Orthodox have always called believed themselves Catholic. Just as the use of the word ‘Catholic’ by the Western Church began in response to those that called themselves Protestant, the use of the word ‘Orthodox ‘ too is recent and serves mainly to distinguish the Orthodox position as more correct than the Latin Church, or in a sense, more Catholic. Yet ,despite the hard positions that fundamentalists within any of these Churches may assume, the faith of all these churches is essentially both ‘Catholic’ and ‘Orthodox’ and can be easily recognized in each other. Even on what is perceived to be the single biggest difference, the question of the power and nature of the office of the Bishop of Rome ( in regards to which there are many points which have led to long standing differences, though some such as infallibility, have very recent origins) they are closer in belief than any Protestant denomination, including the Anglicans can ever hope to be.

    In fact, to this day, Orthodox canon law still accords the Patriarch of Rome primacy of honor in the Christian Church and recognizes the Pope, not as its sole leader, but as its preeminent leader, just as Peter was of the apostles. But, any interpretation of exclusive Aaronic priesthood for Peter and his successors in the Bishopric of Rome, is neither scriptural nor based in historic tradition. It has only late origins and is rooted in efforts to justify universal Papal executive authority. It continues to separate most of Christianity that retains the original faith given to us by the Lord and his Apostles and which is not labelled as ‘Protestant’, ‘Evangelical’, ‘Anglican’ or any other persuasion that has evolved in only the last few hundred years. This should be surprising, because most of those who hold to a belief in the Catholic Church, believe that the whole Church and that is, the whole Christian Church that has both apostolic foundations and a faith that is Catholic, should recognize the leadership of Peter and his successors at Rome, in a very special way.

    in fact, this historical position of honor for the Patriarch of the Latin speaking West follows from not just Jesus’ recognition of Peter, but also because of the historical importance of Rome, as the original capital of the Roman Empire, as well as its location as the site of martyrdom of both St.Peter and St. Paul. The latter two factors are important here because in actual fact, Antioch was more Peter’s city than Rome ever was. It was the site of his first Bishopric. In addition, it was the place where the ‘Christian’ identity was first established, and to which place the mother Church of Jerusalem was absorbed, after the city was razed in the first century. It should be evident here that the fact that the episcopal seat of Rome was accorded primacy in the Christian Church over that of Antioch, owes itself to those factors and not just the city’s relationship with Peter as his ‘final see’.

    This primacy is consistent with the historical deference and respect accorded to Peter and his successors through the early centuries of the Church, by the rest of the Universal Church and its leaders. it survived the split of the Roman Empire into two halves – Eastern and Western. It was accorded to the Latin Patriarchs even through the first five centuries of Christianity when the Bishop of Rome was appointed by the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople and Italy and the Latin speaking West were in political decline. As can be seen from Scripture, Peter’s position of respect and honor did not overshadow the fact that the original Church of Jewish Christians at Jerusalem were led by James, the brother of the Lord, while the newly converted Gentiles were led by Paul. This respect for Peter was sustained in the following centuries by deference and honor to the see of Rome. It was maintained even when the ancient Church was clearly not led not from Rome, but for all purposes, led from Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria.

    From Polycarp and Ignatius, through Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Alexander, Athanasius and Cyril, the effective spiritual leaders of the post apostolic age were not the Bishops of Rome, or even from the Latin speaking part of the Church. In fact, not till Leo the great was there a Bishop of Rome who had a truly great impact on the direction and evolution of Christianity. In fact, there were only a handful of bishops from the Latin Church at the Council of Nicea, which gives us the first clear Christian creed (again, written in Greek as the New Testament was originially). Yet, the first formal acknowledgment of honor to the Bishops of Rome, as well as Alexandria and Antioch, because of their line of succession to Peter, occurred only at Nicea, almost three hundred years days after the days of the Lord.

    So, defining the Catholic Church as exclusively Roman or primarily Roman would be wrong, because that supposes that the origin of the Christian Faith lies in the Latin Church. The Roman Church Church as it exists now, originates from the Latin speaking Church of the West, which was blessed by rapid growth after its conversions of the Germanic and Gaelic speaking populations of Northern Europe by the first half of the first millennium. The vigor and energy of the newly converted peoples, enabled it to successfully withstand Islamic expansion and also expand into new lands along their colonial empires. Tragically, Christianity collapsed in the East, the land of its origins and its original numerical strength, and even the conversions of the Slavic peoples couldn’t stem the tide. The rise of Islam and massacres by Mongols, Turks and communists have reduced the number of Christians in the East. The resultant imbalance in populations aside, has meant that the Roman Church is the biggest portion of the original Catholic Church.

    However, neither that fact, nor any scriptural or historical basis give it justifiable claim to the exclusive use of the word Catholic, or jurisdiction over all those who are Catholic in terms of adherence to the original apostolic faith. This is not to reduce the importance of the Roman Catholic Church in any way. The size, visibility and contribution of the Roman Catholic Church to Christianity and humanity make it a more powerful force for good and our Lord’s will on this earth than any other. The Roman Church is not the mother Church of all Christianity, but it is clearly the most important and the leading one. That the Pope is the leader of Christianity is not in question. What kind of leader he must be, can take no better direction than from the person and example of Peter himself – a leader who was not like the High Priest of ancient Israel or the High Priest of the Jews in the time of Jesus, but a spiritual leader and example to all other Christians.

    • Hugh Pawsey

      Yes, ‘heartlands of the Church.’ In the early history of the Faith, Syria was the first State/ Nation to declare itself Christian. What does that say?

  • Jane Eyre San Miguel

    Your explanation is very enlightening, Dr. Marshall. I have a question related to your explanation,and this is about St. Malachy’s prophecy on the coming of Peter the Roman: Looking at the two heavenly visitors – Moses and Elijah – I believe there is something in this event that tells us about Peter the Roman. Your said that James and John were the ” temporal bookends of the Apostolic ministry.” I believe that just as the era of Christianity – the Catholic Church – began with St. Peter, so will this era of true Christianity end with him” he will come at the last days before the Second Coming of Jesus to “feed” His lambs, “feed His sheep,” so that the Lord’s words “I am with you even unto the consummation of the world” may be fulfilled. Further, just as Moses, who had died,came to Our Lord at His Transfiguration, and Elijah/Elias who was alive and was to die by the hand of the Antichrist in the last days, so will St.; Peter, who has died, come in the days of the Antichrist at the time of Elijah/Elias. What Moses was to Peter at the Transfiguration – a heavenly visitor, so will St. Peter be – a heavenly visitor but continually present to the invisible remnant Catholic Church, to fulfill his promise to Jesus to “feed His lambs, feed His sheep” and by his intercession, the remnant Church will attain the forgiveness of sins and attain salvation in the days of the Antichrist. My QUESTION IS: Is this, what I have just said – plausible?