Recently I received the question: “Why don’t we call Moses and Elijah ‘Saint’”?
In other words: Why aren’t they referred to as St. Moses and St. Elijah?
Evidence for Sainthood
After all, we have it on pretty good authority that they are holy and in heaven.
Both Old and New Testament attest to the holiness of both individuals. We have a clear indication that Elijah was taken directly into heaven, without dying, and while Moses did die, there’s no serious doubt about his making it to heaven (at least after heaven was generally opened to the righteous of the Old Testament).
Most impressively, both Moses and Elijah get to appear with Jesus in the Transfiguration.
That’s kind of a giveaway.
So why don’t we call them saints?
Old Testament Saints in General
A basic answer would be that we tend not to use the honorific “Saint” for human beings who lived in the Old Testament period.
We do use it for angels we read about in the Old Testament–St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael–but not human beings.
That is probably just an artifact of how the term “Saint” evolved. Originally it was an adjective, meaning “holy” (Latin, sanctus). People started prefixing it to the names of notably holy individuals (holy Peter, holy Paul), and eventually it came to be used as an honorific–like “Mister” or “Doctor” (thus St. Peter, St. Paul).
But for whatever reason, people tended not to do this for Old Testament figures.
Perhaps this was because holy figures of the Old Testament were thought to already be sufficiently hallowed by their inclusion in Scripture–although that would not explain why the apostles and other New Testament figures got the title “Saint.”
More likely, Old Testament figures were seen as less directly relevant as examples to Christians, because they lived before the Christian age. Those living in the Christian age, like the apostles and later saints, are more like us and thus more direct examples for us in a certain sense.
However that may be, Old Testament figures were generally not called “Saint.”
But sometimes they were. . . .
Meet St. Moses and St. Elijah
The Latin Church maintains an official list of saints and blesseds known as the Roman Martyrology, and it actually lists some humans from the Old Testament, including Moses and Elijah.
Here is part of the entry for September 4:
On Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, [was the death of] the holy lawgiver and prophet Moses.
And here is part of the entry for July 20:
On Mount Carmel, [was the departure of] the holy prophet Elijah.
Latin or English?
The Roman Martyrology, of course, is in Latin, and the translation offered above is accomodated to standard English usage, which avoids using “Saint” for Moses and Elijah. The Latin original is a bit different.
Here is the Latin for these two entries, along with a more word-for-word translation:
In monte Nebo, terræ Moab, sancti Móysis, legislatóris et Prophétæ.
On Mt. Nebo, of the land of Moab, [was the death] of saint Moses, lawgiver and Prophet.
In monte Carmélo sancti Elíæ Prophétæ.
On Mt. Carmel [was the departure] of saint Elijah the Prophet.
This is the same construction that is used to report the deaths of other saints in the Matyrology. For example, a bit later on September 4th, we read:
Tréviris sancti Marcélli, Epíscopi et Mártyris.
Which would be:
At Treves [was the death] of saint Marcellus, Bishop and Martyr.
You might note that the term “saint” is lower-case in the Latin, and you might argue from that that it should be translated as an adjective–”holy”–but the point is that the Martyrology is applying to Moses and Elijah the same terminology that it applies to other saints.
It’s listing them in the same way, despite the fact that they’re Old Testament figures.
And then there’s this . . .
Meet Mar Musa and Mar Elia
English and Latin aren’t the only two languages in the Church, and the Latin Church isn’t the only body in union with the pope. Consider, for example, the Chaldean Church, which is one of the Eastern Catholic churches.
It uses a dialect of Aramaic as its liturgical language, and it refers to Moses and Elijah as saints, using the standard Aramatic term fors “saint”–”mar”–as a title for both of them.
They are referred to as “Mar Musa” (St. Moses) and “Mar Elia” (St. Elijah).
You will find various Chaldean institutions, like churches and monasteries, named after them the same way you find them named after other saints.
And Mar Musa and Mar Elia don’t just have particular days celebrating them on the Chaldean liturgical calendar. They actually have liturgical seasons devoted to them.
I should note that the term “mar” also has other meanings. Its root meaning is “lord.” And you can see it in the term “maranatha” (Marana tha = “Our Lord, come!”).
By extension it also is used as a title for saints, as with Mar Musa, Mar Elia, and all the other saints honored in the Chaldean Church.
Finally, it is also used as a title for bishops, but nobody is under the impression that Moses and Elijah were bishops.
We thus have to be a bit careful about who the “we” is when we ask why we don’t refer to Moses and Elijah as saints.
Some of us do, because the practice can vary from one language to another and from one Catholic rite to another.